The authors of a longtime watchdog blog and Julie Roys, who was reporting on the church, face defamation claims.
Pastor James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel filed a lawsuit this month against two ex-members and former Moody Radio host Julie Roys, accusing them of spreading false information about the Chicago-area megachurch’s financial health and leadership.
The main targets of the church’s defamation complaint are Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant, who together run the blog The Elephant’s Debt. The site has culled stories of alleged mismanagement at Harvest since 2012, including claims of as much as $70 million in mortgage debt and a lack of accountability from its elder board.
Harvest has addressed some of the criticisms. MacDonald, its founder and senior pastor, apologized in 2014 to a trio of former elders who were disciplined for speaking out about a “culture of fear and intimidation.”
But the church challenges the blog’s characterizations of its financial standing and MacDonald’s character, wealth, and leadership. The lawsuit lists more than 57 points of disagreement with details published on The Elephant’s Debt.
Leaders at Harvest said the blog harmed its reputation enough that 2,000 people have left the congregation over the past few years. The multi-site church numbers 13,000 attendees across seven locations, making it one of the biggest in Illinois.
“Our goal was to end their prolonged and divisive effort to undermine the Elder governance of our church and to discredit our primary leaders,” elders said a statement to their congregation this month. “We have chosen to accomplish that by filing a civil suit in Cook County.”
Mahoney, a former teacher at Harvest Christian Academy, and Bryant left the church in 2010. They posted the bulk of their updates on The Elephant’s Debt between 2012 and 2013, including testimonies from more than a dozen former elders and staff members who were concerned about the direction of the church.
Before the October 17 suit—which also names Mahoney’s wife and Bryant’s wife—the blog had not been updated all year. They declined to answer questions from CT, citing the legal proceedings, but wrote online in response:
While the authors of this website would never have chosen to resolve our differences in a litigious manner, we are confident that the legal process will ultimately uphold the values of the first amendment right to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, all of which are essential to safeguarding the values of the Protestant Reformation and our common life.
Last week, a Cook County judge dismissed the church’s request for an emergency restraining order, which would have barred The Elephant’s Debt and Roys from publishing about MacDonald and Harvest while the case proceeded. Now, the defendants await another filing for the defamation complaint, which includes charges under the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act of using false or misleading information to disparage the work of the church.