Harvest Bible Chapel moves quickly to fire founder MacDonald after recordings air
Thirty-one years after he founded it, Pastor James MacDonald has been fired as the leader of megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel.
The church announced the move Tuesday on its website.
The announcement said the elders had previously determined they were going to remove MacDonald but that they moved quickly after "highly inappropriate recorded comments made by Pastor MacDonald were given to media and reported."
The elders fired him Monday, according to the announcement. MacDonald founded the church in Rolling Meadows, and it now has seven Chicago-area locations and one in Florida.
"This decision was made with heavy hearts and much time spent in earnest prayer, followed by input from various trusted outside advisers," the elders' statement said.
The comments attributed to MacDonald were broadcast by WLS-AM radio show host Mancow Muller, a former member of the church who said he was baptized by MacDonald in the River Jordan in Israel.
The clips purportedly are of MacDonald talking of a plan to put child pornography on the computer of Christianity Today magazine's chief executive officer and about whether writer Julie Roys, one of the critics the church sued in October, was having an affair with Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of the publication.
The audio clips include an insult of Galli and an accusation that Roys had approached the houses of people who were victims in a DCFS investigation of a church worker and harassed them. There were also comments about MacDonald being able to raise $100,000 "in a minute."
Roys, of Carol Stream, wrote on her blog that "Galli and I have never had anything but a professional relationship, and it's repulsive that anyone -- a pastor, no less -- would make a joke about that."
Christianity Today magazine, based in Carol Stream and founded in 1956 by the Rev. Billy Graham, published a story when Harvest filed the defamation suit last year against Roys, Ryan Mahoney of Wheaton, Scott Bryant of Geneva and the two men's wives. Mahoney and Bryant write The Elephant's Debt blog critical of the church.
When the lawsuit drew criticism, MacDonald called Galli, who offered to let MacDonald publish an explanation of why he considered the lawsuit theologically appropriate. MacDonald took him up on the offer, said Galli, who found MacDonald "very gracious, even to the point of being humble" in their phone conversations.
Harvest dropped the lawsuit after a Cook County judge ruled against the church's request to keep some documents private.
Galli said Wednesday he had heard Muller's broadcast of the recordings attributed to MacDonald and found them "disturbing."
"He appears to me to be a troubled man," Galli said.
Messages were left with several pastors at the church and its associate communications director. Attempts to reach James MacDonald have been unsuccessful. Landon MacDonald, James MacDonald's son and a pastor at Harvest, declined to comment.
Muller has declined to say who gave him the recordings or when and where the recordings were made. He said he received about 100 hours' worth. On broadcasts Monday and Tuesday, he said he would file a class-action lawsuit, as a donor to the church, if the church did not remove MacDonald by Feb. 19. Muller withdrew that Wednesday after he learned of MacDonald's firing.
"I pray healing actually DOES happen for all of us," Muller said in a statement he sent to Harvest and shared with the Daily Herald. "So many families reached out to me that were mocked and cut out at that place. I hope you all will actually pray for THEM, too. You know, 'the little people.'"
The elder's announcement did not say whether Landon and his brother Luke, also a pastor, will continue to work for Harvest.
"A more detailed communication regarding next steps for our church will take place in our weekend services," the statement said.
According to numbers the church stated in its 2018 lawsuit, about 12,000 people worship weekly at one of its eight campuses. The church has locations in Rolling Meadows, Elgin, Aurora, Crystal Lake, Deerfield, Niles and Chicago. It also has a campus in Naples, Florida, and plans to start a congregation this spring in Hinsdale.
The Rev. Jim Scudder Jr., senior pastor of the Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church in Lake Zurich, said that between controversies at Harvest Bible Chapel and at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, he suspects there "are plenty of disillusioned people" seeking new spiritual homes.
"We have seen an increase in our attendance from some of that," Scudder said. Last spring, Willow Creek founding pastor Bill Hybels resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, leading to a domino of other resignations at the church, including the entire elder board.
Scudder said such scandals have a broader effect on all Christian institutions.
"Any type of scandal in anything considered Christian affects us. We saw that even with the abuse problems in the Catholic Church," he said. "Everyone lumps everyone together."
After a fallout between MacDonald and dozens of offshoot churches throughout the country over financial issues, many of those congregations banded together in another organization. And some have begun a wholesale identity change, starting with their names.
In Indiana, the former Harvest Bible Chapel in Granger has changed its name to Gospel City Church. Church leaders decided the change was necessary because "choosing a new name for our church allows us to be identified by our own character, values and impact," according to its website.
• Daily Herald staff writer Jake Griffin contributed to this article.