Monday, November 03, 2014

Why Pastoral Plagiarism Is Wrong

Dealing with a situation in my own church life, I have located a lot of articles on the internet with regard to pastoral plagiarism. With the advent of widely available digital resources it seems that the problem has become epidemic. Some defend and legitimize it. Others condemn and make it a matter of legality, insisting that a pastor caught plagiarizing should resign or be released. While I would never defend the practice, I do not automatically interpret plagiarism as outright lying. I do think a pastor should be released for the offense, and not merely because of the moral issues involved. I think oftentimes plagiarism is not a malicious attempt to deceive, but a desperate act when a pastor's own resources have dried up. As I throw my thoughts into the ring, I want to look at several aspects of the issue that I have not seen elsewhere.

What Do I Mean By Plagiarism?

By way of qualifying what I mean by sermon plagiarism, I would define it as using another's work as the bulk of a sermon without citing the source. Every good preacher will often consider and quote resources which are not original (foremost among these the writings of the biblical authors) and will frequently find in the works of others the spark of an idea that inspires a sermon. I believe a line is crossed when you utilize the exact words of another while representing them as your own.

The Place of Preaching in the Church

Most small to mid-sized churches cannot afford to have a stable of 'specialty' pastors. They can not support a preaching pastor, an administrative pastor, and a separate counseling pastor. The man who pastors this church must be a able to handle all of these functions and more, and must be able to budget and prioritize his time accordingly. A man who is gifted as a counselor will naturally tend to budget more time (or give more time to urgent needs) for counseling. Gifted administrators will drift toward administrative tasks. A gifted preacher will want to dedicate more time to study and preparation of sermons. When selecting a pastor, a modest church should determine which of these is most important and seek a man whose gifting matches their need.

So how should a church decide which of these should be most important? In the Book of Acts, Chapter 6, there arose a need for more counseling and administration among the early church members. The apostles addressed the issue in a unique way:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." Acts 6:1-4 ESV
Recognizing that their primary calling was the ministration of the word, the apostles sought to have the church select a governing body from among themselves to handle issues not related to preaching. These first deacons were chosen to mediate between the parties and to minister to the practical needs of the church, freeing the church leadership to concentrate on prayer and the preaching of the word. This first church model requires that the church seek lay leaders who are capable of mediation and administration, full of the Spirit and wisdom. These men need to recognize that they are co-equally responsible with the pastor to insure that he has the time needed to prepare a message that will present the gospel in a fresh, powerful and effective way. They should deal with squabbles and needs within the church that would distract the pastor from his primary function as a preacher of good news.

Likewise, if a church expects to adopt the first-century model her members must be willing to accept the fact that the pastor does not have a revolving door and will not be continuously available to them to meet any and every need. This means that the church will need to understand the importance of preaching and be prepared to respect and guard the pastor's preparation time, leaning on the lay leadership to meet other needs. A pastor who spends time in study with his door closed is not 'aloof', but wise. The pastor who continually caters to the tyranny of the urgent is more likely to resort to plagiarism because he 'can't find the time to study'.

Paul councils his protégé Timothy, pastor at the church in Ephesus:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:16 ESV
Perhaps I am naïve as a lay person, but I believe that the pastor who effectively communicates the gospel will find a decreasing need for mediation, administration and counseling duties. By persisting in the teaching and preaching of the gospel, he is saving both himself and his hearers. Faith always comes by hearing, and a congregation that has a living faith is a congregation who is hearing the good news preached to them week in and week out. The gospel is always the answer, and preaching the answer Sunday after Sunday is bound to head off many of the problems that tyrannically steal a pastor's time.

The Root of Plagiarism

With all of that said to establish the importance and primacy of the preaching of the gospel, let's explore what the practice of sermon plagiarism indicates. An effective preacher is one who can take the truth that God speaks to him through a passage of scripture and focus that truth through the lens of scripture upon his audience. There is a sense of immediacy in this kind of preaching - as if God were speaking directly to each person in the room. This preacher can present the word as living and active, first wounding and then healing the audience by effective use of law and grace. Anyone who has ever preached in this way will tell you that it must come from a sense of urgency that God places within you while studying the scripture. Even the re-use of your own sermons, regardless of how well they preached in the past, cannot re-create the urgency and impact with which they were first inspired, preached and received by your hearers. How then can the use of someone else's words capture and direct those qualities?

The pastor who is willing to plagiarize his sermons is logically suffering in one of several ways. He is either unwilling or unable to feel that sense of urgency from the word, unable to convey that sense of urgency, or unable or unwilling to invest the time in study to hear from God with that sense of urgency. He will find that sermon preparation holds no joy for him. He cannot recognize the jaw-dropping wonder of the gospel and as a result he cannot convey it to others. I suspect that most pastors do not begin their ministries feeling this way, else no one would ever enter the preaching ministry. When facing down a Sunday sermon becomes nothing more than a chore and a task that you have no desire to do, I can only imagine that pastoring becomes a bleak and dismal occupation. Preaching is always burdensome because you feel the weight of rightly dividing and passionately delivering the word of God to your hearers. When even the hearing from God becomes a burden, I can see where the temptation toward plagiarism could become almost unbearable.

Some defend plagiarism by stating that certain pastors are just not gifted at preparation and communication and therefore serve their congregations better by using the sermons of others. I would counter that by arguing that preparation and communication are the primary functions of pastoring and the man who does not have the desire or ability to do these has missed his calling. Hopefully we have not come to the point within the church where we believe that pastoring is merely an occupation that does not require a particular calling. In a majority of cases where plagiarism occurs, I have to believe it is a result of a man's faith growing cold or his allowing too many things to distract him. But in the case where he never had the desire or ability to preach, he has missed his call and would do well to find an occupation that utilizes his true giftings. 

Everybody Does It

The most common defense I hear for plagiarism from the pulpit is that everybody does it. First off, that is simply not true. Many people use bits and pieces of others work and simply cite the sources. A pastor does not have to (and probably will not be able to) come up with several entirely original sermons every week, but he must never use that as an excuse to pass another's work off as his own. The "everybody does it" excuse never worked with your mother and it shouldn't work with the church. If this same man were to be caught downloading pornography, no one would simply shrug it off with "everybody does it" though in fact there would be more truth in that statement. Churches should expect better.

A pastor knows that the church is paying him a salary to do prep and present a compelling sermon several times weekly and that using and citing the works of others may feel like he is not investing the required time (or does not have the ability) to do so. If he then begins to plagiarize sermons to cover the perceived deficit he is effectively lying to his congregation, allowing them to believe that he is fulfilling his obgligations when he is in fact stealing the work of another. He would do better to cite and quote the works of others that he respects and feels will benefit his congregation.

A Deeper Problem

To me, plagiarism of sermons indicates a deep spiritual problem. When a man is not hearing from God and no longer sensing the awe of the gospel, continuing to preach borrowed sermons is merely a bandaid over a mortal wound. Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) said: “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” When a man comes to the place where he applies himself to his text in such a superficial way as plagiarism of another man's understanding of the word, can he be applying the text to himself in any less superficial a manner? The man in such dire circumstances needs a gospel IV; direct and prolonged exposure to the good news of the gospel. Often his pride may prevent him from removing himself from the pulpit despite his evident spiritual drought. Rather than humble himself before God and his congregation and admit that he has lost his love for the gospel he will resort to measures as desperate as plagiarism.

Despite the moral implications of plagiarism, which indicate a problem with integrity, the spiritual implications may be more critical. Pastors are held to high account and should be those among us who are most watchful to keep their spiritual wells from running dry. They, like all of us, must search out the gospel at every turn through time in the word, study of the word, exposure to other Christ-centered preaching and teaching, and fellowship with other gospel-dominated believers. Beyond that, they are specifically tasked with delivering that gospel to a congregation. If a man no longer seeks the gospel, he is no longer fit to serve it. Churches must look long and hard at this issue and not simply dismiss it with an "everyone does it" excuse. It should be assumed that any man preaching a sermon which is not his own without specific attribution of the source has lost the will to seek God for his inspiration and is operating according to the flesh.

That, harsh as it is, is the gospel truth.

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