‘Sermongate’ Prompts a Quandary: Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?

The similarities within the sermons are unmistakable.

“I don’t think I’ve given you this before,” the pastor in North Carolina tells his congregation. He goes on to checklist “five selfs” that signify hostility to God: self-will, self-glory, self-gratification, self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Cut to an older pastor in Alabama, at a podium a yr later: “Let me give you five selfs,” he says. He rattles off the identical checklist.

A video evaluating the 2 sermons has racked up 1000’s of views on-line in current days, partly as a result of the 2 males will not be simply any church leaders: The first, who delivered his sermon in 2019, is J.D. Greear, the departing president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The different is Ed Litton, who was elected as Mr. Greear’s successor simply a couple of weeks in the past by a skinny margin at an unusually contentious assembly. His sermon was delivered in 2020 and didn’t credit score Mr. Greear.

Mr. Litton’s critics are calling it “sermongate.”

And the dust-up has revealed a soiled little secret of the preaching life: Many pastors borrow from each other within the pulpit, and the norms across the follow are fuzzy at greatest.

Over the previous week, nameless YouTube accounts have posted a number of side-by-side comparisons of the 2 males preaching, highlighting almost equivalent metaphors, anecdotes and turns of phrase. Mr. Litton’s church eliminated sermons from 2017 by 2019 from its web site and YouTube, attributing the deletions to each a web site redesign and a response to folks “going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.” Mr. Litton declined an interview request by a spokesman.

In a assertion, Mr. Litton stated he had requested Mr. Greear for permission to borrow from at the very least one sermon and apologized for not crediting him; Mr. Greear confirmed his account. But accusations of mendacity and stealing — and loads of memes skewering Mr. Litton — are flying quick. Some of the identical Baptists who opposed Mr. Litton’s election simply a couple of weeks in the past at the moment are calling for his resignation.

“This is an issue of morality, and it’s an issue of Christian virtue,” stated Tom Ascol, a high-profile Florida pastor who has been important of Mr. Litton and Mr. Greear. “It’s something that as recently as 10 years ago, everyone in conservative evangelical circles would say, ‘Of course pulpit plagiarism is wrong.’”

Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has written about plagiarism, referred to as the episode shocking. “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.”

Among church leaders, attitudes towards the follow differ broadly. Al Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has referred to as it “despicable”; the influential retired pastor John Piper has stated it’s “unthinkable.” But some distinguished pastors have supplied others carte blanche to borrow liberally from their work, saying private glory ought to by no means be the purpose of preaching. Others encourage heavy inspiration however not wholesale copying. As the oft-cited — although not at all times attributed — line goes from the late Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers, “If my bullet fits your gun, shoot it, but use your own powder.”

Condoned or not, the follow, as soon as revealed, can go away a unhealthy style. Within Protestantism, particularly, pastors’ weekly sermons are their most high-profile and extremely scrutinized work product. Worship providers typically culminate within the supply of a presumably unique sermon, which might final 45 minutes or extra.

“When congregations ‘call’ or hire a pastor, they’re calling that person to preach,” stated Thom Rainer, chief government of the consulting agency Church Answers, which advises church leaders on points together with development and communications. “Preaching is central.”

But a nice sermon can be laborious to supply. It can embrace deep evaluation of biblical texts, historic analysis, compelling anecdotes, a dose of humor and a stirring name to motion. Now think about producing at the very least one such message each week, yr after yr, all based mostly on the identical assortment of texts and delivered to the identical viewers.

Some full-time pastors report spending as much as 30 hours a week on the duty; extra frequent is devoting two full work days to it.

For many churchgoers, a sermon is not only a intelligent speech however proof of the pastor’s deep non secular life. “A sermon is a person studying the Bible, encountering God in their own life and history, and then spewing it all out on Sunday morning for the good of the people of God,” stated Scot McKnight, a professor of the New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill. “It’s a personal encounter.”

With entry to probably the most charismatic pastors and snappiest sermons through YouTube and podcasts, churchgoers’ requirements are rising, Mr. McKnight stated. Many megachurch pastors turn into family names removed from their very own communities purely due to their preaching. “They’ve built these big churches because of their charisma,” he stated. “It has really hurt the small-church pastor.”

Revelations of egregious pulpit plagiarism can rattle churchgoers who consider they’re receiving their pastor’s unique knowledge.

In Nashville, Andy Traub was surprised when his church introduced that its pastor had been plagiarizing complete sermons, together with private anecdotes that he had introduced as his personal.

“How do you find out about your pastor?” Mr. Traub requested. “For the vast majority of people, it’s from his sermons. If 95 percent of the stories he told us were not true, then who is he?”

Mr. Traub’s pastor left the church in 2016, and now leads a congregation in Michigan.

Spot-checking has turn into radically simpler simply prior to now yr. Forced by the pandemic to collect on-line, many church buildings scrambled to ramp up their technological capabilities. Now, Mr. Rainer estimates that greater than 70 p.c of Sunday sermons are posted on the web.

“Sermongate” has additionally prompted a sprawling debate concerning the widespread practices of ghostwriting and analysis help that takes place out of the view of many bizarre churchgoers.

Full texts and descriptions of sermons are broadly obtainable on web sites like Sermon Central and Logos, ostensibly for reference and inspiration. Consulting providers like Docent Research Group provide pastors substantial assist with analysis and planning. Some bigger church buildings, together with Mr. Litton’s, make use of in-house “preaching teams” that collaborate on sermon manufacturing.

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Mr. Litton, left, and Mr. Greear, kneeling at proper. The current “sermongate” dust-up has revealed a soiled secret of the preaching life: Many pastors liberally borrow from each other within the pulpit.Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

In a now-deleted endorsement on Docent’s web site, Mr. Greear thanked the group 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 e-mail, Mr. Greear stated he had generally relied on “research assistants and other aids” to assist him put together sermons, a follow he had mentioned overtly prior to now.

“The dilemma of sermon research is that we are trying to express God’s word, which never changes, in our unique context and with our unique voices,” he stated. “That requires deep awareness of the work of others and a commitment to expressing those timeless truths originally.”

For some who’ve quietly contributed to sermons over time, the episode additionally raises painful questions on who’s allowed to talk with authority and who just isn’t.

Gena McCown, a author in Florida, recalled an incident a number of years in the past when her pastor on the time requested her to ship him a top level view with bullet factors for a sermon he was planning on a thorny subject she knew properly. The church didn’t ordain ladies as pastors, or permit them to evangelise on Sunday mornings.

Ms. McCown was indignant however didn’t need to fire up bother. She “did the bare minimum,” sending the pastor some transient notes and sources.

“It’s a huge double standard,” she stated of asking ladies to contribute uncredited insights inside church buildings that bar them from preaching. “If you truly believe she can’t get up on that stage and deliver the sermon herself, then she can’t write it. Stand on that conviction.”

Mr. Litton has stated he depends on a crew of eight males to assist craft his sermons. In a podcast interview launched on Friday, he stated the method lets him mentor aspiring leaders and “keep my voice young.” He vowed to do a higher job crediting his sources sooner or later.

What is for certain is that the temptation to crib on Sunday mornings just isn’t new. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin wrote of his admiration of a younger Presbyterian preacher a lot revered for his preaching, which was apparently delivered extemporaneously. When a doctrinal dispute erupted within the congregation, nevertheless, an adversary acknowledged that a passage delivered by the preacher had been lifted from an uncredited supply.

Franklin caught by the plagiarist. “I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others,” he wrote, “than bad ones of his own manufacture.”