The Elder Board met on Friday, October 27, and Saturday, October 28. The extended retreat format allowed time for Elder training, as well as the monthly Board meeting agenda. The Board welcomed Elders currently in rotation off the Board and eight men who have been invited to candidate towards joining the Board in 2018.

On Friday, Pastor Rick led a discussion on key biblical passages that guide Elders in ministry to and oversight of the flock. Elder Board Chairman Steve Huston led a session on the definition and function of policy governance. As the best-practice approach for oversight of a large organization,[1] the Elders codify decision-making ‘guardrails,’ then hold Executive Staff accountable for conformity to those written boundaries. After a time of discussion and prayer, the Elders dismissed for the evening.

Pastor James opened Saturday morning with teaching on the promised biblical blessings that come into a church as a result of biblical eldership, such as better decisions (Proverbs 15:22), shared ministry, true accountability, and advocacy for the innocent (Proverbs 14:12).

In addition to standard monthly reports from the Executive Staff and Elder Committees (ministry, finance, personnel, executive), time was reserved for all present to get current on every aspect of the Harvest Bible Fellowship transition.[2] Through extensive questions, discussion, and investigation, the Elders report the following:

The Elders were uniformly encouraged and inspired to hear Pastor James’ report on the Executive Committee’s (EC) mandated time of personal refreshment and reflection. He was 100% ‘away from ministry’ for almost three full weeks, and sought the Lord in consultation with a wonderful ministry dedicated to supporting Pastors and their families. For six days a week during the first three weeks of October, this ministry poured into Pastor James (and Kathy, for some of the time) in the same way they have poured so much into all of us for so many years.

In hearing him share, it was apparent to all the miraculous things the Lord has accomplished in the time since our last meeting, and how our Pastor has modeled intentional personal reflection. We listened as he disclosed to the entire Board about long days of coaching, counsel, insights gleaned, and lessons learned — about himself, impact upon others in the many different situations he encounters, work on deeper levels of forgiveness related to many years of ministry in our church, and the profound ministry of our Lord’s grace in his heart. We believe this impact was evident when preaching on Matthew 11:28-30 during his first week back in the pulpit.

The MacDonalds’ relationship with this supportive ministry is ongoing. Also active and ongoing is the Executive Committee’s (EC) direct involvement in providing all elements of oversight to our Senior Pastor as detailed in the church Bylaws. Each member of the EC is due an expression of gratitude for their labor of love toward our Pastor and his family, on behalf of us all.

In the matter of recurring patterns in the history of our church, we observed that when a decision is made that is unpopular among the congregation or our broader constituency, the health of our governance frequently comes under fire. More specifically, those outside our governance with no view of its mutuality can assume, based upon their observation of our capable staff, that accountability to our Board must be weak. Yet when accountability is properly understood, not as protection against error or a plan to assure that mistakes are never made, but as a system through which staff regularly answer to Elder authority for their decisions, it begins to make sense.

The Elders want the congregation to know how satisfied we are with how this accountability is functioning. With increased understanding, our congregation is less vulnerable to doubt when the inevitable critics of accountability raise their voice. At the risk of giving too much detail here, we offer the following: 

•   Look here to understand in depth what policy governance is and how it operates at HBC.
•   Look here to view established policy that all Senior Staff answer for.
•   Look here for examples of recent Board meeting agendas where Executive Staff did account or answer.
•   Look here for Bylaws that cover the Senior Pastor’s accountability to the Executive Committee.

Regarding the matter of staff accountability, the Elders and the Executive Committee are alert and fully engaged. We are not in any respect unhappy or frustrated with the submission of our senior leadership to Board authority. We are quite unhappy to have meddlesome people outside our church influenced by people the Elders have dealt with biblically and in accordance with our Bylaws, interfering in the life of the church by undermining the confidence of our members. Where this divisiveness is happening it must stop.[3]

As a reminder, the Executive Committee (EC) did decide to lighten the pressure on Pastor James, and to have the Executive Staff (XLT) begin reporting directly to the EC. This does not mean that Pastor James is not involved in leading the church. This structural change affects two major areas: 1) The XLT[4] functions as an onsite, day-to-day accountability where consensus is reached prior to all major decisions. 2) The XLT are running the day-to-day ministry of the church under Scott Milholland (this transition began in 2014) and by reporting directly to the EC, they fully relieve Pastor James of the burden of church management, allowing him to focus on the preaching, writing, and training he wants to prioritize.

In regard to the HBF transition, the Elders acknowledge that the absence of a July meeting created a communication gap, not between Elders and Executive Staff (XLT) but between Elders and Executive Committee (EC). We are now working together to expand the clarity of how the XLT, the EC, and the broader Elder Board partner to avoid this problem in the future. We want the congregation to know that we are encouraged, working well together, and committed to new avenues of communication about the true and actual distribution of authority across our many staff and non-vocational church leaders.

The Elder Board affirmed the Finance Committee’s report that we have ‘gone the second mile’ in absorbing, for the sake of peace, all financial impact related to completing our leadership of Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF). All burden related to unwinding the financial side of HBF has been borne by our church alone, not by church plants here or overseas. All monies given by HBF churches have been utilized solely for church-planting purposes and spent according to Elder-approved budgets. Another clean 2016 audit from CapinCrouse, as well as a clean CapinCrouse audit related specifically to the HBF 2017 financial wind down, along with five years of ECFA membership in good standing, establish beyond dispute the financial integrity of Harvest Bible Chapel.

In the matter of the wisdom of HBF finances, the Elders concluded:

  • HBF financial records, specifically the detail on some ledger entries, was incomplete and made the review by Great Commission Collective (GCC)[5] board representatives more difficult. When this deficiency came to the attention of church financial officers, appropriate changes were quickly made. The only place reasonable detail was withheld from GCC representatives was in the privacy of specific HBF staff salaries.
  • In the financial review on July 21, 2017, the GCC board questioned our wisdom regarding three areas of Harvest Bible Fellowship finances. These GCC opinions were fundamentally flawed from the start, but because they wouldn’t yield to better information, these came to be called “disputed amounts.”[6] Harvest and GCC board representatives held discussions in hopes of seeing these “disputed amounts” the same way, but could not resolve the impasse. Our staff was rightly insistent that we not agree to GCC conclusions, having already met any reasonable expectation of financial disclosure to what had, by this time, become an entirely new independent entity. It is not surprising a separate group of leaders would expect to discover financial decisions they would have made differently; we would make many decisions differently than GCC made this summer. The issue is not the difference of opinion in our HBF financial management, but using those opinions to discredit our church before the HBF pastors.
  • In seeking to end the discord amicably for the sake of the HBF churches we love, our church treasurer was authorized by the Executive Committee to offer long-term giving commitments that would exceed the “disputed amounts.” Additionally, we reasonably requested a commitment to ending hostility across our common constituency as an acknowledgment of our expressed commitment to working together.[7] They quickly refused and we accepted, wanting most of all for the debate to end. And, believing the financial part of the agreement was still in place, we announced it at our Vertical Church Conference in August.
  • More recently, GCC communicated in writing to all HBF Pastors that they have no ongoing relationship with us at any level. “There has not been, and will not be, any exchange of money between GC Collective and Harvest Bible Chapel/Harvest Bible Fellowship. … Furthermore, it should be clear that there are no organizational ties between GC Collective and James MacDonald or HBC Chicago.” This communication is the final revelation of a course they have been charting since July. It gives a helpful context to actions we have found so difficult to understand. It is certainly disappointing and we pray for a change of heart, as it cannot be God’s heart to see these needless separations. Still, our church’s giving commitment to church planting will be as generous as promised and allocated to all who persevere in the relational priorities that have made HBF a special partnership for so many years. “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

We are corresponding through Pastor Cristian Barbosu and Ionica Martonfi, who along with Eastern European pastors have asked for the freedom to take up the HBF mantle there and extend the priorities of Vertical Church with an independent organization that honors our history and distinctive.[8] As previously expressed, we have no desire to lead a denomination, but instead we see a fruitful season ahead of planting autonomous churches directly through our own Pastors and church, and assisting friends like the Harvest Bible Chapels in Europe.

Our staff is hearing from many HBF Pastors and hopes to work with our Elders to prepare a correspondence before Thanksgiving, where Pastor James and others answer questions. The purpose is to express our heart and assure them of our desire to continue in fellowship, regardless of who each church chooses to partner with in the days ahead.

After an extensive review of correspondence, the Elders established that in any place where relational dissonance remains multiple invitations for resolution and reconciliation have been attempted and will continue. Pastors and HBC Chicago Elders remain available to meet at the request of any HBF church Elder Board, in hopes of biblical resolution.

As we move toward the holiday season, our Elders are thanking the Lord for the visible increases in attendance, giving, and gospel impact across our Chicagoland campuses. We reported to the church on October 7-8 that we were about 4% behind giving projections for the year. We are pleased to see the faithfulness of God in that gap being closed to now only 2% through November 6. Our confidence as always is in the Lord, and our gratefulness is to the Lord’s people for their faithfulness.

We see a wonderful effectiveness in assimilating new people into the church, thanks to the diligence of our Campus Pastors and our improved systems. We are pleased by the fresh ministry to more than 600 unmarried adults through Harvest Connect. We also see particular gains at the Aurora Campus, in Elgin Student Ministry, and in Hope Groups across all campuses that bring us great joy. 

For the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:2).
The Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel

[1] If you are curious to learn more, see our 2009 Report here.

[2] Early reflection centered upon contributive error; see September Elder Update.

[3] See Proverbs 22:10; Romans 16:17.

[4] Executive Staff (XLT): Scott Milholland, Jeff Donaldson, Trei Tatum, Luke MacDonald, Janine Nelson, Landon MacDonald, Mohan Zachariah, Jeff Sharda, Dave Learned

[5] GCC is one of several new groups forming out of the old HBF.

[6] 1) Systems Project: The governance of HBF was under the authority of HBC Elders, as was the decision to fund a portion of the systems project through HBF, believing it would benefit many churches through an app, Fellowship One module, better-performing websites, and tablet assimilation. 2) 5% Giving: While HBF local church giving was set at 5% of budgeted annual general fund, there was never a rule or even an expectation as to how an individual church needed to generate that; certainly no rule it had to come from the church’s general fund. That capricious standard, and the conclusion that our church failed to meet the standard, is entirely without basis or historic precedent among those who know the history of Harvest Bible Fellowship. Actual spending totals from our church to HBF in 2012-2016 averaged 9.1% of the General Fund. 3) Shared Expenses: In the 17 years since church planting began through Harvest Bible Chapel, our church has stepped up again and again to give in sacrificial ways. Fair-minded analysis would conclude that the shared services totals over 3-4 years had become more considerate of cost to the parent organization, perhaps a bit too much so. Had the tone of the GCC meeting been more gracious, we could have easily resolved this matter. Instead we’ve had to hear the accusation that our church is a taker and not a giver to Harvest Bible Fellowship, which is truly unfortunate.

[7] During this time, we were negotiating in good faith on the assumption that GCC wanted to be our church planting partner, as they had said initially.

[8] See letters to Pastor Cristian Barbosu and Ionica Martonfi/Eastern European Pastors.
 Letter to Cristian Barbosu and Arad Elders, October 12, 2017
• Letter to Harvest Europe Senior Pastors, October 14, 2017