Harvest Bible Chapel is accusing former workers of publishing false information about the church, its finances and governance in a defamation lawsuit filed Oct. 16 in Cook County Circuit Court.
The evangelical megachurch based in Rolling Meadows is a plaintiff in the action, as are Senior Pastor James MacDonald, Senior Executive Pastor/Chief Operating Officer James Scott Milholland, Elder Board Chairman Ronald Duitsman and Elder Board member William Sperling.
Several defendants, identified as Ryan M. Mahoney, Melinda Mahoney, Scott W. Bryant and Sarah Bryant — are accused of funding and operating The Elephant’s Debt, a website the church says defrauds and defames. Another plaintiff, Julie Stern Roys, is named for comments made as host of a show on Moody Radio in Chicago, as well as on her personal website.
In the complaint, Harvest details its 1988 founding and growth into an organization that included more than 100 churches by 2014, as well as the development of schools and broadcasting facilities and accumulation of assets worth more than $100 million. It also said the Elder Board has 31 members to lead the church and manage more than 400 employees. The church’s complaint further detailed several endorsements of its financial integrity.
According to the complaint, Ryan Mahoney was a Harvest Christian Academy teacher until 2010 when the church didn’t renew his contract. The church said it disciplined Mahoney three times for allegedly negating MacDonald’s sermons in his classroom “and influence HCA students to share his cynical view of Harvest and its culture.”
The complaint further said Mahoney met Scott Bryant at the church, alleging Bryant “had become equally divisive after being declined a teaching opportunity that he repeatedly pursued.” The complaint said the men stopped attending the church at the same time, then “began publishing negative and defamatory information about Harvest” on Blood Stained Ink, Bryant’s personal website, a precursor to The Elephant’s Debt, which launched in October 2012.
A major point of contention on the website is the claim the church was $70 million in debt in 2010 “and barely survived a bankruptcy in 2006,” which the church said is both untrue on its face and intentionally damaging, because it contradicts the church’s own statements of its financial standing. The church also said the website falsely portrayed MacDonald as financially unstable — including allegations of a gambling problem — and improperly published views of several former elders, saying they were given a disproportionate platform relative to the dozens of elders in good standing.
In addition to many allegedly false statements about church finances and MacDonald’s personal wealth, the church said The Elephant’s Debt lied about the structure of the Elder Board to make it appear MacDonald was trying to minimize the elders’ ability to govern, painting the pastor as an authoritarian. They say website administrators approve all reader comments, making them liable for “slanderous … false, damaging and incorrect content.”
The church said Roys “works extensively and in mutual partnership” with The Elephant’s Debt authors, noting her husband used to work with Mahoney. The church canceled Roys’ appearance as a keynote speaker for a February 2017 women’s event after she allegedly tried to get Moody Bible Institute board members to remove MacDonald’s “Walk in the Word” radio program from its network. It also said Roys declined to meet with church leadership for a story on Harvest she is currently reporting for World Magazine.
Formal allegations include violations of the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act, defamation and false light. In addition to a jury trial, the plaintiffs want the court to issue restraining orders keeping Roys and The Elephant’s Debt from publishing false information and to award damages.
Representing the church in the matter is Michael J. Young, of Westchester.