There’s a trend in ministry. . . youth ministry included. . . that seems somewhat troubling to me. Maybe I’m just thinking too much about it, but the more I think about it the more I don’t think that I’m overreacting. I’m not even sure what to call it. Maybe it’s best for me to try to describe it. . . and then we can name it. In its extreme form it’s been called plagiarism. We were steered away from plagiarism in elementary school when our teacher would simply tell us to “put it into your own words.”

The worst case of plagiarism that I ever encountered in ministry was something I stumbled upon while doing a Google search for something I had written a few years before. As often happens to me with my scrambled mind and even more scrambled computer filing system, I couldn’t find what I was looking for on my computer. Knowing that we had posted the article on our website, the quickest way to find it was through Google. And so I Googled the article’s title. . . and it came up. But the first result in the search wasn’t on our website. It was on the website of a church. Thrilled that someone had thought enough of the article to post it on their site, I quickly clicked on the link to see how the folks at the church had used the article. What I found put me in an a very awkward position. The article was posted on the church’s sermon page. But it wasn’t posted as my article. Sure enough, it was my article, but it had been preached by the youth pastor on one of his Sundays – word for word – and passed off as his own. I did follow-up with the youth pastor to let him know not so much that I was angry or hurt by his actions, but that he wasn’t doing himself any favors by plagiarizing anyone’s work. He apologized profusely (I think he was really really scared) and explained to me that he had been just too busy to write his own sermon. Even sadder was the fact that I wouldn’t even consider the article coming close to being sermon material, but that’s another story.

Which brings me to my concern over the troubling youth ministry trend. More and more, I’m finding that youth workers (and yes, even pastors) are buying, borrowing, stealing and using other people’s sermons and lesson plans. Sure, the trend is being fed by an entire cottage industry that makes these things abundantly available online and in printed form. Where permission is granted by a publisher or individual who makes these things available, that’s all fine and well. But does the practice somehow serve to dumb us down, make us less studious, and keep us from growing and developing ourselves in ministry?

A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with a new friend, Mark Kaminski, who is a young middle school pastor in Michigan. Mark was excitedly telling me about a teaching series he had developed for his students. I could hear the eagerness, conviction, and passion in his voice. When I asked Mark about how he puts his stuff together he told me that he has a hard time using pre-packaged curriculum. He explained that when he uses other people’s stuff the passion just isn’t there. For Mark to teach effectively, he has to teach what has become a part of himself.

Sadly, conversations like that are happening less and less frequently. It was refreshing to hear Mark talk about his reading, study, and writing habits. I know that there are many youth workers and pastors out there like Mark. But I also know that many of us have just gotten too busy, too sidetracked, and maybe a little bit too lazy to do the hard work of filling ourselves with regular deposits of spiritual depth from which we can make hefty withdrawals resulting in passionate ministry that flows from within ourselves and which we own.

Anybody can teach other people’s stuff. More and more of us need to commit to going deeper to develop ourselves and the messages that will flow from that depth. What are you doing to read widely? To study the Scriptures? To study theology? To develop your message for your audience?

The Apostle Paul encouraged the young Timothy to be zealous in knowing the Word and how to handle it: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15). That’s a good reminder for me this morning.

9 thoughts on “Youth Workers and Passion. . . The Need To Be Your Message. . .

  1. Good thoughts, Walt. I really appreciate you sharing about your conversation with Mark. That’s instructive in so many ways to all in ministry, especially those who are new/younger who might be taking their first steps.

    For me personally, I also have a hard time using pre-packaged material. They all form a good basis upon which to formulate lesson plans, discussion guides, and sermons, but I’ve found after all these years that what really needs to happen is what you’ve articulated in this post.

    Relevant (or at least I think so, anyway) example: I’ve taken on a Lent practice of providing daily devotions for the youth and families at my church this season, and am using the book “Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn” as a guide for it. It is also a Lenten daily devotion book, and as I was planning this, it did cross my mind to simply post the contents as-is, but as I reflected on the book, I realized that if that’s what I was going to do, I could’ve just ordered multiple copies of the book and handed them out. As it turns out, I’m posting reflections based on each day’s reading, and barely a week in, I can already tell that this has been good for me in so many ways.

    We can’t be fully transparent and honest before those whom we serve and before God if we’re not being original as we teach and lead.

  2. Thank you Walt for this encouragement. I, too, have gotten sucked in a little these last few months to just give prepackaged curriculum. The funny thing is, I consistently have to get over this feeling that I actually don’t totally believe this stuff myself. I don’t think this is what this and that passage is actually trying to convey. What it does is water down the message and doesn’t incite excitement in my kids.
    However, I do see the great thing in curriculum to help me come up with a more well-rounded picture of the Scriptures and what they teach. A lot of the content though needs to be experienced before being taught. Great article, it was what I needed today!

  3. Walt,

    I agree this is a serious issue. I blog on occasion and at least three times I have found my material being used by someone else. I always love the links but it really bothers me when someone does this. In my Youth Min courses at Eastern, Duffy always talked about this. It is an integrity issue within the field.


  4. I don’t think you are overreacting. Ministry has been becoming more and more plagiaristic over the last couple decades. What started out as just borrowing games and ideas has turned into churches copying other churches entirely. With the internet this has naturally extended into our teachings. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with drawing inspiration or ideas from others, it is easy to become dependent on others for teaching ideas instead of the Holy Spirit. I think it is a heart issue. Are you using these borrowed ideas because they are better or because you think they will make you look better? Are theses ideas coming from diligent research or out of a last minute scramble to put something together? If you do use someone else’s stuff make sure you give them credit publicly so you are not tempted to accept credit/praise. Our dependence in teaching the word of God should be on the Holy Spirit of God and not on someone else’s commentary of scripture.

  5. I have always felt the same way. I actually get kind of irritated with the constant push by so many ministry websites to sell their pre-packaged sermons/outlines/etc. I think this does not do anyone any favors. I think the best thing we can do, as youth pastors, is to study, prepare and give our youth the Word of God. It is the most relevant thing we will ever give to them. Our time is so limited with them that this must be of utmost importance.

    Now, stealing someone else’s stuff is a whole different level of problems.

  6. Great post!

    I have been chatting about this issue for the past while. I think the problem stems from how we use curriculm as a church/youth ministry. I would love to eventually provide resources for youth pastors that would give them the study portion of at talk, and the big idea, and then they would have to write the talk themselves.
    I think another problem is that bible college, and seminary are not teaching guys to teach contextually.

  7. As a volunteer, I appreciate the packaged lesson simply because of the convenience. However, I never use it as is – there’s something I don’t agree with, a verse/game I like better, or a question that would hit closer to home with the group. I think that editing is important to have a good lesson.
    I think the issue goes much deeper. Do the kids see us with CDs that we burned from our friends? Do we tell the kids that we will buy one copy of the book and copy it (entirely) so that they don’t have to buy their own copy?
    Did we start compromising there and now have moved to plagerism down a slippery slope?

  8. I just finished pre-packaged curriculum from my denomination and couldn’t get excited about doing something else pre-pacakged so was about to start working on something of my own (you know, after I read a few blog posts). Thanks for the encouragement to do something that is a little scary to me.

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