Plagiarism, Apologies, and Pastoral Personalities

Pastoral Apologies – hypothetically speaking

Let’s say a hypothetical mega-pastor/author is accused of plagiarizing material. Let’s also assume that there was no willful plagiarism, but the material still was not properly attributed to the original author. Which of these responses sound more pastoral to you?

A: “I wrote a book. It contained things I didn’t write and didn’t give credit for. My mistake. I’ll fix it.”
B: “I didn’t make any mistakes. The researcher I paid to look things up for me is the one who blew it. Next time he should do better.”

A: The company that originally published the material that I later used in my book says I did not cite it properly. I will do so in future editions.”
B: My publisher told me failing to properly cite the material meets their standards for books they sell. Since my publisher is satisfied, that means the publisher of the materials I used without giving proper credit is wrong.”

A: “I am very glad someone pointed this out to me so I can correct the errors, and only wish I’d realized the mistakes sooner so I could have taken care of them already.”
B: “The person who pointed out the material to me did it in a way that I don’t approve of. Look how wrong she is.”

And so I ask again, which of the responses in those couplets sounds more pastoral to you, more nurturing for the sheep of God’s church?

The Importance of Pastoral Care

The Bible has strong words for those who breech the pastoral trust God has given them:

This is what the sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock!

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, … because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-3, 8-10.)

There’s good news for the sheep, of course, and for those plundering shepherds too. God promised One Shepherd who would watch over God’s people.

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23.)

Jesus is that Shepherd, the Good Shepherd born to a line that goes back to David – the shepherd called to be king of Israel. Now Jesus is the Shepherd King of all God’s people.

I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not come of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:14-16.)

So I’ll ask that question again. Which responses glorify Jesus? Which of them are expressions of pastoral care?

After all, even mega-church pastors/authors are supposed to be pastoral.


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21 Responses to Plagiarism, Apologies, and Pastoral Personalities

  1. Jeannie says:

    OUCH! Having just finished marking 20 student assignments (and, in the process, tracking down countless sources, quotations, and citations), this strikes a nerve! If you’ve made a mistake, the thing to do is come clean, fix what you can now, and commit to being more careful next time. Trying to deflect criticism by blaming others is not a mature response.

  2. Oh. But, wait, what’s Jesus got to do with any of this?

    • Tim says:

      Did you read Andy Crouch’s take on this at CT, Karen? He nailed it when he said the real problem isn’t plagiarism but idolatry. People like Mr. Driscoll are expected to create thousands of pages of writing along with all their other duties. That leads to shortcuts somewhere, perhaps in many places. It’s driven by a desire not to focus on Jesus but to pursue a particular marketing scheme. Big problems arise when we take our focus off Jesus.

      • Karen Dabaghian says:

        you know, i read the CT piece and the thing that doesn’t sit well with me is the covert math here — plagiarism is Driscoll’s failing, idolatry is everyone else’s, and the article really chastises the idolatrous, not the plagiarizer. So once again, Driscoll and others like him are untouchable — really, Crouch says, its not Driscoll that’s the problem, its all of you out there making an idol of him. And while that is true (disclosure: i am no fan of Driscoll and that’s a tame effort at me exercising verbal restraint here), I am bothered by the notion that the leader is let off the hook and the blame is placed on all the congregants. CT should have come screaming off the pages to remind Driscoll and his handlers the responsibility he has to the people in his care; the added responsibility he has because he has such a public stage. The even further responsibility Tyndall had as an authenticator and validator of Driscoll’s message. I guess I am saying, CT should be protecting the underdog here — the vulnerable — which is decidedly not Driscoll. Maybe more believers would think twice about their undying devotion to the Driscoll’s of the world if folks like the editors at CT would call him to account and keep his feet in the fire. CT had no problem calling at Rachel Held Evans for a non-offense; why not call out Driscoll for an egregious one?

        • Tim says:

          Karen, I think that’s a valid way to read Crouch’s article. I took it to mean a bit more, and perhaps I read something into it that wasn’t there. I took it to be faulting Mr. Driscoll for allowing himself to be set up as an idol for others to idolize, so that the article placed responsibility on him and them alike.

          I think the greater blame is on the idol than the idolater. He knows he’s a celebrity pastor, and like all who share that status he has a responsibility to make every effort to act more like a pastor and less like a celebrity.


          P.S. Karen Dabaghian is in the house! Woo-hoo!

  3. lauradroege says:

    Great thoughts here (and like Jeannie, I said, “ouch!”) Why is it so hard for humans to take responsibility for our own wrongdoings? Why point the finger at someone else? I know the answer, of course. I saw this happening all the time when our church split, I see Adam and Eve doing it to each other after they sinned, I see my children doing it to each other, and I see this tendency in myself.

    But just because the blame-game comes naturally to us doesn’t mean that it’s okay with God. It doesn’t glorify him. It doesn’t point others to him, and (especially coming from a Christian leader) may turn others away from God. I mean, how many people say that they’re okay with Jesus but they just don’t like his “fan club” (the church) very much? Could it be that if we Christians took responsibility for our failures (whether that’s officially pastoral duties or not) and responded appropriately, that more people would be attracted to God?

    (I hope that made sense. It’s cold here and my brain is sluggish!)

    • Tim says:

      It makes complete sense, Laura. A readiness to own our mistakes would take the focus off us faster than any deflection and misdirection ever could hope to achieve. And when the focus is off us, it’s easier to point our eyes to Jesus.

  4. Oooh, multiple choice!!! A to all of the above.

    Tim, your article and all the comments here have really nailed it. The hardest words to say are, “I was wrong. Will you please forgive me?” And it’s really unpleasant to have to come to that place time and again. But it’s even worse to keep attempting to excuse my own behavior and living with the nagging guilt. I’ve learned that it’s far better to acknowledge my wrongdoing and resolving to do right (or at least better!) by the power of the Spirit and the exercising of my free will.

    • Tim says:

      I’d choose A too, EM. I hope we get a passing grade!

      Admitting a mistake, like almost everything else, gets easier with practice: “I blew it there. Gotta fix that.” The first time it might be tough to pull that out, but after a while it slides right out of the heart and off the tongue.

  5. Bronwyn Lea says:

    The words “above reproach” keep running through my head.

  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    Thank Goodness for the Good Shepherd

  7. Thanks for this perspective, Tim. I guess there aren’t really any perfect shepherds walking around on earth now. But you’re right, that passage from Ezekiel is indeed an encouragement, to know and trust that God will set everything right.

    • Tim says:

      And to know that we are already in the sheep pen of the Good Shepherd, too, Matthew. We don’t have to wait for him like Ezekiel’s listeners did.

  8. michellevl says:

    You may find this of interest on this topic, Tim – Jared Wilson from The Gospel Coalition weighs in here:

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Michelle. I read Wilson’s piece earlier today and thought it well stated. I am a bit disappointed that TGC did not enable comments for that post. Still, I can understand how hard if might be for them to moderate the discussion. TGC does not seem open to full-fledged discussion in the comments anyway. Wilson did well, though, and a comment to him in that regard would not have been amiss, I’m sure.

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