From the earliest days of Harvest Bible Chapel, the church was governed by the consensus of the elders. When a motion was put on the table, it was considered necessary for all members of the board to approve of the motion for it to carry forward. If one individual dissented, the motion was tabled for future discussion. When the time came for reconsideration, if the objecting elder had not come around to a place of agreement or a willingness to lay aside their objections, the board would not move forward. Thus, every decision of the elder board was arrived at by the practice of consensus.
By 2007, as a direct result of the unprecedented debt that had been accumulated under the leadership of James MacDonald, there were significant and routine conflicts occurring between MacDonald and the elder board. These meetings culminated in a particularly tumultuous confrontation which reportedly functioned as an ultimatum by the elders on MacDonald’s leadership. At the climax of this meeting, the Senior Pastor of HBC reportedly said something to the effect of:
“If you want to remove me, you’re going to have to sue me to get me out of here. And gentlemen, I have two things you don’t have: control of the pulpit and the control of the money. So good luck.”
Following this meeting, further attempts to peaceably govern alongside MacDonald were made internally. When these attempts failed, in the eyes of some, elders began the arduous process of disentangling themselves from this ministry.
Even as these events were still unfolding, MacDonald was changing his thinking on elders. At a meeting with Harvest Bible Fellowship pastors in the fall of 2009, James MacDonald unveiled his new thinking on how power ought to be distributed in a church. What follows is an account of that meeting, which has been verified by four additional men who were present at the “poolside chat.”
In the summer of 2010 [Editor: one account suggests that this meeting may have occurred in the Fall of 2009], every Senior Pastor of an HBF church was invited to come to Chicago and help James story-board his newest book, Vertical Church. There were approximately 30 HBF pastors in attendance.
The HBF pastors were invited to James’ home for pizza and fellowship one evening. The pastors gathered outside James’ Inverness home around his pool for a Q & A time with James. The matter of elders and leadership in the church became the topic of conversation.
One of the pastors asked James something along the lines of, “James, you have always taught us to keep a small, nimble elder board that can respond quickly to opportunities as they arise. You have recently told us that you are significantly increasing the size of your Elder board. Would you please explain to us why you have done this, especially since it is seems to be a change from what you’ve been saying all these years?”
James then proceeded to give his explanation. He said that he had learned many things over the years about elders and leadership in the church, wishing he had learned these lessons years ago. He went on to reveal his opinions about leadership and power in the church, and in particular, who controls the church.
He continued by saying that the elders and the senior pastor share a pie, representing authority and influence in the church. He explained that the senior pastor, by virtue of his calling, gifting, and role in the church, ought to possess, right off the bat, 50% of this pie. The pastor controls the pulpit, is the most vocal member of the elder board, and also has the most on the line as the primary leader of the church. He said that this leaves 50% of the pie to be divided by the remaining elders.
Here is where it became more disturbing. James said that Harvest had grown so much that he had come to realize a small group of elders can’t handle this responsibility anymore. James continued, saying that in order to protect Harvest from an elder who goes “sideways,” doing great damage to our body, he needed to lessen the elder’s influence. He stated that the way he was going to lessen the influence of the Harvest Elder Board was to increase the size of the Elder board, thus giving each member of the board a smaller piece of the pie.
At that point, one pastor decided to brave a question. Senior Pastor Rob Willey of Harvest Bible Chapel – Davenport, IA, asked a question along these lines, “But James, this is so different than what you’ve always taught us. This is a profound change. Do you realize what you are saying to us here? Senior pastors need accountability and dividing up the power makes it more difficult for them to hold us accountable.”
James began to dress down Rob in front of all of the HBF pastors in attendance. He retorted to Rob that he would eventually have an elder go “sideways” on him in the future, and that Rob would come back to James, admitting that James was right.
Rob and James continued to go back and forth for another minute or two. Eventually, James was quite angry and yelled at Rob, telling him he had no idea what he was saying! James continued by saying that he had a great relationship with his elders, but they can go “sideways” on you. Sadly, he never took into account the greater damage that takes place when the main, lead, senior, 50%-of-the-pie-elder goes “sideways.”
Later that same year, during Harvest University, [MacDonald] met with all the senior pastors and their wives during the annual dinner. At that time, James addressed them regarding a number of issues, but one issue stood out in particular: his vision for the new direction of Harvest and Harvest church plants. He stated that HBF had been a movement of Pastors and Elders, but HBF was going to change. Going forward, HBF was to become a movement of senior pastors. He further added that they needed elders, but the elders will never understand “our” role and the tremendous weight that is on pastors. I wonder if his current elder board is even aware of their “true” role as defined by MacDonald.
These stories, as reported, speak to the issue of power. In our opinion, it would appear that MacDonald has intentionally structured the current elder board in such a way as to minimize their ability to effectively govern and assert control over the direction of the church, thus further consolidating the control of the congregation into his own hands. Whereas a group of 8-10 elders used to meet on a weekly basis, the newly constituted elder board of over 30 members meets on a quarterly basis. Additionally, instead of being involved in the details of ministry life at HBC, the elders are now “flying 35,000 feet” above the ministry, which in our opinion, is too far removed to provide sufficient oversight on MacDonald. In our opinion, true accountability has been cashed in for a facade, which masks his virtually unchecked, autonomous control over Harvest Bible Chapel.