James MacDonald to Take Sabbatical to Focus on Peacemaking

Last night, several sources told me that James MacDonald had resigned. I asked church spokeswoman Sherri Smith about those reports and she responded that MacDonald had not resigned.

However, MacDonald was about to make a change.

This morning Harvest Bible Chapel posted the following Elder Update:

Dear Harvest Family,

We have tried a variety of different strategies to address external criticisms over the past several years. It has become apparent that these efforts have failed to fully identify and address our personal failures, sins, and errors in leadership, thus perpetuating a continuation of the criticism. In prayerful reflection upon all that has happened and how we got here, a private meeting of the Executive Committee of the Elders on Monday, January 14, led to the decision to be part of a peacemaking process that seeks both reconciliation and change where needed, which was reviewed by the entire Elder Board last night.

We are reminded of these biblical imperatives:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’” Matthew 7:3-5

In an effort to invite others to join us, we are working with two highly respected ministries (modeled after “The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Conflict,” though not directly aligned with the organization of that name) that specialize in helping churches resolve issues in God-honoring ways. The peacemaking process will include:

    • The selection of a team of experienced and highly respected conciliators and organizational consultants who will guide us through an objective and comprehensive review process.
    • Reaching out to individuals who have left our fellowship or have complaints against us, listening carefully to their insights and correction, and asking God to enable us to confess our sins and make needed changes in our leadership.
    • Thoroughly examining our church’s organizational, financial, management, and leadership policies and practices, and making whatever changes are necessary to ensure that every area is being managed according to professional best practices and in a way that honors God.

While we had hoped that successful audits and re-examined/confirmed ECFA compliance would help heal some relational wounds, it simply hasn’t happened. As part of the peacemaking process, Pastor James is taking an indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership at our church in Chicago. He has recused himself fully from any direction of this peacemaking process, other than to participate when and how requested. He may continue preaching at Harvest Naples through some of the winter months and will be on sabbatical, pending the completion of the reconciliation process and a full report to the congregation. Please be in prayer for Pastor James and Kathy through this season.

We are asking the Lord to lead us as we engage in this peacemaking process. The Lead/Campus Pastors will continue to lead the day-to-day ministry of the church, and we ask for your support as they do so. Campus Pastors will be present and available during normal Wednesday ministry tonight on all campuses.

– The Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel


From Pastor James:
For a long time I have felt unequal to all but the preaching task at Harvest. I have battled cycles of injustice, hurt anger, and fear which have wounded others without cause.

I have carried great shame about this pattern in certain relationships that can only be called sin. I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve. I blame only myself for this and want to devote my entire energy to understanding and addressing these recurring patterns.

I have long known and taught it is not about the messenger, it is about the message and I am grateful for a time of extended sabbatical, during which Harvest will be in capable hands. I may continue preaching at the Naples Campus through some of the winter season and have postponed all writing and leadership to begin in earnest now. I will continue this focus as long as it takes and participate wholeheartedly as requested in the process shared above. 

Please pray that this welcomed time of sabbatical rest will lead to needed changes in me and a fresh opportunity to reconcile with others in God’s time.

Christ is all He promised to be and more… “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me by still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3). Please pray for me and Kathy as we step away from the work, so God can do all He wants to do in the worker.

HBC and MacDonald recently dropped a defamation suit against two bloggers, their wives and journalist Julie Roys. The church and founding pastor have been under pressure amid allegations of financial mismanagement, lack of transparency, and authoritarian leadership style.

MacDonald’s move is reminiscent of Mark Driscoll’s sabbatical before he resigned as pastor at Mars Hill Church in 2014. As noted in a previous post, the path of HBC and MacDonald seems similar to Mars Hill and Driscoll’s. Throughout 2014, Mars Hill tried many things to address criticism without success. Focusing on Driscoll, the ex-members and ex-elders became increasingly vocal and public. The same thing is happening now with HBC.

One hopes that HBC can review the Mars Hill timeline and demise with an eye toward learning something of value. If history repeats itself, the multi-site HBC may splinter into local churches as did Mars Hill. Sources have told me that such an outcome has been discussed by HBC leaders.

Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48825134

21 thoughts on “James MacDonald to Take Sabbatical to Focus on Peacemaking”

  1. As with most things, it’ll be about the money.

    if the MHC story is any lesson, the question will be this:

    1. Does James get to keep control of the narrative. Driscoll gave up Twitter and other social media to appease big donors and senior leaders, which meant that when the narrative turned against him he couldn’t respond.

    2. While on “sabbatical”, is James still the guy in charge?

    3. Where’s the money? MHC wasn’t sustainable as an organization because they had overextended with high overhead relative to income. This is why campuses were able to sustain as independent churches because they didn’t have to maintain the costs of the central office and constant expansion.

    If HBC is documented to have a high debt, but to my knowledge no one know their reserves, so they may be able to whether the storm. James also hasn’t had as high of a profile since the heady days of the Elephant room and TGC leadership, so the target outside of Chicago, might not be as big as it was for Driscoll in 2014.

    4. How long the board will continue to act in preservation of the leader vs. preservation of the organization. In MHC’s case, the board and the leader were pretty much the same thing. In the Willow Creek case, the board eventually made the shift but was slow in doing so, far too slow.

  2. Unfortunately, looks like another bungled response. If going to be a time of reflection, then stay out of preaching and take time to reflect. GO silent for awhile. Take time to give evidence to true deeds of repentance. I continue to be more and more disappointed with response of leaders of HBC and JMD. Just read one of the links to the Instagram. Naples leadership is excited about this?! The skeptic in me looks at that and thinks the Naples leadership has little voice in all of this. So he had already been planning to be in Naples, FL before taking his “Sabbatical”? If that time line is correct, that is just another spin on the whole thing — so sad, especially when church leadership needs to be attempting to rebuild trust rather than spin events.

  3. If the leadership of Harvest were genuinely interested in making things right, wouldn’t they be listening to those who have been injured and asking them what they need, not imposing a ‘peacemaking ministry’ of their own choice on those damaged by the church? The authors of The Elephant’s Debt have made it perfectly clear what they consider necessary as the first step towards authentic reconciliation.

    1. If they have any integrity, they should need the injured, the bloggers, or Julie Roys right now to tell them again what to repent of. They have demonstrated a history of lying, dishonest use of finances, narrative manipulation, intimidating and crushing people who try to bring James’ sin to him or the church. Their statement yesterday could have included a repenting of those things, plus a promise to listen to people.

      Let’s say I committed five wrongs. I own up to 3, deny one of them, and admit to a softened version of the fifth wrong, then I’m not really repenting. I’m still trying to save face. I still worry that, after the elder statement yesterday, that we could still get this scenario.

  4. “As part of the peacemaking process, Pastor James is taking an indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership at our church in Chicago”.

    This is an outright LIE and as long as Harvest Bible Chapel continues to tell such lies, no one should continue giving them monies to support their dishonest maneuverings. HBC is employing Gateway’s Crisis Manager, Lawrence Swicegood, to help with the spin so this lack of honesty should not be surprising.

    Let us look at the facts and the timing of what has actually happened:

    January 7, 2018: HBC Rolling Meadows Associate Youth Pastor Paxton Singer was fired for sexually abusing what appears to have been at least 3 students. See excellent time-line provided by @ex_harvest here https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dcmHMG50S-XIyBTGIrUP56Y60afIAtLtWBJKpXB_qdE/edit

    Ps Paxton started at HBC as an intern. He worked as an overnight counselor at Camp Harvest where small group sessions are held in the bedrooms of campers with counselors often on the beds. Ps Paxton also worked during this time as an assistant boys basketball coach at HBC’s school, Harvest Christian Academy. Paxton is rumored to have been dating HBC CEO Scott Milholland’s daughter and one of the HCA grooming victims is rumored to have been a HBC elder’s child. Paxton’s boss was head of youth, Ps Landon MacDonald, James’ youngest son. Landon is the mandatory reporter in this situation.Paxton was the Homecoming King at Wesleyan University in 2016,and he was highly favored by Landon. HBC had a lot of reasons for wanting this Paxton abuse to simply go away.

    HBC claims to have made reports to DCFS but refuses to provide proof, such as the mandatory letter provided by DCFS saying there will be an investigation or that no investigation is deemed necessary at this time. Every party filing a complaint receives one of these two letters. Why can’t HBC produce this? Five months later a tipster contacted DCFS about Paxton and a case file was finally opened.

    February 2018: Julie Roys begins actively investigating a series of complaints about HBC, including the Paxton Singer sexual abuse and lack of arrest.

    March 2018: HBC decides that they suddenly need to acquire a new church in SW Florida and that this church MUST be fully operational by January 2019. HBC fails to give any reason why they need the church fully operational by the beginning of the January. Their claim in pursuing the SW Florida satellite campus is that they want to provide a church for HBC retirees to attend. HBC has zero out of state campuses at this point in time.This is not how any churches are planted.

    Summer 2018: HBC tries to acquire two different buildings in Ft Meyers but they are unsuccessful. HBC has a terrible relationship with their bank, the ECCU, and in August 2018 they sued them. http://thewartburgwatch.com/tww2/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/HBC-Complaint.pdf Not surprisingly, HBC wasn’t able to close any deals to obtain their own building in Florida in time to move in and be fully operational by their self-imposed deadline of early January 2019.

    August 2018: HBC reaches an agreement to acquire HBC Naples which is a small church that was planted by HBF in January 2017, shortly before HBF’s dissolution in June 2017. HBC Naples had already arranged to rent a new church building from a wealthy owner for $10 yr for 3 years. The building is small and ill-suited for use. The sanctuary only holds about 200 people and is only about 1/2 of the relatively small square footage, but it’s in Southwest FL and provides the necessary escape pod criteria established in March by HBC after HBC became aware of the Roys’ investigation. HBC owes over $40M in debt to their small Christian lender. They have no business buying an expansion campus just so they can hide out an embarrassed head pastor, while that debt remains unpaid.

    September 2018: The Naples acquisition is announced to both HBC IL and HBC Naples. Trei Tatum, Exec Ps of Stewardship and Operations notes that there are ZERO HBC retirees in Naples at that time, so HBC’s stated reason for buying the Naples property for existing HBC retirees is a lie. https://vimeo.com/309294898 Even if they had any retirees, this campus was 100% superfluous as Naples already HAD the HBC Naples church fully in place for two years and that church already had the HBC DNA via HBF. HBC buying this campus benefited not one single person outside of James MacDonald and his chosen elite staff who are now vacationing at HBC tither’s expense. Not one.

    Late September 2018: James MacDonald begins the Closer Campaign fund-raising sermon series. James claims he has only done fund-raising sermon series 2 or 3 times in 30 years. But here he is, stumping hard for loads of new money knowing the clock is ticking on Julie Roys’ investigation. Much of the money being raised is for major improvements to the three campuses which are privately owned by friends of HBC, in private LLCs (estbl in 2015 Deerfield and 2016 Aurora) Allegedly, former CFO Fred Adams and HBC member Jay Silvestri are major investors in these LLCs (exact list of LLC members is fully concealed from all HBC members) http://churchbuildingministry.org/who-we-are/

    All of the funds used to renovate and make major expansions to those campuses, paid for by HBC members thru the Closer Campaign, will directly inure to the benefit of the LLC owners. HBC retains ZERO equity from all these permanent tenant improvements and mortgage/rental payments paid for by tithers. HBC is dishonestly concealing this from their members.

    Sept 16, 2018: HBC Naples announces to their members that James will be living in Naples and preaching at HBC Naples from January through March 2019. This is announced again on December 12th

    October 16, 2018: HBC files the lawsuit against Julie Roys,The Elephant’s Debt authors, and rather maliciously naming the author’s wives as well, just to wreck their family holidays .Insiders have all said that HBC knew from day one that this suit could not be won. It was not filed with the intention of ever prevailing let alone getting to the finish line. James only needed to delay the publishing of the World story long enough to collect as much money as possible via the Closer First Fruits offering and end of the year giving so he could use that money to get out of town.

    The lawsuit did that. It delayed the publishing of the first Roys’ story until mid-December. James had already started moving to Naples the week before, when he flew out to Naples the first week of December. The lawsuit was nothing more than a distraction and a delay tactic, and it worked.

    October 17, 2018: The day after the lawsuit is filed, the Kane County State’s Attorneys’ Office charges Paxton Singer with sexual abuse of a minor and he turns himself in to the Kane County jail.The story is carried in the local news.

    Late-October 2018: It is internally announced at HBC that James MacDonald will be bugging out to Naples from January through March 2019. It is announced to staff that he will be preaching at the Naples campus and working on his latest book.

    Nov-Dec 2018: Closer Campaign sermon series continues. This sermon series is extremely manipulative. It is based on the premise that we are living in the final days of End Times. The promo video even shows the Bride of Christ preparing for the wedding feast complete with earthquakes. The wedding feast btw comes after 5/6 of the planet’s population dies gruesome deaths with blood flowing five feet high in rivers. James and Luke MacDonald both preach that members won’t be needing their worldly wealth for much longer, so fork it over while there’s still time. Both also use scripture to say if you renege on your Closer pledge, God will CURSE you and your family, and those curses will be bad. Very bad.

    1st week of Dec 2018: Kathy and James fly out to Naples and start moving into the $1.2M country club home that HBC is renting for them. James preaches his first sermon at HBC Naples on December 7th at a big Naples WITW event.

    Dec 2018: Harvest is pushing the year-end giving hard. They raise over $7M just in December and James says that breaks a record for the most given in a single month in the last 30 years. Nearly $3M of that money is for the Closer Campaign.

    Late-Dec 2018: In this video made and sent out in late Dec James is sitting in the office of his new Naples rental home. He fails to mention that he is in his new home in Naples or that he moved there a few weeks earlier.

    January 16, 2018: HBC makes the absurd announcement that “As part of the peacemaking process, Pastor James is taking an indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership at our church in Chicago.” There is no such thing as a January “James will be sent to Naples as a gesture of reconciliation”. James has BEEN in Naples since early December and it was planned since March 2018, a month after Roys’ investigation began!

    James’ bff Jay Silvestri, the man former CFO Fred Adams set up those sweet LLC deals with (while Fred was still CFO), bought a $1.6M mansion in Naples in October 2018 to get ready for him and James to party non-stop starting in December.
    So as of December 2018, James has a 8,900 finished sq ft mansion with a 10 car garage with nearly $30k of cabinetry just in the garage. The church built a $1M summer home for his use in MI. Then they built him a $2M private hunting lodge in MI stocked with privately bred Trophy Whitetail Deer. And now they have added a $1.2M winter home rental while James is busy building a new winter home mansion. That is the final indicator that going way back in 2018, James intended to make Naples his new home, to escape criticism and scorn.

    January 2018: James announced that he was leaving the broadcast industry with his WITW radio program and TV show. He claims it was to go digital. But did HBC members notice that the new digital property now exists under jamesmacdonald.com ? Do they really believe that James is letting HBC borrow that domain name? James learned from his buddy Mark Driscoll that before you launch off on your own, you need to put all of your sermons into your own name in order to convert them to future personal revenue streams.

    Furthermore, when James announced that he was bagging his TBN show in Janauary, HBC had an account receivable for $5.1M in unused prepaid broadcasting time. HBC Elders have been completely silent as to where this $5M will go? Why keep that a secret? Within one month James raised over $7M in cash, plus over $5M in a receivable that can be flipped. What will HBC be doing with this $12M windfall? Why are the Elders being so tight-lipped about this?

    Why is it that NONE of the Closer Campaign’s 12 initiatives have ANY dollar amount attached to them? http://www.harvestcloser.org/ Leopardo provides cost estimates on all improvement projects. That’s SOP. Does HBC even remotely need the $29M in pledges that they just received? It is hard to believe that these improvements will be that much? Why keep tithers in the dark? What is HBC really planning to do with this money? If you listened to the sermons, James and Luke were careful to say that all Closer funds would be used for ” expanding God’s Kingdom” a term used by Swicegood at Gateway so that capital funds can be used to supplant general funds.

    There is also a rumor that James is currently trying to negotiate a large golden parachute agreement for him and his two sons. James allegedly wants to split up the 8 campuses. He will keep Naples. Son Luke will get Rolling Meadows, which still has about $10M in debt on it. But it is also the main campus and is the HQ. They have a very solid donor base. Landon is slated to get Crystal Lake. It’s a much smaller campus but it only has $2M of debt on it. Elgin is slated to go to Jeff Donaldson, Luke’s close personal friend. Elgin has the most debt on it at $27M, but it is also a gorgeous campus, it’s where HCA is located and has a very large donor base. No word on who will get the other campuses. Niles has $2M debt on it, as does Camp Harvest.

    The debt is currently all cross-collateralized so it will require extinguishing the existing debt and replacing it with new debt. With the loss of James as the IL rainmaker, who knows if that can even happen? That is why allegedly Mark Waltz has been brought in to do the succession planning.

    If James had been studying abusive and corrupt megas more carefully, he would have used his HBC funds to set his sons up in massively wealthy HBC independent plants. That way any fall of the head pastor won’t take any assets out of the kids’ greedy little nepotistic hands. That’s what Robert Morris is doing.

    So why BOTHER with this fake announcement? James has been planning since March to move to Naples and physically moved in early December? Apparently, inside sources have said that a former high-ranking executive has said if James does not step down, he will speak up. As bad as the news has already been, it is nothing compared to some of the things that I have heard that have yet to come out and I know I’m not hearing all of it.

    HBC needed to silence this former high ranking whistle-blower. So with a little creative posturing Lawrence Swicegood took James’ high paid winter vacation and has rebranded it as an exile/sabbatical. Look at how contrite James is? HBC is paying through the teeth on this as well. Kathy MacDonald just took her Instagram and FB private, but up until recently she was posting pictures of herself and staff members of HBC IL living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, dining in private cabanas and eating at the finest restaurants and enjoying the local attractions, including James’ very attractive administrative assistant.

    That is what HBC members’ largest month of giving funds are being used for. Not just James and Kathy’s winter vacation home, but high-end vacations for other HBC elite staff members to get out of the ice and snow. I hope that every single week those runny nosed HBCers scraping ice off their windshields think about how they are funding this luxury Florida vacation and calling it “the work of God’s Kingdom”. It’s not God’s Kingdom they are funding. It is the MacDonald’s Kingdom and the way James is investing in high end posh 7 figure mansions it doesn’t look like he really believes that he is living anywhere near the End Times. James does not have any intention of returning and it’s not because some Elders finally grew some gonads. James has been puppet-mastering this escape pod/ fake act of high-end 70 degree suntanned contrition, for at least the last 9 months.

    I hope people wake up. James is using millions and millions of donation dollars for his own personal enrichment. Developing this extremely high-end Naples escape pod was designed for him to escape the scrutiny and criticism when and if KCSAO ever does the right thing and makes an arrest for the non-reporting of sex crimes against minors and when and if the James’ other very bad acts come out in the press.

    1. See above. It’s long, but it’s a detailed narrative of how this entire PR stunt is a big fat lie. It also explains why they felt the need to tell such an elaborate lie. The HBC offices have been in chaos this week, because James is trying to spin off Naples permanently to keep for himself. While it may sound like a nothing-burger, there is more to the story.

    2. See above. It’s long, but it’s a detailed narrative of how this entire PR stunt is a big fat lie. It also explains why they felt the need to tell such an elaborate lie. The HBC offices have been in chaos this week, because James is trying to spin off Naples permanently to keep for himself. While it may sound like a nothing-burger, there is more to the story.

    3. Also, how convenient that the new location for HBC is also the first in prime snowbird country.

      Is it too cynical of me to speculate on how that decision making went?

      Vertical Church Committee Chair: We’re here today to discuss the location for planting our next HBC church and campus. Any ideas?
      James MacDonald: How about Naples, Florida
      VCCC: Hmm. Naples, Florida… wait… what? That’s over 1,000 miles away from any of our other locations.
      JMD: I hear it’s very nice there.
      VCCC: I’m sure it is, but what about that hub and spoke model you’ve always preached about?
      JMD: (shrug) Time for a new hub, then.
      VCCC: But Naples is over 100 miles from anywhere. If we need a new hub in Florida, it should be in Orlando.
      JMD: Nah, never liked Orlando. Too many tourists. Naples is the place.
      VCCC: (sigh) All right, as you wish. So we need to train up a new pastor.
      JMD: Yeah — usual process will be good, although…
      VCCC: Yeah…?
      JMD: If it would help, I can spend a few months every year down there, say, January to March, to help build up the congregation.
      VCCC: In the winter…
      JMD: Yeah.
      VCCC: When it’s 20 below in Chicago…
      JMD: Sure.
      VCCC: And 70 degrees in south Florida
      JMD: Is it? I haven’t checked.
      VCCC: Hmm. We would need an extra house for you…
      JMD: I’ve already looked into that. Plenty of 5,000 sq ft properties available. Nothing too extravagant, of course.
      VCCC: Of course… Country club? beach front?
      JMD: (shrug) I’m sure you’ll come up with something suitable for my needs…
      VCCC: Okay…
      JMD: So that’s settled. Now, any other business…

    4. Here’s a screenshot of the IG Harvest Bible Chapel Naples post from Sept 2018 announcing James MacDonald would be in residence January to March of EACH YEAR! Naples is by far the most wealthy area of Southwest Florida.

      We have many branches of mega churches down here in Southwest Florida. I think they gravitate to our area vs the Tampa Bay area or Orlando because we have a lot more retirees here with some wealth put away and they are probably more gullible.

      Edit: I could not get the image upload, will try again later

  5. Wiki:
    Sabbatical or (from Hebrew: shabbat (שבת) (i.e., Sabbath), in Latin: sabbaticus, in Greek: sabbatikos (σαββατικός), is a rest or break from work.

    The original concept comes from the OT, no sowing or reaping the fields. the seventh year. While giving the land a rest, it was also about trusting God.

    On January 5th the Naples Harvest Bible Chapel posted this: https://www.instagram.com/p/BsRbzUogtD0/


    January 8th, someone at the Naples Church posted that MacDonald had started preaching there, and was all excited.

    The Elders came out with their statement January 17th.


    1. How can I make myself look humble and contrite by saying I’m adjusting my schedule and duties without actually changing my schedule or duties? How can I avoid confrontations while feigning humility? Thank the Lord for Naples!

  6. Unsurprising.

    He will likely announce an ‘unfortunate peaceful separation’ and then start up a new church with millions of dollars he stole from HBC and do it all over again.

    1. If he doesn’t eventually announce “God is calling me and my family to Tampa” permanently, Scottsdale is always open to more predatory, abusive, unrepentant pastors.

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