One Sunday a friend in Toronto was worshiping away from his home congregation. As he settled back into the pew to listen to the sermon, the preacher, a ministry colleague, seemed a bit nervous. He recognized the morning Scripture passage as one he had used recently. A few minutes into the preaching, the sermon itself began to sound hauntingly familiar—word-for-word familiar. The preacher was delivering my friend’s sermon right there in front of him. She was preaching stolen goods.
At Calvin Seminary, where I teach, students sometimes steal others’ work and present it as if it were their own. That’s called plagiarism.
Plagiarism varies in type and severity. Some say using more than three words from someone else’s writing counts as plagiarism; others say ten. In academic work, stealing just a few words is a punishable offense. But stealing an idea also counts as plagiarism. Stealing someone’s whole work is the most obvious form of the crime; stealing an idea is perhaps a grayer area. Taking a few words may be understandable, especially if the person is unaware of the standards for plagiarism in Western culture. Occasionally a student will unconsciously reproduce words not his or her own after reading them in preparation for a paper. So it’s important to determine whether a given case really counts as plagiarism.
Although plagiarism in the pulpit is a slightly different animal than plagiarism in the academic world, it too requires investigation and conversation. Simply preaching somebody else’s sermon without any acknowledgement of its source is clearly an instance of theft, a violation of the eighth commandment. Thou shalt not steal—sermons included.
But there are occasions when the sermons of another preacher can be useful. Our denomination’s Sermons for Reading Services Committee provides collections of sermons for use in congregations. When the regular preacher is absent, somebody else’s sermon will have to do. And what about those occasions when the preacher is present, but events of the past week have left him or her emotionally spent? Perhaps it’s been one of those weeks when two funerals, a sick child, and a nagging cold have left little time and no energy for writing a sermon, much less a second sermon. Under such circumstances, it may be permissible to borrow a sermon or major ideas for a sermon—providing the preacher explicitly acknowledges the source of those words and ideas.
Is it possible to steal from yourself? I once heard of a preacher who announced that he was going to preach sermon reruns for the summer months—sermons that members of the congregation had requested that he preach again. Oddly, no one in the congregation could remember requesting a rerun. Does preaching one’s own sermon over again to the same group of people sound like plagiarism? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. Either way, a pastor should acknowledge when he or she is preaching a rerun. If the sermon in question is a reworked version of an earlier sermon, perhaps an explanation is less necessary. If, however, the congregation stands in any danger of recognizing the preacher’s offering as something they have heard before, it’s important to set them at ease by mentioning the sermon’s early history. At the very least, reusing one’s own sermon without acknowledgement leaves the preacher open to accusations of slothfulness or deception.
Ordinarily the sermon should be the preacher’s own work, a product of his or her weekly listening to God’s Word and bringing that Word to the congregation.
But what about using a handful of someone else’s words, or borrowing an idea or two from time to time? Does the preacher really have to footnote everything in his or her sermon? Is every instance of borrowing plagiarism? Admittedly, the preacher cannot take the time to cite the name, source, and credentials of every person or idea that appears in the sermon. Such citation would take away from the flow of the sermon and could make proclamation sound like an academic production. Still, it’s always necessary to alert listeners to the borrowed character of ideas and quotes.
Sermons ought to employ what I like to call the law of minimal attribution. The words or idea borrowed for the sermon should be cited as belonging to someone else, but the citation should be as modest as possible so as not to distract from the sermon. So, for example, when quoting New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in an academic paper, I would cite the specific work, the publisher, and the year of publication. But in a sermon I might attribute Wright’s words or ideas by simply mentioning his name or by saying something like “a colleague has said . . .” This keeps the sermon from bogging down while at the same time acknowledging ideas or words that are not my own.
The principle is clear: Preachers must not present the work of others as if it were their own. To do less is stealing. How serious the offense and what to do about it requires investigation and conversation. The integrity of the preacher and, more importantly, the integrity of the gospel are at stake.
What to Do
- If you suspect plagiarism in the pulpit, check out your suspicions. Google the part or parts of the sermon that you suspect might belong to someone else.
- If you find indication of plagiarism, contact one of the elders. The elder who becomes involved should go with another elder to talk with the preacher. Since plagiarism is not an issue of personal offense, but a public one, the first step in Matthew 18 doesn’t really apply here. In talking with the preacher, the elder team needs to investigate the nature and extent of the alleged plagiarism. Was the plagiarism a careless oversight? Is it a single instance or part of a larger pattern?
- If this initial conversation with the preacher indicates an occurrence of plagiarism and the preacher offers no plausible explanation for what has been discovered, the council needs to become involved.
- The council must have a further conversation with the preacher. If the plagiarism is considered relatively minor (a single idea or quote) and the pastor is contrite, the matter may be handled within the council. In such a case the original accuser should be informed of the council’s action.
- If the plagiarism is part of a larger pattern or if the preacher is unrepentant, the congregation needs to be informed. It may be necessary to call in the classical church visitors. If the matter cannot be satisfactorily resolved, the council may need to place the pastor under discipline—a process that might eventually lead to suspension.
All of these steps are intended to address plagiarism in a pastoral way and to work toward restoring the preacher and the trust that the plagiarism destroyed.