Swimming in Cap and Gown

There’s a lot of talk lately about pastoral plagiarism. It even got a mention in the NAE’s code of ethics a year and a half ago. Doug Wilson has weighed in, in his own inimitable way, and Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch has a different, and extremely helpful, perspective on the real problems involved. I won’t try to repeat what they have said so well. But as a working pastor (albeit in a nonstandard venue), I have my $0.02 to add to the conversation, for whatever it’s worth, and here it is.

In a nutshell, we’ve lost all sense of proportion, in two ways. We’re acting as though the citation standards for a college research paper apply to everything, which is nuts.  Even more importantly, we’re getting distracted from what pastoral work is supposed to be, about which more in a moment.  But let’s talk about citation standards first.

It doesn’t help that the citation “requirements” being advanced come from the academic world and have little relevance to other venues. (We’re now hearing about Twitter plagiarism, for heaven’s sake.) I’ve encountered the problem of academic customs being misapplied in pastoral settings in a number of places, but D. A. Carson’s article on the subject is a representative example.

Carson’s very restrictive stance is not surprising; he is an academic. In the academy, plagiarism is a major issue, because academics are being paid to come up with ideas and propagate them. An academic who is merely curating the ideas of others is not doing the job for which he is being paid, and he ought to be fired — especially if he’s trying to pass those ideas off as his own. A student in that arena is in the process of paying his dues to the academic guild, and has to learn to stick to the guild standards. This is not just a matter of “do it ’cause we said so” either. When I assign an essay in the classroom, I am finding out what (and how) my students think. I can’t learn what I need to know if the student appropriates someone else’s words or thoughts and doesn’t tell me that he’s done it.  Academic citation standards are right and good, and glory to God for them; Carson’s article is wise counsel for the academic workplace. Unfortunately, Carson for some reason thinks that the standards of his workplace also apply to the pastoral workplace. They don’t.

A pastor is a shepherd and a physician of the soul. He is responsible for feeding the sheep, for facilitating their healing and growth, for delivering food and medicine. He is not responsible for documenting the provenance of every last bit of food and medicine any more than your waitress is responsible for documenting what farm the lettuce in your salad was grown on, or your surgeon is responsible for documenting which Chinese factory worker sharpened his scalpel.  Now, should the lettuce or the scalpel blade turn out to have been contaminated with E. coli, we shall want to know exactly where they came from. Under the pressure of that sort of necessity, we will undoubtedly be able to find out. But under normal circumstances, no one cares, and no one should.

Now, a pastor may also be an author, an academic, a conference speaker, etc., and the overlapping roles can make things complicated. A popular book, a sermon, a master’s thesis, and a session at a marriage seminar all have their own standards and expectations. My Master’s thesis was expected to be my original work, and it was. Anything that wasn’t mine was supposed to be footnoted, and again, it was. If I one day publish a book, a similar set of expectations will apply, although exactly how it works will depend on the sort of book. An academic treatise will of course have many footnotes. In a different kind of work, credit may be given via a bibliography, a line in the acknowledgements, or a comment in the text itself. The genre sets the expectations.

When I preach a sermon on Romans 8, nobody expects the sermon to be made up entirely out of my own head. After all, I am preaching a passage that thousands have taught before me, and a truly original take on it is likely to be neither true nor helpful to the flock. Originality in this context is hardly a virtue, and adorning the simple truth of the passage by name-dropping famous commentators is just a waste of breath. My goal is to tell the truth about the passage, and to tell it in such a way that my people will live the truths of the passage, and be fed and healed as a result. If they are fed and healed, I have done my work well. End of story.

Moreover, when I construct a sermon, it is a collage of my own exegesis and experience, the insights of friends and mentors, things I’ve read and heard over the years, and more. Some of the influences I’m aware of, such as the commentaries sitting on my desk as I work. Others are half-remembered — analogies, exegetical insights or turns of phrase that I know I heard somewhere, but I can’t remember where. There are also influences that I’m wholly unaware of, things I ran across years ago that I have long since forgotten about, but that pop out in response to the need of the moment. I might very well believe that some of these are original with me — and I might very well be wrong. I am blessed to be well-read, well-traveled, and widely experienced, and there’s a lot of other people’s wonderful stuff lying about in “the leaf-mould of my mind,” as C. S. Lewis once put it. Any researcher with Google and a grudge might very well catch me out at any time, proving that someone else said thus-and-such long before I came along. In the event that happens, I’ll be happy to acknowledge that whether I came up with it independently or just read it and forgot about it, somebody else clearly said it first, and deserves credit for same. But the real problem there will be with the guy who spent 16 hours in front of a computer in a vengeful effort to convict me of “plagiarism,” not with me.

I have never tried to conceal my sources, and I have always been open with anyone who asked where I learned something. I appreciate it when people give me credit for stuff they learned from me, and I try to do the same for others as best I can. But I don’t pretend that academic practices of citation are appropriate for every venue for the same reason that I don’t wear my graduation regalia everywhere I go — because academic trappings are fine for the hothouse environment of academia, but woefully out of place elsewhere. Apparently some academics would have me wear my cap, gown and hood when I go swimming, but I ain’t gonna do it, and I don’t see any reason to pretend like I’m the crazy one here.

Of course, taking a whole sermon script from somewhere else — whether it’s a history book or one of those download services you can subscribe to — is another matter. I haven’t ever done that, and I don’t imagine I ever will, unless it’s a historical re-enactment of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or some such thing, and presented that way. A pastor who thinks he can download a sermon once a week and in that way effectively feed the people God has given him doesn’t know his people very well, or doesn’t understand his task very well. But the problem here is much more serious than plagiarism or the ethics of ghostwriting; it’s poor shepherding. He isn’t tailoring the food and medicine to the needs of the unique sheep God has committed to his care — and that is his task.

That is a serious problem, and it is by no means limited to people who are willing to crib whole sermons from somewhere else.  We are up to our necks in pastors who don’t know how to make disciples, which is the thing Jesus gave us to do.  The people are wounded and starving, and all too often their pastors don’t know how to help them.  It’s not entirely the pastors’ fault; little in their training prepared them to minister nourishment and healing in a timely fashion to actual people, so that they really heal and grow.  And we’re worried about pastors that don’t footnote properly? Jeepers.

There is such a thing as a real case of appropriating someone else’s work and pretending it’s your own, and that’s a violation of the eighth and ninth commandments. There is such a thing as inadvertently failing to give credit for something that’s clearly someone else’s work — which seems to be what happened in the recent Driscoll situation — and that’s an honest mistake, to be confessed and rectified when it’s discovered. But this obsession with the bugbear of pastoral plagiarism is a waste of time, and distracts attention from a much more serious problem. “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”

Perhaps we’ll be better off if we worry less about how pastors footnote, and more about how seminarians don’t learn to make disciples.

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2 Responses to Swimming in Cap and Gown

  1. Jeremy Myers says:

    Ha. Great closing line. Really great. And so true. Footnoting is not as important as disciple making.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Thought you’d like that. I hate being the guy who’s always singing the same song, but when I see a brouhaha like this I just think, “Haven’t we lost our sense of proportion?”

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