On Plagiarism and Preaching

stop-plagiarismScot Mcknight hosts one of the finest curated blogs today over at Jesus Creed. Recently he posted an article about the problem of plagiarism in the pulpit. I thought it might be helpful for folks, particularly folks in my church to understand how we approach this at Discovery.

To me, plagiarism comes down to two primary issues: the intent to mislead and the lack of attribution to the original author/thinker.

A preacher gets up and shares a story in the first person that did not happen to him. He read about it or heard it in a sermon or it happened to a friend but he tells it as if it happened to him. Plagiarism

A preacher shares an idea that she heard without appropriately attributing the source implying that it is her original idea. Plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the short cut solution to appear more impressive than you are, to appear smarter than you really are. But it doesn’t relieve that pressure, it just feeds it. Plagiarism is a secret sin, sometimes found out, but often not, making it more powerful than a public sin. It is not a kind taskmaster. At Discovery, we relieve the temptation to appear impressive in three ways.— Our preachers approach the pulpit with a posture of ‘fellow sojourner’ not ‘expert.’ More often than not our preachers share with our congregation what we are learning, not what we’ve known for years that everyone else needs to catch up with. This does not diminish the authority of a preacher, on the contrary in today’s skeptical age, I think it builds authority. We are not above the congregation. If you take a blood sample from us and test it, the DNA result would be “human” not a different species known as “preacher.” We are fellow sojourners who have a theological education and have been taught to study the Bible. We are not “sage in residence” or spiritual guru. Subtle difference maybe, but it puts a nasty dent into the temptation to look brilliant when you realize you are on the road with everyone else.

— In a similar vein, we occasionally remind the congregation that bible knowledge does  not automatically equal spiritual maturity. In modern churches, we automatically think Bible knowledge and time equal spiritual maturity, but the reality is, I spent 7 years full time studying the Bible under exceptional Bible scholars at college and graduate school. Since then, I spend 10 – 15 hours most weeks studying, plus annual study retreats. I buy theological books when they are released and I listen constantly to scholars and good thinkers. If after all that training and ongoing research I didn’t come away with the ability to listen to the text and apply it to our lives, there would be something seriously wrong with me. However, just because I can interpret the text does not make me more spiritual than, for example, the retired school teacher who serves in our nursery taking care of babies. She spent her years studying education and classroom management while I spent mine studying Bible and church history. Who is closer to Jesus? Impossible to say, but we know for sure that I don’t glean Bible wisdom because I’m a spiritual giant, I do it because I was well trained and have a weekly habit of study. Sharing some form of this reality with out church bridges the perceived gap between preacher and congregant.

— Because our preachers study a wide variety of sources in preparation for a sermon, we will end up with ideas that are either not original with us or are formed from the ideas of someone else. In my particular case, I am not a very original thinker. On the Patterson Center thinking wave length, I am a classic “finder” which means that if you give me a blank page and ask me to write a song, I don’t do well, but I can research all manner of breadth and width to form a cohesive, well informed thought from a variety of sources. I listen to sermons among many other sources and my congregation often hears me say during a sermon, “I was listening to a pastor named Andy Stanley this week and he said….” Honestly, it is a bit cumbersome, but I sure prefer that than succumbing  to the ever present temptation to exaggerate or sound smarter than I really am. So, to add to the “fellow sojourner” posture I suppose you could say that our preachers are the “chief researcher in residence” or the “chief student in residence.” So now the pressure is not to look brilliant, it is to introduce the congregation to brilliant ideas of others in a cohesive and digestible way.

As I’ve shared this with other preachers, I’ve heard, “wait, what if they prefer Andy Stanley to you and start listening to Andy Stanley?” As long as I live, I will never understand this objection. Unless I am missing something, I think it is coming from a place of insecurity. This nation has a limited number of exceptionally gifted preachers and in my opinion, Andy Stanley is one of them. I won’t make an exhaustive list, but I would also include Greg Boyd, Brenda Salter McNeal, the late Fred Craddock, John Ortberg and Tim Keller on that list as well. There are a couple of dozen others and I could make an equally strong list of scholars. You can see my list of influences for more. They are truly incredible thinkers and a gift to the kingdom. If, by introducing their excellent ideas to my people, they start listening to them regularly, that is a win for everyone and in no way diminishes my voice. But preachers, this is really important: you cannot deprive your congregation of your own influences and then complain when the congregating says, “I am not being fed.” You cannot deny that you are a product of your training and you are standing on the shoulders of great thinkers, that much of your thinking is a product of your influences. Why not relieve the temptation to be impressive and introduce your congregation to your mentors and influences? I’ll tell you this, it makes for MUCH more fun pastoral encounters. I spend a good deal of my pastoral meetings with people talking about what they’re reading or listening to. If someone at Discovery tells me, “I’m just not getting fed” I can reply with a couple of dozen phenomenal Christian thinkers that I have referenced in the last few months. If they haven’t bothered to read or listen to them, who is at fault? Not the preacher who introduced them to a veritable buffet of great options.

Finally, preachers can make the critical mistake of thinking they are the only ones in the congregation who are theologically hungry. This is certainly never true. I serve a medium sized church. We have, at last count, 5 or 6 graduate level theological degrees in our church, none of whom are in a ‘classic ministry’ role. Beyond those folks, we have dozens or more people on their own spiritual quest, reading, listening and learning. Last week I had lunch with a man in my congregation that I don’t know very well. It reminded me of the kind of lunches I had in seminary – wonderful, vigorous dialogue about theology and thinkers. He has zero theological training. He works in Information Technology. We share many theological influences – he discovered them out of necessity, wanting to make sense of his spiritual journey. I came away energized, but also reminded that many people in my congregation are theologically hungry and finding their own excellent food.

So why not share yours with them and let them share theirs with you? Why not get it all out into the open. Spiritual food is not a zero sum economy and you are not the only one eating.

In the spirit of what I’m suggesting, I’ll close with this: Andy Stanley is currently preaching a series called “Who Needs God.” In my opinion, it is one of the most important sermon series being preached today and I recommend everyone take a listen.


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