Word for Word: what is driving pastors to plagiarize?

The New York Times ran the story last week of a high-profile pastor busted for plagiarizing sermons, and his congregation's willingness to forgive him. Trying to explain what led to his behavior, Rev. Jackson says:

"It's a pattern you get into," he said, explaining he was struggling at the time with issues of self-esteem. "It happens bit by bit. You end up using more and more. You're using a little material maybe initially, and then using more. It's really not rational."

In recent years I've been alarmed by how frequently I'm hearing reports of pastors plagiarizing sermons. Clearly, the internet has contributed to the problem. Sermons in both written and audio form are quickly accessible, and the temptation to plagiarize is easier than ever before to indulge. In this regard the sin differs little from the epidemic of internet pornography.

But accessibility alone cannot account for the problem. Just as many believe porn is an unhealthy way of coping with a lack of intimacy, there must be some underlying issue that drives pastors to plagiarize. Rev. Jackson's comments above are revealing. Is a lack of self-esteem among pastors on the rise? And if it is, what is the cause?

A few months back Shane Hipps posted about the impact of video venues on preaching. Hipps says multiple-site churches that use video preaching communicate that:

"Only a preacher with a golden tongue has authority to preach the gospel. It conveys the unspoken belief that no one in the satellite congregation has the authority to speak to their context because preaching requires unique talents that only a few actually possess. Like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, only the larger-than-life giants, painted by pixelated light, and hovering above the congregation, possess these elusive talents."

This exaltation of one teacher leads to what Hipps calls "the papacy of celebrity."

Celebrity preachers are nothing new, of course. In the 18th century everyone knew the name George Whitefield. In the 19th century it was Moody. And no history of the 20th century church will fail to include the name Billy Graham. But with the advent of digital media technology and savvy church marketing in the 21st century, celebrity preachers have become omnipresent brands.

Unlike the past, gifted speakers are not merely heard by their congregation or those attending the revival or crusade. Today's "best preachers" are broadcast daily on radio and television, and their sermons resonate through cyberspace via podcasts and streaming audio.

August 01, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

peter

September 06, 2006  4:37pm

Um, who copied who, Peter or Jude? Did Mark use Q? Did Matthew? Luke directly states that he used previous sources without identifying who those sources were. Whether you borrow or not, copy or not make sure YOU are preaching the truth. I am a bivocational pastor studying for a masters. I can't even begin to remember all the places I learn stuff. If I used your stuff without giving you credit I apologize. Please know that all I want is to Preach Christ Crucified, Ressurected and Glorified.

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Carlton Thomas

August 16, 2006  11:08am

I think the greater problem rather than plagiarizing being a sin is that the preacher/pastor oftimes promotes himself and his personal perspective rather than just simply preaching Jesus and Him crucified! Today, preachers/pastors cater more to what will keep the house full and not not what will feed and fill the sheep/lambs so that they may share the message of Jesus - that He ALONE saves and gives eternal life to whomsoever He wills! Let's just get back to the basics of pointing people to Christ and stop preaching prosperity, psychiatry, and philosophy. Every true message comes from God! Why do writers, pastors/preachers/teachers publish (sell) their books and manuscripts for teaching purposes and expect that someone is not going to use them. The Purpose Driven Church / Purpose Driven Life are two good examples of what Churches are doing with materials that are provided (sold) to enhance another's message. There's nothing new under the sun!

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Kithinji

August 16, 2006  5:51am

This is terrible and pastors must get messages from the holy ghost and not be desciple of disciples

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Thom Jackson

August 09, 2006  10:18am

I'm not so sure plagiarism is a large problem when it comes to preaching... The problem is when article's are written which plagiarize. I've never preached a sermon of my own the same way twice, much less one which came from another man's thoughts. My Dad, a fellow preacher, would often give me his sermon outlines which I used for inspiration for my own sermon's. Plagiarism? I don't think so... Mark Twain said it best. "The only man that enjoyed the luxury of originality was Adam."

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Al Roever

August 09, 2006  9:09am

When I first began full-time ministry 32 years ago I was sure I would preach everything in the Bible within three years and have to go on to another church. I did promise the church that if I ever came to a Sunday morning without hearing from God, I wouldn't waste their time or mine trying to fill up the time with personal eloquence. Although there were some (very few) Sundays when we just sang a few songs, received the offering and went home, most of the time I had a revelation or illumination which resulted in a message. I resolved early on never to even read anyone else's outlines, much less borrow from anyone's sermons. If a statement in a message provoked a direction in my thinking I used the quote - attributing it to its source - and built a message around that thought. By the way, eleven years later I was preaching a five part series once a month - Sunday through Wednesday - because there just wasn't enough time in our regular schedule of services to deliver the "wondrous things" I was beholding in His Law. (Psalm 119:18) Was this effective? We grew from 50 to over 300 in less than 6 years. Not great from today's perspective of megachurches but several of the members of that congregation are ministering today with a real passion for the Word of God. I cannot conceive how anyone could read and study the Word of God with an open heart and ever run out of things to preach.

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PJ

August 07, 2006  3:22pm

The original question was, "What drives pastors to plagiarize?" Perhaps in the context of iconic and celebrity pastors, the answer lies in the hope of seeing God replicate results, as if by formula. Which begs the question, "Does God work generically by formula, or in each life and church unique to time, place, circumstance, community landscape and ministry opportunities?" If one considers, in the millions of years that He has been creating new babies, that no two human beings have ever been exactly alike, one must consider that God's concept of originality far exceeds our own. Consider the abbreviated life of Dolly the sheep, man's calculated attempt to replicate God's work by formula.

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John Donovan

August 05, 2006  11:19pm

Phil, I'd be wary of equating prophets (Jer 23:30) with preachers. I am not sure they are same calling or gifting we read in Eph 4. Some prophets may be preachers and vice-versa, but not all have the gift of the other. I find that many prophets can't preach and many preachers don't have the gift of prophecy. I agree though that God wants prophets to be delivering first hand revelation, if they aren't they are not operating in the gift. On the other hand, preachers are transmitters of Word, and maybe transmitting the Word in the form of insights of others is just what God wants and this generation needs. But I don't disagree with your point - let's understand what God wants. Perhaps it is right that I retransmit your insight to an audience that hasn't heard it before. Regardless of the "source" of the sermon, the preacher needs to seek God on the content. One further point, is all preachers are on the same team, not in competition so they should be helping each other in the task to preach the good news!

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Mark P.

August 04, 2006  6:41pm

If I remember rightly, the thing that sparked this article was a N.Y. Times story of a preacher who used another person's sermons whole cloth, even including the names of friends, without attributing his source. Had he used the sermon and given due credit to its author, there would have been no plagiarism. I agree with some others here that undue importance has been placed on the weekly sermon. The model used for church in western society may be the problem. Measuring success by numbers, revenues and conversions (mostly from other church brands), is of the World, not of God's Kingdom. Requiring pastors to be popular, influential and celebrated, is again a Worldly measure. Committees, boards and ownership are things which wear pastors down and take the church out of God's hands. Rather than feed the poor, we support missions. Rather than comfort the bereft, we deny them the right to express pain. Our model is not make disciples, but to have audiences. Pastors no longer "equip the saints (congregation) for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ", because they are expected to build up the body themselves. We have to remember not to put pastors and teachers up on pedestals, or expect them to carry out the work that is the job of the membership. We should also remember that they, like us, need loving support, have weaknesses, grow weary and stumble.

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Tim

August 03, 2006  11:52pm

This "plagiarizing" thing is a red herring for the real problems. The whole traditional-institutionalized version of "preaching" is so warped and perverted from what the N.T. describes. Where does the N.T. say preaching/teaching is lecture, one-way communication? Where does it say it's a 30-45 minute lecture? Does "preach the Word" equal lecture the Word? Where does it say it should never be "one another" oriented? The scripture used to justify this one-way communication ordeal is warped to fit men's traditions that nullify commands God has given. This system ASSUMES Jack and Jill believer won't grow up in their faith without a weekly Bible lecture. This is bogus from what the Word says will build them up. The very scripture that says believers should not "forsake meeting together" specifies "spurring one another on to love and good works" and "encouraging one another". This is a loooong ways from lecture. Participation oriented preaching and teaching produces far more learning than information dumping in lecture orientation. God's grace is BIG. It allows a tragic tradition to accomplish much of His purposes. But this not a valid reason to continue it. God wants us to get His commands right. He's waiting for us. The rush to hyper-expertise oriented lecture is only one of many red flags to help us see the system needs to be realigned with truth. Let's allow truth to trump tradition instead of the opposite.

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George Ertel

August 03, 2006  11:25am

John Tait says it best: "The Truth of God is an open source project." Being concerned about original material is missing the point of the sermon. Sermons, to me anyway, are to elucidate the Truth, not to demonstrate the skills of the speaker. It does not bother me that songs performed in church are not original. It does not bother me that scripture is quoted without reference. Why would it bother me that the sermon was not original? Years ago a visiting missionary presented the morning message. He said, "Sometimes it's good just to let the bible speak," and he read from Romans. At the time I thought, hey, he was too lazy to prepare; later I learned what he read was his own translation. Guess he wasn't too lazy after all! If you believe that the primary role of a pastor is to write originally and cogently and to speak compellingly, then I understand why you would find plagerism to be an issue. If, on the other hand, you believe the primary role of a pastor is to encourage and coach for the purpose of furthering discipleship, then why would you care who originated the sermon? Sure, Richard Baxter did both. But if I have to choose, I'll go with the pastor who disciples every time.

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