More Turnover at Harvest Bible Chapel?

Image: James MacDonald

UPDATE: As I reported yesterday, Chief Operating Officer of Harvest Bible Chapel Scott Milholland has resigned. His resignation letter was posted earlier today on the HBC website.

Illinois multisite megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel and pastor James MacDonald have been in the public eye over a defamation lawsuit filed against bloggers and their wives (see also this article from RNS for which I was interviewed). The suit also targets journalist Julie Roys who is about to publish an article in World on HBC. The legal action appeared to be designed to frighten the bloggers and intimidate World magazine into pulling the plug on the article.

The past year has been tumultuous for the church with turnover in various aspects of the gigantic religious business. In June 2017, MacDonald stepped down from the church planting arm of Harvest Bible Chapel (now called Vertical Church). Then at the end of 2017, three more executive resignations were announced.

Most recently, according to multiple sources, Scott Milholland has resigned. Milholland was the Senior Executive Pastor at HBC. Calls to the communications staff of the church were not returned.


Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Elephant's Debt is Back

HBC logoThe Elephant’s Debt is back.
I surmise that this news is not welcome in Elgin, IL at the HQ of the Harvest Bible Chapel empire led by James MacDonald. Read the first two paragraphs of TED’s executive summary:

Executive Summary

The Elephant’s Debt is a website dedicated to exposing some of the underlying reasons why many people have both privately and publicly questioned the character of Pastor James MacDonald and his lack of qualifications for being an elder and pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel of Rolling Meadows, Illinois.
By the close of 2010, Harvest’s balance sheet revealed that the church, while under the pastoral leadership of James MacDonald, had amassed approximately $65 million of debt, and in the midst of addressing the issues raised by this website, HBC Elders informed the congregation that the debt had been as high as $70 million.  While this number in and of itself is shocking, what makes it worse is that some elders and much of the congregation had no knowledge of the extent of the debt.  The rapid expansion of MacDonald’s ministry, for reasons of ego as much as concern for the Kingdom, was the cause for the sudden and surprising accumulation of debt.  The point in raising the surprisingly accumulation of debt is not to question the current financial stability of the institution, but it is put forth as an example of the underlying character issues of MacDonald that many people are now expressing publicly.

So what brought the folks at TED back? Read this post about the “resignation” (forced removal?) of James MacDonald as president of the mission arm of HBC – Harvest Bible Fellowship.  I had this news out first but TED is the leader when it comes to Harvest Bible Chapel so check out the analysis of the current situation.
MacDonald was once a member of Mark Driscoll’s Board of Advisors and Accountability as well as a member of Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board. To his credit, he left Trump’s board when it became clear the board wasn’t getting anywhere. He left Driscoll’s board when the heat got hot at Mars Hill Church.
Stay tuned…
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What's Going on at Harvest Bible Fellowship? James MacDonald Resigns as President of HBF

UPDATE (6/15/17): I have informed by multiple sources that the pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, James MacDonalds, wrote Harvest Bible Fellowship member pastors yesterday to step away from leadership of HBF.  According to the communication I have seen, MacDonald said, “As of this notice, the Harvest Bible Chapel that I lead is resigning all responsibility to lead our fellowship of churches and administer the funds that you send to our Elgin campus in support of church planting. I, too, am resigning my role as President and, as of this notice, retain no role of influence over the work of HBF.”
He added that the work of HBF is now in the hands of interim Executive Director Brian White and “governance leaders, Ron Zappia, Bill Borinstein, and Robbie Symons.” MacDonald asked the HBF pastors to give the new leaders support and called them “good men.”
MacDonald said he and Harvest Bible Chapel will “continue to plant Harvest Bible Chapels and Vertical Churches retaining ownership of those marks and brands which we gladly share without reservation or new condition with all of you.” He added that those church planting efforts will continue under the oversight of HBC’s elder board.
Although the email indicates that the Vertical Church Conferences may be “suspended,” the current splash page for Harvest Bible Fellowship says the August conference is on.
HBF splash clip
Stay tuned…
The original post starts below:
On June 10 of this year, Harvest Bible Fellowship’s website actively promoted James MacDonald’s church network and Vertical Church Conferences. HBF is (or was) the church planting arm of Harvest Bible Chapel, a megachurch in the Chicago area.
Now amid rumors of a shake up at HBF (and the flagship Vertical Church Conference), the HBF website went from active to being “under construction” to being parked at Go Daddy.
On June 10:
Harvest BF WB
Under construction early this afternoon:
harvest BF cap
Now the domain is being parked at
Harvest Go

James MacDonald Regrets Wrongful Discipline of Harvest Bible Chapel Elders

Perhaps James MacDonald can do more good for Mars Hill Church off the Board of Advisors and Accountability than he did for the church while on it.
This is an extraordinary account of repentance and apparently reconciliation at Harvest Bible Chapel reported in Christianity Today late yesterday. CT’s article begins:

On Sunday, prominent pastor James MacDonald told his 13,000-member Harvest Bible Chapel congregation that he and his elder board were wrong for how they publicly disciplined three elders last year.

“For many months, we have labored under the awareness that our church discipline of a year ago was a failure in many respects, not the least of which was the complete lack of biblically required restorative component, which wronged the brothers that we were attempting to help,” MacDonald said in a videotaped message.

Harvest’s elder board has now “lifted all discipline” from the former elders (Scott Phelps, Barry Slabaugh, and Daniel Marquardt), apologized to them, and been reconciled to them after “outside Christian leaders” recently brought everyone back to the table, MacDonald said.

“Although the remaining elders of Harvest agreed to the need for such discipline, we almost immediately realized that we erred in the manner in which it was done and in what it implied,” said MacDonald. He noted, “We delayed making this confession, not wanting to worsen matters as we prayed for a true reconciliation. Praise God, that reconciliation happened meaningfully and mutually this week.”

The video from MacDonald and former elder chair Robert Jones is here.

I suspect this is difficult for Paul Petry, Bent Meyer and Lief Moi to watch, but perhaps hopeful as well that such a result could also come to Mars Hill Church.

James MacDonald Resigns from Mars Hill Board; Update on Paul Tripp's Resignation

As has been widely discussed on social media, Mars Hill Church announced in the weekly email to their congregation that James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Fellowship, resigned from the Board of Advisors and Accountability. The BOAA is Mars Hill Church’s governing board and is made of the executive elders (Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner, Dave Bruskas) and four men who are not members of Mars Hill (now just two — Larry Osborne and Michael Van Skaik). The email message also provided a confusing update on Paul Tripp who also resigned from the BOAA. In reaction to the emails, two current elders blasted the emails as being “spin” and demonstrating a lack of transparency.
The entire message is below (link to image):

“Upcoming Changes to the BOAA

Dr. Paul Tripp joined our Board of Advisors and Accountability in November 2013 and has been an immense help to our leaders over the past year. Dr. Tripp has extensive experience in discipleship and Biblical counseling. Earlier this month, we made the decision together to open the opportunity for him to work with greater focus on issues directly related to his expertise, namely the continued development of our community and redemption ministries.

Because simultaneously being a board member and a consultant does not allow for the required definition of “independence,” Dr. Tripp graciously submitted his resignation from the BOAA in early June, so that he can more extensively serve our church as a consultant. We are excited to continue this work with him, and are thankful for his continued support of Mars Hill Church.

Similarly, Pastor James MacDonald informed the board at the July meeting of his decision to transition from his current role on the board pending his replacement. Pastor James has been a great help in forming the current board’s direction, and we are very grateful for his time and wisdom over the last several years. About this transition he commented, “I have great love and affection for Mars Hill Church and I want to make clear this change is not because I am unhappy with Mark’s response to board accountability. On the contrary, I have found him to be exemplary in his current readiness to live under the BOAA oversight. I am not resigning because I doubt Mark’s sincerity in any way. I believe in Mark Driscoll and his heart to leverage difficult lessons in service to Christ and his church in the years ahead. I am excited to continue to support that trajectory as Mark’s friend, as I focus my efforts on Harvest Bible Fellowship.”

About these transitions, Pastor Mark shared, “I am thankful for the service of both Paul and James, two men I admire and respect. Their service on our board has been a blessing to me and Mars Hill Church in countless ways. The amount of hours they have given as volunteers is extraordinary, especially in light of their other ministry demands.”

Candidates are currently being interviewed to replace these open board positions. They will be submitted before the Full Council of Elders for their approval as soon as possible.”

Taking together this message and another one which was sent today to the full council of elders, the timing of the resignations is confusing. According to the above communication, a joint decision was made “earlier this month” (although the email is dated August 1, I assume “this month” means July) “to open the opportunity for him [Tripp] to work with greater focus on issues directly related to his expertise, namely the continued development of our community and redemption ministries.” Then the email discloses that Tripp “graciously submitted his resignation from the BOAA in early June” so he could work as a consultant for the church. This email makes it sound like he resigned a month before a decision was made to retain him as a consultant. 
Tripp’s decision to resign sparked concern in several of the former pastors who requested mediation with Mars Hill. Currently, a mediation group is holding meetings with former pastors and others who desire reconciliation with the executive elders. That group of elders were not informed of Tripp’s June resignation until this week.
Another point of confusion was the timing of James MacDonald’s resignation. According to the email above, MacDonald informed the BOAA of his decision to resign at the July 6 BOAA meeting. However, the full council of elders were told today in an email from Sutton Turner that MacDonald informed the BOAA board chairman “late this week” that he would like to step off the board. See the email below:
The email to the full council of elders also says MacDonald’s announcement was a “surprise to the Executive Elders.” It is unclear which email is correct.
In addition to concern among former elders, the announcements today also upset at least two current elders who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation. One said, “Once again, just another sad example of trying to spin the truth into something more manageable, instead of just accepting reality.” Another current elder was more pointed, saying, “Time and time again I’ve seen Sutton lie to the church and not be willing to be transparent about what is going on. Our people deserve better. Sutton is a sad excuse for a pastor and should have never been put in this role.”  
While there may be an explanation for these discrepancies, these current elders believe they have been deceived about the reasons for the BOAA resignations.

Does Mars Hill Really Want to Mediate With the 20 Former Pastors?

According to sources in Mars Hill Church, Mars Hill leaders have floated a response to the twenty former pastors who in early March sought mediation with the church leadership. Those pastors were once employed by Mars Hill Church and are now represented by Dave Kraft and Kyle Firstenberg. The group has a number of grievances with Mars Hill leaders and in a March 17 letter asked for a impartial mediator to help resolve the concerns.
If the reports are accurate, the mediator may not fit the request for an independent person. According to my sources, the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) have proposed to bring in a person who works for James MacDonald. MacDonald is a friend and colleague of Mark Driscoll as well as one of the members of the BOAA. In this proposal, an employee of a BOAA member would be mediating a dispute between the BOAA and people with grievances. How could such a person be considered objective and unbiased?
There must be wise and objective people who do not have relationships with the people involved. The 20 pastors asked for a neutral party but this response, if pressed, does not appear to respond to their request. It will be hard to take the Mars Hill BOAA seriously if they push forward with this proposal.

Mars Hill Church and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Part One

On March 7, Mars Hill Church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability issued a statement about several matters of controversy involving Mark Driscoll and the church. One issue was the change of governance in 2007. The BOAA said:


For many years Mars Hill Church was led by a board of Elders, most of whom were in a vocational relationship with the church and thus not able to provide optimal objectivity. To eliminate conflicts of interest and set the church’s future on the best possible model of governance, a Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) was established to set compensation, conduct performance reviews, approve the annual budget, and hold the newly formed Executive Elders accountable in all areas of local church leadership. This model is consistent with the best practices for governance established in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability standards. Mars Hill Church joined and has been a member in good standing with the ECFA since September of 2012.

The BOAA invoked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. At the time the BOAA statement came out, I initiated several contacts with ECFA’s president, Dan Busby. I learned that Mars Hill Church is a member in good standing and that ECFA considers Mars Hill to be in compliance with ECFA guidelines. This puzzled me since it appeared to me from a reading of the Mars Hill bylaws that the executive elders are allowed to vote on their own compensation. Such a practice, if happening, would be in violation of ECFA guidelines. I asked Mars Hill’s Communications Director Justin Dean about this with no answer. Mr. Busby declared that MHC was in compliance, but declined to explain his reasons. His most recent words to me on the subject were:

I can only say that we have very carefully reviewed this matter and we are absolutely confident of the compliance of Mars Hill with our standards with respect to this issue.  More detailed information on this would need to come from the church.

This is an unsatisfying answer. I expected a bit more from an organization which is set up as an accountability group. This answer says – we can’t tell you why, but just trust us and trust Mars Hill. For their part, Mars Hill Church is one of the most frustrating organizations I have ever dealt with. They do not acknowledge legitimate questions from media and often engage in spin when they do speak. They have threatened employees not to disclose information while employed and thereafter as well.
I asked Nicholas Romanello, a lawyer whose practice includes considerable experience in not-for-profit governance and who is a trustee of a religious school in West Palm Beach, FL for his opinion. After he reviewed the MHC bylaws, I asked Romanello if the bylaws allow the executive elders to vote on their own compensation. He said their actual practice isn’t clear from the bylaws. On the other hand, he said, “There is nothing in the bylaws I looked at which would prevent this. They might have a board policy which would prevent it, but the bylaws would allow it.”
Eventually, I found this statement on the MHC website:

The independent members of the Board of Advisors and Accountability set executive elders’ compensation. Additionally, an independent compensation study is done for our executive elders by an external accounting firm.

This statement seems to address the matter. Although the bylaws do not require the compensation to be set by the members alone, the website claims they are handling it in a way that meets ECFA guidelines. If that is how it is being handled, then Busby’s confidence would be correct on that point. Nevertheless, for other reasons, I am still not convinced that Mars Hill is in compliance on all points.  More specifically, I wonder if all of the independent members of the BOAA meet the ECFA’s criteria for independence.
The ECFA defines independence as follows:

Board independence.  The organization should take care to maintain the reality, not just the appearance of independent board governance. Requiring the predominance of independent board members helps ensure the board will take official action without partiality, undue influence, or conflict of interest.
To assess the reality of board independence, ECFA looks beyond the majority of independent board members on the board roster. ECFA is just as concerned about the reality of board independence as with the mathematical determination of a majority of independent board members.
ECFA defines independent board members as:

  1. Persons who are not employees or staff members of the organization.
  2. Persons who may not individually dictate the operations of the organization similar to an employee or staff member. A person who is an uncompensated CEO, for instance, is not independent.
  3. Persons who are not related by blood or marriage to staff members or other board members. Blood or marriage relationships are defined for the purposes of the standard as being his or her spouse, ancestors, brothers and sisters (whether whole- or half-blood), children (whether natural or adopted), grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and spouses of brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
  4. Persons who do not report to or are not subordinate to employees or staff members of the organization.
  5. Persons who do not report to or are not subordinate to other board members.
  6. Persons who do not receive a significant amount for consulting or speaking, or any other remuneration from the organization.
  7. Persons who do not have relationships with firms that have significant financial dealings with the organization, officers, directors or key employees.
  8. Persons who are not the paid legal counsel, related to the paid legal counsel, or are employed by the firm that is the paid legal counsel of the organization.
  9. Persons who are not the auditors, related by blood or marriage to the auditors (see definition of blood or marriage in #3 above), or are employed by the auditing firm of the organization.

Given the size of the board, only one member who is not truly independent could create a majority voting bloc (one independent and three executive elders).  Mars Hill is run by the BOAA so the entire church is dependent on four people (Michael Van Skaik, Larry Osborne, James MacDonald, and Paul Tripp) who do not attend Mars Hill and the three executive elders (Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner and Dave Bruskas). According to sources within MHC speaking on condition of anonymity, there may be some issues with the current BOAA on points 6 and 7.
Regarding point six, James MacDonald and Paul Tripp are speaking at this year’s Resurgence conference and have spoken at other Mars Hill events in the past. According to my sources, they get around $5k for a brief session, plus whatever book sales bring in.
On points six and seven, Michael Van Skaik’s consulting firm relationship with Mars Hill could be relevant. I have spoken to two former leaders who were coached by people from Van Skaik’s firm. If indeed all pastors were/are mentored by coaches from Van Skaik’s group, than that would have to be a significant contract.
James MacDonald deserves additional mention. MacDonald is the pastor Harvest Bible Church based in the suburbs of Chicago. As noted, he is speaking at this year’s Mars Hill Resurgence conference and has spoken at previous conferences. MacDonald and Driscoll moderated some of the Elephant Room discussions and are co-founders of Churches Helping Churches, a benevolent non-profit organization helping churches hit by disasters. They are currently on the board together. MacDonald was with Driscoll at John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference. They certainly appear to be friends, peers and co-workers which could complicate the independence aspect of the BOAA role.
I realize that my concerns may be completely misplaced. Perhaps the fees or other compensation might not be considered “significant” by the ECFA or Mars Hill. Perhaps my sources are incorrect about the fees. There may be circumstances which make these apparent issues of no consequence. However, given the ECFA’s vague “trust us” responses, the ECFA’s tight definition of independence, the lack of information from MHC, and the small size of MHC’s BOAA, I think these matters are worth considering.
If Mars Hill truly is in compliance with what ECFA considers to be good governance, then I should also turn my attention to the ECFA. I think the ECFA guidelines seem reasonable for a non-profit organization that is not a church. However, I question how a local church can adopt these guidelines and still be a church. To me, Mars Hill and other stand alone megachurches seem more like mini-denominational organizations than local churches. I will explore these ideas in my next post on the ECFA and Mars Hill, probably tomorrow.