In recent days, I received an email from a trusted source who wishes to remain anonymous at this time. The email in question, which contained a rather telling account of a 2010 meeting amongst Harvest Bible Fellowship senior pastors, directly relates to many of the concerns that have been raised, both by this blog and by others as well. Nevertheless, because of the nature of the material enclosed, I took it upon myself to confirm the details of the account with three separate sources. All three men were present at the meeting and all three men confirmed the validity of the account you are about to read. [Editor: Subsequent to the initial post, another individual stepped forward to confirm the veracity of the account in question. This brings the total to four men testifying to the truth of the following email.]
“In the summer of 2010 [Editor: one account suggests that this meeting may have occurred in the Fall of 2009], every Senior Pastor of an HBF church was invited to come to Chicago and help James story-board his newest book, Vertical Church. There were approximately 30 HBF pastors in attendance.
The HBF pastors were invited to James’ home for pizza and fellowship one evening. The pastors gathered outside James’ Inverness home around his pool for a Q & A time with James. The matter of elders and leadership in the church became the topic of conversation.
One of the pastors asked James something along the lines of, “James, you have always taught us to keep a small, nimble elder board that can respond quickly to opportunities as they arise. You have recently told us that you are significantly increasing the size of your Elder board. Would you please explain to us why you have done this, especially since it is seems to be a change from what you’ve been saying all these years?”
James then proceeded to give his explanation. He said that he had learned many things over the years about elders and leadership in the church, wishing he had learned these lessons years ago. He went on to reveal his opinions about leadership and power in the church, and in particular, who controls the church.
He continued by saying that the elders and the senior pastor share a pie, representing authority and influence in the church. He explained that the senior pastor, by virtue of his calling, gifting, and role in the church, ought to possess, right off the bat, 50% of this pie. The pastor controls the pulpit, is the most vocal member of the elder board, and also has the most on the line as the primary leader of the church. He said that this leaves 50% of the pie to be divided by the remaining elders.
Here is where it became more disturbing. James said that Harvest had grown so much that he had come to realize a small group of elders can’t handle this responsibility anymore. James continued, saying that in order to protect Harvest from an elder who goes “sideways,” doing great damage to our body, he needed to lessen the elder’s influence. He stated that the way he was going to lessen the influence of the Harvest Elder Board was to increase the size of the Elder board, thus giving each member of the board a smaller piece of the pie.
At that point, one pastor decided to brave a question. Senior Pastor “John Doe” of Harvest Bible Chapel – “Generic Location”, asked a question along these lines, “But James, this is so different than what you’ve always taught us. This is a profound change. Do you realize what you are saying to us here? Senior pastors need accountability and dividing up the power makes it more difficult for them to hold us accountable.”
James began to dress down John Doe in front of all of the HBF pastors in attendance. He retorted to John that he would eventually have an elder go “sideways” on him in the future, and that John would come back to James, admitting that James was right.
John and James continued to go back and forth for another minute or two. Eventually, James was quite angry and yelled at John, telling him he had no idea what he was saying! James continued by saying that he had great relationships with his elders, but they can go “sideways” on you. Sadly, he never took into account the greater damage that takes place when the main, lead, senior, 50%-of-the-pie-elder goes “sideways.”
Later that same year, during Harvest University, [MacDonald] met with all the senior pastors and their wives during the annual dinner. At that time, James addressed them regarding a number of issues, but one issue stood out in particular: his vision for the new direction of Harvest and Harvest church plants. He stated that HBF had been a movement of Pastors and Elders, but HBF was going to change. Going forward, HBF was to become a movement of senior pastors. He further added that they needed elders, but the elders will never understand “our” role and the tremendous weight that is on pastors. I wonder if his current elder board is even aware of their “true” role as defined by MacDonald.”
This story, as reported to me, speaks to the very heart of many of the concerns raised in the aftermath of the Elephant Room 2. As you may recall from my earlier post, there has been a standing question regarding the authority and the influence of the Harvest elder board. If this email and the witness of these three men is to be believed, than it would appear that MacDonald has intentionally structured the current elder board in such a way as to minimize their ability to effectively govern and assert control over the direction of the church.
Furthermore, tying back to my previous post, Where Have the Elders Gone?, this email and the testimony of these men also raise questions as to whether this “restructuring” of the elder board played a significant role in the departures of Chairman David Corning, Dr. Ron Allchin, Dr. Joseph Stowell III, Joseph Stowell IV, and Sam Jindoyan. Did these men leave because their role was being intentionally diminished and direct accountability was being lessened?
Finally, if this email accurately captures the essence of the 2010 meeting amongst the senior pastors of the Harvest Bible Fellowship, several other questions must be asked:
- Are the present elders in agreement that by swelling their numbers and diminishing their individual influence, the congregation can be protected from an elder that might potentially go “sideways?”
- If the Senior Pastor is allowed to possess 50% of the pie, what structures are in place to prevent him from going “sideways?” At best, an utterly unified board in opposition to a decision made by MacDonald could only result in a deadlocked vote.
- Under this arrangement, should any paid member of the Harvest staff be allowed to serve as an elder in the church? After all, if MacDonald serves as staff member’s boss and their livelihoods are directly tied to their job performance, how can they be expected to challenge him as an elder without either real or imagined fear of economic reprisal?
- Have any changes been made to the governing documents and/or constitution of Harvest Bible Chapel? Furthermore, are attendees of HBC allowed to see both the current constitution and the original document side by side?
Ultimately, these are the reasons that this blog continues to raise questions regarding Harvest Bible Chapel and the ministry of James MacDonald. In the eyes of many, including this author, something went seriously amiss with the execution of the Elephant Room 2. And as we seek to understand how this happened and how decisions are being made at this massively influential church, we desperately need to hear from the elders, both past and present. How is Harvest presently structured compared to how it was formerly structured? Who is ultimately responsible for making these decisions? Where does the true power lie? And finally, does James MacDonald possess too much power with too little accountability?
Unfortunately, as has been the case thus far, we may not publicly hear from the man we are most anxious to hear speak. For even as MacDonald prepares to embark on a two-month, 40-city tour to promote his new vision for how we should do church, he has published a post on his own personal blog in which he has argued that “every question does not need an answer.” And with that, he seems to have spoken his final word on the subject.
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Additional Resources on this subject can be found at:
 The email I received did contain the Senior Pastor’s name and the name of the Harvest Fellowship Church. Nevertheless, I have elected to omit these references and have used the name “John Doe” in their place.