“We don’t have jobs for geeks. We have jobs for geeks who desire to make profound truths accessible to people who are not intellectually inclined.” Docent link (Pointed out by an alert reader in 2013) Think about it…Not high praise for us pew sitters.
True story not sourced for me by any group: Years ago, when my children were little, we attended, for a short period of time, Fellowship Church headed by Ed Young Jr. He shook hands with lines of people who were directed to exit through the handshaking door. The man in front of me said something to the effect of “I enjoyed your sermon. You even did it better than the first time I heard it at Willow Creek.”
Ed was noticeably embarrassed and pushed the man along. I ran out the door after him. He was shaking his head. He told me that Ed appeared to repeat, verbatim, a semon given by Bill Hybels. he said he and his family, who had just moved to Dallas would not be returning.
Later, when we left and joined Bent Tree Church, Steve and his family were there and we all got together in a small group. It would be years before I learned that a church could join the Willow Creek Association. One of the perks of that group was access to use a number of sermons, including those by Hybels.
The Ed Litton plagiarism scandal
From the Opinion Page of the New York Times, Dwight Christenbury, of Black Mountain, N.C. said
I am a rabbi and a preacher. One of the cardinal rules we learned in seminary is the rabbinical principle of “b’shem amro” (“in the name of the one who said it”). From the earliest rabbinical period, it was essential to quote one’s source. Not to do so was a grave sin, as theft of intellectual property is considered equal to the theft of physical property.
It is an honor to share the learning and wisdom of a colleague, a teacher or a noted source. To do anything less dishonors the original source and the preacher.
“The new leader of the Southern Baptist Convention has delivered sermons containing passages from those of his predecessor, causing a furor.”
Let’s start with an example:
I’d say that was self-explanatory.
In a statement, Mr. Litton said he had asked Mr. Greear for permission to borrow from at least one sermon and apologized for not crediting him; Mr. Greear confirmed his account. But accusations of lying and stealing — and plenty of memes skewering Mr. Litton — are flying fast. Some of the same Baptists who opposed Mr. Litton’s election are now calling for his resignation. (ed.It is not surprising that Tom Ascol of the Founders is one of those.)
Baptist News Global posted Could newly elected SBC president be forced to resign over sermon plagiarism? It seemed things were even worse than expected. People were going through Litton’s sermons to find other examples of plagiarism using another person’s words.
Litton’s church, Redemption Church near Mobile, Ala., recently removed 140 videos of Litton’s sermons from its website and posted this explanation: “By the action of the leadership of Redemption Church, we have taken down sermon series prior to 2020 because people were going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor. It is our highest priority to care for and shepherd our church.”
Wait a minute! It is wrong for people to go through posted sermons in order to see if a pastor is a straight shooter? Baptist News Global reported:
Litton’s critics have launched a petition demanding that he resign his SBC leadership post — an action that would have immense ripple effects throughout the convention. One of the greatest powers the SBC president has is naming the committee that nominates the Committee on Committees. And this year, the president also has been mandated to name a special task force to investigate charges of covering up or mishandling allegations of clergy
Was this merely a plot of the Conservative Baptist Network which was upset over Mike Stone’s loss? Tom Ascol of the Founders was quoted in Baptist News Global.
One of Litton’s chief critics is Tom Ascol, director of another far-right group within the SBC called Founders Ministries. He tweeted June 29: “All you defenders of @EdLitton — if you truly love him, encourage him to get off this God-dishonoring road. May God have mercy on him & his church.”
Others like Brett Barber said he should apologize but not resign. In fact, according to Baptist News, there is no precedent set for what would happen if an SBC President were to resign. (This is something that should be discussed. It will happen one of these years.)
How long does a Baptist pastor spend on developing his Sunday sermon? The NYT article states:
Some full-time pastors report spending up to 30 hours a week on the task; more common is devoting two full work days to it.
Andy Traub, whose pastor was discovered plagiarizing sermons asks a great question. Again from the NYT.
If 95 percent of the stories he told us were not true, then who is he?”
Spot-checking sermons have become quite easy. From the NYT
Spot-checking has become radically easier just in the past year.
And perhaps the most damning claim in the NYT
Full texts and outlines of sermons are widely available on websites like Sermon Central and Logos, ostensibly for reference and inspiration. Consulting services like Docent Research Group offer pastors substantial help with research and planning. Some larger churches, including Mr. Litton’s, employ in-house “preaching teams” that collaborate on sermon production.
The relentless, unmitigated pain of the weekly sermons
It should not surprise our readers that I had posted a story about the Docent Group in 2013:The Relentless Pain of the Weekly Sermon. Here are some quotes from that post. Please note that some links have died but I assure you they were working when this post was written.
Docent Research Group
This is a not-for-profit group that earns its keep by doing research for pastors. Here is an overview of what they do.
- Research briefs are primarily geared to sermon preparation. They offer everything from stories with a hook, statistics, to exegetical analysis of Scripture.
- Book summaries. Docent says that this is to help the pastor to understand the contents of the books when the pastor doesn’t have time to read them. Is this how these guys get through their vaunted “What I am reading” lists?
- Book projects which involve research and collaboration. Hmmm.
Did you know that the weekly sermon is relentless and that Sunday, which occurs on a weekly basis, is akin to tyranny link?
The pressure from high expectations, combined with the relentless frequency of weekly services, creates for many pastors “the tyranny of the coming Sunday.” Add the countless, diverse demands on a pastor, and too many weeks there simply isn’t time to get it all done. Let Docent help.
Is this the way pastors view their chosen profession? Relentless? The tyranny of the coming Sunday? What in the world did these pastors sign up to do? Sit around Starbucks and write books? Thirteen hours of preparation is considered rigorous?
Do they not understand that every single person in their congregation must deal with the unbending expectations of their jobs? The bank teller, the nurse, the sanitation worker, the construction worker, the mother, etc. all have to work hard, often doing backbreaking labor. I have a question. If the pastorate is so relentless and Sunday is so tyrannical then why do they do it? Could it be that they are mixing conferences, book deals, and speaking engagements into their church responsibilities?
It takes a team to raise a sermon.
Better yet, have pastors raised the expectations of their congregation that he is a superstar who is able to hit home runs every Sunday? Maybe, just maybe, they are just like us and that is something that they do not want us to discover?
I was absolutely shocked by this statement on Docent’s website. “Pastors need a team of dedicated researchers to write research the weekly sermon.” A TEAM!
Because preaching is highly personal, Docent’s approach is relational. We start by forming a relationship with pastors to determine their research needs. Then dedicate a team of seminary-trained researchers to provide weekly research briefs according to a pastor’s specific instructions.
As I watch one megachurch involved with this group spread its tentacles around a metropolitan area, I wonder how the average pastor can compete with a team of scriptwriters who churn out awesomely cool sermons week after week? No wonder the average church pastor’s sermons can’t compete. That is why he is losing to the predatory church satellite planter. Hollywood professionalism has invaded the pulpit.
Who utilizes the service?
I bet you think that the most frequent user of this service is some poor pastor, killing himself, maintaining an outside job, and also being a pastor? If you do, you are wrong. It is the pastors of the wealthy megachurches who have tons of staff to help them. Go to the home page here and see who does endorsement videos at the Home Page. It reads like a Who’s Who of the au courant megachurch pastors.
- Mark Driscoll
- Matt Chandler
- Jon Ortberg
Look to the bottom right of the home page to the section called Pastor’s Stories link.
Have you ever wondered why Mark Driscoll can “prepare his sermon in two hours while watching the sports channel”? Could this be the answer? (Mark Driscoll made this infamous comment one time in a sermon.)
Is this process honest?
Craig Groeschel, the utilizer of the sermon for hire, says the following
It isn’t plagiarizing if you’re given permission.
I think it is time for pastors who use these services, including websites that reprint sermons, to tell the folks that they use them. Be honest. Let them know that you really aren’t who you pretend to be.
It is OK to plagiarize because it all belongs to God excuse!
A commenter, Blake Wingo, on Groeschel’s site, said the following.
I think we put to much value in whether something is “ours” or not. It seems to me that everything we know is something we’ve learned from somebody either through their verbal instruction or their writings. Isn’t this true? No matter how original and creative something might sound, it’s still just a regurgitation of the collective knowledge that a person has accumulated. All we’re doing is coming up with more ways to say what God has already said. I don’t think a message belongs to anyone, I think we are stewards of the message “all things were created by him and for him”. Having said that, I agree 100% with Craig, giving credit is a great thing. Especially when it introduces people to great communicators that will have an impact on their lives.
I have heard this excuse over and over again. There are copyright and trademark laws. The Bible tells us to follow the law of our land, even if we don’t like them. Remember, even Mark Driscoll utilized these laws and got himself a pack of attorneys who went after a church whose trademark resembled his vaunted enterprise…
Jared Wilson, who used to be a Docent employee, disagrees with Trueman link.
I agree with Trueman and Wilson does not. Things are indeed strange.
Wilson used to work for Docent and claims that Docent does not write sermons for pastors. He says that they would be fired if they did so. He says that they save the pastor the “grunt” work. We now have three adjectives for the weekly sermon: relentless, tyrannical, and grunt work. Good night! How awful it all sounds!
Docent serves much like an on-site research assistant would — gathering resources, summarizing them, paraphrasing them, etc — so that a pastor is saved this “grunt work” and may spend more of his time doing the actual “wrestling.”
Wilson claims that some of the employees of Docent get hired away by the pastors. I bet they do! It saves the phone call and email.
No, client-pastors and team captains talk regularly and develop friendships. There are some researchers and captains who have actually eventually been hired by pastors full-time to their church staffs as research assistants or even associate pastors.
…JD Greear actually thanked Docent in an endorsement now deleted from the website. From the NYT:
In a now-deleted endorsement on Docent’s website, Mr. Greear thanked the organization for saving him time on sermon prep. “I often have people remark to me, ‘How many hours did you spend on that sermon? Where do you get time to do all that research?’” he wrote. “Ha. Thanks, guys, for making me look so good!”
In an email, Mr. Greear said he had sometimes relied on “research assistants and other aids” to help him prepare sermons, a practice he had discussed openly in the past.
Is Ed Litton attempting to blow off this incident( or these incidents) with the help of JD Greear?
Is the SBC following suit? Plagiarism Today (yes, it exists) wrote Southern Baptist Convention President Accused of Widespread Plagiarism
Though I’ve been critical of the SBC through much of this, I want to be clear that Litton has not carried himself any better. When confronted with a scandal such as this, one such as Litton has an obligation to be open, transparent and honest about what happened.
Removing the videos, addressing only one incident, and generally trying to ignore the issue is the antithesis of that. Even if Litton’s copying isn’t a problem, his response to the controversy absolutely is.
Greater or lesser expectations of the audience?
Is this merely confusion about the expectations of the audience? Karen Swallow Prior makes this point in the NYT article.
Karen Swallow Prior, who is a professor at SEBTS, claims that while surprising, it may just mix-up of who expects what from their pastor.
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has written about plagiarism, called the episode surprising. “What this whole thing has opened up is there are people who have an unstated expectation that a pastor is delivering his own examination and wrestling with the biblical text, and others who may not have that expectation at all.”
Plagiarism Today (PT) claims that there are three attribution standards in religious settings that are on the whole, very ill-defined.
- Some churches view any preparation for a sermon to be against their code.
- Others demand meticulously researched and original sermons from their leader’s voice,
- others feel that plagiarism is wholly acceptable because giving the best sermon, not personal glory, should be what is of the utmost importance.
PT continues in this vein.
If everyone involved agrees to a certain attribution standard (or lack thereof), then it is not unethical.
After all, plagiarism is about the lie behind it. However, if there is no expectation of originality, then it’s not a lie to present someone else’s work without citation. It’s much like the difference between a novelist who plagiarized and a celebrity that uses a ghostwriter for their autobiography. One has an expectation of originality, the other does not.
It’s time for the SBC to define its values and expectations. (Where have we heard this before?)
None of this is to say that what Litton did is right. Instead, it is to say that judging pastoral plagiarism is impossible without knowing the expectations of everyone involved. What this case has shown more than anything is that there is a divide in the SBC on these issues, and one that needs to be addressed.
A true story
This happened in my very former SBC church. I’ve told this story before. The pastor of missions was preaching. This church had an odd lineup on Sunday mornings. The senior pastor would be preaching through a series. He claimed that preaching the same sermon three times on Sunday morning was just too exhausting for him. (So much I could say here but won’t.) So he would preach in two services and the assistants would preach and the other. However, stupid me, I did not realize that the assistant would prepare a sermon not based on the series. Only the senior pastor could preach on his series. So the assistants would always be ready with their canned sermon. They would rotate through the services, repeating the same sermon. This could happen over a number of weeks.
The trick was this. They would not announce that the senior pastor would not be present for one of the services. I was told that people wouldn’t come since they came to hear him. 😐 I was sitting in Service #1 and the missions pastor was up. He ended the sermon with a touching story that he had *personally* witnessed. Except, I happened to know that the story was making the rounds and it was false, now verifiable on Snopes. Although I was a bit irritated that he pretended this happened to him, I wrote him a most polite email telling him that the story wasn’t true and giving him the reference. He wrote me back, most embarrassed.
A few weeks later I was sitting in service #3. Said missions pastor was up. Within seconds I knew he was repeating the same sermon that I had heard before. I was curious to see how he ended the sermon. You guessed it! He looked a little awkward and repeated the story. Yikes!
I went to the senior pastor because I thought this was a problem. The senior pastor told me something like this. “Well, he’s a little older and they used to teach how to give sermons like that,” I said. “You mean they taught them to lie?” He then said “You know, I will have to go to him about this.” I said that was a good idea. He couldn’t wait to get me out of his office. I wonder if he ever told him.
I’m tired of this nonsense. They should tell the truth. I have no problem if someone reads C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia from the pulpit so long as they say that is what they are doing. Here are some of my thoughts from 8 years ago. They seem to be relevant.
Thoughts and Suggestions for Pastors
- Consider listing all sources used for each sermon and have it available for the congregation. This would be a wonderful way to share your materials with those who listen to you. They could learn along with you and could consult the same books, commentaries, etc.
- Tell your congregation if you use Docent Research Group or any other group.
- Make sure the amount of money that is spent on this resource is reported to the members of your church and not hidden under some subcategory.
- If you consider your job relentless and look at the coming of each Sunday as somehow tyrannical, get some counseling. Maybe you shouldn’t be a pastor.
- Examine yourself. If you rely on such groups to make you seem awesome, theologically heavy, incredible, etc. ask “Why?” Do you really need to build your church so that it has tens of thousands of members?
- Examine why you need to expand satellites that beam your visage into localities that already have good churches. Is it about the gospel or you?
- Do you really read those books on your “list of books your pastor is reading” (always posted at TGC) or do you read a synopsis of the books? If you use a synopsis, stop the pretense. Better yet, give out the paid-for synopsis to your congregation.
A final suggestion for Ed Litton. Fess up!
I have no dog in this hunt. I left the SBC in 2008 and have no intentions of returning. I’m a Lutheran and have discovered the value of a shorter sermon each week. I actually remember what is said. The New York Times and others besides the Conservative Baptist Network are now watching him. He can be sure that all of his sermons, books, talks, etc. will be checked for plagiarism or whatever the heck the Baptists call it. If he regularly repeats the work of others without attribution, it’s time that folks go back and listen to each and every one of his sermons. He should make up a list of his lack of attribution and come clean. It’s well worth it. If he doesn’t, the next year will be a slow drip, drip, drip of a revelation here and a revelation there. Painful…
I think Baptist News Global did a great job in these two articles about what and how to deal with attributions in sermons.
- A modest proposal for imperiled pulpit plagiarists by Marv Knox.
- Where’s the line between finding inspiration in another pastor’s sermon and plagiarizing it? by Mark Wingfield
I almost forgot. Look at the quote that used to be on the Docent’s website. If your pastor looks down to you in this fashion, get out of there. They look at you as just another one of those *dumb sheep” who are willing to fork over the cash.
“We don’t have jobs for geeks. We have jobs for geeks who desire to make profound truths accessible to people who are not intellectually inclined.” (formerly on the Dcent website.)
I fear this is only the beginning and not just for Litton but for others. This could lead to more people leaving the already beleaguered SBC