Monday, May 21, 2007
Plagiarism: The Prostitution of Preaching
Plagiarism – “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (another's production) without crediting the source.”
“One day I was walking alongside the seashore and I noticed that thousands of starfish had washed up upon the shore….”
If you have been in the church for any amount of time you probably know where I’m going with this illustration because you’ve heard it several times from pastors all claiming it as if it were their own. In fact while I was in college I heard this illustration three times during my four years in chapel by pastors who were telling it like this actually happened to them!
Sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to plagiarism in illustrations. We don’t expect or require that our pastors are always telling us the truth or are genuinely giving an example of something that happened to them. When I hear a pastor preach I honestly do not know what to believe anymore. Did this man really throw starfish back into the ocean? Is this man’s nephew really in the army? Does he really have a friend that plays professional baseball? I don’t know anymore! More importantly, why does the pastor feel like he has to lie to get his point across or to entertain the crowd?
What was once the case in the world of illustrations is now becoming the norm with entire sermons. Illustrations aren’t the only things getting stolen anymore. Even worse is the fact that some pastors encourage this by selling their sermons
This past Easter I got an email from Fellowship Church offering me Ed Young Jr.’s Easter Sermon for only 8.95 with his own handwritten corrections! Wow, imagine having a sermon with Ed’s handwriting on it!
Not only are pastors like Ed Young Jr. encouraging pastors to plagiarize at the expense of their own congregation, he is charging 10 dollars a sermon to do it! I’m not sure what is more unethical, preaching a sermon that is not your own and pretending like it is, or selling a sermon and making money on a sermon you’ve already been paid to preach for your own congregation. The phrase “peddling God’s word for profit” is certainly relevant in this argument.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article several pastors admitted that there was nothing wrong with this.
The Rev. Brian Moon said "Truth is truth, there's no sense reinventing the wheel-if you’ve got something that's a good product, why go out and beat your head against the wall and try to come up with it yourself?"
One author actually admitted that he was just happy to have a sermon worth stealing! He wrote an article on this subject for Pastors.com entitled, “Don't be original, be effective!” In this article he says, “Let's forget about originality – which is often a form of pride.” While I understand that we should draw deep from sources in church history and those smarter than us, most people use this as an excuse to live by this mantra “Don’t be original, be lazy!” There is obviously a misunderstanding in what it means to be effective. Are we effective because of the quality of a sermon an expert has written for us or are we effective because of the Holy Spirit’s power upon our words and God’s Word?
Even more interesting is the fact that this same author seems to change his mind on this discussion depending on the day, or more likely the audience he’s writing to. In Relevant Leader he encourages people to be original! His article in this publication is titled “What Ever Happened to Originality?” Completely to the contrary of what he wrote in the previous article he says here, “As leaders we must challenge our people to dig deep and pay the price that's required to be truly creative." He goes on to say “We have allowed ourselves in either desperation or ignorance to be duped by recycled ideas instead of thoughts that were really wrought by the Spirit himself." But that is precisely what he has encouraged us to do in the article for Pastors.com. So which is it?
His definition of plagiarism might be the problem. "Real plagiarism is taking stuff out of a book and putting it into another book.” He continues saying,. "Speaking, taking people's material and putting it into a speaking forum, is not plagiarism."
Actually that is exactly what plagiarism is by definition, written or spoken. Words are words, and stealing them are the same regardless of the platform. And throughout church history that has been a given.
For an ethics class at my seminary recently I read a book called Ministerial Ethics which has an appendix with examples of codes of ethics for ministers from years past to more current codes. In all of the codes from the early 1900’s this clause is present in some form:
“It is unethical for the minister to use sermon material prepared by another without acknowledging the source from which it comes.”
From denomination to denomination the issue of plagiarism was seen as an ethical issue. Using material from someone else’s sermon without acknowledging the source was wrong. But as you continue to read the more current examples of ministerial ethical codes, one little clause seems strangely absent from the code. I don’t think I need to tell you which one.
Not today however, pastors all over the country and taking sermons and even worse, buying sermons from websites such as www.pastors.com or www.creativepastors.com (how creative is buying a sermon online?) or just getting them for free on www.sermoncentral.com and preaching them word for word as their own with no intention or conscious telling them that they should cite where the sermon came from.
So what has caused this shift from plagiarizing being one of the top ethical issues for ministers to it being a complete non-issue?
Could it be our “easy button” culture that does not want to dig for God’s truth or take the time to listen to God for their congregation? Could it be that pastors are simply choosing convenience over the difficult work of interpretation and exposition? Why be original when you can be lazy?
I will be the first to admit that I do not preach 52 Sunday’s a year, nor do I understand all the pressures that come with writing a message every week on top of all the other demands. I am compassionate about the difficult role that pastors must face. And because of my lack of experience in this role I asked another pastor who has more than 20 years of preaching experience. I have not asked his permission to use what he has said so I will leave him nameless.
When I asked what his view of plagiarism in preaching is the first thing that came out of his mouth was this statement, “Buying other people’s sermons doesn’t take seriously the call to be a pastor to a specific people, in a specific time, in a specific place.” I agree, what Rick Warren has to say to his congregation does not necessarily and I would say usually does not have much correlation with what God wants you to speak to your congregation.
He went on to say that a pastor should be able to preach a good sermon every week and there are three reasons why they would not be able to do that. I have added a possible fourth and expounded upon the reasons.
1. The pastor does not have the gift or calling to preaching.
Preachers have an innate desire and passion to study God’s word and to preach the revelation that God has given their community. If the person has no desire to pour themselves into God’s word and plead for a message on behalf of their community, he probably does not have the calling to preach.
2. The pastor does not have enough time because of other demands.
This does not legitimize plagiarism but I am compassionate to this reason more than the others. A pastor during his week may simply have too many demands on their lives to be able to spend 10-20 hours preparing a sermon for Sunday. Unfortunately the elders have lost sight of the priority of preaching and the responsibility of the pastor to be spiritual leader and not just CEO of a business. This needs to change. There is a misunderstanding of what the primary responsibilities of the senior pastor are: to pray and to preach. To this I say, the pastor has got to learn to say NO!
3. The pastor has simply gotten lazy and has no discipline to study God’s word.
This goes back to our easy button culture. The pastorate is a great place for a lazy man to hide as I have heard one pastor say. That is true! Unfortunately I think this is a predominant reason that pastors would rather buy a sermon than spend the time themselves preparing. Why spend so much time crafting a message when one is just the click of a button away. The pastor has lost the discipline to listen to God on behalf of their community. And in my opinion when this happens, the pastor ceases to be a pastor regardless of what his title tells him.
4. The celebrity status of preachers has intimidated them to the task.
Because of the way we worship pastors at large churches, many preachers believe that if their messages are not as good as a mega-church pastors’ message is, then it isn’t worth preaching.
If you think that these other “celebrities” can preach better than you can to your own congregation, then it’s probably time to wrap it up. Does Ed Young Jr. or Rick Warren really know the people in your community? Of course not, you do. So if you are not better prepared to preach to your own people, my suggestion is simple: it might be time to look for a new job.
The pastor I spoke with made a bolder statement later, “Plagiarism is the prostitution of preaching, I disagree with it on so many levels.” This prostitution runs both ways. When a pastor sells a sermon manuscript to make double profit, this is wrong. I have heard many say that they sell their sermons because they want to be a resource and help other churches succeed. If this were true however, then my question is this, “Why don’t you just give it to the church for free?” Why would you charge money on something you are already getting paid to do if the entire motivation was to help other churches? It’s simple, you wouldn’t. This is another way that the capitalistic church can make a few bucks and sadly take away money from struggling churches that actually need it. Plagiarism is more than an ethical issue, it is a stewardship issue at heart.
When you buy or steal someone else’s sermon everyone loses. It hurts the people that God has entrusted you to preach His message. It hurts you because you are not taking the time or developing the discipline to sit and listen to God. It spends money your church could be using for more beneficial purposes. After all, the church is paying you to write a sermon not to contract it out for 10 dollars! Worst of all, plagiarizing is short-circuiting the Holy Spirit’s role upon your own life and the life of your congregation. God has a specific message that he wants to give your congregation. It is your job as a pastor to listen and be the conduit of that message. Not to give the message that God gave Rick Warren to give to his congregation in Southern California.
When pastors stop listening to God, studying Scripture themselves and instead buy a pre-packaged sermon, they stop being pastors. Instead they turn into lazy consumers who are either burnt out on speaking every week and probably need a break, or idolaters thinking that a “celebrity” preacher can probably say it better than what God can give them personally.
The joy of being a pastor is getting to sit down, open up our heart to our Creator and plead for a Word for Sunday! Don’t get lazy and don’t let other demands get in your way this Sunday. The vocation that God has called you to requires it, and your people are dying for it.
Posted by Dustin at 4:55 PM