Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
A year after high-profile split, Harvest Bible Chapel revamps
Fired pastor files defamation lawsuit against radio host
It has been a year since the relationship between Harvest Bible Chapel and Pastor James MacDonald began to dissolve.
Since MacDonald’s ouster, Harvest has completely revamped its leadership team, replacing the single senior pastor model with an executive leadership team. By next month, two churches, one in Naples, Florida, and another in Niles, will have left the Harvest network, becoming independent.
MacDonald, meanwhile, has stayed out of the limelight for months. But right before the holidays, the lingering aftermath of MacDonald’s contentious departure spilled into court when the pastor filed a defamation lawsuit against Chicago radio personality Erich “Mancow” Muller. The pastor contends the radio show host made false statements about him, invaded his privacy by releasing a surreptitiously recorded conversation on the air and inflicted emotional distress.
Now, Harvest is moving forward on its new path. A lead ministry pastor and operations director are in place, with the church still looking to fill a lead teaching pastor role. And with questions swirling about financial oversight, the church said it has relaunched its finance committee, which reports directly to the new elder board.
Harvest did not make church leaders available for interviews about the organization’s future. In a detailed emailed response to questions from the Tribune, however, a church spokeswoman said Harvest’s mission remains the same: to glorify God in all that they do.
Spokeswoman Sherri Smith said the church has about 6,000 members at six area campuses: the Chicago Cathedral in the Gold Coast, Elgin, Rolling Meadows,
Crystal Lake, Aurora and on Deerfield Road in Highland Park. A branch in Niles is becoming the independent Cityline Bible Church in February. A church in Naples, Florida, where a former pastor was dismissed a year ago in a flap over his concerns about MacDonald coming to the church to preach, also is no longer operating under the Harvest umbrella.
Smith said this period of change has taught the church of “the importance of plurality in leadership, the value of greater accountability in structures and practices, a stronger focus on being led by the Holy Spirit, humility in the understanding of God’s awesome sovereignty, and more accessibility of the leadership to the church family and vice versa.”
While MacDonald’s leadership style led some to bristle, he remained an extremely talented preacher who attracted thousands each week to Harvest locations. He also hosted the “Walk in the Word” podcast, a series of sermons on Biblical themes. With MacDonald gone, the church is recalibrating, but Smith said Harvest pastors will continue to deliver “high-impact worship services” that resonate.
“Harvest continues to hold a high view of Scripture and values the preferred method of expository Bible teaching,” she wrote. “We are looking for these shared values in our next lead teaching pastor.”
New members have been attracted to Harvest, Smith said, for most of the same reasons that people have been coming to the church for years: “proclaiming the authority of God’s Word without apology, lifting high the name of Jesus through worship, believing firmly in the power of prayer, sharing the good news of Jesus with boldness and enduring in love as the foundation of all relationship(s).”
As for MacDonald, in addition to his pending lawsuit against Muller, he is in arbitration with Harvest regarding the high-profile separation. MacDonald’s attorney, Phillip Zisook, did not make MacDonald available for an interview, citing the litigation and an ongoing arbitration case with Harvest. In 2000, Zisook represented former Chicago Bears player Keith Van Horne in a lawsuit filed against Muller that resulted in a $1.6 million settlement for the football player.
Both Zisook and Harvest’s Smith declined to answer questions about the arbitration case, though the Harvest website says the church is working with the Institute of Christian Conciliation to resolve matters.
The defamation lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court in December, brought back to the surface many of the issues that played a central role in MacDonald’s eventual departure from the church he helped found in 1988. As some members began to complain about MacDonald’s leadership style, the church racked up millions of dollars in debt. While the church was expanding across northern Illinois, the Midwest and into Florida, Harvest continued to operate in the red, taking out costly mortgages on property it had received either for free or at minimal cost, leading many to wonder about what was happening to the money. With member giving lagging, the church said in March that it was dealing with $40 million of combined debt.
Muller was at one time a member of Harvest. As the situation turned messy at the church, Muller began to highlight the issues during his morning radio show on WLS-AM and on his podcast, often criticizing MacDonald in his blunt, passionate style.
MacDonald, in his lawsuit against Muller and his employer, Cumulus Media, denies a series of allegations, some of which Muller discussed on his shows. In the lawsuit, MacDonald denies accusations that include soliciting the murder of a rival, planning to plant child pornography on the computer of an adversary and the sexual assault of a woman during a mission trip. He is asking for damages in excess of $50,000.
MacDonald, in claiming that Muller violated Illinois eavesdropping laws, also alleges that someone at the church surreptitiously recorded one of his conversations in which he is heard disparaging several others. Muller played portions of the recording on the air during his radio show during early 2019.
Zisook said the recording, which the suit alleges was illegally made and then illegally obtained by Muller, was indeed MacDonald, but that the tape did not provide the context for the pastor’s comments. Nonetheless, Zisook said, the recording was made without MacDonald’s consent, secretly passed along to Muller and distributed on the air.
According to the lawsuit, someone recorded MacDonald speaking inside an enclosed and soundproof audio studio at Harvest’s campus in Elgin by activating recording equipment, allowing MacDonald’s conversation to be taped. That person, whom the lawsuit does not identify, then gave it to Muller.
“As long as a radio station has a bully with a microphone, they will have to exercise supervision and control,” Zisook said.
A Cumulus spokeswoman said the company has no comment on the lawsuit.
MacDonald, a founding member of Harvest, was fired Feb. 13, about a month after he took a leave from his preaching and duties at the church. A statement by church elders at the time of his termination cited “conduct that the Elders believe is contrary and harmful to the best interests of the church.” The audio recordings that Muller played on his radio show were cited by church leadership in their announcement and appeared to be the last straw as the elders tried to determine whether MacDonald and Harvest should remain together.
At the time, Muller told the Tribune that MacDonald is “a carnival barker actor” who was running the church for his own benefit.