With faith and shared leadership, Harvest Bible Chapel moves past its tough year
For the Rolling Meadows-based Harvest Bible Chapel, it's been a year of resignations and a reorganization with an eye toward renewal and redemption.
Its leader and church founder, James MacDonald, was fired in February after "highly inappropriate" recordings of him were released and played on the radio by former church member and MacDonald confidante Mancow Muller.
The elder board apologized and resigned en masse. An entirely new elder board took over in the spring, with a pledge for more communication and accountability.
The divorce is not final, however. MacDonald and the church that he founded in 1988 are fighting over whether MacDonald is owed anything related to intellectual rights and ownership of the "Walk in the World" radio and TV ministry, and that will remain unresolved until next year.
Just days ago, MacDonald sued Mancow and his employer, Cumulus Media, for defamation and more. It's been the first real response from MacDonald to Mancow's on-air revelations since MacDonald's termination 10 months ago.
Harvest's new lead ministry pastor, Greg Bradshaw, sees the past year as an opportunity to grow closer to God.
"The Lord uses difficult times in our lives to help us depend on Him, and I think he's used this to deepen our intimacy with Him for sure," Bradshaw said in an interview in the fall. The congregation was "encouraged to hear the vision, and I think given the past season we went through, people were hoping to hear where we're going."
The new elder board named Bradshaw to one of three senior posts in a new, shared-leadership blueprint designed to increase communication, trust and accountability.
The congregation, which has satellite campuses in Chicago, Aurora, Elgin, Deerfield and Crystal Lake (the Niles church is gaining its independence as of Jan. 1), kicked off its new season in mid-September. At that service, leaders emphasized putting God first in all that they do -- a message that was delivered with no explicit mention of MacDonald.
"The Lord specializes in redemption through His faithfulness to people who are devoted to Him, and as we all humble ourselves and call out to Him, I'm hoping this is going to be an amazing redemption story, too," Bradshaw said.
A new structure
Church leaders announced the top-down changes at their season kickoff.
Three new senior positions -- the lead teaching pastor, the lead ministry pastor and the operations manager -- will report to the full elder board.
Elders have hired Bradshaw as the ministry pastor and hope to find a lead teaching pastor, who would be the face of and primary preacher for the congregation, by next fall. The operations manager, who will oversee human resources, information technology and accounting, was expected to be hired by the end of this year, but there has been no word on that in recent days.
"This is a significant change from what we previously had, where only one leader actively reported to the elder board," said Brian Laird, elder board chairman and the representative of the Elgin campus, the second-largest campus behind Rolling Meadows.
"This new structure will give us an increased shared-leadership approach. That's completely new for us," Laird said.
MacDonald came under fire for having a separate budget that was kept secret from the congregation and some leaders. He controlled and reaped extensive financial rewards from it.
Laird acknowledged to the congregants that the past year was a "challenging and difficult season in the life of our church."
Harvest leaders are accepting internal and external applications for the lead teaching pastor position.
Whoever is chosen will preach and be shown on closed-circuit TV to Harvest's satellite campuses.
"He will be a leader among equals," Laird said.
The lead pastor will visit the various campuses and perform services at them, too, in an effort to gain the pulse of the church and connect more with congregants.
"A pastor has to have the heartbeat of the church," Bradshaw said. "We're a church with six campuses."
As for the next man to lead Harvest, Bradshaw is putting his trust in God.
"I don't see it happening quickly," Bradshaw said. "As we get healthy as a church, we're hoping that God is going to bring the right person at the right time."
Harvest officials have lined up help to handle preaching duties in the absence of MacDonald and his two sons, both of whom were Harvest pastors and also have left.
At the September kickoff, Ed Ollie Jr., who is pastor at Harvest's Cathedral Campus in Chicago, explored the Book of Mark and emphasized God's part in helping Harvest move forward.
"We've been in the wilderness for a while," he said. "We are in a place where God is ready to get us ready."
'We will not fail'
As soon as two of the three senior posts are filled, the leaders will begin reporting to the full elder board. The board will be expanded to 12 from eight, with four lay people.
Pastors at each campus also will serve as elders, making it a total of 18 elders, or three at each location.
Before MacDonald's dismissal, the church had an elder board of 30 men, including MacDonald and assistant senior pastor Rick Donald. There was a four-person executive committee that included MacDonald. There no longer is an executive committee.
"There is a shared-leadership direction, healthy accountability and checks and balances, and more effective information sharing," Bradshaw said. "The idea of sharing leadership at the senior level is something we were all committed to."
Former member's view
Peggy Hamburg, who attended Harvest services at the Elgin and Rolling Meadows campuses from 2009 to 2017, said she was encouraged to hear about the leadership changes.
The Villa Park resident said she left Harvest because she found MacDonald's leadership to be abrasive and lacking empathy.
"He had a very sarcastic edge to him and was very dismissive of people who didn't fit his need at the moment," she recalled.
Hamburg said she was encouraged by the changes but it wasn't enough to bring her back to the congregation.
"(The) changes are really positive and strong steps to take -- to not have one head person because it just leads to many types of corruption," Hamburg said. "I wish them the very best. They have a long road to repair and rebuild their reputation, even with new leadership."
Bradshaw is aware of criticisms levied by former members.
"In the church and when you believe and trust in the sovereignty of Christ, you can work hard and trust the outcomes to Christ. And that's what we're doing. We're trying to make good decisions day by day that honor Christ and let God bring about outcomes," he said.
Bradshaw said church leaders will focus on paying down debt, and even though Harvest has helped "plant" 193 churches across the world since 2000, it will shift money to its six campuses here instead.
"We believe unless God goes before us, that none of these things we're talking about will even come to fruition," Bradshaw told the congregation. "If we do this as a church family, we will not fail because God will go before us -- and He never fails."