Ed Stetzer’s Curious Ties To James MacDonald (Are Hurting Their Religion)

Ed Stetzer’s Curious Ties To James MacDonald (Are Hurting Their Religion) June 20, 2019

My goodness, Southern Baptist fanboy Ed Stetzer sure gets around! Let me show you an absolutely bizarre little story that illustrates exactly how hypocritical and corrupt TRUE CHRISTIAN™ blatherers really are. This story isn’t totally new news, but since we’ve been talking about the SBC’s decline generally lately, it fits in quite well. Today, we look at why the SBC’s various leaders seem so singularly incapable of leading the denomination back to power–and why they’re only going to get worse as the religion’s decline continues.

Judas Betrays Jesus With a Kiss. ca. 1480-1490. Painting in the Church of St. James.

How Did This Even Get Made?

You know, I’ve been marveling for a long time about exactly how Ed Stetzer found himself propelled into the stratosphere of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

His resume reveals a standard-issue pastoral education. Somehow, however, he ended up in the SBC propaganda arm, LifeWay–and in a very high position of leadership at that. For years, he headed LifeWay’s research arm. At the time, I surmised that maybe he’d just been lucky with demographics. He represented the younger side of the SBC. Maybe his leaders thought he could speak to kids today.

Now, though, I suspect he simply made the right friends in the right high places.

Friends like James MacDonald.

Everyone, Meet James MacDonald. He’s Just Leaving.

For many years, James MacDonald worked as the megapastor-in-chief of Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC). They’re an SBC outfit, though they don’t trumpet that fact. And HBC is not only huge, but at one point was one of the fastest-growing churches in America.

Christians tend to hero-worship pastors who can pull off those kinds of membership gains (especially now in their age of decline). Their admiration of James MacDonald was no different. The little grumbling that people dared to make about his bizarrely-culty leadership style got stifled–and he’s one of those medieval-dillweeds who does not seem shy at all about enforcing silence through legal threats.

But his house of cards crashed down a few months ago. In January, he took one of those infamous “indefinite leaves of absence.” While he stepped away, his church scrambled to deal with the sudden revelation of just how profligate he’d been with their money, and a radio personality spoke very loudly about what an absolute jerkface he’d found MacDonald to be.

Then, in February, the church fired James MacDonald. It sounds like they’re still figuring out just how much of their money he wasted on himself.

Well, we got another piece of the puzzle recently. Some of their money went to buttering up MacDonald’s pals.

And guess who one of those pals was?

Ed Stetzer’s New Gig.

Ed Stetzer left LifeWay a few years ago. He flew from there to a brand-new sinecure that Wheaton apparently created just for him. So he holds the “Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism.” He serves as the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism there, too, as well as heading their graduate school for Evangelism and Leadership.

And when he took up that post, I remember thinking to myself, WHY? The dude’s every effort at LifeWay seems like non-stop fail. Absolutely nothing he suggested while there ever actually worked to help the SBC’s constant losses.

He’s proving to be just as useless at Wheaton as he seems to have been at LifeWay. He ran a big ol’ “summit” last year seeking to address “sexual violence.” Whatever its goals were, it failed so miserably that I don’t even remember it happening. Apparently, he’s writing a book on that topic too. (I’m totally and $10000% positive that it will be a total game-changer for fundagelicals.)

But TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t care about success. They care about the effort itself being as Jesus-flavored as possible.

And there, at least, Stetzer delivers flawlessly and without fail.

And His New New Gig:

Then this happened.

Ed Stetzer gave a very weird flex about being an official pastor somewhere. Remember when he Jesus-creeped on his Uber driver? Listen to this absolutely bizarre self-fellation:

Recently, I was having a conversation with my Uber driver about her experience in church. As we spoke, she shared that at one point she had been attending pretty frequently but has since found herself less engaged. During the course of our time together, as a pastor of course, I couldn’t help but suggest that she might reconsider her decision.

Speaking dates at Moody Church. Click to embiggen.

“As a pastor of course,” LOL. Yeah, my left butt cheek says that was accidental, any more than it was necessary to the anecdote. But it raised a question in my mind:

How does this guy even have time to be a pastor anywhere? Who gave him that gig?

It turns out that Moody Church in Chicago did.

Yep! Ed Stetzer is officially an Interim Teaching Pastor at Moody Church. Wheaton College is already in a Chicago suburb, so at least Stetzer’s geographically close to this church, but how did that come to be, and how much time does he actually have to be able to give (usually) one sermon a month there?

Yeah, I smelled the good ol’ boy network in action.

(If you’re wondering, it reeks of stale craft beer, brown liquor, cigars, and the ghosts of a million SBDs released in thousands of cushy leather chairs.)

BEETLE-GATE.

In April, the Wartburg Watch published a post containing a very curious tell-all letter about James MacDonald.

In passing, the blogger there touched on MacDonald’s very close friendship with Ed Stetzer.

And suddenly, a lot of very cloudy stuff became quite clear about just how Ed Stetzer might have gotten so far in fundagelical circles.

A year ago, Stetzer wrote a Facebook post announcing, “Got me a 1971 Beetle.” However, he didn’t mention that MacDonald had apparently gifted him with the vintage car, which had cost just shy of USD$13,000. Wartburg Watch said that MacDonald had purchased the car with HBC funds. A journalist soon confirmed this story.

Now, once Stetzer realized where the money for the car had come from, he reimbursed HBC for its cost. We still are left wondering what kind of friends gift each other stuff like vintage cars, even if it’s done with other people’s money.

But there’s more. That same confirmed story also outlines the extremely close personal and professional ties between Stetzer and MacDonald. Stetzer’s spoken at HBC conferences, preached at HBC services, and enjoyed lucrative consulting contracts with HBC.

Really, Stetzer’s as thick as thieves with this utterly-corrupt, foul-mouthed, pushy, vengeful, power-grabby megapastor. It really brings into focus Stetzer’s claim last year of being in “a season of deep lament” over Paige Patterson’s abuses, doesn’t it?

Dude’s not very good at picking his idols!

El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple. Probably completed before 1570.

More Puzzle Pieces.

The Wartburg Watch post drew a connection between Highpoint Church–which hired Stetzer as a sub-pastor, remember–and Harvest Bible Chapel. Highpoint is a multi-campus megachurch based out of Memphis, with locations in Colorado and Naperville (a Chicago suburb).

Then there’s this: Highpoint was once an HBC church plant.

In fact, they only recently changed their name from Harvest Bible Chapel in Naperville to Highpoint Church, back in April 2017. So obviously, the leader there, Ron Zappia, enjoys very close ties to James MacDonald.

That tie likely explains how Ed Stetzer, Captain of the Jolly Failboat Fundagelicalism, came to Zappia’s attention.

We can find the two of them both contributing blurbs for a book James MacDonald wrote. For more evidence of just how inbred the inner circles of fundagelical leadership get, James MacDonald’s written other books published by Moody Publishers, which is operated by Moody Church, which also hired Ed Stetzer. (For a bit of howlingly-hilarious karma, check out that particular book’s title: Lord, Change My Attitude: Before It’s Too Late.)

It turns out that Ed Stetzer serves as a “Teaching Pastor” at the newly-renamed Highpoint Church. I see he gave a sermon there this past June about “Christ-Like Communication.”

So he’s a sub-pastor at TWO churches.

I mean, he’s not a pastor pastor, he’s just a sub-pastor at these places. (He also apparently started a tiny church in the middle of nowhere outside of Gallatin, Tennessee, but he quit there when he moved to Chicago.) Still, he gets to puff himself up nice and big and flatter himself with “as a pastor of course” in his blog posts, even if his buddy Jim-Bob privately gossips to others about his failures.


It reminds me, weirdly, of this scene from Men in Black. “Best of the best of the best. ‘With honors.’ He’s just really excited, and he has no clue why we’re here.”

Conflicts of Interest.

Of course, Ed Stetzer also blogs for Christianity Today (CT), one of the biggest Christian news sites around. And naturally, being a news site of sorts, CT covered James MacDonald’s scandal. People asked questions a couple of months ago about whether Stetzer’s loyalty to MacDonald might have affected the site’s coverage of the scandal–and whether the gift of the Beetle violated both CT’s and Wheaton College’s ethical standards.

Mark Galli, the site’s editor-in-chief, disavowed any such conflict of interest. He said that CT doesn’t pay Stetzer anything for his posts (interesting in and of itself!).

But then Galli admitted that CT might not be paying Stetzer directly, but they do pay Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center a fee for Stetzer to contribute to their site. Oh, and Stetzer manages one of their special sections (it’s called “The Exchange with Ed Stetzer”), which he uses to publicize everything Stetzer in the Christ-o-sphere.

Galli also has admitted that Stetzer organized an interview meeting between MacDonald and a CT editor. Afterward, CT ran an extensive article outlining MacDonald’s rationalizations for why suing his critics to shut them up is totally “sometimes the biblical choice.” There’s more at this link that makes CT sound very much like they stood solidly behind James MacDonald–and that Ed Stetzer just might be one big reason for that stance.

Why Publicizing Scandals Is Important.

I don’t know how much more obvious it needs to be that the biggest-name leaders in the culture-war factions of Christianity are dirty dawgs out to enrich themselves at the expense of their religion’s success. Sure, they talk a big game using all the necessary big buzzwords their religion can spew out. But when push comes to shove, they’re in it to get theirs before the whole shebang collapses.

And absolutely nobody holds them accountable for their behavior or their failures.

For a religion that claims to be all about accountability, one that even frequently claims that people reject the religion out of hatred for accountability, they sure don’t believe in holding their leaders to it. Even the organizations that claim to hold church leaders to accountability through transparency in finances can’t actually do much if their members don’t cooperate.

At least, that’s the case until public outcry gets raised.

Once that happens, church leaders tend to fold pretty dang quickly. In this case, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) declared last December that HBC was totally on the up-and-up financially. Then, four months later–after the story began to go wide–they terminated the church for its noncompliance with their standards.

Like Rats from a Sinking Ship.

So yeah. I’m not surprised that Ed Stetzer quit the SBC and LifeWay when he did–right when they began to hemorrhage money to waste on his li’l projects–and jumped ship to an outfit promising him all the funds he’d need to publicize what’s really important to him: Ed Stetzer.

Dude’s just doing what Christians have been doing ever since their religion got kick-started by anonymous scribes: he’s looking out for #1.

I wonder if someone should tell this guy that Wheaton’s not actually doing that well. Even by lowering their admission standards to become one of the least-selective schools in the country, Wheaton’s enrollment has steadily tumbled since about 2010.

Wheaton’s hiring committee probably thought they were getting a big boost to their credibility by hiring Ed Stetzer–I mean, just look at all this stuff he says he’s successful at! Nobody knows more–or at least, says they know more–about evangelism success than him! Plus, he’s a bit younger than the average SBC leader, and he’s JUST. SO. HIP. Y’ALL. He restores Beetles! Seriously! SURELY kids will enroll simply to sit at the feet of this self-declared master of the evangelism craft!

Haha, oops.

Mark my words. He’s gonna bleed that position dry, declare total success anyway, then fly off to find something new and exciting that he can run into the ground.

The Zero-Sum Game.

But I look at it this way. Every dollar misspent on the pet projects of fundagelical darlings is a dollar that isn’t going toward something that might actually be useful to them. Money is finite, as Ed Stetzer and James MacDonald know very well. It is zero-sum. If Stetzer gets X amount of it, then someone else can’t have that X amount too.

Eventually Christians will run out of Xs to waste.

That right there is where the SBC finds itself in general. It’s why they sold off their big LifeWay campus, and why they’re kinda looking at selling their ostentatious flagship building. And that’s where countless churches find themselves as well. I’m seeing indications that they’re starting to pull back on funding–even for projects that, in the past, proved quite successful at recruitment.

Their focus on the culture wars has helped to polarize their members and drive off anybody who wasn’t on board with the agenda. But it’s also driven off a great many more-moderate members–and it still is driving them off. Even going balls-to-the-wall crazypants on recruitment, as the SBC has for the past couple of years, has barely succeeded in slowing down their decline so far.

The Poster Child.

Ed Stetzer’s always kinda interested me. He seems like such a made man in the SBC and seems so proud of that status. And for all that, he’s just so obviously incompetent at every single task he undertakes. Yet somehow the SBC’s good ol’ boy network keeps giving him opportunity-to-waste after opportunity-to-waste.

In such a major way, he’s like a poster child for Evangelical Churn.

Every time you hear about a decline in Christianity, think about this story. Perhaps you’ll wonder, as I do, what they’ve wasted time and money on this time instead of looking for real solutions to their problem.

And perhaps you’ll feel as relieved as I am to know that they care more about keeping their cronies and sycophants happy than they do about success. Christians might seem desperate to regain their former dominance, and yes, they are. But they’re not yet desperate enough to demand accountability from the would-be saviors they keep throwing money at.

And as long as their leaders keep their messages sounding super-ultra-Jesus-y and keep on using those buzzwords, they will not lack for opportunities–both for themselves and their pals.

NEXT UP: A very special LSP on Monday. Then, we look at how #SBC2019’s organizers used gaslighting to quiet down all those sex-abuse survivors demanding change–and we’ll hear, from J.D. Greear’s own mouth, the very real reason why they fight necessary change like they do. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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