Matt Stowell: Former 10 Year Worship Pastor Speaks out on Facebook

A few minutes ago, Matt Stowell became the second member of the Stowell family to speak publicly and unequivocally about their concerns pertaining to James MacDonald’s character and the “only one voice really matters culture” of Harvest Bible Chapel.  Matt Stowell has publicly published these comments on his Facebook page.

With all of the activity surrounding Julie Roys’ recent World Magazine article and subsequent blog posts, many people have been asking me what I think about it. Inspired by my friend Lindsay Mattingly brave post and Scot X. McKnights recent blog post about pastoral power abuses, I feel compelled to share some of my personal thoughts and observations.

I served at Harvest Bible Chapel during very formative years of my life and ministry. I was 23 when I became the Junior High Youth Pastor. At that point, I believe the church had around 1800 people attending weekly services, and only one campus in Rolling Meadows. Over the next ten years, the church grew quickly and my role evolved into that of Worship Pastor. I began overseeing worship and production across the then four campuses. We started Harvest Songs (now Vertical Worship) in the hopes of capturing the stories of God at work in our church, spent countless hours planning services, and went on many trips for Walk In the Word, church events and the Downpour Lifeway tour.

I spent significant amounts of time personally with James in many different settings. Some of those hours were good and we had some amazing times serving together. I was always grateful that James chose to take a bet on this young punk that barely knew how to play guitar and helped me eventually become his main worship pastor and leader. However, as my time at Harvest went on, things began to become more toxic. I eventually found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the person who James was on the stage and the James I came to know in real life.

During those days, I would often tell my wife, Debbie, that I felt like the mental cost of reconciling all that was happening was bankrupting my soul, and that it was increasingly difficult for me to share the stage with James. That might sound extreme or unfair to some, but I was routinely beginning to witness James engaging in off-stage behavior that included brutal outbursts of anger, an incessant need to “win” at all costs, berating and belittling people, cruelly joking about others, and deceptively spinning truth for his own gain. Over time, the pervasive “only one voice really matters” culture of Harvest became one in which fear – more than love, or humility, or any of the other fruits of the spirit– was a daily, palpable reality. Specifically, this fear manifested itself in the form of an ever-present anxiety over what James might think, say about you, or do if you disappointed him or were perceived to have gone against him in any way.

It may seem unfair of me to share about this now, but that’s kind of my point – I was part of the problem. Looking back, I’ve come to see how I helped, often through my silent deference, to build and normalize a culture of unholy pragmatism at Harvest in which the pervading attitude began to be one best summed up in rationalizing conversations among co-workers like ‘Sure, all of these terrible things are happening behind the scenes, but look what God is doing! The seats are filled! People are being baptized! Lives are being changed! Clearly, James is an anointed, gifted preacher!’

As a follower of Jesus, I certainly celebrated all of these good things as they were happening. Both personally and professionally, I very much wanted this version of Harvest Bible Chapel to be the only reality. The problem was, it wasn’t. In actuality, the reality was always rooted in a rationalization, where outcomes trumped character.

I think that most of us felt that Harvest was the biggest thing, humanly speaking, that we would all ever be a part of – traveling to cool places; being invited to speak at conferences full of people who actually wanted to really listen to you; hobnobbing with famous people; making six figures as a 32-year-old worship leader… these are all things that are understandably hard to want to give up. They’re the kinds of things that condition you to not rock the boat. Who would be crazy enough to purposely flush an incredibly prosperous career or dare to try and go against the powerful, unspoken Christian cultural ethic of never “speaking poorly” about your church or pastor? It was hard to envision a situation where I could actually confront James without fear of where it might lead. If there was ever a sense that you were out on James, you would soon find yourself literally out.

Nonetheless, the strain of trying to justify the dual realities of my experience eventually became more than I could bare. So I left in the spring of 2008. When I left, I said nothing publicly about what was really going on. I did my best to slip out with a smile. My thinking was that I didn’t want to hurt the church, cause division, or derail the good things that were happening.

I have wrestled with this decision for years. Should I have said something? Should I have sounded an alarm? Even four years ago, when I met with James in an attempt to discuss the past, I chose to say little. I think at the time of that meeting I genuinely thought I had healed and moved on; knowing the truth that Harvest wasn’t God’s only church, and James wasn’t Jesus. This might seem like a pretty obvious notion, but it can be a surprisingly difficult idea to sort out when you have been in a spiritually abusive situation that messes with your faith.

So here’s the deal: I haven’t worked at Harvest Bible Chapel for 10 years, so if you want to dismiss all of what I’ve said as the disgruntled ramblings of an old employee who just can’t seem to “let it go,” that’s your choice. But I have certainly found it hard over the years since to hear about the pain James’ past and present choices have caused to so many people that I care about. I am saddened that the patterns I experienced years ago seem to be consistent with the current lawsuits and accusations.

My only encouragement and advice for those that are in the middle of all of this is to consider Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit – the marks of a true follower of Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. (Gal 5:22-23) If you can’t honestly see a growing abundance in all of these things in James, yourself, or the current culture of the church… Speak up! Do something about it! Something is wrong. Resist the temptation to be afraid of of the outcomes. Start by doing what you can and be brave.

Of course, in all of this I suppose I’m telling myself what I wish I would have considered during my time at Harvest. As I look back on the arc of my faith walk and pastoral experience, I see I spent my formative years of learning “how to do ministry” from a set of values that were unhealthy and dangerous. I’m grieved to know that something I was a part of building as a young pastor, operating under those values, seems to still persist and I pray for the sake of the gospel that we can have thoughtful conversations about the power structures at work in our churches.

Editor’s Note: The bold/underlining in the statement was added by the authors of TED for the sake of brevity and clarity.



48 thoughts on “Matt Stowell: Former 10 Year Worship Pastor Speaks out on Facebook

  1. I was a member of Harvest in the early years as well. I was a member of the production team and served for 8 years Matt to you specifically brother. You were 100% in with the program and treated the production team like they were inferior and to be talked down to. It is sad to see your turn around when the same is directed at you and you are no longer in favor.

    1. So, tim1barr – have you ever approached Matt on this prior to posting it publicly?

      1. No. It is easy to say to someone in a situation like that ” Oh you should have approached whoever to try and reconcile”. In real life abusive situations it is much more intimidating. The situation was extremly toxic either you were on one side perpatrating or receiving. The divide was distinct and real.

        For me the tipping point happened when James forgot to turn off his headset and we ” production crew” could hear him demean and tear down someone in his office and then the next week he just chewed into our crew lead in front of everyone because the batteries in a head set died. It was really sad for me as I can truly say in the early years I grew and thrived as a Christian under Harvest. I remember James and his family hosting new members at their modest house. I distinctly remember thinking “this place is tiny”. I remember having some really nice and encouraging quick conversations with James that were genuine. I remember one piece of totally random advice he gave to me specifically that I wish I could thank him for. I know this is long and rambling but will end with this.

        Every man has a vice or a habit that if not addressed will eventually sink him. Pastors are not immune. I am a PK and believe me I have seen it all. We pray for resolution

        1. It is reasonable, you would feel the way you feel about how you were treated and no one should attempt to minimize or invalidate your experience. Much of your experience is shared by others as well. My only response is that the bible IS real life (and I am guessing you don’t need me to tell you that), and should be applied (Matt 18) before going public with a complaint against a brother.

          Some have given up everything they knew and loved in the church because they DID apply Matthew 18 and paid the ultimate price of excommunication, removal from the church or fired from their position. Just say’in.

        2. So I accidentally made this reply on a different comment. I felt these were apt words for Pastor James & also ppl who think he is being unfairly criticized:

          Eph 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

  2. Julie. You know I’m your “Christian” heart what you did was wrong. Whether or not it broke man’s law is not what truly matters because you broke GOD’s law. For which you will be rightly JUDGED. Get low and REPENT. Here’s some verses. Don’t quench the Spirit that supposedly dwells in your wicked heart. If you are a true Christian you will listen to these words. If you are not then you are FALSE and you dance with the accuser. You wicked wicked woman.

    James 4:11 English Standard Version (ESV)
    11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.[a]The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

    James 1:26 English Standard Version (ESV)
    26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

    Leviticus 19:16 English Standard Version (ESV)
    16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life[a] of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

    Proverbs 18:21 English Standard Version (ESV)
    21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
    and those who love it will eat its fruits.

    Proverbs 18:6-7 English Standard Version (ESV)
    6 A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
    and his mouth invites a beating.
    7 A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
    and his lips are a snare to his soul.

    1. Meant to write “in your Christian heart”. Julie, you have no right to countersue HBC or James because you are evidence that Proverbs 18:6-7 is true. You spoke and you invited this fight with your words which are folly and slanderous.

      You should know that someone wicked actions will always be exposed. So whether or not you are right about HBC and PJM does not matter. It’s not up to you to bring about justice. Vengeance belongs to the Lord and you are now guilty of stealing vengeance from the Lord. You need to review 1 Peter I think. You and the people involved MAY have suffered before unjustly, but since you thieved vengeance from the Lord you now suffer for wrongdoing and that is not commendable. You will find no sincere and true sympathy. May you eat the blighted fruit you sowed and reap.

      1. Gotta love it when Christians are judging other Christians for judging other Christians. Stop it!!!

        Read 1 Timothy 5 and Galatians 2. We are commanded to rebuke elders when they are simming. For that matter many of the epistles written to the church is aimed at defending the gospel. This is bigger than vengeance. We must correct bad theology and defend the gospel.

        1. You are right. I repent.

  3. I just read the bylaws. They are online. Quick google search. Updated as of 2015.

    A few observations:
    -Membership has no voting power.
    -excecutive board has a ton of power in this church.
    -senior pastor as well.

    Reporting procedure chain first through HR but can also has the option of going through the campus pastor, the senior pastor and last executive board chairman (if doesnt want to go through HR) That is if people have complaints or concerns.

    Executive board is nominated by the elders. The elders are nominated by the executive board.

    Senior pastor can remove elders (in an emergancy).

    Elders can declare anyone they want a trespasser.

    salaries for staff are disclosed to regular members because it violates their privacy.

    Only way to remove senior pastor is by a unanimous vote of the executive committee and consensus of the elder board.

    I couldn’t find anywhere in the bylaws the senior pastor has 50% voting power of any committee.

    1. Sorry meant to say staff salaries are NOT disclosed to regular members.

  4. Members of the church have to push for more transparency. Transparency (itemized) of theninterie budget.

    Also need to push to figure out leadership voting power. Isnt this in writing somewhere? If it is true that Macdonald gets 50% voting power then it should be in writing somewhere. Can he also remove elders? Should be in writing.

    I think is true that macdonald is a very gifted teacher. He needs a much better accountability structure. Also the church needs more transparency. Has anyone posted the church bylaws online?

  5. Does anyone have a link to the post by Lindsay Mattingly that Matt referenced?

      1. I don’t think it’s a public post.

  6. I am not a member of Harvest, but have attended service twice. I have family members that are members and rave about it, and my husband listens to JM’s radio broadcast and seems to like it. My husband and I go to a much smaller church, but one we connect nicely to and have no plans to leave any time soon. The issues I have with Harvest are small, but they are enough for me to not consider a place for my worship if I were actually looking for a new church. For some, it obviously fits them, and I suppose it’s a good thing, however, I just wonder if people are being decieved or misled. The Bible teaches us to be aware of deception and know the word enough to know when you are being decieved. In the case of Harvest and other megachurches, there is potential for issues with money, greed, idolazation of the pastor, and misdirection of values. When churches try to accommodate the desires of thousands of ppl, problems like this can arise, and this is where I feel an issue with a church like this. To me, the pull toward worldly desires is strong there, while prayer and encouragement of following a disciplined life is flimsy at best. And from the account mentioned here, it seems living a disciplined, righteous life isn’t something highly regarded.

    A church is a place of faulted people, who work together to build a family, to help people in need, and to glorify God, to desire to be more like Jesus, and to share His love with everyone. With that, I ask myself, would Jesus accept a 6 figure salary as a hired member of a church? Of course not! Why would a true servant of God even go along for the ride and accept 6 figures? There are definitely question marks here that lead me to feel a lack of understanding the Word.
    Would Jesus think businesses belongs in His place of worship when He tossed money changers and merchants out of the temple stating that the place of worship is for prayer? Not likely.

    The purpose of Jesus’ instructions, is for us to focus on worship, the word of God, and fellowship, and not to profit from those who are at church to praise our Savior. I don’t know how it is at Harvest, but another megachurch in the area, apparently pays the barista to sell coffee at the church, which to me, runs a fine line. Most churches volunteer their time and donate coffee and snacks, for fellowship purposes. To do otherwise, by hiring a barista and selling coffee to ‘donate’ the the church, poses a potential problem with God’s teachings. If anyone fully understands God’s teachings, they would know that using the church as a place for benefiting their pocketbooks and caving in to world desires is a problem. And if there is question of whether or not the pastor is grandstanding, it’s probable that he is. When ppl begin looking at a church as a place to financially benefit, there will be big problems to follow.

    1. CC, I assume you are from the Chicago area. I live not far from McDonald’s city church.
      I’ve been here for 3 1/2 years. I thought I had found a good church nearby but about six months after I started going there the pastor retired. A year later, after no luck finding a replacement, they hired a teaching pastor. He wasn’t what I was looking for so I left. I have tried a few others since then but there is something about them that keeps me from returning more than a few times. I am presently churchless.

      I am looking for a simple old-fashioned Bible church where they teach verse by verse, where the pastor has a certain amount of humility, doesn’t care about being a rock star pastor, nor rich, and who is not progressive. I have found a few pastors online who fit this description so at the moment I am getting my teaching from them but it would be nice to fellowship with like-minded people. Is there such a place as I describe above in Chicago?

      1. You may want to check out Gracepoint Church in Mundelein. Small, no bells or whistles, but the teaching is verse by verse and we move around the Bible for supporting passages. Sound Biblical teaching. Humble pastor and staff.

      2. in New Lenox fits your description…check them out

  7. Matt… thank you for writing this. It could not have been easy. Nothing but respect for you, brother. I remember you well when you were at Harvest. My family and I left because of the character problems we saw in James MacDonald and how they spilled over into the various “leaders” in the church. For the record, we left well before this blog was being written. But having read it, even after so much time has passed, it is somewhat comforting to know that we were not alone in our assessment of what was going on at Harvest. Grace and peace to you, Matt.

  8. Sally Smithington December 23, 2018 — 7:27 am

    I have been part of three abusive churches and fully understand the pain, confusion, uncertainty, etc. that Matt Stowell and others are speaking of. At one of those churches I tried to address the issue with the elders and entered into a two year wrestling match with them. There was two years of asking God to release me from that pain, but God had a bigger plan and strengthened me to be His voice of reason. While it was a time of incredible closeness with God and growth it was also a time of hurt and debilitating confusion.
    Sadly I went on to another church which eventually was as bad if not worse as I watch the senior pastor puff up with pride and arrogance as the church grew sure large very quickly. The poisonous atmosphere of knowing the inner workings of my church became too much to handle. I was broken and crushed and without a church home.
    Next was Harvest and as I began to see signs of arrogance I left before it came to what it now faces.
    If you sit on the sidelines of any church, laugh with the audience as the “machine” show the beginning of cracks, and don’t think with the discerning heart of God you too are part of the problem. Don’t just brush off what you see and hear. Address it head on!

  9. No one said anything about getting it right all of the time. The only one who has that track record is our Lord. We are discussing concerns many have seen in a senior pastor who apparently acts in a manor which does not match that of a Godly man. He and others who take a position of a shepherd are accountable to God for how they treat people as well as their actions. You obviously have not read any account from some elders, worship leaders and others over time. Maybe you are on the payroll.

  10. is this james? sounds like it…lol.

    1. sorry this comment is meant for the post below. mods please remove as I have reposted it

  11. Yep…just a bitter ex employee.
    That’s what I get from this website.
    Let. It. Go.
    Forgive. Move on.

    1. is this james? sounds like it…lol

    2. Charlene Schaedel December 23, 2018 — 3:44 am

      This sounds like a plea. Are you truly asking us to forgive and move on or FORGET and move on. I admire this person Matt for speaking up after all this time. And I am thankful he did not forget and move on. Thank you for sharing Paul’s list Matt I believe we could all use a reminder of this list now and then.

    3. Yes a Godly man with an excellent reputation and all you can see is bitterness??? Hardly he cares about believers being taken advantage of! Tell me why is your pastor jettting off to Florida 3 months out of the year now? Who’s backs is he walking on for that? The tithers? Most likely although no one knows except those in his inner circle what this new addition is all about. But usually people like you who have this let it go mindset haven’t financially contributed anyway so accountability isn’t on your radar. Only 2 % of Chrsitians tithe regularly

      1. You do understand Tithing is not required for NT believers right. A study of OT tithing will show you that. I really believe most Pastors know this but those who teach it do so to insure a steady cash flow.

        1. thank you for pointing this out. I too left Harvest after attending a few years after the Easter Service which James spent trying to raise money rather than focusing on Jesus resurrection. He took advantage of the unusually high attendance on Easter to promote tithing rather than sharing the gospel on a day many marginal or non believers may have been in attendance and probably turned off these individuals to the church for good.

        2. I remember that Easter well, my wife and I got our Oldest Son and his wife and Children to come with us. When he said he was told not to talk about Money on Easter and replied, Watch me. I was in shock, they walked out shaking their heads and said what was that, how could we answer they will never come back.

  12. Matt – thank you for taking some responsibility. Wish your father had the same courage and fortitude. Seems like there are very few Harvest men that act like men. It is the enablers that created the current situation. James MacDonald was never held in check due to the weak Elder Board. How many lives has MacDonald shattered? How many peoples Christian faith has been destroyed because of him?

    1. You have a gift for the melodramatic. “Shattered”?

      1. hey unless you’ve lived it,,,and maybe you have- but otherwise i think the “shattered” have a right to decide how it feels. melodramatic or not.

      2. But see, this is perfect. If this is James, then once again he exposes himself in front of everyone showing precisely why he should never lead a small group, let alone a church congregation.

        The thing is James, by invalidating the description of “shattered” you show once again why so many want to see you removed from the church. And you should be. It is more important to you to have control over others than it is to serve them with a humble, submitted heart.

        But unless you truly repent, you’ll never know the peace that comes from a truly repentant heart. It’s sad really. You have so much potential for good but because you are so filled with fear, you can’t have the very peace you so desperately want.

        Remember….”A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

    2. Harvest men is an oxymoron!

  13. I have just recently started following the drama of this church, and sadly, it all-too-well resembles what is going on in churches all over the world. If you ever wondered why God has not already wiped the Catholic Church off the map for all the sins it has committed, just look at the fact that there are 10,000’s if not 100,000’s of churches that are willing and eager to take its place, with its pastor vying to be the new pope.

  14. When will Matt’s father speak out? Does he think he’s doing what’s right by not exposing a charlatan of the faith? Where is his courage and allegiance?

  15. Matt, I find you to be a breath of fresh air in a world of power hungry pastors who have lost their way. Your post is this first post of all that I have read that the writer takes responsibility for contributing to to the problem. I was abused by Satan James and by extension you. Taking responsibility allows me to forgive you. Until I see a humble God fearing James I cannot extend him any forgiveness or grace. I called attention to the issues at Harvest and I wasn’t even on staff. The abuse I have endured means I will never be the same nor will my marriage or my family. The spineless, hero worshiping “elders” at Harvest that recently signed a document in support of Satan James are not men in any sense of the word. They are cowards one and all. Thank you for your courage and please don’t fall into the trap of worshipping people over God again.

  16. Which other Stowell spoke?

  17. Thank you Matt Stowell for your courage and honesty. I appreciate your comments and voice of truth! It is time for all who have a voice to tell the truth about this horrible situation. How sad this has gone on for so long and hurt so many people. I am convinced James is a sociopath by his behavior. People like him are very dangerous when given power, money, connections etc.
    Judgement is coming!

    1. Soooo…let’s see you pastor a church and get it right all the time.
      We can agree that judgement is coming, but I would remind you that it’s judgement for all.

      1. James go to bed, everyone knows it you.

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