Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Qualification Number 1: Character

Just this past Sunday, the popular pastor of a large church in a nearby town resigned in shame. He stepped down after it was discovered that he had plagiarized sermons – A lot of sermons. It is reported that he preached sermons taken from the websites of other churches and ministers word for word and joke for joke. Even, I have been told, to the point of copying facial expressions and gestures from videos.

There is no doubt that he did these things. The evidence is overwhelming, as recordings of his sermons have been compared to the recordings and transcripts of the sermons that he copied. Faced with this evidence and asked to resign, he did so. He admitted what he had done, apologized to the church, and resigned.

The wake of his resignation, and the reasons for it, left a wash of disillusionment and a swath of sad, hurt, angry, and resentful people. Some are angry with him, others are angry with those who requested his resignation. A church now lies crippled, damaged, rudderless, and without any course or direction. I pray for this church’s future and for those who now struggle to lead it. I fear that they have rough seas ahead of them.

Then I read statements like this, left on the pastor’s Facebook page after the service in which he resigned, “I disagree completely with the proceedings today. You are a man of integrity, worthy of our trust.” – I read that, and all I can think is that its author either doesn’t know the facts, doesn’t want to know the facts, or has a definition of “integrity” that is at odds with every dictionary I’ve ever used to reference that word.

This article could be about this specific situation. It is not. This situation is painful enough as it is. I talked to the pastor in question the day before he resigned, and he admitted to me what he had done. I have no doubt that he is a man humbled, broken, and in pain. He doesn’t need me “piling on” – and I won’t.

I could be writing about the growing problem of pastors plagiarizing sermons. I am not. No doubt, the internet makes it both easier to copy other’s work, and easier to catch those who resort to such copying. This problem with plagiarism will likely only get worse, as time goes on. But others have written on this subject, and I don’t know that I have anything to add.

No, what I want to write about is the care with which church leaders are to be chosen in the first place.

When you look at the qualifications that God laid out for the leadership of the church, listed for us in the third chapter of 1 Timothy and in the first chapter of Titus, it is readily apparent that ability and giftedness are not the focus. Only one skill or ability is listed, the pastor must be “able to teach.” That’s it. He has to be able to teach.

All of the rest of the qualifications for church leadership are character issues. As Paul writes, “For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach.” (Titus 1:7a) Paul then, inspired by the Holy Spirit, explains what being “above reproach” means; “He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:7b-9)

But one thing about all of the qualifications that Paul lists as being requirements for positions of leadership within the church is clear; they take time to manifest themselves. In other words, a man has to be observed over a lengthy period of time to see if he really possesses these qualities.

The plagiarizing pastor I referenced above was, like most pastors, hired from outside of the community. There was some sort of search committee that advertised for, collected, and looked over resumes and applications. Then there were a series of interviews, reference checks, visits, etc. Finally, a job offer was made and accepted, a family moved, and then and only then did the church start getting to know their new pastor.

That is not at all the New Testament pattern. In the early church, according to the directives contained in the epistles, the leaders were raised up from within the church, where they were known before they became leaders. If a man had issues with womanizing, or alcoholism, or dishonesty, or any other moral or ethical failing, it was likely already known, and the man would never be considered for a pastoral role in the first place.

Following the directives contained in the Word of God helps to protect the church from ignorantly elevating to leadership men who are really morally unqualified. Men who might look good on paper, but whom the church truly does not know well enough to really evaluate.

Even when these safeguards are followed, moral failures will take place. But not following these safeguards greatly increases the odds of such failures.

Church: guard your pulpit.

Pastor: guard your integrity.

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Jordan Hall said...

Agreed completely. I recently read a book on church growth called "Go Big!" where it recommends buying another pastor's sermon series because there's just so much work to do that the pastor shouldn't be burdened with having to study and prepare. This is best illustrated at Narrate Church in Helena, where Adam Huschka uses sermon series from Scot McKight, Andy Stanley, and even calls the title of his sermons the exact same chapter titles from self-help books. Sad, indeed.

Pastor Jim said...

My dear friend and preaching compatriot, David Morris, likes to say that all of us who preach/teach God's word ought to be plagiarizing the same source. But, it's not each other. We need to make sure that what we're saying is the same thing the Bible says. I am so very weary of clever men who are enamored with their own creativity making the Bible little more than a platform from which they can show off their own verbal or intellectual dexterity. I don't need opinions. I don't need witty banter. I need Christ. And only His word, clearly taught and rightly handled, can focus my mind on Him exclusively. So, plagiarize away -- just make sure you're repeating the proper source. :-)

By the way, I enjoy your writing, Gene. Jim Mc.

The Squirrel said...

Jim, you are exactly right. If we are all striving to teach the same truth revealed in the same Bible, we are all going to say the same sorts of things. Really, there's only so many ways to say, "Repent of your sin and trust in Christ alone for your salvation."

And, regarding clever men, I couldn't agree more! Didn't Paul issue some sort of warning about 'clever speech'?...

Thanks for stopping by!


Herding Grasshoppers said...

That IS heartbreaking. And sadness piled on sadness that now the church members are divided and confusing loyalty to a friend with calling a spade a spade.

And - Pastor Jim - well said!

And Gene - great point - the requirement is to be able to teach. Competence in handling God's word doesn't necessarily equate with a smooth, entertaining delivery.

So thankful for godly men, that speak the truth :o)


Sir Aaron said...

I have a bunch of thoughts.

First, the issue of plagarism isn't using a portion of somebody else's sermon, notes, etc. in the Pastor's sermon. Everyone who teaches seriously whether the Bible or professionally, looks at others' work as part of the preparation process. A teacher might use another's joke, ancedote, etc. The issue is that no work was done and the Pastor simply acted out somebody elses sermon and yet led everyone to believe he created it.

Second thought - It's nice to raise up a Pastor from your own congregation. But many small churches such as my own make that extremely difficult. My church just found a new Pastor and I was on the pulpit committee. It really is a very difficult process.

Mark | hereiblog said...

Gene, this is a sad situation. I hope it is not a wide-spread problem.

It was sad to read about the person defending this man on Facebook which speaks to another problem in Christendom today, idolatry and hero worship.

Sir Aaron said...

Idolatry and hero worship are certainly problems, but I truly doubt they are problems that started in the modern age.

I will also tell you that as part of the pulpit committee, I reviewed questionnaires that I considered to be plagarized and others who copied from other sources but at least gave attestation (citing confessions, etc.). I was not too pleased because my view was that we don't need to pay somebody to regurgitate creeds, confessions, and commentaries. I can read a commentary for myself. I want to know what you know in your own words. A Pastor is a paid professional. He studies for a living. When somebody asks me about my trade, I don't need to pull out manuals, etc. and neither should a paid Pastor.


Michael Buratovich said...


Thank you for your thoughtful post. I feel badly for that pastor, but he "made his bed." My guess is that he did it once and then it became so easy to do and convenient to have a hot sermon without doing the deep prayer and study required for sermon preparation. He did it again, and then again and again until it became a habit.

Hebrews 13, verses 6-8 says "Remember your leaders who brought you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (I'm quoting from memory so excuse the occasional gaffes) This Scripture commands us to remember our leaders, watch them, and imitate. However, if their example stinks, them what are we to do? Get another leader! A leader who has neither the example not the integrity is not worthy of imitation or consideration. Granted non of us is without sin, but our leaders should have an example to consider. If they do not, then they need to be removed as leaders.

Bennett Willis said...

My son-in-law teaches New Testament at a small college. He does various studies/research on a variety of topics, both for his classes and for papers he writes. He says that he reads/translates the writing and then writes his opinions before doing much research on what others have written on the subject. Occasionally, he will find "his words" are almost exactly the words someone else has used on the topic or writing. When that happens, he reorganizes his words so that they are different. The meaning has not changed but the presentation does. This is important. You either make the words different or you attribute them to the author.

I teach chemistry at a community college. When a collegue has a high load, I will take a class she normally teaches for that semester. I use her slides and her assignments--and everyone knows this because I use her workbook for the class. And her slides were largely prepared by the textbook publishing company. The words that I use in the presentation are mine. No one claims original work and no one says "plagerism" about the lecture.

Bennett Willis said...

The "problem" does seem to happen frequently though usually not to the extent that it provokes resignation. I have read several blog postings and comments about pastors taking a story from a book and "personalizing" it before using it to illustrate a sermon.

I regard this sort of thing as a lie--much like Ergun Caner's fabricated story of his youth and childhood (phrase taken from a song from The Sound of Music).

Luther said...

As an elder in a small SBC church in the south we take integrity seriously...as we all should.

How can a man be called trustworthy when it has been shown that he stole sermons verbatim?