Plagiarism is a pastoral issue. In more than one way: sermons, writings, podcasts, etc. People listening think what you have to say is yours unless you tell them otherwise. Of course, they know you learn from commentaries and scholars, and the honest pastor lets the congregation in on where X and Y and Z came from, though a sermon is not footnoted. I consider it a judgment when it is right to “cite” and when to “use.”

Here are my thoughts:

I once was in a situation when a pastor admitted to using sermons from sermon sources, and he also said he hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with it. What most confused me about the situation was that he was using illustrations from other preachers in the first person — and you really did think these experiences were his. So far as I know, he stopped.

What are the issues? Here’s what I see:

First, it is not honest. Part of the pastoral task is to preach (if that is part of your “job description”), and that means preparing their own sermons. I don’t know any search committees that prefer their pastoral candidates and preachers to use sermon sources in order to borrow or swipe sermons preached by others on a routine basis or without acknowledgement.

Image: Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Second, the temptation is evidently strong, and I’d like to know what you think drives pastors to plagiarize sermons, but here’s what I see.

  1. Sometimes they don’t have the time to get a sermon ready.
  2. Sometimes they have too many sermons or talks to get ready for the week and resort to using somebody else’s for one of the talks.
  3. Sometimes the pressure to be a good preacher is so strong the preacher is tempted to use someone else’s already-shown-to-be-good sermon.
  4. Sometimes there are so many good preachers in the area swiping sermons is the only way a preacher can “compete.”
  5. Sometimes a pastor’s job is on the line for how he or she preaches and they are able to postpone the inevitable with a few good sermons swiped from a source.

Third, pastors should not subscribe to such services if they are at all tempted to swipe sermons. I suppose these services are designed to help pastors see what good preaching looks like — but that’s another series. If the temptation is there, it is far wiser to make it unavailable.

Fourth, sermon services are partly culpable here: Do they warn of plagiarism? Do they educate on the proper use? Someone will know more than I about these services.

Fifth, what is a sermon? Well, it’s a whole life brought to bear on a text each week for a single 30 minute or so sermon before a specific congregation. It shames the preacher not to be who he or she is in the pulpit, and to pretend to be someone else. It de-localizes the sermon from the local context. It distorts who the preacher is before the congregation.

So, the sermon is highly biblical, highly personal, highly local, and highly temporal: it is the individual preacher engaging God and Bible and congregation, in that specific location, for that time.

Sixth, which brings up the philosophical issue: Is there not nothing new under the sun? Well said. To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that were used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting, it is convergence — it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others. It brings together other people’s ideas and says so if it is substantial; but it is a uniquely personal, local, and temporal bringing of those things together.

Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.

Now let’s be honest: sermons don’t have footnotes and need not. You need not end each separable idea with a “I got this point from Ortberg and this one from Niebuhr and that one from Bonhoeffer.” We all use things from others in sermons, and when we use a lot from someone about some point, we say so. By and large the congregation doesn’t care about that. But, I think they expect the preacher to be preaching his or her own sermon and not someone else’s.

I’m assuming you are not a pastor that has only one responsibility — teaching and preaching. If you do just preach and teach, our lifestyles are more similar than not.

I make the following suggestions and welcome your own:

1. Always be reading something outside sermon or lecture preparation in order to keep your mind active in another area — it stimulates and comes in handy in all kinds of situations. You can build a databank of ideas this way. Read biographies or whatever you like. Key here: read what you want and not what you think you should read to “keep up”. (By the way, no one “keeps up.” Forget it; never; no one; there are 5,000 or so books published in connection with the Bible per year; thousands of journal articles. No one digests it all. It would be another post to discuss responsible reading patterns, but the one that suggests we need to “keep up” is just not realistic. Pastors can’t possibly keep up in all the fields they enter: Bible, history, theology, leadership, discipleship, evangelism, missions, spiritual formation … .) So, as I was saying, read what you want as often as possible.

2. Get your ideas for your sermon on paper sooner rather than later: one of the major problems in preparing sermons is waiting until the last minute. Why not get your big ideas ready early in the week so they can ferment and brew? I know some pastors who are working weeks ahead on their sermons. Good for them; that way allows a fermentation to occur that really helps avoid “brain block” at the wrong moment. It surely helps them avoid swiping sermons from someone else.

3. Chat about sermons with your friends during the week, or your wife, or your fellow ministers — this way you get feedback and contributions from others. Pass your ideas by a favorite professor you had. Most of them love to hear from former students. Avoid thinking you are the only one who has anything to say or the only one who can interpret the Bible.

4. Work hard at having both “down time” and “quiet time” — down time means time when you are not working as a preacher/pastor. Quiet time doesn’t mean personal prayer but uninterrupted preparation time.

Well, these are my suggestions. Many of you will have others.