Citing “the emergence of new information,” the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) last week suspended its accreditation of Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC), the embattled Chicago-area megachurch founded and formerly pastored by James MacDonald.
The ECFA, founded in 1979, “provides accreditation to leading Christian nonprofit organizations that faithfully demonstrate compliance with established standards for financial accountability, fundraising and board governance.” Churches and other Christian organizations can voluntarily seek accreditation to assure donors that contributions are being used with integrity, based on the ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship.
Harvest Reportedly Violated 4 of 7 Stewardship Standards
According to a statement from ECFA President Dan Busby, the “indefinite suspension” of HBC’s accreditation became effective March 14. That means Harvest “may not represent that they are an ECFA member or display ECFA’s membership seal.”
The ECFA launched a formal investigation of HBC November 28, Busby says, and a site visit in December led the council to believe the church was “in compliance with our standards.” But based on new information the ECFA received March 11, Busby adds, “We have concerns the church may be in serious violation of ECFA Standards 2, 3, 4 and 6.” An ongoing investigation will determine whether HBC’s accreditation status should be restored or terminated, Busby says.
Standard 2 deals with governance: “Every organization shall be governed by a responsible board of not less than five individuals, a majority of whom shall be independent, who shall meet at least semiannually to establish policy and review its accomplishments.” Standard 3 requires “complete and accurate financial statements,” including independent oversight. Standard 4 states that “all of the organization’s operations are carried out and resources are used in a responsible manner and in conformity with applicable laws and regulations, such conformity taking into account biblical mandates.” And Standard 6 is about using integrity to set the compensation of an organization’s top leader.
ECFA Acted Too Slowly, Critics Say
Julie Roys, a blogger who’s been investigating HBC, applauds the ECFA’s move but says it comes much too late. “It’s stunning to me that it has taken this long for the ECFA to act,” she wrote on March 16. Last December, Roys described how funds donated to MacDonald’s “Walk in the Word” broadcast were used to pay for a deer herd at the church’s camp in Michigan. And in February she reported MacDonald’s admission that HBC misused funds from Harvest Bible Fellowship, its former church-planting network.
“The fact that ECFA didn’t discover these violations itself is bad enough,” Roys writes. “But the fact that the group failed to act even after I reported these glaring violations is inexcusable. What it took to finally force the group’s hand was my report that MacDonald had funded African safaris, Florida vacations, and other luxury purchases with church funds. And even then, it took nearly a week for the group to act!” On March 9, Roys wrote a post titled “Former Harvest Employees Say James MacDonald Lived Large on Church’s Dime.”
In her March 16 post, Roys writes, “Given this stunning example of ECFA’s failure, I can’t imagine how anyone could put any trust in the group’s ability to hold any church or ministry ‘accountable’ as it claims. ECFA President Dan Busby has a lot of explaining to do.” Busby hasn’t responded to an interview request from Roys, she adds.
Last fall, HBC sued Roys and two other bloggers who criticized the church and their wives, but HBC dropped the suit. Criticism addressed areas ranging from MacDonald’s temperament and leadership style to his reportedly extravagant lifestyle.
The two other bloggers, former HBC members Scott Bryant and Ryan Mahoney, set up The Elephant’s Debt in 2012 to address concerns about the church. In a March 16 post titled “ECFA Closes Barn Door Years After the Horses Ran Out,” the bloggers write, “It would appear that the ‘watcher’ need [sic] watching.” Questions that need to be answered, the bloggers say, include “What did ECFA know, and when did it know it?” and “What would motivate [ECFA] to be so lax in their duties as an oversight and accrediting body?”
ECFA’s accreditation fees, which provide most of the council’s funding, may provide answers, according to The Elephant’s Debt. ECFA, the bloggers note, “began as a negotiated settlement between large evangelical institutions and some in the federal government that were seeking legislation to exercise greater oversight and provide greater transparency. When has self-policing ever been effective?”
Fallout Continues for HBC
In January, HBC’s elder board announced that MacDonald was on an “indefinite sabbatical.” In February, the elders fired MacDonald, saying he was “harmful to the best interests of the church.” All five members of the executive committee of HBC’s elder board announced they’d be resigning, as well. Soon afterward, MacDonald’s two sons, both pastors at HBC, resigned, and Moody Publishers stopped selling MacDonald’s books.