Lawsuit: Harvest Bible's finance-and-governance report defamed ex-pastor

  • Pastor James MacDonald

    Pastor James MacDonald Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 11/13/2020 7:31 PM

The fired senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel megachurch is contending, in a new lawsuit, that an attorney and accountants hired by the church took part in a "smear campaign" to defame and discredit him.

They did so to affect what Pastor James MacDonald would receive in arbitration over financial disputes, and to help destroy his reputation so no other church would hire him, the lawsuit claims.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The suit was filed Nov. 4 against Wagenmaker and Oberly LLC, a Chicago law firm; attorney Sally Wagenmaker; and Schecher Dokken Kanter, a Minnesota accounting firm. It alleges defamation, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy.

It contends Wagenmaker, her firm and the accountants knowingly published false statements in their summaries of an investigation of the church in 2019.

"Wagenmaker, Todd, and HBC agreed that they would seek to delay responding to MacDonald's arbitration demand until after they published the defamatory information against him, and that they would aggressively pursue counterclaims against him in the arbitration once they had publicly destroyed his reputation," the lawsuit states.

The suit also says Wagenmaker advised a church panel that declared MacDonald was "biblically disqualified" from conducting ministry, and helped it write a defamatory statement announcing the disqualification, in an effort to better the church's position in the arbitration. The church and MacDonald were disputing money he believed was owed to him in deferred compensation, and ownership of the "Walk In the Word" broadcast and digital ministry.

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No one from the law firm or the accounting firm have responded to requests for comment. Neither has anyone from Harvest Bible Chapel.

On Friday, MacDonald posted a statement on his website, jamesmacdonaldministries.org, refuting much of what the church and others have said about him in the last two years. The website indicates it is the first of five statements he intends to publish. He also posted a video of him speaking with a former longtime Harvest leader who backs MacDonald.

The timeline

The church, headquartered in Rolling Meadows and Elgin, fired MacDonald in February 2019, after 31 years of ministry. The church said it did so after "highly inappropriate recorded comments made by Pastor MacDonald were given to the media and reported."

WLS-AM radio show host Mancow Muller, a former Harvest member, broadcast some of those comments, in which MacDonald made statements about a critic, Christianity Today journalists and mainline Protestant Christian churches.

MacDonald has sued Muller and the radio station for defamation and Muller has countersued.

The church hired Wagenmaker and Oberly to review its governance and finances. Wagenmaker and Oberly hired the accountants.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Wagenmaker submitted the report to church elders in May 2019 and was asked to prepare a summary for public view, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says the church asked several former church leaders who had served with MacDonald to review what she submitted, and that they disagreed with much of it.

The church then asked Wagenmaker to prepare a public summary, which was presented to the congregation and posted on the church's website in November 2019.

"MacDonald seems to have acted in his own personal interests -- reaping significant personal financial benefit, avoiding accountability to any governing board, and with heavy-fisted exclusionary leadership," the report stated. It said MacDonald used "aggressive tactics" and a "strong and strident voice to inordinately influence others."

It questioned some of the expense reimbursements he received and spending for gifts he bestowed. It spoke repeatedly of a lack of documentation to determine whether some spending by or on MacDonald's behalf was proper.

The lawsuit says Wagenmaker, her firm and the accountants did not contact MacDonald, former church leaders or MacDonald's executive assistant to find out if they could provide answers, and ignored documentation provided by the assistant.

The lawsuit says Wagenmaker "intentionally ignored" documents and individuals "who had information which was at odds with the defamatory picture of MacDonald which she manufactured."

Privacy issue

The lawyers and accounting firm unlawfully intruded on MacDonald's private affairs when they investigated a limited-liability corporation MacDonald had created, the lawsuit claims. The lawsuit says the church's former in-house counsel created Vanilla Bean LLC for MacDonald's personal finances, and that he and a church treasurer told investigators Vanilla Bean had nothing to do with Harvest.

Conspiracy

The lawsuit also claims that beginning in 2018, a pastor at one of Harvest's campuses began working with a "disgruntled" former Harvest worker, filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, to solicit letters from people critical of MacDonald's leadership and personal conduct, to force MacDonald out of the church.

Jenkins was executive director of Harvest's media team, which produced videos and films, from 2010 to 2017.

Jenkins could not be reached for comment.

Settlement

MacDonald and the church reached an arbitration settlement in August. MacDonald received $1.45 million, the assets of the "Walk In the Word" ministry, and a 6.68-acre piece of land in Crystal Lake.

At the time, MacDonald wrote on his jamesmacdonaldministries.org website that there had been a "false narrative in financial matters -- HBC's most grievous sin against us." He wrote the church had pursued a "vicious but unsuccessful strategy" against him, including a "hostile takeover."

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