Plagiarism… Pastoral Ethics in Question
I was recently visiting the ChurchLeaders.com blog and read an article called Pastoral Plagiarism: 10 Do’s and Don’ts. It made me think about the issue of Pastoral Ethics. You may or may not have come across a pastor who has plagiarized a sermon or a series of sermons before. I know it happens not only from what I have read but also from what I have experienced indirectly.
Many years ago, a family member who was a leader in a church far away from where I lived contacted me. The family member went on to tell me that he had discovered that his pastor had been plagiarizing a series of sermons during a recent evangelistic event. It wasn’t just that the sermons had contained thoughts and ideas from other people.
The entire series of presentations had been presented verbatim including the personal illustrations and personal observations. The pastor had presented the series as if he himself had experienced the events he described and had come up with the thoughts and ideas in the sermon as if they were his. There had been no mention that the talks had been written by someone else. No indication that the stories and illustrations the pastor had presented did not in fact happen to him personally.
To say that this had a great negative effect on trust is understating things. Once it was proven that this had happened once, it automatically put the pastor under suspicion of having done it at other times. At the bottom of the article I referenced above, a number of comments were made below the article from church members who had experienced similar plagiarism from their former pastors. Some of these pastors had plagiarized all of their sermons going back two years or more.
Before I go any further, let me take a few moments to explain the difference between true plagiarism and borrowing from sources in your sermons and presentations. A public speaking presentation like a sermon isn’t usually in an academic context. In a school setting, especially as you get to grad school, there is an expectation that every source will be documented in some fashion including those sources that inspired the writer of the paper but may not have been included directly in the finished manuscript. No one expects a pastor to quote author, book and page number for every single idea or story they are presenting.
the pastors in question read their sermons word for word. They told personal stories in the first person as if it had happened to them personally. This is highly misleading. It violates the principle of trust.
No, plagiarism like the experience my family member had of the ones mentioned by the commentators in the article referenced above is different. In these cases, the pastors in question read their sermons word for word. They told personal stories in the first person as if it had happened to them personally. This is highly misleading. It violates the principle of trust. Parishioners are expecting that the personal stories that are being presented were in fact experienced by the pastor. When this is not the case, it must be made clear that the story is being told in the first person for effect and did not happen to the pastor personally.
Leadership relies on trust. Without trust, the only thing keeping you in your position is your title. As long as you hold the position of ‘pastor’ you will have a measure of authority. Without trust though, that authority is severely limited. People will do only the bare minimum. Without trust there can be no respect. Without trust there can be no love. Without trust there can be no influencing members in a positive direction. Trust is vital to any pastor’s success in ministry.
We pastors must do everything in our power to guard the trust people place in us. We must go to whatever length are necessary in order to guard it. Some pastors and even some lay people may dismiss plagiarism as a minor problem by stating or believing that everyone copies everything. To do so is to do so in a dishonest manner. Yes, there is nothing new under the sun as the writer of Ecclesiastes wisely tells us. The issue isn’t that someone copies material from others. The issue is whether the pastor can truly be trusted with continuing in his position.
I challenge all pastors everywhere to CONSIDER trust as a key value in their ministry. To guard it with everything they have. To recognize that without trust, love is in trouble. Without trust, everything about being a pastor is harder.
What does it say about our ethics when we can borrow whole sermons from others and not give any credit? What are we afraid of? That people won’t listen because it comes from a source that some people may not approve of? Maybe some are simply overloaded with work and cares that they haven’t spent any kind of time with God and in meditation to come up with something new. Still others may simply like being able to take things easy and not have to do the hard work of bible study, prayer and research needed to get a sermon ready each and every week.
Let’s endeavour to take the high road. To choose to stand above the grey and shady areas of life. The live solidly in what is permitted and stay far away from the edge of right and wrong. Our people will come to respect us for that. Our work as leaders will have greater impact when trust is maintained throughout our time in a pastoral district.
Remember: Trust is hard to get and easy to lose. Once we lose someone’s trust it takes a long time before they will trust us again. Let’s do everything we can to prove ourselves worthy of God’s calling on our lives by living lives that are above reproach. Paul says it best in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27
“So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”