Preachers Behaving Like Brian Williams

Brian Williams has been in some trouble over the last few weeks for taking liberties with his experiences while on reporting assignments. He admitted that he exaggerated claims about being fired upon while in a helicopter in Iraq and NBC News suspended him for six months. The substance of objections to allowing Williams to remain in his post with NBC News is that he has lost credibility. If he is willing to embellish his personal narrative, can he be a trusted figure when delivering the news?

While considering this, a related question struck me: How should Christians regard pastors and preachers who embellish their personal narratives in sermons?

This phenomenon isn’t rare. When I was in college, I heard a speaker in chapel relate a very interesting anecdote about an interchange in a pre-marital counseling session. About a month later, another preacher used the very same anecdote with reference to himself! It struck me as very odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. A few years later, while on a ministry staff, someone shared an account about another pastor. A friend of mine sarcastically exclaimed, “hey, what a great story! Next time I preach I’m going to use that about myself!” We all laughed because we recognized that pastors did this sort of thing.

I can recall another time when a pastor I admired spoke of a situation that I had first-hand knowledge of, and I knew that it didn’t take place the way he reported it. But it served his rhetorical purpose from the pulpit. One final example: A small controversy erupted about eight years ago on our college campus regarding a chapel speaker. He preached an entire message from someone else’s online sermon, using even the same illustrations and personal anecdotes from the original as if they were his own.

Because so many sermons and preaching resources can be found online, I’m confident that such accounts could be multiplied many times over.

It seems to me that because credibility and integrity are so crucial for ministers, Christians ought to have serious objections when preachers embellish their personal narratives in sermons. Such embellishment is deceit. It’s a way of improving one’s image in the eyes of others, attempting to appear more virtuous.

Not only is this deceitful, it often leaves listeners deflated and discouraged. When pastors portray their lives as godlier than the average Christian, they make following Jesus something inaccessible to others. This mischaracterizes discipleship, making it something that only our pastor, the spiritual superhero, can do. The rest of us are stuck being second-class Christians, since our lives aren’t filled with such interesting and dramatic episodes of spiritual courage.

And this dynamic breeds inauthenticity. Pastors who portray themselves as above the fray and holier than the rest must maintain that image. They can’t risk being vulnerable and honest about their ordinary lives and mundane struggles. They can no longer afford to portray themselves as fairly average, their days filled with mostly unremarkable moments and sometimes awkward episodes. And the rest of us won’t be honest about our struggles, either, since we’re busy hiding how short we fall of the (supposedly) high standard set by the pastor and his manufactured anecdotes.

Discussions of what Brian Williams has done rightly include notions of credibility and integrity. This is also a good opportunity for pastors and preachers to reflect on how they can maintain integrity in reporting about their own lives.


21 responses to “Preachers Behaving Like Brian Williams

  • Tim Cole

    You are spot on, Herr Professor!

  • Jackie Whyte

    Tony Campolo’s preaching instructor’s feedback after a sermon he preached in class was ‘Tony – both you and Jesus cant be great in the same sermon!’.

  • Tim Ford

    Absolutely agree! How dare we (I am a pastor) embellish a story for any reason, whether in personal discussion or to make a point in a sermon. At very least give credit where it is due, if it isn’t your story say so or don’t use it.

  • adamlorenz

    A few years back I was invited to guest preach at a church as a part of a series they were having. I kept up on the series prior to make sure what I said would fit arc they were hoping for.

    I soon discovered that one of the pastors a few weeks prior gave the same teaching/illustration as a prominent pastor had used a few years prior in a sermon and then later in a book. Coincidentally, I was then serving at the church of the prominent pastor so I recognized it very quickly.

    No credit was given.

    We all know there is nothing is new under the sun, but there are ways to give/acknowledge credit because we all have been influenced and shaped. This experience has bothered me for some time.

    Not exclusive to pastors but to many of us, we forget that: It’s ok to be ‘normal’, average even, to be vulnerable, to acknowledge we have not experienced joys or hurt or success or failure to fully relate; but that doesn’t mean that as a fellow human we can’t still share in the journey together. It’s just not as ‘sexy’ of a life but as you seemed to be hinting at Tim, authenticity will breed some thing very beautiful when a community embraces it.

    And I hope for that day.

  • Preston Hammerman

    Reminds me of the time I was in church and the preacher was clearly making stuff up so I stood up and I was like “Fake!” and the preacher was like “Sorry!” and he apologized and the congregation was so moved that everyone got saved. Then the congregation tells me “Dude, you were amazing” I was just like “Psh, it’s the Lord.”

  • cugefan

    I had a really bizarre experience along these lines several years ago. My wife and I were driving through Missouri on our way to Branson and Point Lookout for the NAIA D2 men’s national basketball tournament. Our team was competing that year in the tournament (Go, Cornerstone Golden Eagles!), and I was listening to one of many Christian radio stations in the area we were driving through. At the time, I was listening – or half-listening, since I was driving, to a sermon by John MacArthur. I don’t even remember the text all that well, but I think it was something from Colossians. A little while, and several station changes later (driving in and out of FM range for various stations), I found another Christian radio station, and a local preacher came on. He was preaching the exact same sermon that I had heard MacArthur preaching on another stations just a couple of hours earlier. I mean exactly the same – he must have had a transcript of MacArthur’s sermon (that is, assuming that it was this guy who was doing the plagiarizing, and not MacArthur!). I was stunned – did he really think he could get away with this? Ironically, I have no way of knowing whether his Joe Biden-esque stealing of someone else’s sermon was detected or not. For his sake, and everyone else’s, I certainly hope it was.

    • timgombis

      Because of his distribution of tapes throughout his ministry career, and because he’s been on the radio forever, that’s happened countless times with MacArthur. I have too many stories along that line involving him, but your experience viz. that trip and those two incidents is pretty wild!

  • A. Amos Love

    Tim

    You ask…
    “How should Christians regard pastors and preachers
    who embellish their personal narratives in sermons?”

    I’ve heard pastors say they were called, by God, to be a pastor.
    I’ve heard pastors say they were called, by God, to be a leader.

    Does a pastor “embellish their personal narratives in sermons?”
    When they tell folks, “God *called me* to be a pastor/leader?”

    I ask because, in the Bible…
    NO one, NOT one of His Disciples…
    Ever said they were “called,” by God, to be a pastor/leader/reverend…

    And, in the Bible…
    NOT one of His Disciples had the Title pastor/leader/reverend.
    NOT one of His Disciples called themself pastor/leader/reverend.
    NOT one of His Disciples called another disciple pastor/leader/reverend.
    NOT one of His Disciples were Hired or Fired, as a pastor/leader/reverend.

    If this “calling,” by God, is NOT recorded in the Bible?
    Is this their way to “embellish their personal narratives?”

    If this “calling,” by God, is NOT recorded in the Bible?
    I’m-a-thinkin, they heard this preached in a “Sermon.”
    Preached by another pastor/leader/reverend.
    Who wanted to “embellish their personal narratives.”

    I agree when you say…
    “It seems to me that because credibility and integrity are so crucial for ministers, Christians ought to have serious objections when preachers embellish their personal narratives in sermons.”

    • Steve Long

      I want to respond Amos’s comment, assuming he is a pastor or in some area of church leadership, to ask “So by what spiritual authority does one preach if there is no divine commission given to a person who is to stand before people to declare the divine Word of God and God’s divine calling to them to obey and follow Christ?” This is meant to be a rhetorical question and not to minimize discussion of Tim’s point of integrity of sources in the message. To Amos, there are a number of scriptural examples of a “calling by God” as commission to engage in ministry – Moses at the burning bush, young Samuel, Saul on the road to Damascus (which he later described as a calling to ministry to the gentiles), Paul to Timothy in the Pastoral Epistles.
      Thanks Tim for emphasizing proper citation and honesty in preaching, and your point should be well taken. The fact that sermons are so available to be copied from the pulpit maybe shows that a preacher must keep divine prioriities of his calling in mind. In Acts 6, the apostles had to move away from a “cutting edge” ministry – feeding the widows, where it put them “out in front” – to delegate it to a new team of “lesser knowns”, so they could give themselves to prayer and declaring the Word of God. Had they not done that, there would have been no miraculous “shadow ministry” by Peter, no Philip the Evangelist to influence an African kingdom, and no Stephen to confront a young Saul with the powerful claims of Christ.

  • Baker Book House Church Connection | Around the Web

    […] Gombis has an interesting post on Preachers Behaving Like Brian Williams. He says, “How should Christians regard pastors and preachers who embellish their personal […]

  • A. Amos Love

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for the response. – I think… 😉

    You write…
    “I want to respond Amos’s comment,”

    You then ask a “rhetorical question.” wikipedia explains it as, “A Rhetorical Question is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked in order to make a point, rather than to elicit an answer.”

    Was wondering…
    1 – What is your point in the “rhetorical question?”
    And, would you like an answer? 😉

    “So by what spiritual authority does one preach if there is no divine commission given to a person who is to stand before people to declare the divine Word of God and God’s divine calling to them to obey and follow Christ?”

    2 – What does your point, “rhetorical question,” have to do with the comment to Tim?

    “Does a pastor “embellish their personal narratives in sermons?”
    When they tell folks, “God *called me* to be a pastor/leader?”

    I ask because, in the Bible…
    NO one, NOT one of His Disciples…
    Ever said they were “called,” by God, to be a pastor/leader/reverend…”
    ———-

    In the Bible, can you name one of His Disciples, who said they were “called” by God, to be a pastor? Or leader? Or reverend?

    What is popular is NOT always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is NOT always popular.

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