I Think the Pastor Stole That Sermon

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The sermon itself began to sound hauntingly familiar—word-for-word familiar.

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.

About the Author

John Rottman is a professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (4)

Comments

I have spent my whole life reading books and absorbing others' thoughts so I doubt there is very little that I can truly claim as original in my head.  I might only say it in a different way but I am certain I learned it from someone else though I may not remember when or from whom.  Is it plagerism to draw from a lifetime of learning one has absorbed into self or can one only open one's mouth if one has kept a database and bibliography of everything he/she has read and learned? In my preaching I don't claim to be original but only to pass on the faith as it was handed on to us by others.  The way I express it is personal to me but there is nothing new and original regardig the message itself.

The Scripture itself says there is nothing new under the sun.   I have read many a book hailed as new and ground breaking only to discover thoughts and ideas expressed by writers hundreds of years earlier or by writers merely a generation earlier but in another country.  That doesn't lessen my regard for such authors but only for those who hail them as new (they are ignorant or flatterers).

I'm not defending plagerism:  preaching a whole sermon verbatim from another as if it were one's own is undeniably dishonest.  But having to always credit an insight gained from another (assuming one even remembers the orgin of that insight) makes communication impossible.  There is little that anyone says that is truly original. That is an impossible task for both the preacher and the listener. Preaching is not about the preacher or his sources but about making God known.

P.S.  I have several times repeated a sermon (always somewhat revised) in a congregation where the consistory had given permission to do so whenever needed, once specifically asked to do so by the consistory (the sermon was originally preached to a small crowd in the evening service and the consistory thought it of value for the whole congregation and requested it be preached over in a morning service). Sometimes I announced the repeat, sometimes I did not.  I was disappointed that no one ever recognized them as repeats (and often received more comments on how helpful a sermon was the second time around than the first time).  By the way:  Jesus himself preached the same sermon more than once!

Great article! Thanks!

An excellent book on this subject by Dr. Scott Gibson is "Should we Use Someone Else's Sermon?"

It is not the greatest title, but the book helps to parse out the finer points of view on plagiarism in the pulpit while also giving excellent advice to a church about how best to address an allegation of plagiarism in the pulpit.  

I appreciate the article.  I do take issue with part of the "What to Do."  The instruction in bullet 2 to speak with another elder prior to speaking with the preacher is incorrect.  Jesus did not instruct that we skip talking to the person if their offense was a public one.  I argue that the accusser should privately bring the accusation to the preacher before they speak with anyone else.  If there is a plausible explanation, the preacher has not his or her name or reputation damaged in the eyes of two elders unnecessarily. If a plausible explanation is not given, then the elders, counsel, and congregation can be brought, one step at a time. Finally, those who are spiritual can work to gentlely restore the plagerizing preacher.   

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