Carl Trueman “feels” there is something wrong with what Docent Research Group does, and while he confesses it’s hard to articulate just quite what it is, he’s got a good nine paragraphs that make it look easy. As I once worked for a few years as a researcher, a “team captain,” and a book editor for Docent, I thought I might clarify a few misconceptions I’ve seen floating around in the online responses/reactions to Trueman’s piece.
Two disclosures, first off:
1. As I said, I don’t currently work for Docent. They don’t pay me anything. I have no vested interest in whether you or your church use the service.
2. I would not use Docent’s services myself, not because of any ethical qualms but simply because I enjoy the process of sermon preparation top to bottom too much to farm any aspect of it out.
Yet there seems to me to be a difference between personally wrestling with how to connect a biblical passage to a congregation and using various books on our shelves to do so, and sending our questions and requests to a group of paid researchers to do that work for us. Why not simply ask them to write the sermon?
Well, first of all, because that is plagiarism. Docent does not write sermons for clients, and in fact, anyone who did such a thing would be fired. Researchers aren’t even allowed to use online illustration resources and the like. The material generated by Docent research teams is meant to aid the pastor in his preparation, and perhaps to expedite it, not replace it. Trueman is right that there is a difference between personally wrestling with biblical passages and sending out requests to researchers to do that, but that is not exactly what Docent does anyway. Docent serves much like an on-site research assistant would — gathering resources, summarizing them, paraphrasing them, etc — so that a pastor is saved this “grunt work” and may spend more of his time doing the actual “wrestling.”
Much of the rest of Dr. Trueman’s critique is of the sort of pastors who use the service, not really the service itself, and this makes it hard to respond to because I am sure there are a variety of motivations represented among the Docent clients. But the ones I worked for personally were largely driven by two things: 1) they wanted access to “outside creativity” to get a fresh set of eyes on their preaching texts or topics, and 2) they wanted to spend more time meeting with people and ministering relationally (counseling, visitation, discipling, etc).
Dr. Trueman mentions the anonymous nature of the researchers. There is some truth to this — how well can a pastor know a researcher he doesn’t spend a lot of one on one time with? — but it obscures the reality that pastors are in contact regularly with the captains of their assigned research team. Typical teams consist of 1 researcher and 1 captain. It’s not a big team people get lost in. And the service is not like a big vending machine where pastors put their money and requests in and out gets churned some cookie-cutter research brief. (I think this is what actually makes Docent stand out and has made it so successful; research briefs are custom prepared and tailored to individual pastor’s and their ministry’s needs. Other services appear to be little more than illustration and outline mills.) No, client-pastors and team captains talk regularly and develop friendships. There are some researchers and captains who have actually eventually been hired by pastors full-time to their church staffs as research assistants or even associate pastors. (Most researchers are grads of conservative, evangelical seminaries or current students.) My client-pastors routinely asked about my family and ministry. They were good guys who wanted to know me personally, to the extent they were able.
I am sure there are lazy pastors using Docent. I don’t know who they are, but I bet they exist. There are lazy pastors all over the world, using commentaries, seminary libraries, Bible software, and online resources in lazy ways too. This does not indict resources like Docent’s research teams but laziness. Docent does not prepare sermons for pastors; pastors use Docent’s research to prepare their sermons themselves. Pastors have for years employed the use of research assistants, associates, secretaries, interns, and fellow elders to help them prepare their sermons. Docent Research Group is simply an outside resource combining some aspects of the research process good and diligent pastors have been “outsourcing” for a long time.