Honesty Matters: The Problem of Pastoral Plagiarism

It’s been almost two years since my pastor preached one of the most vulnerable and heartfelt sermons I’ve ever heard.

I downloaded the podcast because I wanted to listen to it again:

“9 months ago . . .I realized the way I was doing the work of God was destroying the work of God inside of me. I had become a full-time minister and had demoted my relationship with God to part-time status. . .

When I was in my early 20’s. . .I told God . . . I was gonna be a real guy who taught to real people. . . in real ways. . .

I love Jesus too much to fake it.

After months of professional counseling. . . After months of preaching. . .  I surrendered fully to the love of God and I was baptized. . .

Now, I have not been living a fake life. I’m not an imposter pastor. I’ve been trying to follow Jesus earnestly. I’ve just found out over the last year that I really need Jesus in my life more than I realize. . .”

 

For those wanting to listen to the entire sermon, you can do so here:

It was powerful. So many of us could relate to feeling like we had lost “it” and how we didn’t want to fake it anymore. I wrote him an email that week thanking him for sharing with us.

Fast forward one year later. I sat in a room of church leaders to hear an important announcement about the future of our church. That’s when we were told that our pastor had plagiarized, virtually, every sermon he had preached at our church.

I had to know if this particular sermon was one of them. Within a few minutes, I was able to find the source of the original sermon. I sat down and clicked “play” on the video of his sermon and immediately started to cry.

Sad tears and angry tears.

The reality of the situation fell on me as I realized that our pastor had set up an entire scenario over months and months, including staging his re-baptism, so he could preach that sermon.

It wasn’t just the ideas of the sermons that were the same. It was every word. It was the way he paused and let his voice break at just the right time. Identical.

It’s been a year since that church meeting. That pastor is no longer at the church, but we can still feel the impact.

I’m writing this for two reasons. First of all, after all of this broke, I scoured the internet to see if anyone else had this experience. I wanted to know if anyone had a similar story. Second, as bizarre as it seems, there are people who would argue that the pastor did nothing wrong.  Since the church seemed to be growing and people were being saved, they argued that he shouldn’t have been asked to step down.

I decided to write the blog post I wished I could find then. One that answers a few questions:

So, what’s the big deal with using someone else’s sermon? Lots of pastors preach other people’s sermons.

  • In most cases, part of the job of a pastor is to write sermons and dig into Scripture so he can share it with his congregation. The assumption is that the pastor is studying God’s Word and not simply the words of another pastor. John Piper has this to say about it:

“I have problems with secondhand sermons because I think preaching and teaching is the pastor’s calling. It’s his job. He is supposed to spend whatever it takes to know the Scriptures and to make them plain for his people. And as a pastor of a local church, his job is to read the Scriptures and understand the Scriptures specifically in relation to the needs of his flock.” – John Piper

If the leaders of your church hired your pastor with the understanding that he was going to write and preach his own sermons. It’s dishonest to present someone else’s sermons as his own and it’s not fulfilling the job description.

  • Isn’t all biblical preaching inspired by God for the benefit of His people? Why does it matter who wrote the original sermon?

First, it matters because the sermon belongs to the original author.  Someone invested their time and talent to write that sermon. You wouldn’t pick up a beautiful painting created by someone else and put your name on it. You wouldn’t take a song written by someone else and put your name on it.

Second, the original author of the sermon wrote that sermon after seeking God’s direction for his particular congregation. When our pastor used those sermons, it wasn’t just the biblical interpretation he used. He read letters to us that he said had been sent by people in the community. He told us stories about his family. He said that God had led him to write these sermons for our particular congregation. All those things he shared with us had been written by another pastor for his congregation.

Our pastor stood in front of us and said, “I believe what has happened in the first 34 years of my life is nothing but God setting the table for me to preach this sermon series.” That was a line directly taken from the source material.

If the pastor leads his congregation to believe something that he knows isn’t true, that’s a problem.

I asked Dr. Gary Stratton, Professor of Spiritual Formation and Cultural Engagement at Johnson University, his thoughts on this issue. This is what he had to say:

“A journalist who uses so much as a unique sentence in their work without giving credit to the person who wrote it, faces immediate disciplinary action and, if repeated, a loss of employment. A faculty member who tries to pass off someone else’ research or creative project as their own will find themselves seeking for employment, not in another university, but outside of higher education altogether. I’m not sure why pastors should be held to a lower standard.

Pastors can and do borrow ideas from other preachers. There is even a long history of reading entire sermons written by others when you think your congregation really needs to hear it. John Wesley was converted while listening to the reading of a sermon by Martin Luther. The difference is, Wesley knew he was getting s sermon from Luther not the preacher because he told his audience whose ideas he was reading. “

  • Is there an ethical way to use material from other pastors?

Yes. I read this article that lays out the Do’s and Don’ts. It gives some great guidelines. The author’s clincher statement is this:

The point is that good communicators borrow material all the time. But ethical ones let you know where they borrowed it.” – James Emery White

  • But what about the people who were baptized and grew in their faith under the leadership of the pastor?

If our spiritual growth was dependant on a perfect pastor, we would all be in trouble. The truth is God uses all sorts of things to draw us to Himself. The conversions are real. The baptisms are real. The spiritual growth is real.

The good things that happened can and should be affirmed. Dishonesty still needs to be addressed. Those are not mutually exclusive. If a church gives a pastor a free pass on this issue simply because giving and attendance is up, it sends a message that honesty and integrity don’t matter.

  • Well, I would be honored if someone plagiarized my writings/sermons.

I’ve heard that sentiment. That’s disappointing because it’s not just about having permission to use material. Any pastor that would be “honored” to have another pastor use their material in a way that misleads their church is part of the problem.

Would you be honored to hear that our pastor told your stories as his own and a congregation is now left feeling betrayed?

  • What if the pastor is too busy to write his own sermons?

Church leadership should be aware of the load on a senior pastor. If he can’t sustain a healthy life balance, his job description should be changed.

If you need to use someone else’s material because you don’t have time to do the work yourself, it should be done in a way that gives credit to the person who wrote it and the personal stories should be “personal”.

  • Shouldn’t we be able to trust that our pastor is telling us the truth?

When you find out that most of what you thought you knew about your pastor isn’t true, it makes you question a lot of things. It makes you wonder if you can trust any pastor. It makes you wonder if what you thought you knew about God is even true. This isn’t me being dramatic. I’ve seen it firsthand.

In my conversation with Dr. Stratton, he concluded with this:

“Passing off, not only someone else’s words, but their personal experience itself as your own goes way beyond plagiarism. At very least it is a profound breach of ministerial trust.”

I hope you never experience this, but if you do, these are some resources I found helpful:

From 9marks

10 Do’s and Don’ts of Pastoral Plagiarism

5 Leaders Examine Plagiarism in Preaching

My Pastor Uses Pre-Made Sermons. Should I Be Concerned?

If you found me because you have personal experience with this, I’m so sorry and would be happy to chat if you need a listening ear. You can drop me a note here: amy(at)amyfritzwrites.com

 

Pastoral plagiarism

 

 

9 thoughts on “Honesty Matters: The Problem of Pastoral Plagiarism

  1. Thanks for putting onto paper what so many of us are feeling. When our fake pastor was outed it was hurtful on so many levels. He has confused my children. He has confused new believers. He has discouraged seasoned believers. He was a deceiver and it is unfathomable that he would be able to preach anywhere until he has been thoroughly vetted. But the reality is that pastors like this are like whack-a-moles. They just pop up somewhere else and start preaching again. With their woo and their Christian language, they are accepted and often funded by former members of congregations they were leaders of.

    It’s made me disillusioned with the way we do church, the expectations we have of pastors, and lastly, that I can trust men in positions of leadership. Of course, not all leaders are narcissistic sociopaths, we just got lucky.

    I hope you write a follow up to how to deal with this as a congregation because frankly, it’s going to happen to other churches and they need to know how to deal with it. There is a playbook for dealing with this kind of thing.

    Public sins should be discussed publicly. But I’ll leave that for another post…another day.

    1. Andy, I don’t think I have the wisdom to write a “how-to”, but I think it would be fascinating to get the take of some professionals who study and work in the area of church health.

  2. Your points are well taken. I think for me, an equal concern would be what the willingness to steal (because let’s be honest, sermon plagiarism, like all plagiarism, is the theft of ideas and expression) and hide that theft says about the pastor and his appropriateness for leading a flock of believers. We all sin. We all make mistakes. But a pattern of deception in one’s Christian leadership, unless repented and redeemed, creates a toxic and un-Biblical Christian co-dependency. I sincerely hope both the leadership, congregation, and former pastor are dealing with this honestly, transparently, and with a spirit of reconciliation that is as public as the legacy of deception in order to restore trust, address sin, and pursue personal, albeit probably not pastoral reconciliation.

    I’m sure that this was a hard post to write, but probably not as hard as the experience itself was to process. Writing posts that fulfill “what I wish I could have found” when in the midst of a challenge are such a gift to those in the future, although we wish these challenges wouldn’t repeat themselves.

  3. This: Well, I would be honored if someone plagiarized my writings/sermons.

    As an author and speaker, I would NOT be honored if someone stole my original work. It’s called stealing.

  4. Don’t forget the time spent to “write” those sermons is theft plain and simple. He was paid for his time and everyone was under the impression he used his time to write sermons. Also the week he would take yearly to go away on his own and write sermons. What was he doing then?

    1. Hi Lisa!
      Those are good questions. If I assume the best in this situation, I guess he could have been spending the time planning sermons. It just didn’t look like he led us to believe. He was searching through other people’s sermons and figuring out which ones to preach. It takes time to transcribe and rehearse them as well. He may have even believed that these sermons were the ones our congregation needed to hear.

  5. This is tragic on many levels, not the least of which that God’s Name is dishonored when we, whether we are a pastor or Bible teacher, fail to believe He will give us the words when He gives us the responsibility to teach/preach. As a Bible teacher, I regularly glean from other resources, such as commentaries, and am extremely careful to cite the authors’ words, as these authors have worked very hard – sometimes for decades, even a lifetime – and deserve proper credit. The same goes for those who prepare spoken messages. God has a specific message for every audience and if His servants are listening for His voice, He will give them the right words – every time. He is faithful and loves the people in our audiences even more than we do.

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