Monday, April 25, 2005

Plagiarizing in the Pulpit

A couple of years ago my friend Matt Perman and I wrote an article called What Is Plagiarism? for the Desiring God website. As you can imagine, it is not uncommon at our ministry for us to receive letters from pastors confessing that they have plagiarized from John Piper, or for us to inadvertently discover the plagiarism online.

Coty Pinckney, pastor of Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., wrote an excellent article on this issue in light of the fact that the pastor of the largest church in Charlotte recently resigned because of sermon plagiarizing.


It all sounds so familiar.

Glenn Wagner, senior pastor at one of the largest churches in Charlotte, resigned recently, admitting that he has preached sermons from others without attribution.

Early last year I was informed by a member of a church in another state that his pastor was re-preaching my sermons without attribution. Listening to tapes of this unknown man was eerie—particularly when he told one of my personal stories, saying he was quoting “a missionary”—but then, after saying “end quote,” he continued to speak my very words. I felt violated—just as if someone had broken into my house and rifled through my possessions.

Why would a pastor do such a thing? Glenn says he felt “tired and discouraged,” “devoid of any creative ability.” The other pastor said he was burned out. Both had tried to resign prior to the plagiarism, and both had been convinced to stay by others in the church.

But tiredness and a lack of creative energy are not fundamental to this problem. When feeling burned out, both pastors could have sought permission to re-preach others’ sermons, and then given attribution. But both men chose not to do so. Why?

There is only one answer, and it is an ugly one: Pride. For a pastor to admit to his congregation that he cannot compose a sermon is a statement of weakness, of inadequacy. And most church members do not want inadequate pastors.

Can you imagine a pastor confessing, “I am burned out. I need your prayers.

My time in the Word is dry. So I’m going to preach for you a fine sermon another man wrote. May God bless you through it.” Would you respond, “How unprofessional! If I acted that way in my job, I would be fired!”

Guess what? Every pastor is inadequate for the task. Every pastor is incompetent for the ministry. As Paul says, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 3:5). So how much of a pastor’s impact on his congregation comes from him?

Nothing—nothing that is of any ultimate importance. We are not adequate to consider anything as coming from ourselves! But Paul continues, “But our adequacy is from God.” Pastors must be called and empowered by God to accomplish God’s work in God’s church. Then—and only then—will they be adequate, competent, sufficient for God’s task.

Charles Spurgeon admitted, “I scarcely ever come into this pulpit without bemoaning myself that ever I should be called to a task for which I seem more unfit than any other man that ever was born.” If we preachers speak before our congregations with any other attitude, we too will be subject to the bane of pride.

So what can you do? What attitude should you have toward your pastor?

First, expect weakness from him. Expect brokenness from him. Know that he struggles with pride and many other sins, and that he needs to be held accountable before others.

Second, speak to him about the temptation of plagiarism. Tell him that if he ever feels burned out and dry, you will support him. Remind him that he is personally inadequate for his task—but that God will make him adequate, in part through the prayers of His people. And commit yourself to praying for him.

Finally, examine your heart. Is your pride wrapped up in the status of your pastor? Do you brag to others about his skills and leadership? That’s part of the problem. So many of us put our pastors on a pedestal, and then we pastors feel we must live there, pretending we are perfect, pretending that all is going well, plastering a smile on our faces, effectively lying to our congregations, thinking that if we admit our problems we will damage our peoples’ faith in God.

God has entrusted pastors with a magnificent ministry—but He wraps this ministry in the inadequate, weak, easily-broken jars of clay that we are.

And “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). May the glory of God shine through the weakness of pastors, so that all might know that whatever our churches may accomplish, all results from God’s power, and not from our professionalism.