Harvest Bible Chapel Infighting Reveals Christianity’s Sordid Underbelly (Also, an HBC Timeline)

Harvest Bible Chapel Infighting Reveals Christianity’s Sordid Underbelly (Also, an HBC Timeline) September 21, 2019

Hi and welcome back! I decided to run the Super Special next week — because this is some wild news. Harvest Bible Chapel’s seen its fair share of serious trouble this past year, almost all of it self-inflicted. Now, we have a story about their latest trouble. One of this megachurch’s new church locations–all the way over in Florida, no less–has been at the very heart of its founder James MacDonald’s downfall. And that church has received a serious setback lately from the Mothership. So today, let me show you what’s happening at Harvest Bible Chapel these days, and what its members’ infighting reveals about Christianity itself.

woman in schoolgirl costume roams the ruins of gunkanjima in japan
(Jordy Meow.)

(BTW: At the very bottom of this page, you’ll find a “see more” button. Click that and you’ll find a timeline of Harvest Bible Chapel that I thought was interesting. If you feel kinda out of the loop on HBC drama, it might be useful to you.)

Everyone, Meet Harvest Bible Chapel.

Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC) is a huge megachurch based out of Chicago, Illinois. James MacDonald started the church in 1988, and affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 2015. They have about 13,000 members meeting in seven Chicago locations. They operate a number of organizations and affiliations boasting some 100 churches total, 400 employees, and many millions of dollars in assets.

For years, their founder and leader, James MacDonald, ran the place as his private fiefdom. Allegedly, this sprawling, multi-satellite megachurch system functioned largely as his private bank account and country club (see endnote, cuz OMG, this guy!).

Gradually, people figured out that he’d also apparently used church funds to give lavish gifts to his pals. I also suspect that he possibly helped those pals get ahead in their careers. The star-studded list of beneficiaries apparently include our very own pal Ed Stetzer!

I first noted these rumors way back in 2013. So we’re talking about at least six years that people had good reason to suspect James MacDonald of wrongdoing before they finally did the right thing.

In reality, of course, his associates began seeing some alarming signs of his real personality many years before any of them dared speak of what they’d seen.

The Naples Church.

In November 2016, a guy named John Secrest started a church in Naples, Florida. The little church began as one of the 150 or so HBC-affiliated churches around the world. In fact, in 2015 Secrest himself had attended a church-planting training course offered by HBC. After he graduated, he headed for Naples to plant a new church.

(Church planting is Christianese for starting an evangelical church from humble beginnings, typically with some borrowed members from a mothership church. We’ll talk a bit more about this in the planting seeds post later.)

At first, as so many of these church plants go, they didn’t have their own church building at all. Eventually, they grew to about 100 members and began meeting in a local YMCA. Remember, this growth occurred outside of a megachurch format, making the church all the more remarkable.

Maybe the fact that Naples started with a prepped and “committed core group” of members had something to do with its success. Secrest probably acquired them from some HBC or adjacent church. I’ve heard that helps a lot, and church planting groups often set their planters up with them to load the dice a bit.

A Marriage of Convenience.

After a while of the Naples folks meeting at the YMCA, James MacDonald invited Secrest to make things more official. Shortly afterward, Secrest took the plunge and Naples became the eighth HBC campus in September 2018.

A couple of months later, in November 2018, HBC Naples moved to a building/land owned by two loyal and incredibly wealthy HBC members, Doug and Joyce Bartholomew. In fact, they gave the church a sweetheart deal on the rent, charging them only $10 a month for a downright-palatial church facility and compound. It’s a staggering property all the way around with an estimated value of around USD$4-5M.

But the glory days didn’t last long. Only a couple of months later, MacDonald was fighting for his throne. He went on sabbatical in mid-January 2019 while the Naples church–now fully HBC-controlled–fired John Secrest.

HBC refused to answer any questions about the firing.

Then, a month after that, in February 2019, James MacDonald himself got fully fired from HBC.

Oops.

What Got John Secrest Fired.

“Warn the pastor down in Naples, James [MacDonald] has been shooting his mouth off that he doesn’t like the guy [John Secrest] and he’ll be getting rid of him shortly. I think its his plan to exit up here and be in Florida and avoid the noise up here.”

Word on the HBC street in December 2018

See, John Secrest had committed what to James MacDonald constituted the Unforgivable Sin: DISLOYALTY. After MacDonald’s behavior became public knowledge, he valued that quality even more highly.

It seems clear that MacDonald approached this Florida pastor with a marriage proposal right as SBeganToHTF in his fiefdom.

One Christian blogger, Wondering Eagle (remember him? He’s nice–I like him) wrote a lot about this particular drama. He asserts that MacDonald may well have had a plan in mind to launch a return from Naples.

It’s the only motivation MacDonald could have had for taking control of the Naples church that made any sense to the members of the Chicago HBC.

And very quickly, that is exactly what turned out to be the disgraced megapastor’s motivation.

As the scandal mounted around him, James MacDonald wrote in January 2019 that he’d be taking an “indefinite sabbatical” from HBC’s leadership. Oh, and he added–almost as an incidental, really–that he’d be preaching from the Naples church sometimes.

You know. Just to keep in practice.

And John Secrest stood up to this tyrant to say he didn’t approve at all of MacDonald’s conduct.

And why NOHELLNO, ackshully, he would not be allowing MacDonald to use the pulpit of the HBC Naples church as his proving grounds for a triumphant return.

Politics, Politics!

I don’t think someone that believes in a God, and knows that there’s heaven and hell, feels up women, lies, berates people and destroys families and chases people away from God.

Mancow, February 18, 2019

The reason it took so long to get rid of an alleged serial grifter was that he’d sunk his hooks deep-like into his community. He has a lot of powerful friends in the Christ-o-sphere. All that “objective moralityfoofaraw evaporates more quickly than morning-mist in the Sahara Desert when it comes to the need to criticize or cut ties with a powerful leader.

And in this case, all of the churches that joined or opened under the HBC imprimatur became part of James MacDonald’s fiefdom. Accordingly, he jolly well expected their pastors to operate as his vassals.

Most of his victims just fell into line. That’s how he could operate for as long as he did. My opinion is that whoever he couldn’t buy, he intimidated into silence. But there’s one thing you can say about the villains and henchmen of evangelicalism. Once bought, they damn well stay bought. At least, they do till self-interest Jesus directs them to other masters.

When John Secrest refused to do that, MacDonald did what we expect toxic Christian leaders to do: he fired him immediately. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t kidnap him, strand him on a remote island, and play the Most Dangerous Game with the poor guy.

Anyway, in May 2019 HBC Naples hired another pastor, Jeff Donaldson. He was formerly the Executive Ministry Pastor at HBC. In March 2019, MacDonald’s “safari buddy” left that gig in the wake of massive leadership restructuring in the wake of MacDonald’s scandals. After Donaldson took the helm at HBC Naples, rumors swirled that he’d soon install MacDonald back onto a throne.

Yes, even months after MacDonald’s firing, the friends the megapastor purchased at his height of power haven’t yet abandoned their master.

The Price of Power.

The new wrinkle in this story happened September 19th.

Remember the owners of the church’s property, Doug and Joyce Bartholomew? And the sweetheart deal they cut HBC Naples of $10/month rent?

Eight months after Secrest got fired, they’ve now yanked that deal out from under the church. They’re leaving HBC, you see, so they have no more reason to give HBC a good deal on the rent. They’ve told HBC Naples to vacate within six months.

The Bartholomews say they don’t have any real plans for the property. But if they’re simply not HBC members anymore, why would they not let the church continue to use it, especially if they don’t have any firm ideas for its future?

But they’re not going to ask the church to pay a real rent to continue meeting there. There’ll be no charming kid-made movies about “putting on a show” to raise the money to save the ol’ clubhouseThe owners are throwing them out without giving that as an option. They simply want the property back.

Oh, and as Joyce Bartholomew told Julie Roys after the news about the deal’s ending,

[We’re] huge James [MacDonald] supporters—very pro-James. . . We don’t believe all the news that’s gone out.

Of course they are.

WWJD?

A Better Question.

Here’s a better question:

The results are in, amigo. What’s left to ponder?

Exactly what more does she need to see to know that she associates with a human dumpster fire?

However, she might not be some ultimate paragon of open-mindedness, carefully squinting over each and every receipt until she can establish her very dear friend’s guilt beyond all shadows of doubt.

One thing’s for sure: she did not want to talk about whether or not she and her husband planned to give the property to MacDonald to launch a new church.

Considering the rumors I’ve already heard about Jeff Donaldson being planted there to smooth the way for MacDonald’s return, that wouldn’t shock me at all. Another elder already stationed at Naples is very loyal to MacDonald as well, so there’ve got to be more of these loyalists.

After all, if their deposed king does get a new church, he’ll want a nice one. And what better one than the one his loyal friends already occupy in a tony, well-heeled part of Florida?

They just need to evict the current tenants, who belong to HBC. And they will. After all, that group showed him the ultimate disloyalty by holding the king in any way accountable in the first place.

The current pastor claims he has no idea what the church will do. It doesn’t exactly take a Cassandra to have some ideas about that, though.

And What About John Secrest?

Right after his firing, John Secrest wrote an email to his now ex-church congregation. In it, he expressed hopes that HBC would give him back his church and release them from their marriage of convenience, though he didn’t have like a lot of hope on that score.

He was right not to hope. HBC refused his request. After they found out about his email, they fired him.

Afterward, Secrest didn’t stay idle for long. He started up his own new church in March 2019.

He calls this new venture Compass Bible Church. Wondering Eagle at least thought it sounded extremely honest by evangelical standards. Some HBC Naples members who’d left when he got fired apparently asked him to do it, and they quickly joined up. (See endnotes, where Wondering Eagle brings up another good point about church biographies.)

So John Secrest will be okay.

Church Infighting.

One thing that really plays up exactly how non-divine and purely natural and earthly church groups are is how they behave. And none of their behavior drives that point home better than their infighting.

Evangelicals value power over others more than anything. Power over the rest of us, yes, obviously, but also over each other. Their whole lives, they chase that goal up up up the ziggurat lickety-split, as Rimmer often said on Red Dwarf.

Here, the HBC Naples church looks like it was doing very well. In just a few years, it’s grown into a thriving group headed by a pastor who clearly cared enormously about doing the right thing.

MacDonald fired that pastor because he exercised that trait against a leader who viewed himself as being so powerful he’d become a law unto himself (hmm, where’ve we heard that notion?). Then he set about dismantling what that pastor had created.

That thriving little church group is going to be kicked out of their building, it seems, because of political infighting at the highest levels of church leadership.

Most of that church’s progress will be lost, and a great many Christians will experience a betrayal they won’t soon forget.

Regarding MacDonald Getting the Facility.

As of the August 15th, MacDonald’s begun hinting semi-publicly about a grand return to ministry somewhere. So yeah. It seems very likely that he’s planning to start a new empire at Naples.

If the Bartholomews do indeed hand that property over to James MacDonald, I’ve no doubt he’ll move right in–cackling the whole way. But in the new age of lost Christian coercion and heightened disapproval of Christian scandals, I’m not sure that his new fiefdom will balloon as large as his last one did.

It might. Either way, I don’t think MacDonald’s all done being a power-mad, abuse-prone, money-hungry tyrant. Scandals will continue to sprout in his wake like spring flowers under the heels of dancing wood-nymphs.

He can’t help himself that way. And his tribemates won’t abandon him, no matter the cost to their religion’s credibility and future.

To me, this whole story paints a picture-perfect portrait of exactly why Christianity declines–and why it deserves to do so. 

NEXT UP: LSP! Then: the question Christians don’t dare entertain. See you soon!


Endnotes.

OMG, I can’t even: A link to James MacDonald’s wife’s social media revealed a post of a bunch of church leaders together at the Elgin Country Club in Illinois. The picture in the post showed five couples together.

james macgrath with his FAN-ceh glass!
(Source.) Lookit the FAN-ceh drinking glass of him!

I couldn’t remember exactly what MacDonald looked like, and three of the men in the picture looked like they might be him (well-fed, white, white beard, no hair). But… ONE guy at the table is holding a drink in what looks like a real glass instead of a styrofoam/paper cup with a lid and straw. That one’s MacDonald. Beside him, we see his mini-mes with their plebeian disposie cups and straws. Notice the date, too: his wife shared this post just this past month. Dude’s got plenty of friends still in HBC. I might be wrong about the glass but it still made me laugh. Also, is it just me or do all of these people except MacDonald look intensely uncomfortable? (Back to the post!)

Interesting note from Wondering Eagle: On his post about John Secrest, he notes that evangelical churches usually hide questionable or ethically iffy links to parent churches. He links up some extremely good info about specific churches that seem to be obscuring their past links with such ultra-disgraced outfits like Sovereign Grace Ministries. We’ve seen that sneaky disavowal before. (Back to the post!)


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CLICK THE NEXT PAGE TO SEE A TIMELINE. I wasn’t gonna inflict this on you in the post itself but my goodness, it was interesting to me at least!

An Annotated Timeline of James MacDonald’s Disgrace

Hi! Welcome to one of Roll to Disbelieve’s rare multi-page entries. I’m including this timeline for people who want it. It’s an explanation and timeline of the various stuff relating to Harvest Bible Chapel and James MacDonald. (ETA: I know the pagination isn’t working. I’ll deal with it later.)

Rather than dilute the main post with this info–or stuff it into a draft that might never see the light of day–I offer it here. I think it adds a great deal of depth to the story–it sure helped me contextualize a lot of stuff. I hope you find it useful as well!

Ancient History.

1988: James MacDonald founds the first Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC).

2005: Anne Green, a former worship minister at HBC, alleges James MacDonald groped her on his private plane. Unfortunately, she didn’t feel safe talking about it until 2019 and didn’t file a police report at the time.

2009: MacDonald, at a church summer camp, allegedly shoots a pellet gun at a target containing pictures of some elders’ wives with various point values assigned to hitting them (and when one of those wives confronts him, he berates the tattletale). He also gets infuriated, allegedly, that a photo of one recently-fired HBC pastor stood on display at the camp entrance (with many other pics of other pastors). In response to this ego-offense, he allegedly screeches in rage and repeatedly stabs it with a butterknife, allegedly reducing the camp director to “bawling, crying” tears. Some deep and unsavory politics might account for his bizarre behavior.

(Mr. Captain: “Are we sure this guy wasn’t higher than balls on cocaine? This sounds exactly like someone on a cocaine binge.”)

2012: Whistleblower site The Elephant’s Debt comes to life thanks to a few disgruntled HBC members. HBC is not amused in the slightest. TED starts keeping track of the pastors leaving HBC.

Also 2012: Three HBC churches withdraw from the megachurch system because of various sordid details The Elephant’s Debt uncovered.

More Recent.

2013-2014: A bunch of ex-elders send a formal letter to the current ones complaining about MacDonald’s behavior. HBC responds by excommunicating two of the letter-writers and “censured” a third. A year later, MacDonald apologizes for his harshness; the elders say they accepted it.

2015: HBC decides to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention. John Secrest attends a church planter’s educational course run by HBC.

2016: John Secrest opens a Naples church as an affiliate of HBC–not a direct member of HBC, but one of its many affiliates.

2017: A videographer, Luke Helmer, witnessed a “pattern of uncontrollable anger” in how MacDonald interacted with some teenagers at an HBC-run private school. After witnessing how MacDonald called them names and threatened them, the videographer resigned the very next day.

Also 2017: a Harvest-affiliated ministry audit discovers that a lot of their money went to HBC’s own causes, including one expenditure that looked a lot like “hush money.”

2018.

April 2018: Author Julie Roys begins a news-site investigation into HBC’s practices as a result of a recent story about an HBC youth pastor charged with sexual exploitation of a child.

September 2018: The Naples church becomes the 8th location of HBC itself. This marriage of convenience formally grants control of the church’s operations to James MacDonald and his lackeys. The honeymoon lasts only a few months, however.

October 2018: HBC files a lawsuit against Julie Roys (to her mystification), The Elephants Debt, and in an ostentatiously-cruel attempt at retaliation, the website owners’ wives. Also, the HBC discovers an embezzler in their operations department (they’re careful to note it’s not a minister).

November 2018: HBC Naples church moves to its brand-new location on land owned by Doug and Joyce Bartholomew. They’re two extremely wealthy HBC members who are extremely loyal to James MacDonald. The king is very generous to vassals who display obedience.

December 13, 2018: A huge expose about HBC runs in World Magazine. It alleges very seriously abusive and deranged behavior by MacDonald.

January 2019.

January 7, 2019:  The court denies HBC’s request to prevent the defendants from investigating their actions. HBC wanted the judge to “seal” documents returned to the defendants in discovery. In other words, both parties knew what was in those documents and what they revealed, and HBC wanted that stuff to stay out of public view.

January 8, 2019 (yes, the very next day): HBC announces that they’ll drop their lawsuit. They declare that the court decision represents their god’s “direction.” So it’s not really the court saying anything, it’s their god saying to drop the case before their dirty laundry can get aired in public!

January 16, 2019: James MacDonald goes on an “indefinite sabbatical” and announces he miiiiiiiiight be preaching from Naples sometimes. When Naples’ founding pastor refuses to allow the preaching, the HBC fires him.

February 12, 2019: Mancow Muller, a radio personality who was very close to MacDonald, plays clips on his radio show of MacDonald cursing and insulting various people, including Christians. (Years ago, MacDonald baptized him in the River Jordan!! That’s serious, in evangelicalism!). TVTropes would call this “An Engineered Public Confession,” I think. This blasting proved to be catastrophically damaging to MacDonald and indeed played an instrumental role in the saga of his downfall. 

Spring 2019.

February 13, 2019: Shortly after Muller’s show runs, HBC announces they’re firing James MacDonald. A scant week later, his two sons also resign from their leadership positions within HBC (one was a lead pastor; another was the HBC executive pastor of student ministries). They both get extremely generous severance packages. Moody Publishers, one of the biggest publishers of evangelical books, announces as well that they won’t be selling MacDonald’s books anymore. LifeWay also drops MacDonald’s 58 products from their bookstores and website.

Throughout February 2019: Ongoing disasters for HBC. The executive committee resigns as more financial wrongdoing comes to light. HBC learns that it faces about USD$40M of debt.

March 14, 2019: Jeff Donaldson quits his pastor gig at the main HBC. He’d “truly believed [he] could stay on staff and lead through needed change,” but no, the meanies at HBC refused. He was just too close to MacDonald, I’m guessing.

March 25: Wondering Eagle reports that John Secrest has launched Compass Bible Church, also in Naples. An early sermon of his is up on YouTube. Within two minutes Secrest falls afoul of ableism. Oh well.

March 31, 2019: Christian Post reports that in the aftermath of MacDonald’s firing, HBC has lost about 3500 members and has seen a 40% drop in donations.

April 29, 2019: A somewhat-toothless watchdog group, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), finally terminates the HBC as a member because of MacDonald’s financial misdeeds. (But see June 2019.)

April 30, 2019: As they leave, HBC’s elders apologize to their victims for filing the lawsuit. Somehow every one of them overlooked the fact that what they were doing was totally unbiblical. Gosh, how’d they miss that?

Fun in the Summer Sun 2019.

May 5, 2019: HBC Naples hires Jeff Donaldson to be their new pastor. Meanwhile, the Mothership must reassure members that MacDonald’s received none of their donated tithes and offerings since his firing.

May 10, 2019: Christianity Today reports that HBC stopped doing Walk in the Word, a radio program tightly linked to MacDonald, and removed its broadcasts from their site.

May 18, 2019: HBC announces that MacDonald is trying to drag them into arbitration about his termination. Mainly, he wants the rights to Walk in the Word.

May 20, 2019: News sites report that MacDonald allegedly got caught trying to hire a hitman to murder his daughter’s ex-husband Tony Groves. He allegedly asked the hitmen, Mancow Muller and a deacon who’d once served as his “volunteer bodyguard,” several times to commit the murder at various points over a period of years. Mancow Muller files a report about MacDonald, who he now believes is “dangerous” and might be looking to harm him. The next day, Wondering Eagle writes that an HBC insider constantly warns him to “stay safe and careful.”

June 18-20, 2019: Ed Stetzer speaks at the ECFA One conference. That’s pretty rich, considering. His topic appears to be “Evangelism and Disciplemaking Culture.” Oof.

Fall 2019.

August 2, 2019: MacDonald glams it up at a Chicago-area country club with his HBC pals. Scott Stonebreaker, the loyal HBC elder already planted at HBC Naples, is on the right in that instagram pic, I think.

August 15, 2019: MacDonald hints to his Facebook friends that he plans to return to ministry soon.

September 3, 2019: An explosive story emerges about HBC shielding an abusive spouse in their ministry for years while punishing his victim for begging for help from them. MacDonald’s rot, it seems, continues to harm the innocent at Harvest Bible Chapel.

September 19, 2019: HBC Naples learns they’re losing their $10/month sweetheart rent deal and will be kicked out of their facility in six months. The owners of the church property, of course, are loyal HBC members. Well, were. They left the HBC, so now they don’t wish to allow the church to use their property anymore. They refuse to say whether or not MacDonald will be moving in after that to start a non-HBC church there.


These are the kinds of notes I take when left to my own devices. Don’t piss off someone whose geek superpower is hyper-focus. Multi-page entries will not ever be something I do habitually. Just this time, though, it seemed appropriate.

Thanks for reading! 

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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