Rich at BlogRodent recently posed some thoughts on my post on pastors and plagiarism. I was forming this response when it became too ginormous for a comment. So here is the latest post on pastors and the problem(?) of plagiarism.
BTW-Rich is a former Chi Alpha minister-so am I. It is good to hear from another AGer and especially from someone who was part of one of the most dynamic and quality ministries in the AG!
Thanks for your thoughts-they have been provocative and a great help for me in thinking through this issue. In fact, I have a few things to throw out there in reply.
I agree with you that because there is only so much Scripture and it is preached over so often, we are unlikely to “come up with anything new.” In fact, one of our tasks is to be dedicated to theological unoriginality. So, if I may not say anything genuinely original this weekend, what guidelines should I use to avoid plagiarism?
To begin with, I can’t be held responsible for citing someone I have not read. I may be responsible for reading the important scholars and pastors, but you cannot be culpable for something out of your control. I have never really read Tertullian, and am likely not to.
Intent is, I think, a big deal. My friend profited off of me when he could have called me and put me in touch with the editor. His motive was profit, and therefore wrong. If I borrow from the “masters” with the intent of sounding like a master without giving credit, I believe that intent makes it wrong.
More commonly, I think pastors borrow from other popular ministers because it cuts down on their prep time. In my opinion, that is a wrong intent. The primary job of the pastor is shepherd manifest most directly by theological and biblical leadership behind the pulpit. If I get another pastor to do that for me, that intent has made my action wrong.
If a pastor does their homework in study and prayer, and utilizes tools or skills from another, then there may not be plagiarism. As an example, I do not publicly credit my seminary teachers on a regular basis for the tools they gave me, or for pointing me in certain directions. (I do, however, credit them if I repeat something they said specifically or tended to say a lot-ut back to my point.) If I learn something in class about how the Greek language works or how a theological argument works, then I do not need to credit the tools I have been given. And most of the text in a commentary may fall into that general category. They are written to bring the pastor and student up to date on the latest take on the original languages. (But even then, if I borrow a specific or poignant thought from an exegetical commentary, I will cite it.) But if I read a book in preparation for a sermon and borrow an actual point made about an issue or a passage, I am bound to credit that person.
I just don’t think a pastor can or should gloss over plagiarism by appealing to the “it has already been done a million times” defense (not that you did that).
I believe that we can hear or read points from another minister and use them to great effect in our congregations and their specific situation. But, it is negligent of a pastor to simply “use” another pastor’s material and hope it has the same effect for them it had for the original pastor and church. How many copy-cat churches have simply repeated Warren’s or Hybel’s sermon series because their churches got big using those sermons, and hopefully theirs will too?
Even if a pastor allows their sermons to be used as a kind of public domain, does that exempt the next pastor from the moral and spiritual requirement of connecting their passage, their God and their congregation on the weekend?
Academic Expectations vs. Pastoral Expectations
I can imagine some disagreeing with me by arguing that what is expected of a scholar writing an article is different from what might be expected from a pastor behind a pulpit. Though I would grant a few differences-there may not be the same expectation of universal familiarity with the average pastor-I think the principle still applies.
For example, a scholar who submits a paper for review will have it rejected if she cites a major figure or argument in the field and does not properly cite it. Likewise, if a minister manages to convince her congregation that she came up with the doctrine of the atonement, she has committed a serious sin.
Additionally, if we expect our scholars and “masters” to be rigorous, why should we expect our ministers to be sloppy?
What is assumed by a congregation when they listen to their weekly sermon when it comes to plagiarism and citation? I do not mean to talk about what they actually expect-that is a statistical question-I mean what kinds of expectations are they due? Should they expect the sermon they are hearing to be a carbon copy of the latest and greatest sermonizer and his series from six weeks ago? Should they expect a sermon that is taken largely from another pastor’s sermon spoken at a conference last month? Should they expect their pastor to be producing largely “original” material taken from commentaries, books, conversations, current affairs, tools and skills learned in seminary, and their own spiritual lives?
Maybe I have stacked the questions a bit, but I think the answer is fairly clear.