Plagiarism in the Pulpit: When Religious Leaders Plagiarize

This is a guest post written by Jonathan Bailey at Plagiarism Today.

In late 2013, Mark Driscoll was the pastor of the Mars Hill Church, a megachurch in Seattle, WA.

However, on November 21st of that year, Driscoll sat down to a radio interview with host Janet Mefferd, who accused Driscoll of plagiarizing ideas in his book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future?. The interview turned hostile and Driscoll ended up hanging up on Mefferd.

But the damage to Driscoll was already done. Though Mefford apologized, allegedly under pressure from Driscoll’s allies, others began to dig deeper and found other instances of alleged plagiarism in Driscoll’s first book, Trial: 8 Witnesses from 1 & 2 Peter.

This forced his publisher, Tyndale House Publishers, to release a statement vindicating, in their view, Driscoll of plagiarism in A Call to Resurgence but admitting that, in the second book Driscoll made a serious error.

Though his publisher initially stood behind him, the scandals just kept coming including allegations he artificially inflated sales figures for one of his books, which cost the church over $200,000. By October 2014, Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill and, just a month later, the church disbanded.

The Driscoll story is a drastic and extreme example of what can happen when religious leaders plagiarize. However, he’s not alone, in 2001 a pastor in St. Louis resigned after admitting he had been giving plagiarized sermons and, in 2012, a Polish priest and professor faced criminal charges over allegations he had plagiarized in a volume of work.

Though pastoral plagiarism usually doesn’t have such extreme consequences, it is unfortunately very common. When Luder Whitlock began presenting the clergy code of ethics for the National Association of Evangelicals, he described plagiarism as one of the “sneakiest” temptations pastors face.

That temptation is more than understandable. Religious leaders, in addition to 1-4 sermons per week, are called upon to write newsletters, articles, books, magazines and countless other works. This, all on top of all of the other duties that come with running a church.

In addition to the high workload requirements, sermons are littered with attribution challenges, as the format itself makes it difficult to provide credit without breaking up the flow or losing the audience.

Because of this, even pastors who strive to be as honest and fair with their use of outside material can find themselves running afoul of ethical standards. Even though the practice of pastoral plagiarism is roundly criticized by most churches, the standards for when and how to attribute the work of others is far less settled.

In 2000, Christianity Today offered a guide for footnoting sermons, encouraging pastors to attribute outside material if the audience was unlikely to know the source. However, they encouraged the attributions to be brief and concise, leaving details to the bulletin if needed.

But while debates about smaller uses within a sermon rage on, the larger fear is wholesale plagiarism, such as the kind recently addressed in a 9Marks Mailbag. There, a member of a congregation learned that one of the church’s pastors was plagiarizing speeches from a free sermon website. In that case, the respondent, Jonathan Leeman, told the parishoner to take the issue up with other officials at the church, noting that, “If a pastor is consistently using someone else’s sermons or portions of sermons without giving credit, he should not be a pastor.”

This isn’t to say that pastoral plagiarism doesn’t have its defenders. In 2006, Rev. Steve Sjogren posted an essay entitled, Don’t be Original, Be Effective in which he said that pastors needed to “Get over the idea that we have to be completely original with our messages, each and every week.”

Rev. Sjogren’s essay was met with a strong outcry, but at least some pastors agreed. They felt it’s more important to have an effective message that reaches their audience than it is to be original.

For others though, it’s an issue of honesty and integrity. Pastors who plagiarize are lying to their congregation and are not doing the work that’s expected of them. Furthermore, as Leeman put it in his response, “God does not raise up elders to deliver stump speeches. He raises them up to oversee individual flocks by delivering God’s Word to them.”

In short, Leeman, as others, feel that an original speech is an effective speech. While it’s possible to incorporate and build upon what others created, it’s also possible to do so with attribution.

While there’s still a great deal of gray area to be worked out, pastors who make a reasonable effort to attribute likely have little to fear. If you are honest with your congregation, your congregation will respect your efforts, even if they are imperfect.

About the Author

Jonathan Bailey is a copyright and plagiarism consultant and has been helping small to medium sized creators protect their work for over 10 years. You can find him at his blog, Plagiarism Today, at his consulting firm, CopyByte and on Twitter and Facebook.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.”  CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.