Plagiarism, Privilege, and the State of Christian Publishing

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading about the Rev. Bill Shillady and his book, Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Clinton. During the campaign Shillady sent Secretary Clinton daily devotions to strengthen her faith and keep her focused on the work at hand. When I heard the book was coming out, I made a mental note to buy it.

Then I started to hear about allegations of plagiarism, and about how Shillady had used the work of others without properly citing it. I was saddened to hear that, especially given how easy it is for an author to say “this idea is not mine…it comes from this person”. Giving credit where credit is due should be standard practice, especially among preachers and writers. After a few days, though, I didn’t pay too much attention to the story.

Fast forward to earlier today when I received an email. It turns out that I was one of the writers whose work was plagiarized by Shillady for his book. I am apparently one of many. In particular, a section of one of my pieces written for the United Church of Christ’s Still Speaking Daily Devotionals was used in the book. The original piece came from the fall of 2015, and talked about my work as a trauma chaplain.

At first the email didn’t rattle me that much. I was shuffling through a typical pastor’s daily to-do list at the time. As the day wore on, though, I began to think about my experiences as a Christian writer, and about what it took to get my own book published. In fact, in the fall of 2015, around the time I wrote that devotional that Shillady used, I didn’t think I had much of a future as a writer. I was finally writing my first book but it was the end of a long, exhausting road.

My journey to publication began in 2013. Several pieces I had written for the Huffington Post had gained my writing a large enough following that I was signed with a literary agent in New York City. I put together a book proposal, and she shopped it around to a wide variety of large publishing houses, including those with religious imprints. We especially targeted imprints with more moderate to progressive takes on religion.

The feedback I received back on my writing was good, but there were issues. I am an openly gay Christian pastor in a same-sex marriage. I am also gender non-conforming. I write openly about both of these things in my work, because they are a part of my larger testimony. God has given me incredible grace, and I believe that God has created me to live with integrity and purpose, just as I am.

For Christian publishing houses, even fairly progressive ones, this was too far. One publishing house thought I would be too controversial. Another said they already had one book by a woman pastor, and one by a gay person, so a book by me would be pushing the envelope too much. I’ll spare you the rest of the stories. Suffice to say, I didn’t get a contract. My agent did her best, but I ended up withdrawing from the book-shopping process, and going back to blogging and occasional articles.

A little over a year later, something happened. I wrote a blog that gained a great deal of attention in my denomination. I spoke to Pilgrim Press about turning the idea behind that blog into a book, and they signed me to a contract. My first book, Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, was published in the spring of 2016. A new book, tentatively titled Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, is coming out this fall.

The first book has sold well, and I’m extremely grateful to Pilgrim Press. They are a publishing house that produces amazing work despite a small budget and an even smaller staff. They never censored me, didn’t blink when my author photo featured a bow tie, had no issues with me dedicating the book to my wife, and gladly allowed me to use gender-neutral pronouns throughout my work (in what might be a first for a theological book). Above all, Pilgrim is one of the few Christian publishing houses that would sign an openly gay, openly gender non-conforming author.

That’s what makes Shillady’s actions so difficult for me to stomach. As a straight, white, gender-confirming man, he had access to publishers that people like me do not. Certainly he had a bigger pulpit; he was, after all, the self-professed devotional writer to a major presidential candidate, and so I know some of his access came from that fact. Even still, Shillady was able to access publication avenues that many of us cannot.

In the end it comes down to this. I wrote my testimony down, and talked about how God’s grace had worked in my life, and formed my belief. I want to share that testimony to others, to the glory of God. But, I don’t want others to take my testimony and claim that it is their own. Had Shillady asked me if he could quote me, I would have said “yes” in a heartbeat. But he didn’t. And so, we are here.

According to Amazon, Strong for a Moment Like This is currently the number one new release in devotionals. At this moment it’s in the top 2000 books out of millions that are sold on Amazon. This is despite the fact that the book was recalled earlier today and is no longer for sale.

Had Shillady written his own words, I would applaud him. Instead, I’m left with this fact: a man walked into a Christian publisher with my own words – words deemed too controversial for publication – and got those same words published. He took my testimony, and the testimonies of an unknown number of others, and he cashed in on them. I don’t care about the money, but I sure can’t ignore the irony. When privilege is combined with mediocrity and dishonesty, it’s hard not to feel frustrated when it gets rewarded.

I would wager that the woman who received those plagiarized devotionals from Shillady every morning might agree with me on that.