Florida pastor: I was fired for suggesting my church leave the Harvest Bible network

Leader in Naples, where MacDonald will preach, says he asked that church sever ties

The pastor of a Naples, Florida, branch of Harvest Bible Chapel said he has been fired for seeking to end that affiliation and for saying he did not want Senior Pastor James MacDonald to preach at his church this weekend.

It is the latest in a series of revelations surrounding Harvest Bible, which on Wednesday announced MacDonald, its founder, is on leave to contemplate his role in discord in and around the church.

John Secrest, who was the campus pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel-Naples, said he emailed Naples church followers Thursday. He told them he had asked the Harvest elders to reconsider their decision to let MacDonald continue a three-month preaching stint that began Jan. 6 in Naples, now that MacDonald is on leave.

He had also asked for the church to be released from its four-month-old affiliation with Harvest.

Both were denied, and Secrest said he was fired by an elder from the Naples church and by Harvest Bible Assistant Senior Pastor Rick Donald, who was on speaker phone, while he was on the porch of his home. He said he has not received any written documentation.

Harvest Bible has not commented on Secrest's statements.

Secrest founded the Naples congregation in 2016 and it affiliated with Harvest in September 2018. The church meets in a building rented by Harvest.

In his email, Secrest said he regretted not "standing firm in objections" he had raised when the church was considering the affiliation. He declined, in an interview, to say what those objections were.

He also said in the email he did not know at the time about criticism against the church or about a defamation suit the church was going to file in October against some of those critics, Julie Roys of Carol Stream, Ryan and Melinda Mahoney of Wheaton, and Scott and Sarah Bryant of Geneva. The church dropped the lawsuit this month after a Cook County judge ruled it could not keep some documents private.

"The good intentions of our ministry partnership with Harvest Chicago have been overshadowed by these developments," Secrest wrote.

In announcing MacDonald's sabbatical, church leaders said he would be allowed to continue preaching in Naples while being removed from all operations in the Chicago area.

"Over the last three days I have tried in earnest to privately communicate that the decision elders made was the wrong decision. I'm simply saying that my actions here were not to be obstinate or insubordinate," Secrest said.

Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant, on their website, accused MacDonald of wielding too much power in church governance, of lashing out at people, of being paid what they see as too much, of theological impropriety and more. The church has come under fire for how it handled reports that a youth minister was sending sexual text messages to minors and for how leaders have handled finances, including how much money the church has borrowed.

In a written reply to a request for comment about the church's future, Sherri Smith, the church's associate communications director, said Friday: "Our church leaders are hopeful to engage in a thoughtful, objective process with the intention of bringing needed repentance and reconciliation to past events. We are deeply grateful for Pastor James' humility, and his willingness to cooperate entirely with these peacemaking efforts. Our campus pastors and other leaders will continue to provide oversight over our community and our ministries will continue as normal."

Founded in 1988 in Rolling Meadows, Harvest Bible grew to include churches in Aurora, Chicago, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Highland Park and Niles, as well as Naples, Florida. The church says that about 12,000 people worship at its campuses every week. It led a campaign to found more than 100 other Harvest churches worldwide, mostly in the United States, through Harvest Bible Fellowship.

A successor to that group, now called the Great Commission Collective, published a letter to Harvest Bible saying a reconciliation process the church described to coincide with MacDonald's leave of absence is not enough.

"In keeping with our past private statements to Harvest's leadership and to our pastors - The primary issue is not reconciliation or peacemaking, it is repentance," the letter said. "A peacemaking process, while helpful for personal and relational reconciliation, is not the approach to address failed governance, biblical disqualification, and a toxic leadership environment."

MacDonald had been president of Harvest Bible Fellowship, but when the group's leaders decided in 2017 that he should step down, MacDonald disbanded the organization.

In a September 2017 "Elder Update" posted on Harvest Bible Chapel's website, the elders reported that MacDonald had done so without their permission, and that they reprimanded him for doing so.

The "Elder Updates" also detail that there was a dispute about the financial relationship between Harvest Bible Fellowship and Harvest Bible Chapel as the operation wound down.

What will happen to Harvest Bible Chapel, with its founder stepping away at least temporarily, amid internal turmoil?

Experts and the leader of another suburban Christian church say such a transition can be managed - but risks declining attendance and financial support.

"It's harder for a church that is built on a personality," said the Rev. Jim Scudder Jr., pastor of Quentin Road Baptist Church in Lake Zurich.

In MacDonald's absence, other pastors - including MacDonald's two grown sons - will "continue to lead the day-to-day ministries," according to the statement Harvest Bible published on its website.

According to a 2015 report by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, megachurches were more likely to suffer loss of donations when there was conflict in the church, compared to smaller churches.

Some denominations, such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, offer programs to help any of their congregations that lose a longtime senior pastor hire an interim pastor and get through the transition to a permanent replacement.

"I would very much think they (Harvest) would bring in some interim to heal, and to find someone else good for the church," Scudder said.

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