Mancow: Speaking my truth to Harvest Bible Chapel's Pastor James
Editor’s note: WLS radio personality Mancow Muller of Wilmette has attended Harvest Bible Chapel since 2014 and been friends since 2016 with founding pastor James MacDonald, a nationally known church leader and preacher. Muller has been outspoken in recent weeks about the controversy at the suburban network of megachurches that led to MacDonald suing critics for defamation and then withdrawing the suit when it became clear he would have to reveal internal documents about the church. The episode led to MacDonald taking what he calls a “sabbatical” to reflect in Naples, Florida, where Harvest has a church. The quotations pulled out within Muller’s essay below were selected by Muller himself.
"Do you worship Jesus Christ or James MacDonald?" I asked someone yelling at me over the phone this past Sunday after I dared go to Harvest church again.
Dumbstruck to silence. Nothing. "Exactly," I said, "you can't answer me." The phone went dead.
Last time I checked, the Bible says Jesus is the "author and finisher of our faith" and that should be our focus - not Pastor James MacDonald.
"For it is time for Judgment to begin with God's household ..."
1 Peter 4:17
MacDonald's books line my shelves. His CDs are scattered about my car. I have only one Bible, but so much James MacDonald.
Two of my recent vacations have been with him, including one halcyon day where he baptized me in the Jordan River in the Holy Land of Israel.
At Harvest Bible Chapel, with its network of seven Chicago-area campuses run by MacDonald, I was but one of the many thousands seeking Christ. I wanted my twin daughters and my formerly Catholic wife to have a real, living and current relationship with Jesus Christ just as I have.
Dressed in a weathered black leather jacket covering his hulking frame, snow-white Van Dyke beard and gleaming bald dome, MacDonald makes for a striking figure at the pulpit. His Bible-based sermons are some of the most entertaining you'll hear. You leave one of his services on a Sunday jazzed and revved up for the week ahead.
His preaching is good for the soul and good for the community.
Big questions are asked and answered at Harvest. Is there a God? Do I matter? What happens after we die? Everyone says the same thing when they witness his command of the altar. "What a gift he has!" But gifts are easy to abuse, easy to take for granted.
It's taxing to be a pastor, I'd imagine. Everybody watching your every move, your private life always on view. But that's just the way it is when you accept the yoke of ministry. It's why I've never pursued my lifelong dream of Bible thumping live.
Let me be clear: Wanting to do something isn't the same as having "the calling" from God. I believe Pastor James had a calling. It's also why he was fascinated with me. I'm able to talk about anything and everything, and my performances don't come from one source. It must be a challenge and frustrating to him to be giving basically the same message endlessly. And maybe that's why he's just playing videotapes of his sermons more and more rather than preaching live these days.
But while I traffic in trivia and kitsch, he is answering the most important question on earth: Why are we here?
As a man with a reputation dating back to the 1990s as the wild man of Chicago radio, I expect people to be weary of the spirit-filled side of me. I get it. I also don't care. Jesus of Nazareth hung with an assortment of fringe characters, so why couldn't Pastor James MacDonald be my friend? We had many wonderful times. I love the guy. He's got a brilliant mind and a sense of humor that is world-caliber. He remembers everything.
His advice put me "on the sunny side" and kept me on the right path more than once.
But he also created THIS: a culture of authoritarianism, secrecy, intimidation, outlandish fundraising expectations, poor financial controls and debt.
He taught me forgiveness, trust, being authentic and taking a stand for what's right. Some of those around him remind me of Wormtongue in the Tolkien novels - telling him whatever sweet half-truths he wishes to hear.
"Iron sharpens iron," as it says in Proverbs 27:17. Real men tell their Christian brethren like it is; we "act like men." So here goes!
I have prayed and sought higher counsel in writing this. I believe Pastor James MacDonald would urge me to write this.
Sometimes it's impossible to separate the man from his ministry. Like the two faces of Janus, he is a man of great complexities. Unfortunately, he and his caldron of yes men have lost their way. Nobody can put on the brakes now. Nobody but Pastor himself.
He has it set up so only Pastor James can fire Pastor James. That's the law of the church! Only he can fire himself. How sick is that?
It was cultlike when Pastor James and elders instructed us to not listen to "outside noise" (meaning no news or blogs criticizing Pastor). And I didn't.
But then I couldn't understand many of his tearful conversations with me. I told him repeatedly I felt like Mr. Magoo wandering around blindly. Who were all these people that were out to get him? What were they lying about? How were they attacking our church? "If they are lying, you must fight back!" I told him: "Get ahead of this thing!"
I gave him the number of my lawyer.
He then decided to sue some of his critics and one pesky reporter who was asking difficult questions.
He told me that simply by suing his detractors he would win because people would be afraid to talk about him for fear of a lawsuit.
When I read the lawsuit online, my stomach sank. To me it seemed as if it were written by Pastor James MacDonald himself. Still I continued to believe "God is good and will prevail" and "all things work together for the good."
I really believe that is happening even now. I believe we must "speak the truth with love" like Paul instructs us in the Bible.
"We are on God's side and we will win!" I argued with someone just weeks ago. "Are you so sure? Have you heard the whole story?"
When this ostrich finally pulled his head out, it was a revelation.
Truth is a defense. This was not going to work out so well for Pastor James after all, I feared.
"Don't you feel small? It happens to us all."
The Moody Blues
When he seemed shocked about this thing called "discovery" in a court case, the writing was on the wall. He would reveal nothing! The case was dropped immediately.
In a long, rambling text I received from Pastor James the next day, I felt I was basically blamed for all the bad that has happened to him - a pattern I've seen over and over. It's never his fault. He is always without blame. And I'm an easy villain to cast in the Kabuki Theater production that is his life. But I gave advice - and my lawyer's number - based on what I consider now to be mostly lies.
He was hurt and I was crestfallen.
But Pastor James often uses tears to manipulate. I don't buy it anymore.
Nobody buys it anymore.
I believe Jesus Christ was the son of God in human form. Crucified. Buried. He rose again and will still yet return. I wanted only Jesus, but I got the bonus plan of wicked church politics and drama.
Now it's been suggested by an elder at the Rolling Meadows campus and by some parishioners that it would be best if I not return to Harvest.
The pain from this I've learned is all too familiar with far too many. "Ask questions or step out of line and you are out!" I'm easy to cast aside, but my kids? My sweet wife? Families are being hurt. This is wrong. My family loves Pastor James. How do I explain this to my kids?
I believe hell is a real place of unending torment. I would give everything I own to keep just one person out of that place. When people leave Harvest, oftentimes they never go to any church ever again. So when it comes to souls on the line, I felt I must speak up. As I've said, I believe Pastor James wants this. He wants someone to speak truth to him.
Some questions I would ask of Pastor James (or whoever else is really running things) if they would listen:
Why is Harvest $42 million in debt, as the church has stated on its website?
Pastor James and a fundraising campaign called Closer asked me to donate $3 million recently. This seemed rather tone-deaf to me because I was unemployed at the time. The number kept shrinking until I was asked if I could at least sell all of my memories (in the form of my memorabilia) and give that money to Harvest. My weakness was sickening. I wish I had said something more aggressive about how awful it was. Instead, I just sat there with a stupid smile on my face.
"Why don't you sell your Harley?" I joked with Pastor James, trying to lighten the mood. "No," he responded, "I like my motorcycle ... but if you don't give, see who is more blessed - me or you."
Pastor James and others suggested that I buy a house in Naples, Florida, where Harvest has a church and where he sits in exile, and then leave it to the church when I die.
"What about my family?" I asked. "Wouldn't I leave my house to my own daughters?"
Who really owns all the land, the churches and the camp in Michigan?
Why the years of him lying about his house? I've been in it numerous times and it's not that extravagant. Own up to it!
(He even asked me to move next door.)
"When I show them around my house, to my bed. I had it made like a mountain range with a snow-white pillow for my big fat head. And my heaven will be a big heaven, and I will walk through the front door. Big time!"
If anyone came to Pastor James with any problem, would he ever instruct them to lie? No! That's never been my experience. So why call the long-planned, paid vacation to Naples, Florida, a "sabbatical" and "a time of enforced self-reflection?"
When it comes to Pastor James, it's better to do as he preaches and not always what he practices.
Will Harvest lift all nondisclosure agreements that employees are forced to sign and let them out of these prisons of silence and allow them to finally tell what actually has gone wrong?
When Pastor John Secrest asked for his church back in Naples, why wasn't it given back to him immediately? Isn't that the right thing to do?
Why bother having church "elders" when, like a marionette quartet, they have no power whatsoever over puppet master James from what I can tell?
The service I attended this past Sunday basically began with "The elders and Pastor James agree that ..." Uh oh!
"He's still calling the shots from Naples just like Capone from prison," whispered the guy next to me.
Why is it every time Harvest fires, kicks out or excommunicates someone they say it's "covered in love?" How is that "covered in love?" It creeps me out.
Paul tells us in the Bible to "avoid the very appearance of evil." Harvest has failed.
Pastor James should come home and face his church family and stop this game of charades. The so-called "elders" must all be fired. An outside truly independent group, not picked by the MacDonald clan, must be brought in.
Parishioners should stop giving their hard-earned money because Harvest will not change until we stop funding this madness.
Pastor James taught me through Proverbs 17:17 that "a brother was born for a time of adversity."
A friend shows love by speaking truth. I'm giving my truth now.
I pray this message reaches him on vacation in Florida.
This past Sunday we were instructed to "pray for Pastor James."
"Really?" I thought. "I am praying for him as always, but what about praying for the people?"
EGO = Edge God Out. He's already gotten enough attention.
"When will thou save the people? Oh, God of Mercy, when? Not kings and lords, but nations. Not thrones and crowns, but men."
We are instructed by Christ that forgiving someone 70 times 7 is just the beginning. We need to pray for more forgiveness and less litigation.
And while we're at it, how about praying for those who have been yelled at and browbeaten? You know, the meek?
Pray for those of us who donate 10 percent of our income and would like to know where the money really goes. Pray for those outside the faith who will never come to salvation because of how this appears to them.
What about praying for those broken souls scorned by Pastor James that they may realize before it's too late that Pastor James is just a man and a sinner and shouldn't be used as a scapegoat when rejecting God?
For a great many, it's time for the cult of personality of James MacDonald at Harvest chapter to close and the actual Bible to be opened again.
I'm doing this without malice or bitterness, although I've had gusts of both. As a Christian, I learned from Pastor James to stand up for what's right, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Gospel" means "good news." All of us at Harvest are ready for a little good news.
Isn't it time for Pastor James MacDonald to face his church before he meets Our Maker?
The Daily Herald reached out to both Harvest Bible Chapel and Pastor James MacDonald for response to this piece:
“While the peacemaking process is underway, Harvest Bible Chapel does not presently intend to respond to further media inquiries. Our focus remains on seeking the Lord and ministering to our church family.”
— Sherri Smith Associate Communications Director Harvest Bible Chapel