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James MacDonald: Man, Myth, & My Friend

An Unexpected Friendship

In the winter of 2009, just prior to planting Redemption, I was blessed to work at Harvest Bible Chapel for three months. I led worship for student ministry and developed student bands.

One afternoon while writing chord charts, I looked up to see James MacDonald, the founding and Senior Pastor of Harvest, standing in my cubicle (a bit intimidating, to say the least).

James heard that I was preparing to plant a church with the Acts 29 Network and wanted my thoughts on our then-president, Mark Driscoll. James' ear had been filled with a good deal of negative feedback about Mark. Yet rather than simply internalizing the opinions of others, James was setting up a time to sit down with Mark face-to-face in order to get to know him for himself (something I will never forget and greatly admire).

I shared my strong admiration and deep affection for Mark. I told James about the impact Mark had on my ministry and marriage and why I had chosen to plant as a part of his network.  James listened carefully and weighed every word I said. He thanked me and wished me the best, and I assumed that was the last time I'd talk to him. But by God's grace, I continued to run into James - around Harvest, at conferences, and then at the Acts 29 annual retreat. James sat with Tami and I at dinner, encouraged us, laughed with us, and prayed for us.

At the end of the night, he gave me his cell phone number and offered to meet with me to talk church planting, ministry, and marriage. A few months later back in Chicago, James got off a plane at 11pm after a weekend of preaching in another state and sat with me (at a Denny's of all places) for almost two hours. I asked him why he had agreed to meet with me. I was honestly curious. He has a huge church, a mountain of responsibility, a church planting network, an international radio ministry, and yet took time to meet with a brand new church planter who had no investment in his ministry.

His reason: "Because you're a Senior Pastor, and I love pastors."

James has spent the last three years of our friendship proving the validity of that statement. I’ve had the great privilege of spending more private time than many with James. I’ve shared meals with him, exercised with him, traveled with him, and served Jesus alongside of him. James has demonstrated the same three characteristics over and over in every setting.

One: Pastor James is a fervent family man

I’ve been a Christian in the Church for long enough to know that many men are great pastors but horrible husbands and fathers. Quite frankly, I have no respect for any preacher or pastor (no matter how gifted) who does not lovingly and sacrificially lead in his own home. James is an amazing husband and dad. You should see the way his wife, Kathy, still looks at him after all these years - she adores him! I’m also friends with his sons. Both Luke and Landon love Jesus, pastor at Harvest, and admire their dad. I beg God each day for the grace necessary to be this kind of husband and father.

Two: Pastor James is a generous steward

Generous. There’s no better way to describe James. He lives his entire life as a steward of all God’s given him. Time, energy, wisdom, money - all are used for God’s glory and the good of those around him. He has always looked for every opportunity to bless me and to bless my family. It would take weeks of posts to communicate all he’s done for us. The majority of James’ generosity is completely unknown, because he takes Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6:1-4 very seriously. He cares only that God sees and is honored in and through his generous stewardship.

Three: Pastor James is an enduring shepherd

On Saturday September 21, 2013, Harvest Bible Chapel celebrates her 25th anniversary. If you are not a pastor in general, and a senior pastor in particular, you cannot fully comprehend the significance of pastoring one church for that long. James started Harvest with 18 people, and throughout the past 25 years, it has grown into the thousands. To be honest, I’m far less impressed by the growth of the church and far more impressed by the growth in James. You don’t pastor in one place for that long without significant personal and spiritual growth. He’s endured more than I can imagine and persevered through more pain than I can conceive of. For this reason alone, he has my deep admiration.

The MacDonald Myth

James has been unfairly, and often unbiblically, criticized over the past couple of years.

I’ve been with James on some of those darker days. While most perceptive people can quickly spot an irrational hatchet job for what it is, I can tell you he feels it very deeply for both his family and his church!

Furthermore, the accusations simply do not square with the man I know James to be. The James MacDonald so frequently caricatured in these criticisms is a myth. For someone so supposedly committed to the building of his own empire, James has invested an unbelievable amount of time, energy, and money in a nobody church planter right down the street from his flagship campus. With James' support, encouragement, and help, some people have even transitioned from Harvest to Redemption to aid us in the mission of Jesus. In short, the only kingdom I’ve ever seen James build is the kingdom of Jesus.

No matter how unfair the accusations, or harsh the criticism by those professing to be his brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ve never heard James do anything other than speak with grace and mercy toward them. He seeks to listen to and learn from his critics and carry himself in a way that honors God, no matter what.

Honoring My Friend

But my goal is not to defend James. My goal is to honor my friend. As his 25th anniversary as the pastor of one of the most faithful and fruitful churches in the world approaches, I want him to know how proud of and thankful for him I am. If God has used James to bless your life in any of the ways he’s blessed mine, I’d invite you to find a  way to share your own encouragement. It may be as simple as sharing this post. I can never repay James for the friend that he’s been to me, so this post is my best attempt to bless the man that God’s used to so richly bless me.

I love you, James. I admire you, respect you, and thank God for you. Do all that you have in mind. I’m with you, heart and soul.

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