Harvest Bible Chapel: “Where Have the Elders Gone?”

Three weeks ago, on June 27th, I published an article under the title: Harvest Bible Chapel: Is Dissent the Same as Rebellion? Since that time, the article has amassed nearly 3000 “page views” with over 100 comments continuing to address all manner of differing concerns [Editor: Page views now over 5000.  Comment count now over 170.]. Amongst these concerns, however, appears to be a growing interest in the general whereabouts and circumstances related to the departure of several long-term and/or founding elders. Now, today, Twitter brings us this news from one-time elder, Gordon Zwirkoski, and Grace Community Bible Church, formerly known as Harvest Bible Chapel – Grayslake.

Click to enlarge.

As you can see from the tweet above, Gordon Zwirkoski, a man who “invested 20 years at Harvest Bible Chapel in RollingMeadows, Illinois as a small group leader, deacon, teacher and elder,”[1] had apparently been invited by Pastor Bryant (no relation) to preach at Grace Community Bible Church, which only months ago was kicked out of the Harvest Bible Fellowship. This, of course, raises several interesting questions.

Zwirkoski describes the church as “strong and sweet, faithful and true,” while at the same time describing Mike Bryant as a “faithful man both in season and out of season.” If that is the case, how is it that the current leadership of Harvest Bible Chapel saw fit to remove Mike Bryant and his church, especially when a former elder and co-founder of Harvest’s church planting ministry had such a radically different assessment of Pastor Bryant’s ministry?

Secondly, why is it that after 20 years in the Harvest system, Gordon Zwirkoski left Harvest Bible Chapel, only to launch a new church planting ministry less than 15 miles from Harvest? According to the fivestonechurches.org, Zwirkoski was directly responsible for overseeing 35 church plants and church renewals in his 8-year tenure as the co-founder and teacher-elder of the Harvest Bible Fellowship. So what would motivate a man to leave such a “successful” organization, only to attempt the arduous task of launching a start-up ministry dedicated to the same basic mission?

Finally, why did Zwirkoski leave Harvest during the same 2007-2010 season that also saw the departures of other prominent elders such as Chairman David Corning, Dr. Ronald Allchin, Joe Stowell, III (former President of Moody Bible Institute) and Joe Stowell, IV?

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27 Responses to Harvest Bible Chapel: “Where Have the Elders Gone?”

  1. Ex-Elder Bug says:

    Do you honestly not know? Is this a question of sincere inquiry, or a sorely needed finger-point at a church body in desperate need of assessing the direction in which its leaders are heading (no matter how many times or how sternly they might be chided for doing so or called rebellious and told to step back in line)? The honest answer is that the previous elder board was essentially systematically dismantled by James MacDonald himself after a number of meetings during which many of the church’s previous elders dared to question or address Harvest’s/James’ (then much smaller, albeit growing) existing problems. One such meeting even turned into a shouting match during which James loudly accosted the other men in attendance for not doing more (angrily asking one man in particular if he ever did more as an elder than pray for the congregation) and famously stormed out of the room after slamming his fist on the table around which everyone was seated and shouting defensively “I’m a damn good leader!” (This is no embellished legend, either, but rather a factual and verifiable account of actual events – ask any of the church’s previous elders directly if you doubt its veracity.) Not long afterward, a number of the elders began to dejectedly, voluntarily step down from their positions and/or leave the church altogether, and an additional number were “asked” (told) to follow suit. MacDonald then put in place for himself an elder board of younger, up-and-coming HBC men who were so flattered by their selection that they’d be slow to disagree with anything he wanted to do or see done, and that truth has played itself out with often disastrous and increasingly public consequences over the years since.
    Power is famous for its corrupting capacity, and in the ever unfolding story of Harvest Bible Chapel, the old adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely continues to prove itself true and will continue to do so until someone can say “no” to MacDonald and have it result in anything other than his or her immediate termination, excommunication, or “catapulting,” to quote James himself.

    *Please print the comment that I’ve written for you here (preferably without this disclaimer) despite my inability to provide you with my actual name or email information… you’d be more than a little frightened by the nature and kinds of reprisals of which Harvest has become capable.

  2. Peace in Storm says:

    We had attended and served Harvest for over 10 years and now find ourselves searching for a new church. This is an extremely difficult task for us because this is the only church our children have known. We know with trusting the Lord to help us navigate these muddy waters He will show us the church for our family. We have seen each one of these elders leave in our time there and other staffers as well. These are very big red flags to us. We have been on the fence for awhile hoping things get better but that has not happened. Some key executive staff has left even this summer as well. We will continue to pray for HBC and all that attend. I appreciate this blog very much. It has helped us to be more discerning and to know we are not alone.

    • Chris Cartney says:

      Who are the “key executive staff” that have left this summer? Did they leave on their own?

      • Peace in Storm says:

        Lyle Wells and Leo Klus both spoke of their departure at weekend services this spring, don’t know why. Both moving on with different jobs. Both were in Executive roles but for short durations.

        • justafollowerofChrist says:

          I believe I remember that day. Wasn’t it the same week that the story about Grayslake broke? If I am remembering correctly, James wanted to have a “Family Chat”. {A Family Chat is a poor excuse for a communication vehicle at HBC. It is verbal so that NOTHING IS IN WRITING. You can’t go back and check facts. Nobody even remembers what was said after a few days. Few questions, few issues to deal with.} ANYWAY, I was sure he was going to discuss Grayslake but instead these men were placed in the front of the church for a send-off and to sing the praises of James. I was astounded that no mention was made of Grayslake but we were saying goodbye to men I didn’t even know. I went up after church (as I often do) and spoke to an elder I didn’t know. I asked him why we would get this sort of info but nothing about Grayslake (or parting elders for that matter!). He actually said he wasn’t familiar with what was going on with Grayslake!!!

        • Stephy says:

          Leo Klus is back in Canada, still very involved with Harvest after a few years in Chicago. http://www.harvestlondon.ca/10194/article/article_id/295681/Leo-Klus-joining-Harvest-London-Staff He’ll be involved with HBF here as well so it may be a move that was intentionally planned as more training happens in Canada (as opposed to Canadian pastors and leaders travelling to the US for training). He’ll most likely be involved in that.

          I know this will be shocking to many of you, but most Canadians are very happy to be back on Canadian soil. In this case, this is where he started with Harvest and the Harvest London people were very sad to see him go to Chicago. I don’t see any conspiracies here. It is very possible that his role was not meant to be long-term. Or it may have been an immigration issue…Or maybe he just realized that Canada is where it’s at! 🙂

          Why do you have to assume the worst at all times? This truly feels like a tabloid….

  3. Jimmy says:

    Yea, Lyle and Leo. Go ask a staff member for the real story…you’ll never get it. Needless to say, they thought for themselves and are no longer employed there. Hmmm…yea, being critical of James is not so good for your employment status.

    • Stephy says:

      See my post above about Leo Klus. There’s nothing strange about a Canadian pastor heading back to the Harvest Bible Chapel where he came originally. We are very happy to have him back in Canada!! Don’t assume that leaving one church for another (in the same fellowship) means that there are problems. There is a lot of sharing of resources (including people) in the fellowship, and that’s a good thing.

  4. Ryan M. Mahoney says:
    • Chris Trees says:

      I wholly concur with Dr. Olson’s observations and comments, but would add a few of my own.

      First off, I believe that Dr. Olson, is accurate in identifying Pentacostal, fundamentalist and charismatic churches as prime breeding grounds for spiritual abuse, but I’d like to add a subcategory of “fundamentalist”, independent, mega-bible-churches. The founding pastors and elders of these organizations, frequently seem to maintain their autonomy by constituting self-perpetuating “elder governed” hierarchies that effectively rule-out any practical congregational ( or any other) oversight.

      While these governing bodies on the surface seem to be consistant with the biblical example of leadership being comprised of a “plurality of elders” and although they may assert that the elders are accountable to each other and should therefore be trusted, the sad fact is that when they act corporately, this “self accountability” becomes irrelevant. Corporate action without corporate accountability to another group is in practice no accountability at all. Left alone without accountability, these bodies will almost certainly, eventually be corrupted by their power.

      It’s appropriate to consider that when John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely” he was referencing Papal authority. In the cases of independent, “Bible” mega-churches, it would seem that the only difference is perhaps only one of scale.

      Next, I have become curious about the nature of men who would deliberately found churches where they would functionally be accountable to no one. For the past 60 or so years, there has been argument in the law enforcement community regarding what is described as the “police personality” i.e. authoritarian, assertive/aggressive behavior. Does the occupation tend to attract people with these personality traits, or does the occupation cause them?

      Could it be that similar questions could be considered regarding men who found these churches? For example, one pastor in particular, of which I am familiar, arguably displays most if not all of the common personality traits of a person with narcissistic personality disorder as listed in the DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)
      A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, lack of empathy, as indicated by at least five of the following:
      1. A grandiose sense of self-importance
      2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
      3. Believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
      4. Requires excessive admiration
      5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
      6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
      7. Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
      8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
      9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

      In this particular case, while the pastor is a member of an “elder board”, he is considered to be the “first among equals” and for the most part is even immune to meaningful accountability to his “peers”. The question then is, was this man already a nascent “narcissist” or did his prolonged use of unbounded autonomy result in his possible narcissisim?

      While I also concur that the best and perhaps the only practical response to finding oneself in a “toxic” church is to leave, perhaps the best preventive medicine is for people to recognize that any church organization that is constituted without any meaningful oversight and accountability, whether presbyterian or congregational in polity, is at the very least rife for developing into a “toxic church” and should possibly be avoided.

  5. Mike Sagan says:

    It sounds like there have been some good men serving as elders over the years. So how has this out of control, tantruming pastor been able to get away with such an abuse of his office? Doesn’t he report UP to the elders?

  6. Josh says:

    Scott,
    You obviously have major issues with Harvest which is certainly your right, but the psuedo-tabloid nature of this type article is beneath the theological sophistication you have showed in many of

    I don’t know the ‘inside’ story on all these things, but I do find 2 points worth throwing in the mix on these things.

    1. Gordon Zwirkoski’s employment obviously ended at Harvest (for reasons unknown) and he decided to take his expertise and launch his own ‘business’. That happens every day in virtually every industry in the world. The idea that he would join to someone already in his roledex now a ‘free agent’ is hardly surprising and not wrong. The only thing that is unclear is why that necessitates something being wrong with Harvest because of it.

    2. While this turnover is some kind of argument that there must be a problem, neither Rick Donald (pastor since the 1st year of the church) nor any of the campus pastors (including 10+ year serving people Learned, Donaldson, Smith) not other long term elders from the same era you describe (Ciofani, Shaw, Jones) have done anything but keep the course.

    3. For as much as you have made of these elder transitions and so called problems, not one of them Corning, any of the Stowells, Zwirkoski, Lyle Wells, Leo Klus, Corning, Allchin, has ever said one public word negatively about the church. Your logical trail is that some turnover must be evidence of a problem, but surely these well respected would speak out if something was seriously amiss. They seem willing to see things as a Barnabas v. Paul type issue (Corning Allchin Zwirkoski) or change in life stage/new opportunity (Stowells Klus Wells) Both Wells and Klus stood before the church this spring and spoke glowingly of their time at the church and their respect for the ministry.

    Have things changed a little? sure. Does everyone like change? no.

    The conspiracy part is a little confusing…

    • rainbowmn says:

      Oh my dear Josh,
      Many of us actually WERE around from before the first Harvest service – we know James intimately as a friend and fellow brother.

      It is so much worse than these blogs are letting on I can’t tell you. Rick Donald was a kid in the beginning of the church – a sweet kid, but a kid none the less. Harvest was his job. Rick wouldn’t swat a fly. He will be there until the end.

      All the early guys are gone. David Corning, the first elder, tremendous guy and last to leave finally this year was the biggest fallout – David took personally the charge from James, as he put it, “to protect the quarterback’ as the lead elder. His leaving James this year and going on the personal apology tour with many Harvest has spiritually abused over the last 2 decades is to David credit and James’ shame.

      This is a big deal, Josh. James’ recklessness is in a class by himself right now. Many of us who have known him and worked with him the last 24 years believed that time would season his gift and that he would mellow out, find his voice and settle into a wonderfully effective warrior for Christ.

      The opposite has happened. He has become drunk with his ability to influence and persuade, and has discovered along the way that he needs a certain type of audience to get away with that. He needs men who won’t challenge him and women who are willing to be bullied and spiritually abused.

      I am actually quite impressed with Scott’s treatment of this matter. He has not gone tabloid at all – believe me brother, if we shared all of our James stuff he would be gone tomorrow. Scott has been reserved and provided a conversation for people to discuss the very real problem that is James MacDonald.

      BTY – Corning, Allchin and Zwirkoski – you say

      “surely these well respected would speak out if something was seriously amiss. They seem willing to see things as a Barnabas v. Paul type issue”

      IF SOMETHING WAS SERIOUSLY AMISS? Are you serious?

      Dear friend, These three men that you mentioned have turned their back on James MacDonald, will have nothing to do with him. Root them out if you must and get their stories from their own mouths or do your homework on the hundreds of others who have fled or the thousands who have been spiritually abused.

    • Chris Cartney says:

      Hi Josh,

      I do agree with you that SWB has had some better posts in terms of his content and drawing the reader to a logical point. It seems that the topic of ‘missing elders at HBC’ was a topic of speculation for many, and for many an initial red flag about a deeper issues that have been nagging many for a lengthy period. This lack of communication about the lack of (former) elders coupled with the recent acquisition of Winnetka Bible Church Elders to seed the HBC NorthShore campus caused a bit more posts and interest. (Note: Why is the difference in proportion of elders to campus not proportional to the congregation of each campus or the history of each campus)

      This post is only a chapter in the ongoing turmoil that many of us who attend HBC are experiencing. If you have read the other related HBC posts on this site and the comments, you should know that it is NOT the position of many who attend or have left HBC “things have changed a little”.

      I don’t know any of the men personally that you referred to, but I do know that there was a falling out of sorts with JM involving (individually) Alchin, the Stowells including Matt, Jones, and I think Jodry. So I don’t think your point #3 is that easy going.

      I think your 2nd point is that some good men have stayed with HBC and JM. We pray for these men and others at HBC regularly. But the point of the ‘missing elders’ is about the larger number of elders and leaders that are no longer at or supporting HBC vs the few names that are on staff and remain.

      It’s not a ‘conspiracy’ theory, it’s a ‘common’ theme.

    • James Conway says:

      Greetings Josh. Healthy turnover of elders should be accompanied by a transparent send-off to the new work (or new season) that the Lord had for those men. With the same awareness that elders are installed, so should the awareness of their departure. As shepherds of the flock, it is important for them to shepherd well… that includes properly framing the truth of a situation such that God is honored and no foothold is given to the enemy or the flesh to engage in conjecture as to the circumstances surrounding an elder’s departure.

      When elder after elder slip out quietly “in the middle of the night” (metaphorically speaking), that is poor shepherding by the remaining elders (at best), or the indications of cause for concern.

      Regarding #3, the lack of official acknowledgment/statement by the HBC leadership regarding the departure of those elders has indeed contributed to the confusion regarding what is going on. To point to the silence of the men who left rather than the silence of the men who remain is to be distracted from the main point.

      • Chris Trees says:

        “A man’s pride is ever on his lips, but his shame cowers behind his teeth”
        ~Anonymous~

        Little ever occurs at HBC that isn’t considered, planned and scripted very carefully. Successes are highlighted and widely proclaimed, but failures or controversial decisions are normally hidden in silence and seldom shared.

        When nothing is said, then it’s pretty likely that the matter in question was not considered something to crow about.

    • CM says:

      You should get your head out of the sand.

  7. Chris Cartney says:

    Many of us have seen/are seeing a pitfall in belonging to a corporate type of church. There are elders and deacons and pastors that we know very little about personally or doctrinally. This lack of relationship also greatly muffles the communication lines and makes it difficult to approach a leader (elder, deacon, flock, small group) for clarity or concerns. I don’t believe compiling a list of questions will move to reconcile the issues that have been raised. There is a defensive posture and reply.

    (Regarding the comments by JM about who can and can not be heard) I have served at HBC for many years. I have tithed and contributed to campaigns and offerings. But, when I have had a conversation with a leader(s) in the past, the standard playbook answers are:

    1. “Do not question authority; trust your leader(s) because he is a visionary.”
    Many of us can be intimidated by the stature and status of JM, and that is enough to silence most. You can also read this in the comment section of those who defend JM and cite his life work as a point to excuse any errant choices or relationships. This implies that our leader is spiritually above us.

    2. “Do not think critically because you don’t know the whole story.”
    That is the excuse/reply as to why so many leaders in such a short period of time are no longer at HBC. I recognize that there are times when a leader must use discretion about details when it is to protect the person or body of Christ, BUT there have been too many conflicting accounts about so many different people and issues that it does not protect the body of Christ.

    3. “Person ‘X’ does not like the way the game is going and person ‘X’ takes his ball and goes home.”
    I have heard this one a few times to explain the departure of elders and leaders and former members. I think JM used this phrase in the meeting of men only to explain the ER2 aftermath of churches leaving HBF. Ironically, didn’t JM take his ball home when he left TGC?

    4. “Do not read or participate in commenting on blogs.”
    We have been told that bloggers are basically pathetic and thus have no credibility. We are told to pray for JM because he is being attacked. I think their bigger fear is that the pieces come together in the comments and blogs of this site. Isn’t it interesting that JM has a blog and twitter, and that the HBC website has links to other blogs and twitter accounts? Leaders at HBC read the comments and even comment on this and other sites.

    5.(a) “No church is perfect.”
    Of course not. And no person is perfect. But that does not provide an excuse for someone NOT to live above reproach, or NOT to have accountability, or NOT have a teachable attitude.

    and
    5.(b) “HBC is not for you.”
    Many have served and tithed and worshiped and raised families at HBC for years. But if there is an expression of dissent, then there is an expression of the ultimate in passive aggression.

    These standard answers can also be confirmed in the “catapult” video and the Sunday night talk that was delivered to men only. If you chose to approach one of the remaining or new elders, my advice is that you pray and be ready. But i doubt you will get any other reply.

    • followerofchrist says:

      Yes, good old 5b. When my questions were too penetrating, Dave Corning said “Maybe this isn’t the church for you” and I couldn’t believe I was being told to take my family and go after so many years. (Oh how I cried!) “Isn’t this MY church too?” I asked. How many of us have heard these words?????

  8. Chris Cartney says:

    SWB, when you write that “nearly 3000 page views” have been amassed, does that indicate nearly 3000 different people, or nearly 3000 times the blog post or site was opened? Sorry for my ignorance about this.

  9. rainbowmn says:

    so.
    what do we do about it?
    how do we include the actual real people who are involved with Harvest still today in this discussion?

    until we do, this exercise is meaningless.

  10. popesicle says:

    A quick word to the wise, everyone. Some of you seem to be under the impression that this is sort of a ‘tabloid’, a quick jab at Harvest for jabbiness’ sake. I’d suggest that instead Mr. Bryant is instead trying to foster discussion and discernment. Although I don’t mean to demean Scott or his writing, I’d say the article in of itself is insufficient. The whole point is to get people talking amongst each other, sharing stories, learning from each other, and perhaps understanding Harvest Bible Chapel in a better light. Seeing the comments on this post and on the ‘Rebellion’ post, I’d say he has succeeded.

    All that said, I’d just like to point out that, from another perspective, it’s very easy to dismiss this all as pointless, conspiratorial mutterings. Whatever you say, make sure you say it out of love for Christ and his people.

  11. rainbowmn says:

    Popesicle,

    With all due respect, many of the comments on this blog come from people who have been quite involved inside Harvest since James was called as its pastor. There is no joy here – many of us lived in silence for more than a decade about what has gone on. We have hoped and prayed that James would find his way.

    He has reached a tipping point where the silence – which James is now publicly demanding regarding reaction to his leadership – must be broken.

    No jabs here. The Harvest body must understand what has been hidden from them and the false teaching they have absorbed which now clouds their thinking.

  12. Sick & Tired says:

    Notice how all the commenters who “know James” or been “around Harvest” for along time hide behind anonymous User names?

    RainbowMN

    Who are you? Let’s get it in the open. If you really want to see change…I mean REALLY, then get on the record, with your real name and push the process forward.

    Unfortunately, you’re gutless and will remain hiding behind anonymity like a clanging symbol.

    This thread is straight gossip. It dishonorable the Gospel…it dishonors THE LORD.

    Read Exodus 14:14.

    I pray that those with legitimate concerns will be silent and have faith in a sovereign God. for those that love their sin…I have faith that God will deal with you himself.

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