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Pastoral Plagiarism: Why Pastors Do It — And Why Evangelicals THINK They Do

Pastoral Plagiarism: Why Pastors Do It — And Why Evangelicals THINK They Do July 6, 2021

Hi and welcome back! This past weekend, we looked at the Ed Litton pastoral plagiarism scandal. As it turns out, the current Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president had stolen sermons from former SBC president J.D. Greear without attributing them. While reading about this scandal, I noticed a number of evangelicals making all kinds of guesses about why pastors swipe sermons. But very few seem to hit upon the real reasons why this happens. Today, let me show you evangelicals’ guesses about why pastoral plagiarism happens, the reasons for it that evangelicals can’t discuss, and most importantly why they can’t discuss this truth.

pastoral plagiarism is like stealing strawberries off mama's sink counter
(Kelly Sikkema.)

(Or any other truth about their faith, I guess. Pastoral plagiarism, by the way, is not simply the reusing of a sermon. On the Ed Litton post, we learned of a few pastors and preachers who reuse sermons and ideas — but always cite sources. Rather, pastoral plagiarism involves reusing a sermon without attribution, so that a congregation thinks the sermon is the work of that pastor. Also: all emphases in quoted material come from their sources unless I say otherwise.)

Evangelical Self-Interest Rules All — As Always.

Of course, SermonCentral, a sermon clearinghouse we checked out in the Ed Litton post, praises the practice of reusing other pastors’ sermons. As Brian Mavis wrote for them:

The widespread use of gleaning from other people’s sermons is here to stay. The goal is to use the resource wisely and well. To cheat your congregation by overusing sermon resources is wrong. But it can be equally as wrong to avoid using them because of pride, and possibly cheat your congregation out of a better message. The Good News combined with good resources is a powerful combination for reaching your congregation and community for Christ.

That page’s URL is “copy_it_right,” amusingly enough.

Docent Group, the sermon-preparing service that J.D. Greear himself lavishly praised in 2012 for “making [him] look good,” bills itself similarly as a pastor’s “partner” on its “Services” page:

When you partner with Docent, you are extending your research capabilities and guaranteeing that you’ll have the resources you need to do your job well.

(See this endnote for a hilarious note about J.D. Greear’s endorsement. Seriously, I cannot even.)

So shockingly enough, evangelicals with a self-interested reason to like canned sermons like them plenty. I’ve also found pastors who considered it a compliment to have their work stolen by other pastors. They regarded it as distinctly un-Jesus-y to get upset about this theft. A common saying among them (here’s one example) was “if my bullet fits your gun, then shoot it.”

However, other evangelicals tend to disapprove of using canned sermons at all — much less of pastoral plagiarism!

Evangelical Guesses About Pastoral Plagiarism: SIN EDITION.

I found no shortage of guesses made by evangelicals about why pastoral plagiarism occurs. Heck, they even despise canned sermons. But they really let loose about pastoral plagiarism.

Most sources thought that pastoral plagiarism constituted sinful behavior. (See: Desiring God; Biblical Leadership; Gospel Coalition (2020).)

Joe McKeever, a fairly popular evangelical pastor, blogged in 2017 that in addition to being sinful, this behavior constituted grounds for firing a pastor. He notes in that post that he knows of two pastors who were fired for that reason.

An Old Guard-aligned evangelical blog, Capstone Report, just puts pastoral plagiarism down to a lack of “moral fiber to lead.” They lovingly quote another Old Guard blog, Reformation Charlotte, whose writer decided that this scandal is super-serious:

[This pastoral plagiarism] amounts to nothing less than one of the greatest scandals the Southern Baptist Convention has ever faced in its entire history.

Oh okay, that’s not at all a shocking set of misplaced priorities. Okay.

(If you read that quote and went “O.O” at it, know this: we’re coming back to it in a couple of days.)

However, almost every source I consulted outright stated or at least quietly conceded, as Scot McKnight did in 2019, that pastoral plagiarism is both widespread and found at all levels of evangelical leadership.

More Guesses: Pastoral Plagiarism Results in Inauthentic Sermons.

Incidentally, Scot McKnight’s main problem with pastoral plagiarism was that “someone else is doing the deeply engaging and intimate work of what preaching actually is.” That means the pastor/preacher acted merely, he wrote, as “a performer, not a pastoral preacher and teacher and sage.”

John Piper himself, the owner of Desiring God, seems to feel similarly. He said during an interview in 2016:

I have tried over the years to imagine a situation in which I might feel peace or authentic in using another person’s outline or sermon as my own. And I have never been able to imagine such a situation. It seems, frankly, utterly unthinkable to me that authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word.

A 2018 Gospel Coalition post seems to have a similar opinion:

Having a “bag of tricks” is being a secondhander, and we must guard against it. [. . .]

Secondhand ministry uses truth to cover falsehood. So burn the bag of tricks and never return to it. [. . .]

As we continue learning from others, may we minister from Christian experience that is altogether firsthand.

In 2008, Ed Stetzer thought much the same of using other pastors’ sermons:

It amounts to a kind of lip-syncing that not only robs a church of a truly prophetic voice, but also a pastor of his own necessary development.

None of this is really true, however.

Learning Charisma — Or Not.

My old denomination, United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI), ran a Bible College in Houston for a while. I see that college still operates in another town — and interestingly, it offers a course in “Homiletics.” La Wiki tells me that homiletics involves the art of preaching (which includes writing and giving sermons). I also see courses in “Personal Evangelism” and “Interpersonal Communication,” among others that might involve soft skills. In addition, I spotted a 2015 article about this one Catholic seminary in Detroit that was inviting actors to work with budding priests to help them learn better public-speaking skills.

When a bright-eyed young evangelical lad heads off to evangelical seminary, however, things look different there. They can teach him a lot of stuff about the Bible and how it works. Alas, seminaries don’t tend to teach speaking skills or how to cultivate any of the soft skills necessary for charismatic leadership.

I found some course lists for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, or SBTS. Check out their “Black Urban Ministry” degree and “Applied Theology.” None of it includes anything about leadership skills or public speaking. The closest we seem to get is “Guided Mentorship” for their “Doctor of Missiology” degree. (If you’re wondering, it’s for evangelicals who want to live abroad on someone else’s dime be missionaries.)

Similarly, the multi-denominational Fuller Theological Seminary DMin course listing contains nothing that looks like homiletics.

That finding is par for the course (haha). Evangelical pastors get super-indoctrinated, sure. But they do not generally learn charisma or speechwriting. If they don’t already have those soft skills, then they’ll be learning them on the job.

And that’s only if they can learn them at all, ever, what with that authoritarian streak of theirs.

This is why the rare charismatic leaders in evangelicalism shoot straight to the superstar top levels of leadership. The rest, lacking innate charisma, languish at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Charisma is rare in evangelicalism — for a variety of unpleasant reasons.

Pastoral Plagiarism: Some Simple Authoritarian Arithmetic.

It isn’t surprising at all to me, then, that many of these charisma-lacking pastors swipe sermons from other, far more charismatic pastors.

Here is the arithmetic they’re using:

  • risk of discovery is very low
  • repercussions are almost certainly low-to-nonexistent
  • every other pastor is perceived as doing much the same thing
  • it’s not specifically condemned in the Bible
  • the practice gives pastors way more time for other stuff they’d rather be doing
  • they don’t have a lot of time anyway, these days
  • the rewards for swipage could be astronomically high (“thanks for making me look good” — how far would J.D. Greear have gotten if he’d had to write all his sermons himself?)

Most authoritarians couldn’t resist such a powerful combination. Indeed, they’d look down on anyone who would refuse to take advantage of such a great opportunity.

Evangelicals reach for this same arithmetic in a lot of areas. It’s why they keep lying for Jesus in their personal testimonies. Set up a system that can be easily gamed, and bad-faith players will game it to death. It’s really that simple.

In this case, the only way pastoral plagiarism will end is if evangelical congregations take a very firm, tangible, unequivocal stand against it.

But they won’t.

So rampant, widespread plagiarism will continue to plague their pastoral ranks.

Why Evangelicals Can’t Talk About Sermon Fight Club.

Imagine this whole pile of pastors and preachers.

They aren’t very good at public speaking. They really can’t write emotionally-stirring sermons. They’re not terribly charismatic.

What they do have, however, is that nose authoritarian leaders have for power and the avenues that most reliably, most easily, most cheaply, and most quickly lead to it. Even low-level leaders have that shrewd sense, unless they’re actual true believers who haven’t figured out the long con involved in pastoring evangelical churches or who don’t want to suck up to the crony network to get ahead.

(These few sweet summer children are exempt from this discussion. I feel truly sorry for them. I just hope they awaken soon to the reality of their religion.)

Heckies, most evangelical pastors probably got into evangelical leadership specifically because they couldn’t gain that kind of personal power or income in any other line of work.

So they evolve this weird practice that almost all of them do, but they’re honor-bound to condemn it as insufficiently Jesus-y. However, their entire system isn’t at all Jesus-y.

So they’ve got to pretend pastoral plagiarism is particularly un-Jesus-y while ignoring all the stuff they do that betrays the truth about themselves and their broken system.

NEXT UP: Evangelicals have very good reason to cheat at sermon-writing, as we’ve seen, but tomorrow we’ll look at one of the most potent of those reasons: sermon fatigue. See you tomorrow!


Endnotes.

Oh my DOG, J.D. Greear’s endorsement of Docent is hilarious: This endorsement of his appears on a 2012 webpage that Docent has since removed from their site. That same year, I kid you not, he wrote a pastor’s blog post about pastoral plagiarism. No kidding. Here’s some of it:

If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit. I don’t ever think it’s a good idea to preach someone else’s sermon… but in those rare times when you feel like you just can’t help it, you have to give credit. A sermon is a major thought unit. If it’s not yours, you have to acknowledge where it came from. [. . .]

I try to be as transparent as I can with my congregation that I am heavily indebted to some particular theologians and teachers, and even some friends. [. . .]

The truth is I have had only 3 truly original ideas in my life, and they were not really that good.

He wrote that blog post about one month after the Archive captured that Docent testimonial page. Thus, they’re probably pretty close together in time. However, I’ve never seen him mention any use of sermon preparation services.

Here’s the writeup he did for his creepy 2014 “Who’s Your One” personal-evangelism-as-stalking campaign. Here are his notes for a May 2012 sermon — without one mention of the service he praised for “making [him] look good.” Ironically, that sermon cites several other pastors’ work — but not Docent’s researchers/preparers.

(Back to the post!)


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Last thoughts: Internet Archive’s auto-archiving crawler bot had grabbed a significant number of my sources right around the end of June. I suspect that coincidence reflects great interest in pastoral plagiarism due to the Ed Litton scandal.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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