The Truth About Using Ghostwriters for Christian Books

Today we live in an era of megachurches, major ministries, and global nonprofits. In some ways (both good and bad), these large religious and nonprofit organizations have become like international corporations, involving radio and television studios, publishing businesses, international conferences, educational outreaches, and more. And the bigger churches and ministries grow, the less time their leaders have to actually research and write books – the very products which to a great extent help fund the organizations and put them on the map. Plus, writing well isn’t easy. It’s a craft and art form just like music, painting, or filmmaking. Writing well takes years of practice and experience, and the discipline to sit for weeks or months in front of a computer screen.

That’s why many pastors and ministry leaders hire professionals to do the job for them, which is a perfectly acceptable option.  And in those cases, there are many levels of working with professional writers.  In my own experience, I have written for clients who gave me original material like sermon transcripts. In those cases, I was really “adapting” their own thoughts and ideas into book form. In other cases, I literally wrote it from scratch, with little more than a few interviews, a sermon tape, or a conversation or two with the pastor.

But in every case, I’ve never received credit.  But that’s OK, and in some cases, it was rather funny. For one project, I actually wrote a book for a client and then he stood up on national television and described how he had “labored night after night writing without stopping, until his wife had to beg him to get some sleep.” Yeah, right. In another case, when a major newspaper reported that I wrote a television special for a particular media ministry, the ministry office told me to stay quiet, because they wanted people to believe that everything that came out of that ministry was written by the ministry founder.

I didn’t get any credit, but at least the check cleared.

Is this a problem? Yes and no.

No, because often writers are often happy for the work, plus, they offer an important service to leaders.  They have certain skills, and like a professional mechanic who fixes your car, or an accountant who keeps your books, some writers are happy to do the work and get a check.  They have no desire to be famous, and actually enjoy writing for someone else – after all, it can pay very well.  And there’s no shame in using a “ghostwriter.” After all, you’re a business, ministry, sports, political, or other leader, not a writer. You have brilliant content, but not necessarily the skills to get that message down into an engaging book.

However – a better answer is yes, because the fact is, books are far more personal than a car or a checkbook. When someone reads a book, they believe that the writing is coming from the heart of the author, and the writing style, the content, and the message reflect the name on the cover. This is true especially in the Christian world, where the message is often a spiritual message conveying eternal truth.

That’s why at some level, when a pastor or ministry leader publishes a book with only his name on it he is making a unstated promise to the reader than the material is his, it’s coming directly from his heart and mind, and he’s personally presenting it in the form of this book.  That’s why when possible, I recommend accurate credit on the book cover.

So is it wrong to hire a professional to help you write a book?  Absolutely not.  Many Christians would be shocked to see just how poorly some of our Christian leaders write, and real professionals can take an anointed message from a man or woman of God and translate it into an exciting and enjoyable reading experience.  So it’s perfectly fine to hire a ghostwriter to help craft your message into a bestselling book.

But I would encourage you to at least consider adding the writer’s name – even in smaller letters, or with the word “with” before the name.

Possibly the best rule of thumb is the expertise of the ghostwriter.  Some writers are simply “hired guns” who can write on any subject. In those cases, I’m more willing to not acknowledge them on the cover, since they’re mostly concerned with translating your ideas. Others actually bring past experience and expertise to the table, and in those cases they contribute their own ideas, so I’m more likely to recommend including their name.

Either way – make sure you agree ahead of time so your expectations are the same.

Do secular authors do it?  Who cares?  Because we answer to a higher calling – a calling of honesty, integrity, and respect for the people God has given us to lead.  Plus, I believe it’s also contributed to the “celebrity” culture of Christian leaders today.  They’ve become so well marketed, most people assume they can do anything, and do it all at the level of a superstar.

So don’t hesitate to seek the help of a professional writer if you need help  because of your schedule, or your difficulty writing well. On the other hand, don’t fake it. When appropriate, give the writer a little credit, and let’s do our part to keep the perception of the church real and authentic.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Aweaver3

    Ultimately, it is about integrity and having what we DO match up with what we SAY – IF we say we follow Christ. The temptation be more concerned about what humans think than what God thinks is always present. And quite honestly, I am afraid to think about when we all stand before God and have to give an account for the times when we went with popular perception instead of truth. I’ve heard of popular Christian authors, some of whom have writing teams which research and bring together the information, after the Minsitry leader tells them the topic and gives a few scriptures. When I first heard about this being done – by one of my favorite authors – I was somewhat dissapointed for all of the reasons stated above in the post. The work means something different when you know that the author “slaved” over its pages and poured from his/her heart. However, I reconciled my feelings by telling myself that “I’m sure the ministry leader has to read the work and at least sign off on it before it goes to print.” I guess we hear about similar things happening in the corporate world where an employee works hard on a project, practically putting the entire thing together from start to finish only to have the boss take all the credit. But that’s a little different…

    You get right at the issue: What’s the motivation behind what we do? Are we doing this to really help others or to only make money and receive status and fame? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to look good in front of others, but this cannot be our motivaiton; otherwise we move from being genuine to being fake. Personally, I seek to be genuine, but there are times when I run right into my fake self… and then the battle begins. But being fake to please others helps no one – but only perpetrates a lie at some level. At least being real with someone allows everyone to SEE the situation clearly (as close as possible) and make judgments based on what is really standing in front of us.

    This might be slightly off topic, but for example – those Verizon commercials with the fake “can you hear me now” guy and his fake “wireless network” which looks like a whole bunch of people but are only three persons with a ton of cardboard cut outs.

    I want a real book, not a cardboard cut out. And now that I’m thinking about it, what is the deal with many popular Christian authors writing books that are “triple spaced,” “eighteen size font” and whose book is filled with “50% or more scriptures?” Why not be honest and write the book with the proper format for your genre? If it only turns out to be 98 or 67 pages – that’s better than 150 pages of fluff. (Ok, I’m done… just needed to get that out)

    As a Christian who is a newly published author who has labored over my first book and labors over my current manuscripts – I think it’s important to pour one’s heart and mind and spirit into a work. It really is about being authentic. That is what we want and need. That is what God wants. Only through authentic conversation can people truly grow as they should.

    Thank you for bringing this issue to light. I wonder how many books I have on my shelf that were not directly written by the person who’s name is on the cover? And ultimately, what does this mean to those who read and write? In school, to not give credit for someone elses writing would be called plagiarism.
    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers
    http://www.allenpaulweaveriii.com

  • Phil, as a Rhema grad, I'm familiar with the idea of taking a bunch of sermons and putting them together in a book.  Kenneth Hagin, Sr., to my knowledge, did not actually write his books, but rather had his sermons edited for book form.  I never had a problem with that because the sermon material was all his.  

    A ghostwriter brings in quite a different dynamic in terms of the gospel and truth, both in content and in process. (I'm not speaking of a scrivener.)  As to content, the ghostwriter may attempt to assimilate the minister's thoughts to write a book, but he is not the one called of God to preach the gospel.  As to process, ghostwriting allows the minister to skimp the hard stuff.  You are right to say that writing is difficult because it forces the writer to think through on his thoughts and his theology.  It's readily apparent that many of our Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers haven't done that. 
    On a personal note, if I saw the name of a ghostwriter on the cover, I wouldn't buy the book.   
  • WritersRUS

    Amen, Phil!  I, too, have written book for some of the best known ministries in America. Like you, I start with their sermon material and it is indeed their work. I am a mere editor. Other times I have been given a five minute chat over lunch and asked to produce a book from that, a mere concept of a book. Then I am indeed the writer.  I am okay with no credit for being an editor…but when it is more than that, it has been a bit hurtful. However, I did not require it as part of the deal, so what could I say?

     

  • I admit, Phil. when I first heard of ghostwriters years ago It sort of stunned me. But I (now) understand the need for them. My only qualm is NOT giving them credit. To me, it does not matter who it is. If I did not write it or say it, then whoever did should get the credit. Pastors who plagiarize sermons are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Give credit where credit is due. Same with writing. So what if a writer has to say, “Thanks to Phil Cooke who took my ideas and made sense of them.” :) I have not written a book, so it may not behoove me to comment, but if I did, and someone else made sense of my ideas and corrected my grammar, then honesty and integrity demands giving credit. MY .02 worth.

  • I heard once one of the definitions of pride, “Pride is stealing. It steals the glory that belongs to someone else and declares it as its own.” Something seen not rarely in the writing industry.

    Left Behind books were co-authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. They were introduced through a mutual literary agent. Jerry tells of agent’s initial phone call, “Dr. LaHaye is a best-selling nonfiction writer with a great fiction idea, and you’re a novelist with no ideas, so…”.* This is a funny way of illustrating how our different skills compliment each other, but I am happy to notice how the credits of authorship were clearly displayed in their book covers.

    Many people can be involved in writing and preparing a book; Author, Writer, Consultant, Researcher, Editor, Copy Editor, Proofreader, Assistants, Contributors, Expert of a certain field, Data provider, etc. Of course, mentioning everyone involved (who prepared the coffee while the copy editor typed the question mark) is not always necessary, but taking credits you do not own it is always unethical, especially for anyone who has a crucial role in the work – message, idea, concept, style, data, content and image.

    Here’s a good example; I like the crediting of the people involved in preparing the New Spirit-Filled Life® Bible:
    – Executive Editor.
    – Associate Editor 1.
    – Associate Editor 2.
    – OT Editors (1 & 2).
    – NT Editors (1 & 2).
    – Then 4 pages of Contributors names. (Like the last two minutes of a movie)

    And … “Ghostwriters” of the Bible! Do you know about them? Most of NT Epistles (From Romans to Philemon) are attributed Paul, but:

    Who wrote Romans?
    1:1 says: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle”.
    But 16:22 says: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter”.

    Who wrote 2 Thessalonians?
    1:1 – “Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians”
    3:17 – “I, Paul, write [only] this greeting in my own hand”.

    Who wrote 1 Corinthians?
    1:1 – “Paul … and our brother Sosthenes”.

    Who wrote 2 Corinthians?
    1:1 – “Paul … and Timothy our brother”.

    Who wrote Colossians?
    1:1 – “Paul … and Timothy our brother”.
    4:18 – “I, Paul, write [only] this greeting in my own hand”.

    So, we see authors, writers and editors credited even in the Bible books. God Himself, the main author, acknowledged them. Why did He spend up precious Bible space for such non spiritual matters? Perhaps, it’s time to imitate God in this area too.

    * – http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/july-web-only/jerry-b-jenkins-tim-lahaye-i-knew-tribute-left-behind.html

    • Really great thoughts Mirgen. Thanks so much for that perspective. Makes perfect sense!

  • I’ve written several books “for” others, but always received credit as the “with jeff Kinley” title. Loved working with all of them. But I also know other “peacock” pastors who wouldn’t blink an eye while pretending that they were the sole author of a book. The vast majority of Christian celebrities and high profile pastors simply can’t write to save their lives, and that’s ok. But they also don’t have the luxury of time it takes to write a great book (5-6 months full-time. If you have achieved a certain level of “author status” on your own, your name should be on the cover. That said, not all ghostwriting is misleading. Like hiring someone to remodel your kitchen. You may not swing a hammer or set tile, but its your kitchen and you supervised the whole process! :)

  • I agree with all that you said Phil. One thing we won’t see is pastors giving credit to their sermon writers on a Sunday morning! LOL! I have no problem with a ghostwriter and I’m pleased to see their name on the cover. I know some of these ghostwriters who have written for some of the biggest names in ministry and it’s amazing how they can take all the credit. But as long as the gospel is reaching the untold, we should rejoice.

    • Totally agree. You’re right and some pastors have multiple people helping them research, illustrate, and compile their messages for Sunday. I have no problem with it. With all the writing, teaching, and lecturing I do, I’d love to be able to afford a few writers, researchers, and editors… !

    • Grant Kennedy

      Sorry, but I have to disagree with you on the “But as long as the Gospel is reaching the untold” bit. I think God sets us a much higher standard that doesn’t change when we are spreading the Gospel.

      • What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice. – Philippians 1:18

  • Grant Kennedy

    Integrity. In our over ‘marketing’ saturated world people can be so busy building their ‘brand’ they sometimes forget the basics of God’s Word. Eg from Micah… And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
    I have no problem with getting help on anything where you are not the expert. That could be writing a book or fixing your car or remodelling your kitchen. But give credit to the one who has the expertise that you relied on. To claim it for yourself is nothing short of a lie and if I can’t trust you to tell the truth on a small matter how can I trust you at all?
    1 Tim 3:2 mentions elders being “above reproach” – I’m yet to find the Scripture that says that Church leaders (or any Christian for that matter) are allowed to tell little porkies.

  • Kenton Creative

    So glad you wrote about this.

    I had a friend tell me how is perception of Christianity and ministry organizations were shattered while working at an organization where it’s leading CEO/Leader and author of countless books had a ghostwriter. It was more the culture and “guru” mentality and the business of it all that I think got to him eventually I think.

    A few things hit home here for me:

    A) Our North American Christian consumerism habits and propensity to quickly to deify writers, speakers, and Christian movements has produced a culture of “Christian business” that is mocked and criticized by the world and put Christianity into stereotypes.

    B) Books, messages, and stories that stand the test of time are soaked in reflection and an authentic voice that transcends popular culture but meets people where they are. For those types of books, I am less suspicious of an author’s motives for writing.

    C) The CEO culture within large organizations, churches, and ministries may be subversively teaching us or shaping us for an “entitlement” culture. Entitlement to behave like a corporation and pay it’s figure head a lifestyle suited to being a figure head of a company. The culture may be less interested in asking what is redemptive in doing things like a business or being challenged to be counter cultural in our actions, ethics, and values.

    “Getting big and being monetarily profitable” does not measure Christian success.

    D) I think more than ever our neighbours we want to love and reach in Jesus name and our fellow brothers and sisters are hungry. We may not have changed much as people in history. We are like the people whom Jesus asked Peter to feed/love as His sheep. And this commission and mantle is a heavy one that is about service rather than power and popularity.

    For someone like Peter, it was giving up the way he might do things and control things. I think for Peter, he learned it wasn’t all about him.

    I bought a book that I finally opened up last week “Resist the Powers with Jacques Ellul” by Charles Ringma. A simple daily devotional. Full of richness. It’s not going to make millions, but it’s deep reflective thoughts will feed souls because it was stewed in authentic listening and no short cuts. Charles may have had an editor or few but it’s his voice shared with Jacques Ellul. Charles will never take the credit.

    We need more writers like him willing to share the stage and give away truth rather than selling it.

    • Excellent thoughts Kenton and thanks for sharing. Although in the case of the Charles Ringma devotional, it would be hard to hide that it’s Ellul’s writings he’s pulling from – so that’s probably not the best example. But your concern for being countercultural to what’s happening in the marketplace could not be more important. (And thanks for mentioning that devotional – I’m going to order it. I’m a fan of Ellul’s writing..)

      • Kenton Creative

        Thanks. Agree Charles’ book is not the best example. Will look for books where I have been impacted that are celebrated collaborations or written with the intent to give away truth. In terms of books that will stand the test of time, Nouwen, Lewis, Tolkein, Greene…

        Being counter cultural is a huge challenge both in the marketplace and our subcultures within our western Christian culture.

        It’s also polarized times for followers of Jesus’ these days and how do we speak into our culture(s)?

        I don’t know but I do pray for Søren Kierkegaard types to emerge and be counter cultural.

        Not to sound like I am your greatest fan but I think being available for dialog is something I am glad you are doing.

        Also it’s the questioning, challenging, thinking and thought provoking voice I hear in your blogs that helps some us feel we are not alone in the quest to be a “light” to our world. Have a good weekend. Catch up soon.

        • That’s very gracious Kenton. Thanks…

  • Daniel Johnson

    To me, the national minister who talked about writing night after night until his wife begged him to get sleep was telling a fib. Not to call a pastor a liar, but that seems like kind of a lie to me. At least it seems like he was trying to create a false impression. So my question to you, Phil, is would you write another book for that guy “if the check cleared”? Or does some sort of morality thing about working for liars kick in for you in a instance like this?

    • He was an old school guy, and I think once the manuscript touched his hands, he considered it “his.” But the older I get, the more grace I’m willing to extend… :-)
      But the answer is “no” – God has allowed me to work with an incredible list of clients – ones who get it and understand great leadership. As a result, I wouldn’t be interested in working with someone like that again…

      • Kenton Creative

        :)

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  • Dana

    Could not agree more with your thoughts, Phil. As a ghost writer, what kind of makes me cringe is when I AM pointed out for recognition. My first reaction is always, “You don’t really get idea of this whole “ghost” thing, do you?” I am, however, working on a co-write with someone I normally ghost write for, where my name will be on the cover, and I knew that going into it. I guess it’s really about expectations. Good thoughts!