These are interesting times for communicators and preachers.
Never have we had access to so many other people’s messages. And never have we felt more pressure in delivering our own.
Almost monthly I hear of pastors (most of whom will never make the headlines) who are losing their job because of plagiarism—using someone else’s content but passing it off as their own.
That’s just sad on about 100 levels.
First, it’s sad for their church, who lost a leader and saw some trust fractured.
Second, it’s sad for the pastor who obviously got into some kind of content trap he or she didn’t know how to get out of. I’m sure a few of the people who got fired intended to steal other people’s work and didn’t care about the consequences. But my guess is that’s a small group.
I’ll bet the majority actually just got caught in a trap of overwhelm and shame: they felt too busy/inadequate/desperate to write their own content, downloaded someone else’s, and were too ashamed/insecure/embarrassed to admit that. Rinse, lather and repeat and you have a fireable offense.
A third factor may be that vicious cycle of jealousy and inadequacy. Because we can access messages by world-class communicators every day for free (as can our congregations too), it’s not that hard to get lulled into thinking we can never measure up, so we beg, borrow and steal other people’s ideas without giving credit.
A Rip Off Epidemic
If you don’t think this is an epidemic, please know I’m not even close to being the most well-known preacher on the planet, nor the best-known writer. But my team has found other preachers preaching our local series verbatim, with no permission and zero attribution. Even the jokes were re-used.
Ditto with my blog. My team has found other bloggers who have taken my content, pasted it word for word into their blog, and written their name above the post as the author. (We’ve asked them to take it down.)
So what’s the problem with idea-theft, sermon-theft or writing-theft?
It’s an integrity issue. It’s a character issue.
And at the heart of it is giving credit where credit is due.
There is nothing wrong with using other people’s ideas. Only fools think they are truly original thinkers. There really isn’t much new under the sun, so to quote, share and borrow ideas is fine. You just need to give credit.
And that’s the crux of it. If you mostly do other people’s content, then you’ll end up saying, “today’s message is based on a message written by Mark Batterson/Beth Moore/Andy Stanley/Tim Keller/Steven Furtick/Sheryl Brady/John Ortberg.”
There is nothing wrong with that occasionally. A few times a year I’ll open a message saying “What’ I’m sharing with you today aren’t my ideas—they’re based on the work of X, or come from a message/book by Y.”
But do that week after week after week, and people will begin to realize you aren’t writing your own stuff. Which is exactly why most pastors who plagiarize resist giving credit.
So what should preachers do?
I suggest a simple guideline for preachers:
Write your own stuff. And if you didn’t, tell people.
So why do we want to rip off other communicators? There are at least 5 reasons that get pretty ugly if we’re honest.
1. You want people to think you’re smarter than you actually are
Let’s be honest…one reason we borrow other people’s ideas and make them appear to be ours is so it makes us look smarter than we are.
Don’t think you can give credit and still seem smart?
Just listen to Tim Keller. In virtually every message, Keller references a book he’s read or a thinker he’s borrowing from. He does this regularly and generously.
And guess what? Keller’s one of the sharpest thinkers alive today. Also one of the smartest.
Quoting other leaders doesn’t make you seem dumb. It actually makes you look smart.
It’s evidence you’ve read more than a few tweets, and that you’ve dug deep into the heart of history or current events. It’s a sign you’re not lazy.
Ripping people off is lazy. Learning from other authors and thinkers isn’t.
2. You lie
Lying is an integrity issue.
People rightly assume when a speaker, artist or writer shares something without citing a source, it’s their take on an issue.
Far too many preachers today are literally downloading another pastor’s messages every week and preaching them verbatim.
If you steal money, you get fired. If you steal ideas, maybe you should be fired too.
3. You stop growing
Of all the leaders and communicators who have their ideas ripped off, Andy Stanley is likely at top of the list. He’s one of the most quoted leaders alive today in the Western church, and for good reason. He’s brilliant.
I had a chance to talk with Andy on my Leadership Podcast and I asked him about how he felt about others ‘stealing’ his material and ideas. I loved his answer (you can listen to the episode here or on Apple Podcasts—Episode 1).
Andy said—so accurately—that preachers who preach other people’s messages forfeit the growth that comes with preparing a message from scratch. They miss the angst, the frustration and the tremendous reward that comes from wrestling down ideas until they come out in a powerful and helpful way.
Andy’s so right. Preachers, when you start stealing, you stop growing.
You also lose your own voice. If you’re like me, you may not be the biggest fan of your own voice, but it’s a voice God gave you and that God loves.
Further, if you’re simply a copycat, my suspicion is a younger audience will eventually tune you out. Why? Because Millennials can smell a lack of authenticity a mile away.
You may not be quite as clever or articulate as your favourite preacher, but you’re real. And real resonates.
Yes, you can.
There can be strategic purposes for doing so. And when you do, give credit.
But on all those other weeks of the year, don’t lose the edge you gain by wrestling through your own ideas, your own reading of God’s word, and finding your own voice on a regular basis.
4. You lose touch with God
When you plagiarize, you lose touch with God in at least two significant ways.
First, the sins of lying and stealing are themselves a barrier. Confession stands between you and God.
Second, stealing ideas required zero reliance on the Holy Spirit for inspiration, direction, courage or insights.
Ironically, in trying to make your content better, you’ve made it worse. You’ve robbed it of its true power. The real power in preaching comes not from our words, but from what God does with our words.
Do the hard work. You and everyone around you will be better for it.
5. It creeps into other areas of your life
I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s generally true that when you compromise in one area of your life, it doesn’t take much to start compromising in other areas.
Sin is like a weed: It grows fast and you never have to water it.
The best way to tackle sin is to pull it out by its root before it creeps into other areas of your life.
So what do I do?
What should you do in a hyper-connected era when you and I are exposed to more ideas in a day than our grandparents were in a month or year?
First, use other peoples ideas generously. Just give credit where credit is due. Quote. Attribute. Link back.
That covers most of us.
But what about those preachers who realize they’re guilty of knowingly stealing entire messages or lines of thinking and passing it off as theirs..and no one has confronted them on it (yet)?
I would strongly encourage anyone in this category to come clean. Talk to your board. Explain what’s been happening, and tell them you want to stop.
See a counselor if you need to (there’s something inside that drove you there in the first place), and start writing fresh.
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What do you think?
Am I being too hard on us as communicators? What’s been your experience?
Scroll down and leave a comment!