Chicago Megachurch pastor takes indefinite sabbatical

Harvest Bbile Chapel is a non-denominational megachurch with 12,000 members in weekly attendance. Located in the Chicago suburbs, Harvest has seven campuses in Illinois and one campus in Naples, Florida. James MacDonald founded Harvest in 1988 and has been the senior pastor of the church for over 30 years. He also has a popular radio ministry called Walk in the Word that is broadcast on over a thousand radio stations. The list could go on and on of ways Harvest has been influential in American Christianity and the global church through church planting, through music, and through their ministerial association. It’s a massive ministry.

But it also faced significant challenges. Leadership has been questioned. A blog called Elephant’s Debt has spent years looking into (among other things) financial issues and transparency issues within this church. Two founders of the blog, their spouses, and another investigative writer named Julie Roys were all sued by Harvest last year for defamation. The suit was later dropped.
On Wednesday, the elders of Harvest announced that MacDonald will be taking an indefinite sabbatical. The statements from MacDonald and the elder board do not get into specifics. The elders state:
We have tried a variety of different strategies to address external criticisms over the past several years. It has become apparent that these efforts have failed to fully identify and address our personal failures, sins, and errors in leadership, thus perpetuating a continuation of the criticism. In prayerful reflection upon all that has happened and how we got here, a private meeting of the Executive Committee of the Elders on Monday, January 14, led to the decision to be part of a peacemaking process that seeks both reconciliation and change where needed
In his statement, James MacDonald said:

I have carried great shame about this pattern in certain relationships that can only be called sin. 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. I blame only myself for this and want to devote my entire energy to understanding and addressing these recurring patterns.

I think it’s a sad situation. I started going to church when I was 18 and was really curious to learn as much about the Bible as I could. I stumbled upon Walk in the Word. I can still think of several sermons (and even Bible passages he referenced within the sermons) that impacted me over the years. When I moved to Illinois for seminary, I attended his church for a few months. I take no joy in this and write about it only because it’s newsworthy.
It’s an unfortunate situation.
There is one thing about this week’s revelation that I find troubling, from a perspective of church governance.
If a pastor needs to to take a sabbatical due to sin issues, does that mean the leadership of the church sees him as Biblically disqualified? In the statement from the church and their pastor, he says he might still preach at their Naples campus. The statement from the elders said: “He may continue preaching at Harvest Naples through some of the winter months and will be on sabbatical, pending the completion of the reconciliation process and a full report to the congregation.”
He’s taking a sabbatical or he’s not. They’re making this as clear as mud.
I understand and appreciate wanting to be thorough. But so far, the handling of this situation is already undermining its credibility in the sense that a person who’s been hampered by sin issues, by his own admission; an elder board who’s already struggled in handling the situation, by their own admission. Just giving an outsider perspective that it still doesn’t look like they’re taking meaningful steps to address the criticisms and issues that have gotten them into this situation.
Prediction: a few months will go by, they’ll say everything is better and things are stronger within the leadership than ever before, the pastoral sabbatical will end.

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Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.

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