Creative Leadership

Pastors and Ministry Leaders: With Ghostwriters, Let’s Give Credit Where It’s Due

Over the years, I’ve recommended ghostwriters on multiple occasions to my clients. In fact, early in my career, I was paid to write a number of books for clients myself without ever getting any credit. After all, do we really believe all major corporate executives, celebrities, professional athletes, or leaders are good writers? And it’s no different with pastors. The irony here is that although a significant part of their job is communication, the vast majority of pastors I’ve met are just not terribly good when it comes to writing. So if you have a message you need to share, and a book is the right platform (but you’re not a strong writer) then by all means, consider hiring a professional writer or editor to help. But I just have one caveat: Give them some credit.

Depending on their contribution, you don’t have to give them co-writing credit (although that would be nice), but you could give them “with” credit, as in “Written by Phil Cooke with John Doe” or at the very least, proper attribution in the acknowledgements or on the book jacket.  At least that’s intellectual honesty.

Hiring writers, singers, and other artists without giving them credit has been around a long time. Amanda Foreman writing in the Wall Street Journal recently said, “Hollywood had no compunction about substituting soprano Marni Nixon’s voice for Marilyn Monroe’s for some of the tricky high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Nixon went on to “voice” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”—all without studio credit—resulting in her crowning by Time Magazine as the “Ghostess with the Mostess.” Of course, movie studios aren’t the only ones with a history of peddling images over reality. For decades after George Washington’s death, his friends and admirers tried to keep the real authorship of his 1796 Farewell Address secret: Washington had supplied the ideas, but Alexander Hamilton’s prose had enraptured the public. Two centuries later, John F. Kennedy walked off with the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in history for “Profiles in Courage,” even though most of the chapters were drafted by his gifted speechwriter, Ted Sorensen.”

Did you get that? John F. Kennedy took home the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage” but a significant contributor wasn’t even mentioned.

The issue is especially frustrating in the church where we should be held to a higher standard. As Andy Crouch pointed out in Christianity Today, the real problem with the plagiarism flap surrounding Pastor Mark Driscoll wasn’t so much the possibility of citation mistakes, but the issue of celebrity pastors taking credit for work they didn’t do by themselves. And yet, most celebrity pastors and ministry leaders don’t write their books, and still get credit as sole author. After all, that feeds the Christian publishing celebrity machine.

Bad preachers don’t hire professional actors to deliver their sermons. So even when it’s your content, you should think twice about taking all the credit for writing a book when someone else is actually doing the writing.

In the Journal, Amanda Foreman goes on to say, “In 1949, the Supreme Court ruled that ghostwritten speeches and documents could not be used as evidence in court. The justices deplored “the custom of putting up decoy authors to impress the guileless.” In short, they weren’t going to be taken for rubes, and neither should anyone else.”

And most of all, neither should the Church.

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  1. As one who has ghost written for preachers, I will be the first to admit that my fees include proper acknowledgement. There, I said it. If you want to not acknowledgement my part in the project, it will cost you more because it costs me more. (I don’t get the benefit of adding it to my credits for others to consider when thinking of hiring me. That costs me.)

  2. The very fact that individuals who are great leaders think that they can be great at everything drives home your point. All leaders have some level of vision, but articulating that vision without some help usually ends in a volume of diatribe without clarity and in many cases missing the point. The real concern is when these individuals think it is more about them, than the message. If that is the case, then they have missed the point all together anyway.

    Give me a leader who collaborates with a partner to deliver a solid message. If they don’t give credit to those that help, shame on them! This does not dilute their message, but delivers it in a package that helps others to understand it.

  3. As with many modern practices, I don’t believe this is a black and white issue. Most of the pastors I have written for have contributed the core substance of the content and my job as the writer has been to craft the spiritual insight or spoken presentation into compelling prose. On the other hand, I have also created completely original works that were released under the pastor’s name with no mention of my involvement even though in truth I was the author and the pastor provided only light editing. To me those are two very different scenarios. Perhaps it is a matter of degrees…

  4. Complex issue.

    1. As a writer who is currently trying to make decent money from writing, I would jump at the opportunity to ghost-write for some ‘Christian celebrities’. Assuming the fee was good, that would currently be my priority in front of a writing credit. [Feeding my family is more important than fame] However as Christians called to be above reproach, one should give credit where credit is due, as you point out in paragraph 2. (Some recognition of the actual writer should appear either on the cover, or inside the book.)

    2. Pride comes before a fall, and today Twitter will ensure you do indeed fall. In an age of Wiki-leaks a Christian celebrity would be quite stupid to not take steps to be 100% transparent in all they do. In feature films even the electricians get a credit – so it’s really a little silly to hide the fact that someone else wrote the book that has your name on the cover; it’s a half-truth – which is a lie.

    3. Is the message more important than your career? I’ve recently written a new book [finished but unpublished], but in 2013 I question if people actually still read, and so I question whether a book is the most effective medium to communicate my important message. Should I produce a series of short videos instead?. Is getting the message out there more important than being known as ‘an author’? (I put this point to celebrity pastors AND writers.)

    4. Part of growing any organisation (even a ministry) is equipping other humans to do a better job than you can do by yourself. Which leads me to ask if instead of a large ministry being focused on one person, should it instead be focused on many persons doing many different parts of that ministry – including writing books, making films, preaching sermons? For example instead of book being ghost-written, with the celebrity pastor named as the author, could the ghost-writer get full credit as the author, but the cover of the book still says “From [celebrity pastor] ministries”? Or “A book by [ghost-writer] based on a message from [celebrity pastor]”. – Hey why not Jack!?

  5. Over the last 35 years, I have had more than 200 full-length books published for “authors” I have assisted with writing services. Many of them are internationally known and many of the books have hit the top-ten lists in Christian book publishing and the general trade. My clients are busy people who tend to be known for their SPEAKING or professional
    accomplishments, and are either too busy to write, or don’t have well-developed
    writing skills. And sometimes, my clients have been publishing houses that wanted
    an author-less book.

    Am I a “ghost?” No. A true ghost-writer is someone who has an idea, writes a
    manuscript, and then approaches an “author” who seems to fit the message or who
    may have inspired the message, and says, “Hey, want to buy this book?”

    I don’t do that. I take the material an author gives me–perhaps tapes of lectures
    or sermons delivered, a box of research, a set of interviews–and craft a manuscript
    for that client. I add anecdotal illustrations where I believe they can add clarity or
    interest. I organize the material and do my best to streamline it and get rid of
    anything off-topic or conceptually weird. And, I consider it all to be “master editing”–a
    combination of concept editing and organizational editing. The end result must sound
    like the author, not me. It must be true to the author’s message, not my opinions.
    And I trust somebody else in the publishing process to do follow-up copyediting and

    Do I want credit?
    Please, NO!

    Four reasons.

    First reason: I write under my own name, and in the past, have published under
    at least five pen names (of my creation). I don’t want to be type-cast as a back-up
    singer when I have solo albums of my own!

    Second reason: The denominational world is politically tricky. My evangelical clients
    do not need to know about my Pentecostal clients, nor do my Reformed clients need
    to know about my mainstream clients. Sigh–they just would not understand!
    I choose to help clients do specific projects and I don’t need their OVERALL
    religious status or reputations to impact MY reputation. When it comes to specific
    projects, I only take on what is in alignment with my beliefs and values ON THAT

    Third reason: The books I have written/master-edited range from health to business, inspirational to autobiographical, Christian living to Bible study. Just as I don’t
    want to be type-cast as “only” an editor or writing assistant, I also don’t want to be
    type-cast by genre. How limiting that would be! (And for the record, I do not do “master
    editing” for fiction or poetry. I know how to write fiction but I don’t know how to write fiction in another person’s voice. Novels, poems, and lyrics are beyond the parameters of what a person believes or thinks–they are rooted in emotions and intuition. Not the stuff for objective editing.)

    Fourth reason: Part of what I promise my clients is confidentiality. I know lots of
    “secrets” that I will take to the grave. I believe It is because I do not seek to trade
    off my clients’ names, and prefer to stay deep in the shadows of anonymity, that they
    give me truly honest and deep insights into themselves and their beliefs. That approach
    makes for better books, and material that is more authentic to the author’s personality and
    psyche. And, although it wasn’t an intention initially, this approach is also good for
    repeat business. Authors like to work with writers/editors they trust.

    I don’t seek a portion of the fame of others.

    I am glad I get paid for work I love to do.

    I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have met the people I’ve met, to have learned from
    them without exams or tuition fees, and to have earned the trust of some of America’s
    finest publishers.

    And in the end, God knows. His rewards are the only ones that really matter.

  6. Always, always always give credit to whomever you use for anything. As Christians, our whole life should be lifting up others, building up our friends, family, co-workers, and associates. If we’re doing everything as unto the Lord, then do we think He doesn’t know who really did the work??? So, YES, we must celebrate the talents, gifts, skills and work of others ALL THE TIME!

  7. What’s the downside of giving credit to a collaborator? None. I don’t know of a single example of the primary author’s reputation being lessened by it. But many reputations have been sullied by not giving credit.

    So there’s no upside to not giving credit, but a huge downside to it. That leaves me with no option but to believe that the only reason for an author not giving credit is ego.

  8. I agree with Phil. There should be a ‘with.’ I have never asked for any attribution in ghostwriting, but there have been many times where I’ve actually written books with many of my own ideas and study. Some Christian books out there don’t have my name on them, but it’s largely my work. I now just write my own books. I don’t have time to ghostwrite for others.

  9. Very difficult subject. I write (or have written for) many well known preachers and Christian leaders. I don’t expect I will ever get any public acknowledgment – but that’s ok, because 1) I don’t expect it and 2) I get paid. Every now and then one of these great men will look at me and say, “that is tremendous – thank you” but that’s rare.

    If I wanted to have my name on a book, I’d follow Phil’s lead and actually finish one of my own books and get it published. But for now, I’m rather busy writing for other people.

    And really, where does this come to its final conclusion? I’ve written many great sermons for really well known preachers. Should they, as a footnote in the bulletin or perhaps on the sign out front mention that today’s message was created “with” this guy you’ve never heard of? Of course not. Sometimes we get accolades, but far more often, our job is simply to hold up the Man’s arms and just be happy that the check clears the bank.

  10. Thanks for the article. My biggest problem with ghost writing in Christian circles is that it gives the illusion that certain individuals are more productive then they actually are.

    In a media heavy world, expectations on pastors are raised when the folks in the pew think that the superpastor down the road is able to pastor, preach, write, host conferences, manage staff, etc. while also coaching his son’s little league, getting a date night every week, and take time to coach others one-on-one.

    Its not just about who gets paid and who gets credit.

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