(RNS) — James MacDonald, the embattled pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, has been fired by the suburban Chicago megachurch he founded three decades ago.
His departure follows years of controversy over MacDonald’s leadership style and the church’s finances.
The church’s elders announced the move in an update posted to the church’s website on Wednesday (Feb. 13).
According to the update, MacDonald “was removed as Senior Pastor and as an Elder of the church for engaging in conduct that the Elders believe is contrary and harmful to the best interests of the church.”
“His employment has been terminated from Harvest Bible Chapel, effective today, February 12, 2019.” they wrote.
In their update, Church elders said the decision was made after “a lengthy season of review, reflection, and prayerful discussion” of MacDonald’s conduct as pastor.
MacDonald’s departure from the church had been rumored on social media over the past week. On Tuesday, Chicago radio host Mancow Muller aired clips of a recording of MacDonald, in which he allegedly insulted critics, including Christianity Today magazine, which reported on the controversy at Harvest.
Those remarks prompted the timing of the elder’s action, according to the update.
Prior to his hiring, MacDonald, longtime host of “Walk in the Word,” a national Christian radio broadcast, had taken an “indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership” from the church since mid-January, calling himself unfit to preach and caught in a sinful cycle of “injustice, hurt, anger, and fear, which have wounded others without cause.”
“I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve,” he said in a letter announcing his sabbatical. “I blame only myself for this and want to devote my entire energy to understanding and addressing these recurring patterns.”
Church elders at the time pledged to pursue a “reconciliation process” with those hurt by Harvest Bible’s leadership, including MacDonald. “We are asking the Lord to lead us as we engage in this peacemaking process.”
MacDonald’s critics, who include former Harvest Bible elders and the authors of a blog called The Elephants Debt, have accused MacDonald of being a “man of low character” whose ministry was distorted by a “love of power and money.” They claimed that MacDonald’s mismanagement has left the church, which boasts some 12,000 members on its eight campuses, tens of millions of dollars in debt.
In 2013, MacDonald and other church leaders ousted three elders who had identified a “culture of fear and intimidation” at the church. MacDonald later apologized and asked for forgiveness.
The controversy was rekindled in recent months when MacDonald and Harvest Bible filed sued against the Elephant’s Debt bloggers and their wives, along with freelancer writer Julie Roys.
At the time, Roys was working on a story about the church for World magazine, an evangelical publication.
The suit claimed that the bloggers and Roys were spreading false information. MacDonald and the church’s elder hoped the suit would bring an end to the controversy and shut down online critics.
“We just want them to stop,” church leaders said at the time.
The lawsuit was dropped in January after a judge denied the church’s request to delay discovery in the case and to block defendants from publishing documents related the case.
Harvest and MacDonald have also been at odds with the Great Commission Collective, a church planting group made up mostly of congregations that were part the now-defunct Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF). MacDonald resigned as president and cut ties with HBF in 2017.
Harvest elders later reprimanded MacDonald, saying he had no authority to “dissolve our governance of and participation in Harvest Bible Fellowship.”
Since that time, some former HBF leaders have argued that Harvest Bible Church may have mishandled funds intended for the church planting network. Last year, Harvest elders said an audit showed all funds were used appropriately.
After MacDonald’s sabbatical was announced, the Great Commission Collective issued a statement, criticizing Harvest’s peacemaking process, according to a copy of the statement posted on the Elephant’s Debt blog.
“The primary issue is not reconciliation or peacemaking,” the statement reads. “It is repentance. A peace-making process, while helpful for personal and relational reconciliation, is not the approach to address failed governance, biblical disqualification, and a toxic leadership environment.”
Harvest has also been under criticism for its handling of the case of Paxton D. Singer, former youth minister at the church’s Aurora campus. Singer was arrested in October and charged with alleged sexual exploitation of a child. Critics claimed the church took failed to adequately inform parents whose children may have interacted with Singer.
A former Harvest staffer was also reported to police last fall for allegedly embezzling $270,000 from the church.
During his sabbatical, MacDonald had planned to preach at the Harvest campus in Naples, Fla. When the pastor of that campus objected, he was fired, according to published reports.
Earlier this year, MacDonald and Harvest announced that “Walk in the Word,” a program carried on about 2,000 radio and television stations, would cease broadcasting and instead change to a digital distribution model.
The church plans to provide more details about MacDonald’s departure and future plans at this weekend’s services.