Early last week I received word from two editors that they would not be pursuing a story about plagiarism by Craig Groeschel, senior pastor (lead pastor, vision caster, whatever the hell it's called these days) of Lifechurch.tv. If you don't know, Lifechurch.tv is based in Edmond, OK, the OKC metro's northernmost suburb. There are two campuses in Edmond, and a total of 19 campuses in 5 states. I have no idea what the actual attendance is, but seven years ago it was over 20,000. There were only 12 campuses then, so the math probably means about 30,000 "members."
Lifechurch.tv doesn't use the word member in terms of church membership, so let's just call them 30K attenders who are, in the parlance of the Warrenite theology Lifechurch.tv teaches, attempting to become "fully devoted followers of Christ." (If anyone knows the origin of that phrase in church mission statements, please let me know.) Back in my faith days, the days when I had a dog in the fight, I went to great lengths to critique the theology of LCTV and Groeschel, but I've left that alone for the most part since I left the faith in 2006. However, during that time, I always defended Craig, someone I've known since about 1997 or 1998, as a man of principle and a pretty upstanding guy.
The last conversation I had with him was a phone call he made after a particularly testy exchange on this blog under the old "Size Matters, I Think" posts. I defended his character to someone who was accusing him of all manner of awfulness. Craig simply called to say thanks. "It means a lot to me that my most vocal critic defends my character," he said. Back in the day, we were almost friends, and I'll always be grateful for the support he provided after my divorce and church closing in 1999.
When a local station ran a story about pastor houses in the metro and was unable to find Groeschel's house, a friend found it hidden in a trust, not owned outright in Groeschel's name. It wasn't exactly modest, but it didn't rise to the level of absurdity that some did. I thought at the time that Groeschel was allowing his lifestyle to determine his salary rather than vice versa, but it didn't really rise to the level of egregious (unless you ignore all those things Jesus said about wealth and ministry, but evangelicals have been doing that since the Billy Graham approach was deemed too poverty-minded).
I'm a big fan of Warren Throckmorton's blog on Patheos. He does a solid job of tracking certain trends and douchery in American Christianity. A couple weeks ago, he posted the story of Groeschel's plagiarizing of Danny Murphy, a writer who sold a piece to The Door Magazine back in 2000. The whole thing is detailed via the links on Throckmorton's site.
Suffice it to say, it's clear it was plagiarism. The book in which Murphy's parody article was plagiarized went out of print and was reissued in 2011 under a different title: Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After: Preparing for a Marriage That Goes the Distance. When Murphy pressed the plagiarism issue and showed Multnomah the side-by-side comparison of his work and Groeschel's words, Multnomah reprinted the book with a footnote giving Murphy credit early this year in record time. Good for them for taking it seriously and being responsive, by the way.
From what I have seen, Groeschel has never admitted it was plagiarism. I was doing preliminary interviews for the story, which I assumed some editor would be interested in (silly me), so I contacted LCTV. Not sure you've ever tried to talk to a megachurch pastor, but these days, only their families, executive assistants, sound check guy, worship pastor, friends, and leadership team talks to them. Why are they still called pastors? No idea, but more on that in a bit.
Lori Bailey, LCTV's director of communications (yes, you can import a vocabulary without importing a grammar, right?), responded after I accidentally reached LCTV's staff attorney. You read that right. A church with a staff attorney. Just what Jesus had in mind, I'm sure. Anyway, Bailey was very helpful and gracious, as she always has been, and she sent me a reply from Groeschel. Yes, pastors issue statements via communications professionals now, because they aren't communications professionals themselves? Before you read Groeschel's reply, you really need to see the excerpts that Groeschel used from Murphy's work next to Murphy's work. Scroll down to the image of Vows of Cohabitation and start reading. Simply no way that one isn't lifted from the other. So here is what Groeschel "said" through his communications director, and really, who the hell knows who actually writes this stuff.
"I feel strongly about giving credit and have done so over and over again in sermons and books. We first used this idea in a sermon illustration video, which I sincerely thought was an original concept developed before the author’s article. To be above reproach, I asked my publisher to give this author credit, which is already reflected in the most recent reprinting of the book where this illustration is used."
Note there is no confession of guilt, no I’m sorry, no repentance, just an affirmation of how “above reproach” he is. I've been writing for money since 1990. I know when my words are my words, and I know when I'm not dealing with an original concept. In church business and theology, we all borrow ideas from our idols or we mock those ideas with which we disagree. However, if I developed an "original" idea that was identical word for word for hundreds of words with a piece of writing that predated mine, I would have to be seriously deluded to pretend it was anything other than plagiarism. Or just lying. You simply can't reproduce ideas with the sort of one to one correspondence seen in Groeschel's theft of Murphy's work. And as far as above reproach, that ship sailed. From what Murphy said, it's unclear whether Groeschel or the publisher insisted on the reprint with attribution. If that's incorrect, I'll apologize once I see the communication between Groeschel and Multnomah.
One editor said they might roll the Groeschel plagiarism into a longer piece that included Driscoll and others who have been caught recently. Another said Groeschel didn't do it often enough to worry about it. Yes, an editor said one clearly egregious case of plagiarism from the senior pastor of our state's largest church didn't warrant a story. An editor. Of a newspaper. I'm still befuddled by that response. It is unfortunately true that we soon become accustomed to things that are not as they ought to be, especially when those who commit the offenses are celebrities, and it's clear that celebrity plagiarism is no big deal.
Watch this. I'm about to give credit to someone for an idea that I know isn't mine, but I read and agreed with it and so have incorporated it into my way of understanding how the world functions. Zach Hoag and I don't know each other. I only know of him through Stephanie Drury's zany, painfully sane twitter account (@StuffCCLikes). However, I followed a link to his blog one day and read his thoughts on celebrity in the Church. He identified a few characteristics, but two have stuck with me because they so accurately describe my experience of talking to Christians about their celebrity pastor/writer heroes.
Hoag said celebrity culture created in us a false sense of relationship with the celebrity. Because of this faux relationship, people who don't know the celebrity will defend the celebrity for even the most egregious offenses rather than hold them accountable for their behavior. Really, really insightful stuff, and I even included a link to Mr. Hoag, so you can read his stuff for yourself. That's the opposite of plagiarism, and it's what I teach my students to do. One of the editors asked how I thought LCTV would respond to Groeschel's plagiarism. I don't remember my answer, but it should have been that they would defend him even when he said something as patently absurd as he thought it was an original idea. They are invested in this man who purports to be a pastor, but is, in fact, a celebrity. Pastors actually pastor people; they don't project their heads to large screens around the country where the adoring masses make celebrities of them and defend what is clearly indefensible. And they don't make statements through communication professionals. They, like Jesus, want their yes to be yes, and their no to be no, and if posible, actually their words. All else is dishonesty.