Features

Not bluffing

"Not bluffing" Continued...

Issue: "Going it alone," Nov. 2, 2013

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 2 to 3 percent of U.S. adults are “problem gamblers” whose habits are disrupting their lives, such as by causing loss of sleep or financial issues. The National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention officially oppose gambling, and last year opposed a bill that would have expanded online poker. In a 1997 resolution the SBC called on Christians to “exercise their influence by refusing to participate in any form of gambling or its promotion.”

“A few friends gathered around a table, playing for a few dollars over the course of a few hours isn’t the kinds of gambling we’re certainly most concerned about,” Duke said. “But even that poses a certain level of risk for people who maybe enjoy that small thrill of a win and decide to test their luck at other forms of gambling.”

Jenkins says poker is a social hobby and home games have given him opportunities to meet new people and pray with or counsel them. One family he met during a home poker game later came to live with Jenkins and his wife Dianna for several weeks after their home burned during last year’s wildfires. The wife in that family was recently baptized, he said: “Frankly, were it not for poker, we would hardly ever rub shoulders with unsaved people.”

Growing pains

After 25 years of ministry, one of America’s largest churches faces criticism from former leaders

CHALLENGED: MacDonald preaching.
Brian O’Mahoney/The Courier-News/Sun-Times Media
CHALLENGED: MacDonald preaching.

Thousands of kids and adults crowded the Boomers baseball stadium in Schaumburg, Ill., on Sept. 21, but no one was watching baseball. Instead, they had gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Harvest Bible Chapel, a church with an attendance of around 13,000 at seven campuses in Chicago and its suburbs and nearly 100 church plants worldwide through Harvest Bible Fellowship.

Congregants took their children to inflatable funhouses set up for the event and sat in the grandstand with nachos, soft drinks, and fries as they waited for a band to begin playing modern worship songs like “10,000 Reasons.”

After they sang, James MacDonald, senior pastor of Harvest, took to the stage and spoke of the lordship of Jesus Christ: “He took your sin, your regret, your failure, your disappointment.” Like his imposing figure, MacDonald’s preaching style is big and bold: He shouts for emphasis, and listeners often feel challenged. His audience long ago expanded beyond Chicago through the church’s Walk in the Word radio ministry, broadcast throughout the United States.

But as MacDonald and Harvest celebrate 25 years of ministry, they face a barrage of criticism from former elders, pastors, and staff who say the church leadership has operated in recent years with too little transparency and accountability.

Megachurches often have naysayers, but the situation at Harvest is unusual because of the large number of former elders who have spoken publicly, mainly on a blog called The Elephant’s Debt, run by two former Harvest attendees. By early October, at least a dozen former elders, pastors, or staff members, including the former elder board chairman, had added their names or written statements to the website to affirm their concerns about Harvest. Among the allegations are that the church has run a “puppet elder board” and left a trail of broken relationships.

The dissent has grown louder since June, when three Harvest elders resigned after fellow elders dismissed their claim that a “culture of fear and intimidation” and a lack of transparency existed at the church. The current elder board consists of 32 men, including James MacDonald and two staff members.

The three elders—Daniel Marquardt, Scott Phelps, and Barry Slabaugh—complain that although the full elder board is responsible for approving the church budget, they don’t actually have access to a detailed, line-item budget, and are not allowed to know MacDonald’s salary, expense accounts, or income from honorariums or book royalties. 

“When we asked for a line-item budget … we were denied and rebuked. And we were told that even making such a request could get you removed from the elder board,” Phelps told me, adding it reflected a larger problem of the elders having little input into decisions made by executive staff.

Budget details are important for the church, given its $56.8 million debt—the result of a 2005-2007 construction campaign that went awry and doubled in costs, and of a defaulted loan at the church’s campus in Crystal Lake, Ill. The church said it plans to pay off the debt by 2020. However, the church’s most recent financial statement indicates that total contributions dropped 14 percent between 2011 and 2012, to $45.4 million.

The rebukes have gotten worse for Phelps and Slabaugh, who had remained Harvest members after resigning from the board: In September, the remaining elders announced church discipline against the two men in a video played at Harvest’s seven campuses and posted to the church website for several days. In it, they censured and excommunicated Phelps and Slabaugh, apparently for their part in signing a letter, along with six other former elders, that was critical of James MacDonald. Harvest declined to comment when I asked for details about the excommunication.

The letter, sent to the Harvest elder board, has not been publicly released. But several of the former elders who signed it told me they want MacDonald to take a sabbatical from his position in order to focus on character and spiritual growth. They said they stand behind the integrity of Phelps and Slabaugh.

The present Harvest elder board dismisses the notion of a sabbatical. “Pastor James MacDonald is a man under the full authority of our elder board. We remain highly confident in his leadership,” Harvest elder Randy Williams told me in a statement he read over the phone. The church declined to arrange a phone interview with MacDonald.

In a sermon he preached in November 2012, MacDonald admitted he had struggled with verbal outbursts of anger that have damaged relationships. “I’m too intense, for sure. Can anyone honestly say that that completely shocks them?” he said, eliciting laughter. At the time he made efforts to reconcile broken relationships, at the request of the elder board. This September the current elders said they were “completely satisfied with Pastor James’ growth in grace.”

The church has also taken steps toward financial transparency, by posting financial statements and a debt reduction plan online. In late September, the church became accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Harvest has restructured its elder board twice in the past four years. The first change came in 2009 when the board transitioned from a model of about 8-10 men to a larger one that eventually grew to around 30 individuals. The second change occurred this year, around April, when the church created an “elder leadership team” consisting of about eight elders, including MacDonald and the assistant senior pastor. 

Marquardt, Phelps, and Slabaugh had complained the board rearrangement violated the church constitution. Asked about the elder leadership team, Harvest told me in a statement it had been functioning on a “trial” basis and would “likely be adopted permanently in some measure, including the needed change to our constitution.”

According to a proposed change to the church’s constitution that Harvest announced in September, the team will have “final authority in all matters relating to the church including compensation, buying or selling property and accountability of Senior Staff.”

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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