The Elephant’s Debt was a website that launched on October 2011. At that time, the authors of this site sought to make a public case that James MacDonald should no longer serve as the Senior Pastor/Elder of Harvest Bible Chapel because he had shown himself to numerous HBC leaders through a several decades of choices to be a man of low character. While we heard privately from dozens of individuals and about the numerous examples of MacDonald’s tragic choices, we were initially only allowed by a few people to share a limited number of examples publicly. As such, by our own volition, we limited our argument to MacDonald’s love of money and power. Throughout 2011 and 2012, several additional examples of MacDonald’s greed came to light, and several former (and current) Elders and Pastors came forward to publicly attest to MacDonald’s disqualifying character.
What follows is a concise accounting of our argument, detailing some of the issues with MacDonald’s character from 2011-2017. We have left the documents used to create the site under the tab labeled Documents, and the rolling log of past updates are still accessible under the tab Archived Updates.
Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC) had a humble beginning in 1989, renting a small space as many start-up churches are wont to do. By the late 1990s, HBC had acquired its first significant property, an old warehouse located in Rolling Meadows, IL. At this time, the church had a congregation of less than 5,000 and was growing at a rapid pace.
Over the course of the next decade, this rapid growth began to take on a different form. In 2004, the Green Family (Hobby Lobby) donated the former headquarters of a large corporate entity for use as a new base of operations in Elgin, IL. As expected, the property was not fit for use as a church; and it required significant retrofitting and additions to make it appropriate for use both on Sunday mornings and throughout the week as a private school. At this time, HBC launched the “Seize the Opportunity” fundraising campaign to raise the needed funds for outfitting the building. In their fundraising materials, they acknowledged the possibility that there might be a need to go as deep as $30 million dollars in debt.
Interestingly enough, the following years presented a number of unexpected opportunities for Harvest to aggressively expand their base. To begin with, a former church plant in Crystal Lake entered a season of hardship and it was reabsorbed into HBC. Likewise, a church in Niles, IL also entered a season of hardship, and it too was absorbed by HBC. Lastly, a camp in Michigan was, essentially, donated to HBC, and it, according to HBC, needed some updating. During this time, HBC worked with a number of banks, using the various properties to cross-collateralized loans to fund the desired architectural work on the various campuses and camp.
Thus, by 2010, Harvest Bible Chapel was now $70 million in debt, having barely survived a bankruptcy in 2006. Many of the elders and the majority of the congregation had no idea the debt beyond the pale of anything that had been publicly discussed. Following the publication of this website, which included significant document of the debt, HBC admitted the extend of the debt and provided their congregation assurances that they had a plan to become “debt free” by 2020, if they kept to their aggressive plan. They also put forward a less aggressive plan, which would have had them “debt free” by 2023. Under the aggressive plan, they assumed that in 2018 their annual budget would be $36.5 million per year. However, the reality is that as of 2018, their annual budget is only projected to be approximately $26 million. So they are clearly not on track to meet either the aggressive or less aggressive schedule.
So as of 2017, according to the most recent HBC audit report, they are still roughly $44 million in debt. Please note, that a substantial sum of the debt reduction came, not from their operating budget, but from the sale of the Aurora campus that they sold for both TBN TV rights and millions in cash. Ultimately, this is not a question of financial stability. The real question, both at that time and now, was: who exercised the ultimate authority to sign for said debt, and who knew of these financial commitments?
In the midst of this financial crisis, resulting from MacDonald’s desire to rapidly expand his influence, he received a 40% salary increase. This raised his salary to roughly $350,000 per year. This salary figure does not include the income he received from his radio “ministry” Walk in the Word, honorariums for speaking at conferences and other churches, book deals, Churches Helping Churches (a reportedly charitable entity designed to help churches in Haiti), or Harvest Bible Fellowship (the former church planting entity of HBC). The last known estimated, calculable amount of income MacDonald received from the HBC platforms was roughly $500,000 as of 2009. Who knows what that amount is today?
Walk in the Word is no longer a separate 501(c)(3), which means they no longer need to file the public paperwork disclosing the top salaries (a way for MacDonald to hide income). Harvest Bible Chapel has yet to dispute any of the facts related to the salary of MacDonald. Does anyone other than MacDonald himself know the massive extent of his income that is derived from the debt laden platforms of Harvest Bible Chapel?
In October 2005 MacDonald purchased a $1.9 million mansion in the exclusive Village of Inverness. During the writing of this blog (2011-2013) MacDonald sold that property, and he pledged to his Elders and congregation to reduce the size of his home and salary “for the sake of Jesus.”
In 2017, this blog disclosed that MacDonald had surreptitiously built a larger estate in Elgin. This new home is located on 4 acres, and it appears to be roughly 8,400 square feet, according to County records.
Also, during the writing of this blog, readers made us aware that MacDonald had been gambling, both in private games and casinos. This was particularly notable because of MacDonald’s vituperative, public preaching against the sins of gambling. Later, following the details published here on The Elephant’s Debt and coverage provided by WORLD Magazine, MacDonald admitted to gambling, and he pledged, after his elders asked him several times to cease from gambling, to stop gambling “for the sake of his weaker brother.” If MacDonald cannot be trusted to keep his pledge to the Elders and congregation regarding the size of his home can he be trusted on any other matters?
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.
During the writing of this blog, MacDonald had the Elder Board restructured to include a greater number of Elders. And, the Elders assured the congregation that there would be greater transparency and accountability going forward. Was the Elder Board able to keep its assurances?
Three Elders Try to Govern
In September of 2013, nearing the second anniversary of the publication of The Elephant’s Debt, three elders by the names of Dan Marquardt, Scott Phelps and Barry Slabaugh attempted to take their responsibility as elders seriously. Marquardt detailed this process in this letter. Armed with questions raised by this website and amidst an HBC “culture of fear and intimidation,” Phelps reportedly asked to see a line-item budget. In an interview with WORLD magazine, Phelps said: “When we asked for a line-item budget … we were denied and rebuked. And we were told that even making such a request could get you removed from the elder board.”
Shortly thereafter, Phelps, Slabaugh and Marquardt were publicly ex-communicated from Harvest Bible Chapel. In a video that was shown on all of the church campuses, the remaining HBC elders were said to be “speaking for God,” and the three excommunicated Elder’s activities were decried as being “Satanic to the core.” A little less than a year later, Harvest Bible Chapel used Christianity Today to publish a public apology (without ever covering the original controversy) for the manner in which it had publicly defamed these three men. In the apology, Harvest acknowledged that they “immediately realized” the error they made with the video, but they reaped the rhetorical benefit of their public chastisement of these men for a year. To be clear, these men never publicly released HBC Elders nor MacDonald from their underlying questions/accusations about the nature of power, finances, transparency, and integrity in the church.
Prior to being excommunicated, Marquardt sent a private letter that was released to us and published here. This letter detailed just a few of his concerns and reasons for leaving HBC. What concerns or question would these men continue to raise now?
Harvest Bible Fellowship Churches Revolt
On June 14, 2017, after nearly three and a half years of silence from this site, MacDonald sent a letter to the the roughly 150 Senior Pastors of the various Harvest Bible Fellowship Churches (HBF). In that letter MacDonald announced two significant developments. First, the local HBC, of which he is the Senior Pastor, would be pulling out of HBF. Second, he himself would be “resigning” as the President of HBF.
As suspected, this “resignation” was not in fact a voluntary resignation. At that time, an anonymous source confirmed that certain HBF pastors threatened to leave HBF over financial and other issues. In part, MacDonald claimed that HBF was $270,000 in debt, and the member churches needed to replenish these funds. This demand from MacDonald triggered questions and a financial inquiry as to how MacDonald, the President of HBF, had managed the funds.
MacDonald requested that David Wisen, his long time friend and church planting partner, take the lead role in conducting the accounting of all HBF funds. Wisen made his assessment known in a letter to HBF pastors that can be read here. Bottom line, over $500,000 of HBF funds were unaccounted for. After 3 1/2 years of silence, does this unprecedented rupture between HBC and HBF not demonstrate that little has changed? How is it that MacDonald’s close friend and ministry ally could so quickly and publicly divorce his ministry from MacDonald?
For those who are interested in reading through the original material, you can follow the links below.