More On Plagiarism

Posted: September 5, 2006 in Everything

A few weeks ago I posted a guest blog from Scot McKnight about plagiarism in sermons. Last night I read this article from the NY Times about the subject and the fallout from plagiarism for one particular minister. I post it here for your edification.


The Bible does not discuss plagiarism. But it does say that thou shalt not bear false witness and thou shalt not steal.

So what to do in the case of a disgraced former preacher who violated both commandments several years ago when he borrowed sermons, often whole-cloth, from other ministers and passed them off as his own?

For members of the Park Avenue Christian Church, a struggling congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the proper response is to give him a second chance.

Members of the small church, which dates to 1810 but has dwindled to just 40 people on Sundays, voted this week to hire the former high-profile preacher, the Rev. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, 56, as their new senior pastor.

“It’s really a chance at a fresh start for both Park Avenue and for me,” Mr. Jackson, who will begin his job in September, said in a telephone interview.

Until several years ago, Mr. Jackson was a shining star in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an 800,000-member denomination. A renowned orator, he was pastor of the church’s flagship congregation, in Washington, and as the denomination’s moderator held its highest elected position. In a previous post, in Memphis, he expanded a church of 350 members to more than 8,000 in 19 years.

But he was embarrassed in late 2003 when a curious member of his staff in Washington discovered that Mr. Jackson had been preaching, often verbatim, the same sermons as the Rev. Thomas K. Tewell, at the time the leader of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Mr. Tewell later encountered his own problems, leaving Fifth Avenue over allegations that he had had an extramarital affair with a woman he was helping in marriage counseling.)

Kathy McGregor, staff nurse at the National City Christian Church in Washington, woke up early one Sunday and, out of curiosity, typed into Google Mr. Jackson’s provocative sermon title for that day, “Sorry Mr. President, I Don’t Dance.”

Reached by telephone in Memphis, where she later moved, Ms. McGregor recalled that she had been curious about whether the sermon was going to be about the war in Iraq, something she had been hoping the church would address. A sermon with the same title by Mr. Tewell popped up on her screen. Clicking through Fifth Avenue’s Web site to see Mr. Tewell’s other sermons, she saw that many other titles matched Mr. Jackson’s as well.

She printed out Mr. Tewell’s sermon and took it to church. Mr. Jackson proceeded to deliver the exact same sermon, she said, right down to the same um’s and ah’s in the transcription of Mr. Tewell’s — and even the same personal anecdotes.

“Mr. Tewell’s friends were his friends,” she said. “He never even changed the name of the people.”

After being alerted by Ms. McGregor, church officials confronted Mr. Jackson. He eventually admitted to borrowing liberally from other ministers’ sermons and asked for his congregation’s forgiveness. The Washington Post traced the trail of copied sermons back at least a year and a half. Mr. Jackson even used Mr. Tewell’s talks in a 12-week series he preached that was recorded and sold for $50.

Making matters worse, Disciples World, a magazine affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, discovered that one of Mr. Jackson’s messages that had been published in a collection of sermons preached after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had borrowed large sections from a 1982 book by another minister.

Mr. Jackson took a 10-week leave from the church. He returned for several months, but his congregation remained in turmoil over his leadership, and he resigned.

According to Mr. Jackson, his resignation ultimately had nothing to do with plagiarizing but stemmed from opposition to the more multicultural direction that he, as a black minister, was taking the mostly white congregation.

Nevertheless, over the past few years, Mr. Jackson said, he has done much reflecting on his mistakes. He maintained his home in Washington but also spent time in the Gulf Coast region, working with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. He also did some consulting work for churches.

He is contrite, offering candid explanations about the pressures he was under but hastening to say they are not meant to be excuses. He had been bouncing between his responsibilities in the church and his leadership position in the denomination, he said, and simply became overwhelmed.

“It’s a pattern you get into,” he said, explaining he was struggling at the time with issues of self-esteem. “It happens bit by bit. You end up using more and more. You’re using a little material maybe initially, and then using more. It’s really not rational.”

Borrowing of sermon material occurs often among preachers, but Mr. Jackson went too far, said the Rev. John M. Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, whose Easter sermon was copied by Mr. Jackson.

“We all borrow from one another, and we’re all inspired from other ministers and informed by one another,” he said. “What’s not so good is when you simply take something of someone else’s and don’t attribute it and claim it as your own. That steps over a serious line.”

Still, Mr. Buchanan, who said that at least three other pastors had copied his sermons to varying degrees, said that Mr. Jackson deserved a chance at redemption.

“He’s obviously a gifted and strong leader,” he said. “We need all those we can get.”

Melissa Little, the chairwoman of Park Avenue’s pastoral search committee, said she and others at the church were ultimately willing to look past Mr. Jackson’s mistakes, serious as they were, in hopes that he can reverse the church’s fortunes. The congregation at Park Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets has been through several pastors over the past decade and has been steadily losing people, she said.

“He realizes what he did,” she said. “He’s not going to do it again. He’s discerned it. He’s worked on it.”

David Mitchell, the church’s moderator, is a business manager for a small publishing company. Among his duties is writing letters to people who have violated the company’s copyrights. As a result, he was initially profoundly bothered by Mr. Jackson’s history.

But after pressing Mr. Jackson, he came away positive about what Mr. Jackson might offer the congregation as a preacher and his plans to bring diversity and renewed vibrancy to the church.

“I would hope that if I were to ever do something that stupid,” Mr. Mitchell said, “that I would also find the grace to be able to recover from it.”

  1. ClayMan says:

    I’m certainly glad that the congregation was understanding. The fact that a member of the congregation was vindictive enough to try and have him fired is frightening enough. I mean, if you’re going to fire a preacher, do it for something with meat – like instrumental music or something like that…

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