I am glad, I hope, I pray that the soap opera of church dysfunction being played out in public for years at Harvest Bible Chapel is finally over with the exit of James MacDonald. Of course, given the history of controversy and the poor governance of the church all we can do is hope and pray. I suspect there will be disclosures that may well lead to lawsuits - a habit at HBC against dissidents. This time it may be parishioners against the elders or the church itself. Time will tell. Earlier this week, a class action suit was threatened if James did not step down by February 19. Instead he was finally fired after tapes of his inappropriate comments were aired on Chicagoland radio by Mancow Muller, once a close friend of James'.
Harvest Bible Chapel, like Mars Hill (Mark Driscoll) and Willowcreek (Bill Hybels) suffered from terrible governance where the senior leader could not be challenged, where he was not held accountable, where questionable financial decisions were ignored or swept under the rug, incredible loads of debt taken on (which may yet cause the church to go bankrupt), secrecy prevailed and there was a closed culture where no criticism of James was permitted and James' behavior was overlooked for years.
Elders that resigned in protest of the toxic culture of the church faced open criticism, letters asking for repentance and church discipline, some of which the elders had to admit was a mistake. Other leaders left under criticism for their comments and a blog was initiated called The Elephants Debt.
Here was aired not only the financial issues of the church but the ongoing saga of charges, counter charges, lawsuits, resignation of leaders and stories of James' behaviors. James brooked little or no criticism and the elders covered for him when it came, in some cases slandering the character of those who raised questions about James or the ministry.
Equally concerning was the cult like following that James has had by many. An unhealthy loyalty to a man rather than to the Gospel or the mission of Harvest Bible Chapel. In cult settings, it is not permissible to challenge the leader or to take other than the party line if one is to stay. Once an individual crosses those lines, there is often ostracism and this happened at HBC along with spiritual sounding words that claim God's righteousness against dissidents. In truth they were not dissidents until labeled that way by James and the elders. They were simply raising legitimate questions but in a closed system as this was, that is not acceptable. There was no freedom to speak one's mind. A dangerous sign always.
While James apologized for his behavior on occasion, patterns of abuse toward those who disagreed with him continued for years. Endless time was spent by leaders in letter writing first to denigrate those who disagreed, placing people under discipline, initiating lawsuits in some cases against them, dealing with the fallout of the relational conflict and then initiating "reconciliation talks" when all else failed. In addition the financial picture has been opaque for years, the books have not been open and those who raised questions were denigrated by the elders.
All of this leads me to the following lessons.
One: When leaders are on the defensive and are not open to questions one should be wary of their leadership.
Two: When the books are not open one should be wary of leadership.
Three: When the culture is toxic and dysfunctional, so is the leadership.
Four: Leaders who see people either for them or against them are unhealthy leaders.
Five: Leaders who simply protect a senior pastor rather than insist he lead from health are not doing their job.
Six: Cultic cultures are always unhealthy and lead to corruption.
Seven: When leaders attack those who raise questions and ask for answers the issue is not those who asked the questions but the leaders who refuse to be accountable.
Eight: When church discipline and lawsuits and open letters are commonplace to put down those who raise questions, look carefully at what is going on.
Nine: When leaders leave a trail of broken relationships over an extended period of time, something is wrong.
Ten: When leaders don't protect the flock because they are protecting their interests or their leader something is very, very wrong. Because of their inaction or misdirected actions, many parishioners have been hurt and many will be hurt yet.
Pray for James, his family, the leaders and the congregation of Harvest Bible Chapel.
TJ Addington of Addington Consulting has a passion to help individuals and organizations maximize their impact and go to the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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