Thou shalt not steal another pastor’s sermon.
Recent cases of high-profile pastors who have been accused of lifting others’ material are raising questions about whether pulpit plagiarism is on the rise – and whether it has become a more forgivable sin.
Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was accused last year of plagiarism in material he wrote with Tyndale House Publishers and InterVarsity Press. “Mistakes were made that I am grieved by and apologize for,” Driscoll said in a statement. Most recently, Oklahoma City-based megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel has been accused of plagiarizing the work of writer and comedian Danny Murphy.
Groeschel is the pastor of Lifechurch.tv, founded in 1996, which has quickly grown to one of the nation’s largest churches with 80 weekly “worship experiences” at 19 campuses in five states.
On his blog, Murphy suggested Groeschel used material that Murphy wrote in the magazine The Door in 2000. The material was later used by Groeschel in a sermon and in a book titled “Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After” (Multnomah Books). Murphy’s name never appeared with it.
It’s not the first time Murphy has found his work in the hands of others; he was “minding my own business in the back row of a church” when he heard the preacher use the same material from the article in The Door. When questioned, the pastor said he had found it in the best-selling book “Not a Fan,” by Kyle Idleman. Murphy flagged the issue for the publisher, Zondervan, and the attribution was fixed in the next printing of the book, he said.
According to Murphy, Multnomah has also inserted a footnote with attribution in Groeschel’s text, although Groeschel never admitted to lacking earlier attribution, maintaining the content was his.
“I feel strongly about giving credit and have done so over and over again in sermons and books,” Groeschel said in a statement. “We first used this idea in a sermon illustration video, which I sincerely thought was an original concept developed before the author’s article. To be above reproach, I asked my publisher to give this author credit, which is already reflected in the most recent reprinting of the book where this illustration is used.”
As more instances of plagiarism are being alleged, it’s unclear whether plagiarism is more common or if it’s being reported more often. Plagiarism has been a long-standing issue among pastors, who are expected to churn out fresh content each week for sermons while in some cases also penning best-selling books.
“In this day of celebrity publishing, a lot of the quality control is eroding,” said David Gushee, Christian ethicist at Mercer University.
Easy to miss plagiarism
Sermons can be ephemeral things. If the sermon is not written down or posted online, an unattributed quote can be easy to miss. Books, however, are an easier place to spot unsourced material.
Preachers have debated over whether they can use sermon illustrations they didn’t experience, Gushee said. “There are ways to borrow illustrations without being deceptive,” he said.
The ease of the Internet could be a double-edged sword for pastors looking for material. With sermons and books easily searchable online, watchdogs have better means of cataloging, searching and reporting offenses. And it’s much easier to learn about and report offenses of plagiarism than ever before.
Last year, an Episcopal priest in Massachusetts, the Rev. John E. McGinn, was accused of plagiarizing sermons from Sermons.com. He was suspended and said he planned to retire.
Richard Land, who was president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, came under fire in 2012 after being accused of plagiarism in his radio broadcasts. He has since become president of Southern Evangelical Seminary.
Preachers have always borrowed and quoted other preachers, said Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School.
“Most people understand that verbal footnoting is cumbersome,” Lischer said. “Christianity is not as focused on issues of copyright as other sectors in academics.”
There is an attitude among Christians that “what’s mine is yours,” that you don’t necessarily need to footnote Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream,” he said.
“It’s the nature of preaching. It’s like singing a song. You don’t just sing it once to never sing it again,” Lischer said. “It’s not so much cheating as it’s demonstrating a continuity with people who came before.”
Congregations might also be more willing to forgive a pastor who has plagiarized than they might have been in the past, said Ron Cook, a professor at Baylor University who has served on the board of Baptist Center for Ethics.
“Not giving credit is not stigmatized as much as it was a quarter-century or even a decade ago,” Cook said. “In some cases I’ve known in recent years, the congregations are more willing to give their pastor a second chance.”
Greg Horton contributed to this article.
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