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.