Begging, Borrowing--But Not Stealing
It’s coffee time, Friday morning but Sunday’s comin’—though not like Tony Campolo exultantly preached. Friday is sermon crunch day.
So the preacher flails through her Bible from one lectionary passage to another. Commentaries and articles cascade around the room. It looks like the Taliban raided her study. None of the texts are working for her today; nor did they yesterday or the day before.
Desperately, she hits the internet. Voila! There’s a dynamite sermon by Elisabeth Achtemeier on one of the texts. Why not just take and read? After all, she does have a working lunch date, plus a hospital call and two home visits, topped off with her son’s volleyball game tonight.
One Friday morning I was in a similar pickle. Achtemeier on the net didn’t tempt, but Martin Luther King, Jr. did in a book at my fingertips. Trouble is, I had this assignment to write about sermon stealing. So for that I also went to the net, e-mailing about 125 lay or ordained preachers five questions: “Have you ever used another person’s sermon whole or in part? Have you given credit for the sermon or ideas from it? How do you distinguish between larceny and inspiration? What should we do with offenders? Any general comments on preaching?”
I promised anonymity, if not absolution, for honest answers.
Twenty-two preachers took my bait. They too must have been suffering Friday frustration, yearning for distraction like a hungry pike with ADD dashes for a red and white spoon cast anywhere near. Before noon 22 responses from fellow slackers lit up my screen. Great! I could postpone sermonizing still longer while I digested the angst and ardour of their e-mails.
Temptation closes in
Many of us often preach twice on Sundays and maybe do “just a little sermonette, Reverend, for the hospital chapel Wednesday afternoon, okay?” No wonder Fridays come so soon. I received this spam while “researching” this article (and dodging sermon preparation):“Youth Workers Toolbox on CD-ROM. Over 75 Sermon Outlines Over 50 Topical Studies with study questions Studies for every chaptor [sic] of 8 books of the Bible with study questions. All for only $25 (Free Shipping). Great for church groups of all sizes. Also great for Sr. Pastors.”
I never asked to be on this mailing list—but neither have I asked to be removed.
The temptation to crib somebody else’s sparkling sermons from anthologies or the internet looks better than a Wendy’s salad: quick, cheap and more nourishing than a Big Mac. We can look good and sound brilliant with no more work than reading well.
A seminary teacher in Asia commented on the ease of cheating today: “I have to wonder at a service like Christianity Todayoffers, in which they send out tapes of best sermons to anyone who wants. Talk about tempting the weak.”
A denominational executive probed the same vein: “Honesty and integrity really must be stressed in our day. The university generation needs a clear message from their elders because they apparently are finding cheating a wonderful way of life without guilt. Bad idea for the future.” I add: an even worse idea for preachers. I was pleased that none of my respondents confessed to stealing. But don’t we wonder about the 103 who didn’t respond?
Might certain souls need others’ sermons, because they distrust their own voices? A Thunder Bay hospital chaplain recalled this from a biography of Harry Emerson Fosdick. “After retiring Fosdick heard one of his sermons in church. When he introduced himself to the pastor, he reminded him that he had written the original sermon and mentioned he had just retired. The pastor wailed, ‘Now where will I get my sermons?’” Part of the blame for such desperate borrowing must be placed on our bored consumer culture that puts so much pressure on preachers to be innovative, eloquent and fresh once, even twice a Sunday.
There’s nothing wrong with occasionally using another’s work when one’s own well is dry. Just be honest about it. One Sunday a friend of mine told his congregation that a sermon by Lewis Smedes on forgiveness said it better than he could, so he read it. A retired pastor spoke of a Dutch theologian and celebrated preacher who said, “When I have to prepare two sermons a week, I make one and borrow the other.”
Work as a team
In any case, sermonizing is part of communal conversations. One preacher and editor spoke for himself and his late father, “Dad always told me that we preachers must work as a team and may not be prima donnas. We should be less concerned with protecting our own inventions for restating and applying the same old Good News than in freely sharing those ideas with the rest of the team—so they can use them too. He never cared to be attributed as a source; nor do I. We’re all in service of the same gospel.”
That’s fine as far as it goes, but massaging, digesting and making something one’s own is not the same as quoting whole or in part without attribution.
So, how can preachers give due credit honestly and not awkwardly? One Chicago preacher said, “Unless I quote directly, I don’t mention it, but always note it in the manuscript.” A Vancouver friend admitted, “I quote nice ways of saying things or insightful ideas without attribution. It’s tiring to indicate you’re quoting all the time. I’m up front, saying that I get many good ideas from others, and specify when asked. When people ask for sermons on tape or paper, I specify ‘for personal use only,’ as I’d need to footnote sermons used any other way.”
An Alberta teacher, who claims to enjoy writing messages now and again, recognized the pressure and anxiety of constant deadlines. Her take from both sides of the pulpit shows thorough understanding of the ethical issues listeners and preacher face.
“My pastor and I often read the same books. At times I recognize significant chunks of his sermon from a book,” she says. “He doesn’t usually acknowledge where they came from. He does, however, make the ideas his own and puts them into his own context. I think that is okay.”
Several others commented similarly. Almost all responded, “We need to work hard to digest and own ideas, yet we also need all the help we can get in preaching.”
People in the pews have that same need. My man in Manila recognizes the limits of even the best sermon from the most talented and diligent preacher. “[Any sermon] is a hazy newspaper quality picture of an original Van Gogh painting—a real disappointment! And yet, we have to make fresh sermons for the audience that is nearly 2000 years removed from the biblical text. The preacher can help by exegeting the audience with as much care and concern as the text. A stranger you steal from hasn’t exegeted your audience!”
A sign of sloth
Outright, habitual plagiarism is morally corrosive and cumulative. It soils the plagiarist’s character, shortchanges and deceives listeners. “It’s a sign of mental sloth when one steals verbatim from another; thus you have two sins and not just one,” the denominational executive told me. If one sin finds you out, two are double trouble.
So what should we do as peers or parishioners when we sniff out plagiarism? The Alberta teacher suggests a hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you remedy for offenders: “Lock them in a room with stacks of sermons written by your least favourite preacher, and don’t let them out till they have read them all.”
Real recourse can be harsh. Recently Evangelical Press News reported that a North Carolina pastor lost his position after an elder heard a radio sermon similar to one of his pastor’s. The pastor admitted pilfering, but claimed, “I’ve never [done that] before in almost 30 years of ministry.” Isn’t there forgiveness? Restitution?
More than 35 years ago my now-wife and I returned from evening worship in her home church. Her father, an excellent science teacher and well-read elder, was unusually quiet walking home. He toodled up to his study, soon coming down to read aloud—and verbatim—from a book of Helmut Thielicke’s sermons what the student preacher had delivered a half-hour earlier. Dad was not happy.
That student preacher is now a college chaplain. I do not know if Dad or anyone else faced him with his larceny. Did he learn to go straight on his own? Or did he hear the same advice I heard from a deceased, once splendid preacher in our denomination: “Plunder, plunder, plunder.” I have often feared there was a connection between that preacher’s homiletical ethics and personal ethics. He was later deposed from the ministry—not for stealing sermons, but a parishioner’s wife. We are all so vulnerable.
Finally, back to the tempted preacher from the start: I don’t know what she did with the Achtemeier sermon or the rest of her day. I hope I know what I’d do.