Ghostwriter Sermon
(Photo by Aaron Burden/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

Why Some Preachers Rely on Holy Ghostwriters and Other Pulpit Helps

By Bob Smietana

Jed Ostoich needed a job.

He and his wife had bills to pay while they were in graduate school. But his undergraduate degree from Moody Bible Institute left him with few professional skills outside of the ministry.

Then a friend offered him what seemed like the perfect gig. The job paid well — about $20 an hour — and allowed him to put his Bible skills and his graduate studies to work.

That’s how he became a sermon ghostwriter.

“I thought this was great,” recalled Ostoich, who spent several years writing research briefs, sermon outlines and other content for pastors through the Docent Research Group from 2010 to 2014. 

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Faced with having to come up with new material every week and sometimes several times a week, preachers have long used “pulpit helps” in writing their sermons. They often rely on magazines, subscription services and websites to provide anecdotes, topics and other fodder for sermons. (At least one megachurch even sells “sermon kits” — complete with outlines, graphics and promo videos for other churches to use.) 

Some preachers hire researchers to do the Bible reading and background research and interpretation on a specific text — known as exegesis — or to provide insights about cultural trends affecting the church. Others find a ghostwriter to help them put it all together.

The content produced with the help of services like Docent has a wide audience.

“Docent’s work reaches over a million people every month who are blessed by pastors better equipped to do their work and backed up by excellent research,” the group’s website claims.

Jed Ostoich
Jed Ostoich (Courtesy Photo)

Ostoich, a writer from Michigan, thinks sermon ghostwriters and researchers can serve a valid role in the church, under the right circumstances. His first gig as a ghostwriter involved helping the interim pastor of a Texas church. The interim pastor had been on a church’s board of elders and was put in charge after the previous pastor resigned. He’d come out of the business world and had no formal training as a pastor.

Ostoich was asked to lend a hand. He would go through the Bible text for that week’s sermon and summarize the main points, then add some background research about the context for the passage. From there, the pastor would go on and write his own sermon.

“I felt I was helping a guy who needs help,” said Ostoich. “This is in my wheelhouse and if I can provide resources to help him grow and be a good servant at his church, great.”

Ostoich would eventually go on to do ghostwriting projects for Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll, including blog posts that ran under Driscoll’s byline. That made Ostoich uncomfortable — as if he was misleading folks who thought they were reading Driscoll’s words.

“The whole thing started to go sour on me at that point,” he said.

Gary Stratton, dean of the school of arts and sciences at Johnson University, a Christian school with campuses in Tennessee and Florida, says pastors, who are already busy with raising money and visiting the sick and teaching classes, are often under tremendous pressure to write compelling sermons every week.

The rise of podcasts and streaming sermons from megachurches have made things worse, with preachers of a local church often being compared to celebrity pastors. For many, preaching a sermon felt as if it became a kind of performance art rather than a spiritual activity and led some preachers to outsource their sermon writing to others or to use other preacher’s sermons, said Stratton. 

Stratton thinks that in doing so, they miss out on the spiritual side of writing a sermon.

“If you’re going to prepare a sermon, half your time should be in prayer,” he said. “Praying for your people, praying for the anointing, praying for the Spirit to be present to work in people’s lives, and the other half on preparing the actual words.”

A pastor in a Kentucky-based megachurch said he sought help in doing research for sermons a few years ago.

After pastoring for two decades, the pastor, who asked not to be identified, said people in the church had “heard all of his stories” by that point. And he didn’t want to end up just recycling sermon material from the past.

So the church brought another pastor in to share the preaching load with him. The two set up a weekly meeting with a team from the church — younger and older, men and women — to help with the brainstorming process for sermons. The group gets the biblical text ahead of time and then discusses it during the meeting, with members giving their key takeaways and suggesting possible illustrations.

The preachers take that input, then shut the door for several days and get to work when it’s their week to preach.

Ghostwriting Sermon
(Photo by Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

Prayer and time alone with the Bible text play an essential role in the writing.

“My greatest concern is that intimacy with Jesus,” this pastor said. “You have to get alone with him and the biblical text. You exegete the text, you exegete your audience, and you exegete your own heart. Those are the three things that lead to a good sermon.”

At least one ghostwriter that RNS spoke with wishes pastors would be more transparent when they work with ghostwriters or a “sermon crafter.” 

After all, church musicians aren’t expected to write the hymns the congregation sings. The prayers and creeds and liturgy each week were often written by other people. So why not allow a pastor to use a sermon someone else wrote — and be open about it?

The ghostwriter, a former pastor who made between $300 and $900 for crafting a sermon package — with theological background, a list of major themes in that week’s text, as well as a list of illustrations — took the job of ghostwriter during a crisis when their family needed more income. It paid better than other jobs — and allowed the person to use their ministry skills and education to benefit a church.

“I thought, if this is how I could help serve the church right now, that’s what I will do,” they said. 

Author and theologian Scot McKnight argues that pastors who use ghostwriters or researchers without telling their congregations are “cheating.”

The congregation, he said, believes the sermons were written by the pastor and come out of the pastor’s own interaction with the Bible and prayer. And members often attend a church because of the sermons and give money on the basis of those teachings.

Finding out a preacher used a ghostwriter or researcher is “a betrayal of their trust and expectations,” McKnight said.

Zach Lambert, pastor of Restore Austin, a congregation in Austin, Texas, said he was “starstruck” as a young minister when he was asked to ghostwrite sermons for a well-known preacher. He wrote for what he called “an audience of one” — the pastor who would deliver the sermon.

Lambert is now pastor of a congregation of about 300 and says writing sermons for his congregants is much more meaningful than hearing his words being preached to thousands.

“Every time I write a sermon, inevitably, God brings faces of people in the congregation to mind,” he said. “Even though it’s a much smaller audience than when I was ghostwriting, it’s incredibly rewarding to write a message for the folks in our church and then get to preach it to them.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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23 thoughts on “Why Some Preachers Rely on Holy Ghostwriters and Other Pulpit Helps”

  1. Wow! Outsource sermon material, outsource time that should have been spent thinking about how worldly influences sabotage the lives of believers all because the church has to be run like a corporation; no wonder our country is in a mess. Spiritual shallowness at best

  2. Bob Smietana is a fine writer. I visited the Docent Research Group’s website and was surprised to learn that Tim Keller has endorsed the organization (or at least one of its researchers). In addition, Docent’s founder made a plausible and even compelling case for doing research for pastors. Unfortunately, Mr. Smietana omitted that information.

  3. I appreciate Bob’s stories, both the research and the presentation. However, I would like to suggest on this one that he might want to reconsider his headline. It is certainly “clever” but I can’t help feeling that this sort of jocular reference to the third person of the Trinity is a form taking “the name of the Lord your God in vain”.

  4. As an attorney, I review the relevant cases and research similar pleadings filed by others as part of my preparation. But can an attorney have a ghostwriter represent his client in court? Hardly. Ditto for being a senior pastor- ultimately it’s the pastor’s responsibility to know the Biblical content well, specifically designed for the local congregation, lead by the Spirit and after much prayer. Could laziness, improper priorities and procrastination often be the bigger issues involved (as Chuck Swindoll often warns seminarians of at DTS)?

  5. Money, it is always money.

    Jesus overthrew tables and literally chased people around whipping them when they turned the temple into a “den of thieves”.

    Today’s, Western expression of church has become a den of thieves.

    Why are pastors focused on money?

    “…busy with raising money”
    “members… give money”

    Are not pastors called to “equip the saints”?
    Are not pastors called to be “shepherds”?

    Building a ministry has become no different than an entrepreneur starting a business – just with better tax benefits.

    No longer is truth critical, raising and keeping money coming in is.
    No longer is fellowship (community) necessary, writing books, podcasts, and popularity is.
    No longer is shepherding a requirement, building a personal brand is.

    The American church is not reaching the lost, we are placating the world.
    The American church is no longer light, greed has put it out.
    The American church is no longer stands on truth, we argue and dived on trivial maters.

    … and to my own shame, I too have become blinded.

  6. Very interesting article, and thanks for following up on the previous plagiarism article, Bob. I had no idea there was such a spectrum of ways in which other content creators could be involved in a pastor’s sermon preparation.

    In my view, using a researcher to check facts, look up historically relevant contextual information, and do some background summary on relevant exegesis and commentary is a great time-saver and a method employed by many authors of all types of content.

    I’m uncomfortable with those pastors who use ghostwriters to set up the entire theme of their sermons or to build out their sermons point by point, as it seems a neglect of the pastor’s personal responsibility to hear from the Holy Spirit as to what their individual congregation needs.

    But adopting the exact language of other writers, or passing off the personal anecdotes of someone else as the pastor’s own, is clearly dishonesty.

    1. I agree with you. When I was first saved someone close to me handed me several books/pamplets written by Kenneth Hagin. Another person close to me warned me of his teachings so I did a little research and found out that in addition to his rank heresies, he plagiarized E.W. Kenyon. Apparently, heretics steal a good portion of their teachings, on top of the demonic “words from god” they love to bless the simple with.

      I worked with a young man, whose mother was the editor of Hagin’s books and he put me in contact with her via emaii, this was about 18 years ago. She was still a member of Hagins church at the time so I asked her straightly about the plagiarisms.

      She told me that Pastor Hagin had a “photographic memory” and didn’t know he had copied Kenyons work! Nevermind he had a “photographic memory” Hagin didn’t “remember” reading another mans writings. lol you can’t make this stuff up!

      Years later I read somewhere that Joyce Myers plagiarized Hagin, too, So the false teaching lived on. Though Joyce is smarter than the other WoF folks, I believe she recognized it had run its course (and a large portion of its adherents were dying of old age and they weren’t getting many new ones) so she toned down those teachings and went for a more positive “self-love” message instead, like Joel Osteen (whos dad was a notable WoF teacher himself) And so the story goes, on and on and…

      We are truly living in the last of the “last” days, one would have to be lost or totally blind not to see this.

  7. As the article states, buying books of sermon outlines and illustrations has been common practice among pastors for decades. Most of those older outlines, however, were more or less “skeletons” that required the pastor to add his own personal interpretation.

    Years ago I worked for a Christian radio organization that featured a weekly message from the president. We made transcripts available to anyone interested. We discovered that at least one pastor was requesting these each week and then delivering them to his congregation almost verbatim.

  8. Ghostwriting is wrong. Do not ghostwrite. Ghostwriting lives in the same moral area as the signing of non-disclosure agreements. In both cases, a person or organization with power and money compromises the integrity of a vulnerable individual who just needs a job. If a man offers you money to write in his name, or to promise never to reveal his sin, refuse. Refuse even if it means that you can’t pay your bills and you have to take a menial job and your education and skills seemingly go to waste. Don’t participate in his corruption. While the one who hires a ghostwriter (or prepares an NDA) is more at fault, it remains the case that your lesser sin enables his greater one.

  9. Some pastors are very good at being a pastor, but not so great at teaching, and vice versa. Particularly in a smaller church, where the pastor is juggling a lot of responsiblity, this may make sense. I don’t, however, see how any honest person can be comfortable leaving a false impression of where the material came from. As long as there’s honesty, I don’t see a problem.

    1. What you say is true, but unfortunate, since a pastor’s main job is to preach the word. The article referenced an “interim pastor [who] had been on a church’s board of elders and was put in charge after the previous pastor resigned. He’d come out of the business world and had no formal training as a pastor.” So he used a ghostwriter. But one of the qualifications of an elder is that he should be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), so any elder should be able to preach, if needed. I have served in lay ministry for years, and I have no formal training as a preacher; but I have preached hundreds of times, much of that with only my Bible, not even a commentary; and I did it while working a full time job (outside of the church) and raising a family. I often wished I had more time to prepare, but the Lord always blessed and multiplied what I gave him, even if it was just five loaves and two fish.

  10. I preached for 40 years (36 in one church)—almost always Bible exposition. In the early years, there was a morning and evening sermon to prepare. I never ran out of material, and thoroughly enjoyed the 15-30 hours of research, prayer and preparation for each sermon. That’s one thing I miss most about pastoral ministry. It’s almost inconceivable to me that a pastor who uses a sermon service or ghostwriter can be satisfied at the end of a week’s work (which for me was 45-65 hours each week (seldom if ever less and sometimes more).

    1. Sandy, what you say is so true. I served in lay ministry for a long time, preaching weekly in various capacities–and all this while I worked a full time job and had a family. Preaching through whole books of the Bible, I never ran out of material, and even if I went back to a passage I had taught previously there was always something new to be gleaned from it. As difficult as it was, I loved spending time in the word studying the passage, wrestling with the text until I understood it enough to teach it. In fact, the best thing I was ever taught about preaching was to memorize the Bible passage. In my early years, that was a basic requirement, and I was not allowed to preach unless I had done that. Even when I have used commentaries I found that it is easy to become overly reliant on them. If I do not do enough self-discovery of a passage, I feel like I am cheating myself, or robbing myself of the blessing that comes with just spending time listening to God speak in His word.

  11. Sermon services were a regular topic of discussion when I was in seminary. Many of my classmates planned to use them. But few were going to tell churches looking to hire them that they weren’t going to write their own sermons. I think many churches would never hire a pastor who admitted they didn’t write their own sermons each week. I can suspect that there’s a lot of churches out there who believe their pastor writes their own sermons but the pastor gets them in full from other sources.

    While looking for a new church some time ago, I once visited a church and heard the exact same sermon I had heard a few months before at another church. The pastor at the second church had the gall to brag about how much time he spent writing sermons each week. After a little research, I discovered the sermon came from a third church.

    Another church I attended had a staff pastor who wrote most of the sermons that the lead pastor preached. The lead pastor was a very good speaker but it was clear to me that the study of the Bible was not as important to him as attracting new members. At least at that church, it was more of an open secret than something they carefully tried to hide.

  12. It sounds like VBS and Youth Ministry Curriculum kits finally grew up and went in search of more adult and greener pastures. But at least we were up front about using someone else’s programmatic materials.

    I guess this further cements the philosophy that in many settings the senior pastor is more of a celebrity and actor than an actual shepherd of souls or scholar.

    I can’t fathom worshiping in such a place of recklessness.

  13. I don’t like it. This is theatre with a team of writers preparing a script for a clueless flock of sheep who hear it delivered by the star actor, sadly in these instances – the celebrity pastor.

  14. One Salient Oversight

    The issue here is honesty. If a preacher wishes to use a sermon written by someone else, then they should be clear in giving attribution to the writer and the congregation knows that. I’ve been in a church where a preacher has clearly said that the sermon was written by someone else. No one complained.

  15. Seems to me that the article is putting blame on Docent Research Group, instead of blaming individuals who misuse the reputable ministry’s work. The founder of Docent is a Minister with high integrity and passion for supporting local churches. It is a valuable and honorable ministry when its resources are used as intended.

  16. One morning a new staff member who was an older guy was preaching at church. I was watching online. Something he said struck me, so I googled on my computer while I watched. I ended up on the first item n the search: a Sermon Helps page. I read what this pastor was saying, line by line as he “recited” it–he was even using the author’s illustrations, points, everything. Pretending it was all his. Trying to act (not doing a great job). As a congregant who’s worked in ministries all my life (including a denominational headquarters), I was still really surprised and dismayed and felt maybe ripped off? It was plagiarism. The new pastor gave no indication that it wasn’t his work–no credit to the original author. I did say something to the lead pastor who had no idea and said he would be helping the person learn how to create a sermon. In our google world, pastors have to realize they will get caught if they’re preaching without integrity.

    I think research help is fine. I think online sermons are fine to give pastors ideas. But when someone else’s work is acted out, that’s not good. And if someone has been in ministry so long that they have no new ideas, seems like something else is wrong–burnout or something.

  17. Jennifer Eason

    I hate to be the ACtually person but…in the past, church musicians were expected to create original music for worship on a regular basis. Bach’s job description included: compose new music every week.

  18. An important point that must be made: Some churches may need to alter their structure so pastors have time for sermon prep and study, and then expect the pastor to prioritize time accordingly.

    A pastor, even at a small church, should not do much teaching of classes, lay leaders should be trained for that.

    The church I grew up in, of several hundred members, had only 3 employees, pastor, secretary, and custodian. Everything else, including class teaching, leadership, financial, youth work, children’s ministry, was done by lay people as volunteers.

    As a matter of interest, many schools use plagiarism checkers, Turnitin being a common one.

    – GB

    1. Well said, GB. A pastor’s priority should be to preach the word. That is the best way he can equip and serve his flock.

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