Last Friday, we brought you a story about the “intolerable oppression” within HBF that lead James Sherwood MacDonald, in his own words, to “resign.” In the letter purportedly written by MacDonald, he stated that he is seeking an “understanding of why I have allowed people to treat me as they do and what I am blind to that may be causal.”
From the beginning, The Elephant’s Debt has argued that James S. MacDonald’s relentless pursuit of wealth suggests that he has a character problem that has significantly impacted more than a few of his professional relationships. Many of these former colleagues have testified to their concerns both in private and in public statements, some of which have been documented on this website.
In February of 2014, the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel issued an elder update hinting that it was possible that James S. MacDonald had, in fact, learned a few lessons on this matter. However, his subsequent actions seem to suggest that this possibility remains remote. Over the past three years, several stories regarding finances have been brought to our attention. While we have not published these stories, one matter in particular seems to suggest that our ongoing concerns are not misplaced. Let us begin by quoting the relevant passage from the February 2014 Elder Update, which as of this writing, remains in the public domain on Harvest’s website.
Lesson #4 is about personal lifestyle choices and seeking to be free from offense according to Scripture. In recent months, Pastor James has, of his own accord, made several personal lifestyle adjustments. With ELT support, he has made these decisions to put to rest any remaining concern about his priorities. Personal sacrifices, which the MacDonalds deem small for the sake of Christ, include downsizing to a smaller home in Elgin, initiating a significant salary reduction (although unnecessary according to ECFA standards), and considering congregational norms in lifestyle decisions, such as the car they drive and how they vacation. The Elders appreciate these public confirmations of where we have always believed their heart to be. The ELT is praying that the MacDonalds’ willingness to subordinate their liberty in Christ for the sake of the gospel will become a hallmark of this church and for each of us.
As you can see, James S. MacDonald, in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation and inoculate himself against charges against his character, took a pledge to voluntarily reduce the scale of his lifestyle, including his home. As you may recall, when we wrote some years ago, James S. MacDonald was living in a substantial home located in the exclusive village of Inverness.
He did in fact move out of that home, seeming to keep to his pledge. He moved into this charming home in South Elgin – at least for a time. It is unclear, at this time, whether James S. MacDonald rented or owned this property.
As spacious and well-appointed as this home appears to be from the outside, it is even more lovely from the inside. This 3,828 sq. foot home, which we are sure falls well within established “congregational norms,” is even more stunning than one might imagine.
Nevertheless, in fairness to James S. MacDonald, this certainly was a step down from his estate in Inverness. However, he does not appear to have remained at this address for terribly long.
A little over a year ago, various individuals began to contact The Elephant’s Debt, alleging that James S. MacDonald had moved out of the above home and had taken up residence at an enormous new mansion in Elgin. A visit to the Kane Country Recorders Office appears to confirm the validity of these sources.
The first document we pulled was a mortgage document executed on 11 June 2015. It revealed the address of the property. More interestingly, it revealed that $770,000 was borrowed against this property. It should be noted that James S. MacDonald’s name does not appear on this document because the property was purchased in land trust. To put it more simply, it is not unusual for individuals to purchase property through a land trust to preserve anonymity of ownership and to provide effective estate planning. So, based upon this document alone, one could not reasonably conclude that James S. MacDonald is the owner of this estate.
The second document pulled from the Kane Country Recorders Office was a subsequent mortgage document executed on 25 January 2016. This document reveals that the owner of the property had borrowed $990,000. To be clear, this new mortgage included the $770,000 that was previously borrowed. So this mortgage represents an additional $220,000 being taken out to develop the property. It must be noted, again, that James S. MacDonald’s name does not appear on this document.
It also must be noted that the mortgage amount does not necessarily equate to the final value of the home. The owner of this home could have paid cash outside of the mortgage to pay for some of the land and the structure.
Those of you who have refinanced your home know that in order to obtain a subsequent mortgage, the previous bank must sign a mortgage release of the first mortgage. While searching for these mortgage documents, we discovered such a mortgage release document that released the Land Trust from any liability related to the first mortgage and the sum of $770,000. Here is where things become interesting. On page three of this four page document there is a “MAIL RECORDED DOCUMENTS TO:” line. The typed instructions requested that these mortgage documents be mailed to James S. MacDonald at the address of the home pictured/discussed above.* While we had several verbal and/or written accounts of this property being owned by James S. MacDonald, these documents only serve to strengthen the credibility of the sources.
For purposes of estate planning, people will often continue to pay their own property taxes in their own name even if they have purchased their home in land trust. If someone is interested in the benefits of anonymity from a land trust, one must take the extra measure of having the land trust pay the property taxes to preserve the anonymity. Knowing this, we searched the tax records; and not surprisingly, we discovered that the taxes were being paid by the land trust.
More importantly, we discovered a fair mount of salient information regarding the property itself. According to the tax documents, this property is 4.87 acres, which may or may not fall within established “congregational norms.” Also, according to this source, the total square footage of the “custom home” is 8,540 sq. feet. The records also indicate that there is a finished basement exceeding 2000 sq. feet, a crawl space exceeding 1500 sq. feet and a garage that is almost 2400 sq. feet. Whether these figures are a part of the 8,540 square footage total or whether they are in addition to the 8,540 sq footage total is unclear based upon the records.
In February 2014, the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel attempted to paint a rosy picture for the remaining members of the congregation. In this statement, they heartily endorsed James S. MacDonald and argued that he was voluntarily adjusting his “lifestyle” in a way that might become a “hallmark” of the values that Harvest holds dear. He did this in the hopes of “putting to rest any remaining concerns about his priorities.” These “sacrifices,” which the MacDonalds “deem small for the sake of Christ” and “for the sake of the Gospel,” were allegedly entirely voluntary in nature.
What ought to offend the reader and the Harvest congregation the most is that James S. MacDonald attempted to reap the public relations benefit of this allegedly modest lifestyle while at the same time secretly reaping the benefits of the his material success. It is this kind of duplicity which is reeking havoc in his relationships with his former elders, his former staff members, and now his former church planting organization known as Harvest Bible Fellowship.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this thirst for the best of both worlds and this kind of duplicity is one of many reasons that James S. MacDonald has been left wondering aloud in a “resignation” letter as to why people are motivated to “intolerably oppress” him.
* While we have the supporting documentation for all properties discussed in this article, we are not publishing them so as to not disclose the address of James Sherwood MacDonald.