Plagiarism in the pulpit

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What do we do when pastors steal sermons?

By Cory Seibel

It was a sad day in late 2004 as members of a North Carolina megachurch learned of their pastor’s resignation. A member of the church’s board had discovered that this prominent leader, formerly a key figure within the Promise Keepers movement, had been preaching sermons stolen from other pastors. The pastor cited the emptiness that had accompanied a slow spiral into depression as his reason for using other preachers’ material over a two-year period. The loss of credibility and trust this revelation created cost him his pastorate.

Plagiarism is a serious matter. Plagiarism is defined simply as taking ideas from someone else and presenting them as one’s own. In essence, it is a form of stealing and is widely viewed as a serious ethical infraction. Schools, publishers and many professional fields have clear standards designed to prevent this sort of impropriety.

If these ethical standards are taken so seriously in the arenas in which church members work, is it not reasonable to expect that the individuals occupying the pulpit will exercise at least as much care in upholding them? Furthermore, truly faithful pastoral sermons are born out of pastors’ actively grappling with the Word of God, their own hearts and the lives of their congregations. It is not enough for them merely to import a sermon from outside this context.

This being said, while we may have good cause to question the practice, it is not plagiarism for a pastor to preach someone else’s sermon if they clearly state what they are doing. For example, Rick Warren invites other pastors to preach sermons he has created, but asks that they be up-front with their congregations about borrowing his material. However, plagiarism occurs when a pastor preaches the entirety or significant portions of a message originally produced by someone else without crediting the original source. 

Plagiarism also occurs when pastors borrow significant thematic elements, stories or direct quotes from other sources and attempt to pass them off as their own. In doing this, pastors essentially deceive their congregations by presenting a false image of who they are or the work they have done. It truly is important for pastors to take the few additional seconds necessary to mention who they have borrowed the idea from. This sort of thing should matter dearly in our understanding of what it means for Christian leaders to be “above reproach” (I Tim. 3:2).

So why might Christian leaders choose to plagiarize?

It is possible that a pastor might simply be unaware of the inappropriateness of using material created by others in the ways described above. However, it is difficult to imagine a pastor completing seminary and still being unaware of this issue. 

Some pastors may be driven by feelings of inadequacy, feeling as though they lack the skills necessary to keep up with the demands of week-to-week sermon preparation. The pressure to “perform” in a competitive religious marketplace can also feed these feelings of inadequacy. It is understandable that some pastors struggle to feel significant or sufficient in a media-saturated culture of celebrity in which a select few preachers are elevated to superstar status.

Finally, as the anecdote cited at the beginning of this article illustrates, some pastors resort to plagiarism because they feel overextended or burned out. The struggle to find sufficient time to prepare or an inward feeling of emptiness can lead pastors to go searching elsewhere for something that they feel they can’t produce themselves. Pastors often find it difficult to be honest with their congregations about the fact that they are feeling overwhelmed or burned out. Thus, they end up searching for shortcuts in order to keep up. While some pastors do simply struggle with self-discipline, boundary setting, time management or laziness, in many cases the issues run deeper than this.

How should church members respond when they suspect or perhaps discover clear evidence that their pastor has engaged in plagiarism? Without at all wishing to lessen the gravity of this issue, I urge a grace-filled approach. It will be important for pastors to be confronted gently (Matt. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1; I Tim. 5:19-20) and provided an opportunity to wrestle with why they have chosen to engage in this behavior. The congregation does deserve better.

However, it is essential that church members also examine themselves. Have I actively sought to encourage and support my pastor? Have I contributed to lofty or unreasonable expectations being heaped upon my pastor? Am I doing my part in the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12), or am I leaving it all to the pastor? Basically, could I be part of the problem? The pastor probably deserves better, too.

Some church members do not see what the big deal is. Who cares as long as it is a good sermon, right? Hopefully, even if one is not especially concerned about what plagiarism in the pulpit says about pastoral faithfulness, the fact that such behavior may be a strong signal about problems with the pastor’s well-being should move us to care deeply.

 

Cory Seibel is assistant professor of pastoral ministries at MB Biblical Seminary and serves Bethany MB Church in Fresno, Calif., as part-time minister of worship. 

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