Editorial: What about preaching and plagiarism?

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Pastoral plagiarism is back in the news. Actually, pulpit pilfering happens so often, it never goes completely away. But it made headlines again this month, when Religion News Service published an article asking, “Is pulpit plagiarism on the rise? …”

The article revisits an old debate over whether preachers sin when they plagiarize. It cites several cases, such as megachurch pastors Mark Driscoll of Seattle and Craig Groeschel of Oklahoma City, both accused of lifting others’ material for books they wrote.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxThe Internet provides a “double-edged sword” for hurried, harried ministers looking to feed the flock, the article notes. Positively, the web provides an inexhaustible source of published and/or videoed sermons and sermonic material. Negatively, search engines enable wary parishioners to type key words and phrases and catch the preacher red-lipped.

Pastors, scholars and ordinary laypeople debate whether preachers transgress when they speak other’s words as if they are their own. That debate isn’t likely to end this side of heaven.

But some churches seem to be lightening up, Ron Cook, professor at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, told RNS. “Not giving credit is not stigmatized as much as it was a quarter-century or even a decade ago,” he explained. “In some cases I’ve known in recent years, the congregations are more willing to give their pastor a second chance.”

Still, here are some concepts to consider as you ponder pulpit plagiarism:

If you’ve never wished your preacher plagiarized, then either (a) you’re the most blessed Christian in the history of the church, or (b) you really need to quit daydreaming and listen to the sermons.

Preaching is hard work—much harder than it looks. Many preachers consistently deliver thoughtful, inspired, helpful sermons. But nobody bats 1.000. Between administration, benevolence and bereavement, counseling and committees, drop-in visits and myriad ministries, most pastors are pulled umpteen ways from Sunday. Even excellent preachers have a bad week.

On top of that, some aren’t particularly gifted pulpiteers. Some face all sorts of distractions. And some—not many, but some—don’t try hard enough.

Every weekend, untold thousands of worshippers would benefit if their proclaimer would read a biblical, well-prepared sermon written by someone else.

Plagiarism isn’t plagiarism when the preacher credits the source.

Honest and well-meaning people can disagree on how much material a pastor should borrow from others. The non-negotiable should be giving credit.

The range of borrowed secondary material could vary. Perhaps a pastor uses someone else’s outline to preach on a Scripture passage. Maybe a pastor cites a particularly appropriate quote or re-tells a poignant illustration.

So, what about transparently preaching an entire sermon someone else wrote? We could speculate which would be better for a congregation—if a time-strapped bivocational pastor or a preacher who simply is not gifted spackles together a patchy, illogical, mish-mash sermon, or if the same pastor takes to heart and reads a fine sermon written by someone with more time and/or talent.

What if a pastor told a congregation: “You know I’m not great at writing sermons. But I’ll work hard and search out the best sermons I can find. I’ll pray for God’s guidance, and I’ll seek sermons that speak to our church. Then I’ll read and re-read them all week, so I can deliver them well. Every week, I’ll pray a public prayer thanking God for the person who wrote it. And I’ll name names”? What if the pastor prayerfully preached someone else’s well-crafted sermon for 20 minutes and finished with five minutes of personal observation about what that means for their church?

Of course, some argue this does not “leave room for the Holy Spirit.” That argument diminishes the Spirit, who certainly possesses the power to inspire both the writer and the searcher/deliverer. Inspiration flows from many directions.

And that doesn’t mean the preacher works any less. The Spirit can honor several hours researching sermons on a specific topic as surely as it can honor the same number of hours writing a sermon.

Plagiarism takes various forms.

Some pastors lift the idea for entire sermon series—complete with graphics and PowerPoint slides—and allow the congregants to think they originated with the pastor. Some plagiarize specific sermons, or extended quotes, or biblical interpretation or illustrations. The most unseemly plagiarism, the pilfering that receives the harshest criticism, happens when a preacher tells another’s personal story as if it happened to him.

A preacher can rectify all of these improprieties simply by giving credit to the source.

Nobody wants to listen to an academic address during a worship service.

Well, hardly anybody, anyway. A recitation of sources every-other paragraph would get old. If a preacher named 17 sources, the worshippers might leave thinking more about the fusillade of sources than the focus of the sermon.

The most lasting and discreet solution would be to list the sources in that week’s worship bulletin. In addition to crediting sources, the pastor would be providing interested listeners with resources for further reading and reflection.

Honesty and integrity—as well as the preacher’s reputation—are at stake.

If a preacher will lie about a sermon—present it as if it were the preacher’s own—then who knows what other lies lurk about? Are they financial, sexual or otherwise personal? Why should a congregation trust a preach

Why should a congregation trust a preacher whose sermon delivery itself is a deception?

Of course, the ideal is a precise and powerful sermon prepared by the one who preaches it. But preachers, of all people, know we live in a broken world. Perhaps they would do a better job of tending to souls if they occasionally—or more often—preach sermons prepared by others. Just as long as they are honest about it.

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Care to comment? Send an email to our interim opinion editor, Blake Atwood. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.