Home Christian News The Harvest and James MacDonald Controversy Explained

The Harvest and James MacDonald Controversy Explained

James MacDonald
Screengrab Youtube @James MacDonald

Note from the Editor: 

Since the publishing of this article, several developments have occurred at Harvest Bible Chapel. On January 7, 2019, Harvest elders announced they decided to drop the lawsuit against Julie Roys and four other individuals. On February 13, the elders announced James MacDonald had been fired. Then the board announced its executive committee would be resigning over the next few months. And a few days later James MacDonald’s sons, Luke and Landon MacDonald, also announced they are resigning.

An eight-month investigation into pastor James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel, his Chicago-area megachurch, culminated last week with the publication of a World Magazine article by Julie Roys. Before the article was even printed, Harvest sued Roys, plus two bloggers who’ve been critical about problems at Harvest.

In her exposé, titled “Hard Times at Harvest,” Roys details evidence from former Harvest elders, employees and members that show “an ongoing pattern of relational and financial abuse, a lack of transparency and outright deception.”

Harvest strongly disputes the claims, saying Roys has an “unhealthy fixation” on the church and failed to uncover the “desired scandal.”

The church, which has a weekly attendance of more than 12,000 at its seven campuses, is also associated with Vertical Worship, Harvest Christian Academy (HCA), and MacDonald’s Walk in the Word TV and radio ministry. It also had a church-planting network, Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF), which MacDonald dissolved last year.

Background Information About the Dispute at Harvest Bible Chapel

The unrest at Harvest began in the fall of 2013, when two elders were excommunicated and another was “indirectly censured,” Roys writes. That occurred right after eight former elders sent a letter to the current elder board, claiming that MacDonald was guilty of “self-promotion…love of money…domineering and bullying…abusive speech…outbursts of anger…[and] making misleading statements.” Harvest countered by accusing those eight former elders of “great sin” and “defiling many people.”

The three censured elders said Harvest maintained a “culture of fear and intimidation” that destroyed relationships. A year later, MacDonald apologized for the harsh discipline taken against the three men, adding that Harvest had “meaningfully and mutually” reconciled with them. In a statement, the elders indicated they had accepted the apology and, in turn, agreed to “leave [the church] alone” and “let the elder board bring about the necessary reforms.”

Abuses Continued, Roys Claims in Exposé

According to Roys’ extensive research and interviews, changes didn’t occur at Harvest; instead, questionable treatment and practices continued. This included “an abusive and fear-based culture where those who question leadership are punished,” she writes.

Gordon Zwirkoski, a former Harvest elder and the original director of HBF, told Roys that James MacDonald essentially wields ultimate authority at the church and cultivates “a spirit of fear in the staff.” Former Harvest employee Dave Jones says his church has welcomed dozens of “Harvest refugees” who show signs of “spiritual abuse” and are “disillusioned.”

Roys’ article details three examples of actions that former Harvest employees say reveal MacDonald’s hot-tempered, vengeful personality. At Camp Harvest in 2009, for example, the pastor shot at a target that contained photos of some elders’ wives. MacDonald later admitted doing so but claimed it was “all in good fun” and misinterpreted.

In another incident at Camp Harvest, MacDonald reportedly stabbed a photo of a former Harvest pastor with a butter knife. Witnesses say MacDonald was angry that the photo was still on display. Although he denied stabbing the photo, MacDonald said, “I may have put my knife up against it or into it.”

A final incident in Roys’ article involves MacDonald publicly berating HCA students, an incident witnessed by Harvest videographer Luke Helmer. The next day, Helmer resigned, citing MacDonald’s “pattern of uncontrolled anger.” The pastor later admitted being “too intense” in the classroom that day.