Begging, Borrowing—But Not Stealing
January 8, 2010
Updated November 30, 2017
13 comments 709 views
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.
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James, what a fantastic article. I have seen this on the increase. Just a few years ago in Northern Alberta classis someone was caught ripping off a sermon for his article 23 exam. Not a good scene.
I can understand the temptation, especially if you are feeling pressed and not working on your own academic endeavors or at least challenging your own thinking on a regular basis. I always give credit where credit is due. Even if my whole preaching series was inspired by a book I read, I make sure people know it. I'll even promote the book. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like much of what I see on the web. I don't find it suits my preaching style. However, I may use a quote from time to time or mention that a "writer" or "commentator" says such and such and then site it in my manuscript even if I'm just using an outline to preach. Any quotes I mention that go on power point are always sited so everyone can see.
It is a challenge to all of us who preach to be organized enough to give ample time to work with a text. I think much too often pastors get stuck in the tyranny of the urgent and find themselves behind the eight ball much too often. In that case, burn out is probably around the corner and the temptation to pilfer is much too easy.
"tyranny of the urgent" - brilliant! May I borrow that? Full footnotes and attributions of course!
Excellent article. I wonder, though: Is it really that hard to attribute a source during a sermon? I find it quite easy to weave a good quote or story in while letting people know where it comes from and if I've found myself inspired by someone else's line of thought, I find that a direct quote is a good homage, reference, and lead in for that part of the discussion.
Passing off someone else's work as your own though...definitely not cool...and...everyone in the pews have the same internet we do...some of them have it on their phones too!
Go ahead Daniel. I think I heard that from a mentor a very long time ago. I think it's public domain now.
During research for a sermon out of Leviticus I found four sermons on the same site for the passage I was interested in. As I read through them I began to notice startling similarities. Through dates posted I was able to determine the the original scholarship. The second sermon borrowed a little and used a different title - no attribution. The third sermon borrowed much of the exegetical work, some of the illustrations, used own application, different title - no attribution. The last sermon, the pastor put his name at the top and submitted it as his own work title and all.
It is of interest to note that the passage was Leviticus 10 - the sons of Aaron bringing strange fire before the altar of the Lord. I used my research experience as my opening illustration for the sermon.
As to using other people's work - always attribute. To do anything else is to defraud your congregation and the God you serve.
I think I've read this article before... :) just kidding
I think there is a lot of truth to this. But my question comes what about those resources such as Purpose Driven Church/Life, Willowcreek and LifeChurch.tv who supply sermon series information, outlines, videos, etc. all aimed at helping churches. Is there a balance between the two. I've used resources like these in the past using the resources as a starting point. Is that good or bad?
Josh Benton wrote a good, thought-provoking response to the plagiarism article and I thought it deserved my own thought and a comment.
The main issue in preaching (or any writing) is not that we should be afraid to use other resources. There hasn't been a totally original thought around for a long while. That means we are, in fact, dependent on all kinds of on-going conversations about Scripture, church life, social issues and so on to keep ourselves up-to-date, interesting (we hope!) and useful as servants who, in the words of a long-time mentor, "always mediate the Word of God in some way or other."
What matters is HOW we use all that information and all those resources "out there"--whether "out there" means internet, books, libraries, newspapers, magazines, commercials or whatnot. It is certainly legitimate to get pushes and nudges from all the sorts of things that Josh mentioned. It equally illegitimate to fob that stuff off as our own work without attribution, acknowledgement, credit.
Funny--a retired preacher buddy read that plagiarism article a few weeks ago and said, "My pastor is always nipping other people's sermons, quoting from them, sometimes saying ahead of time, 'I can't say this any better than so-and-so.' But that's fine. He is scrupulously honest about giving credit to the authors."
I know we can overquote and bore people and even create a certain amount of distrust if ALL we do is quote. What is important is that we own, embrace, chew, digest the Bible passage so that the words of the semons are honest, resting on personal and Holy Spiritual integrity.
Jesus said some pretty strong words about the Father of Lies and his children. We are children of the Father of Truth, or the original and eternal WORD and in our own words are pretty strongly bound to honesty and integrity.
I'm all for nipping! I do it from time to time. My father-in-law is a pastor in the Chicago area and he and I are always "borrowing" each other's ideas. Pastor friends and I also pass back and forth ideas. Sometimes I even quote them. In a preaching class of mine at Fuller, we talked about verbal footnotes. Use what other people say as long as you acknowledge.
Coming back to my original thought, though, I guess with the sermon series put out by Saddleback, Willowcreek, LifeChurch.tv and others, they all state that it is a sermon series based upon this particular book, church, person, etc. Before you begin preaching people know where you are getting it from. But we can't just repeat what was written in the series given. For me personally, I feel like that is cheating. When I've done series based off of programs provided, I've still struggled with the message, wrestled with the text and presented what the Holy Spirit had moved in my heart to say using the program as a stepping board to helping us hear God's word for us. We hear God's Word first and then everything else is gravy in helping us interpret and apply it to our lives.
I know that in many CRCs in the past, people had become upset about pastors using material like this, mainly because they are being paid to write original sermons, not someone else's and use original ideas not already pre-packaged ones. Out of curiosity, what is the denomination's stance on this?
As far as I know, the denomination (synod) has never adopted a particular stance on this. But if it tolerated anything less than an honest personal wrestling with the text in its original language and context and with faithful and relevant application to our lives today, I suppose we could close Calvin Theological Seminary for good. There would be no need for biblical studies, for homiletics, for any other theological discipline......... I do know that several classes (I won't say which ones) have taken actions that clearly come down hard on plagiarism. For what it's worth ....
Just a reply to your comment from back in April. I'm starting a series on Habakkuk which I am borrowing from Lifechurch.tv. It's a good solid series and from watching the podcasts of the messages, he has done his homework. But I'm still going back to the Hebrew in this. And I'm glad I did. I've found a few differences in interpretation and even translation and understanding that he had.
This is a springboard to launch off of. I will be giving props where props are due. I am westling with the text this week. I wouldn't expect less of myself if I didn't wrestle with the text and bring to light what is in it. It is also helpful to receive input from others, but in the end, it is the work done by struggling with the text and bringing it before the congregation and allowing the Holy Spirit to use it.
1) Not a pastor, nor do I play one on TV.
2) Just barely skimmed this entry and the subsequent comments.
BUT with that said . . .
My pastor just preached a sermon last week and was very clear from the outset that he was "borrowing" from two sources, and named those sources. I thought that was an admirable thing to do.
On the flip side, a friend of mine works for Kregel Publications, and when I expressed horror at a book series they publish that is full of sermon "ideas", she informed me that this line is one of their best-selling products.
just some thoughts from a lurker . . .
Borrowing from someone elses sermon does further the reach of the words. I myself am borrowing from Lifechurch.tv for a series right now, but props need to be given where they are due. Just like in research papers, you need to cite your material. Borrow the words but let them help you with the wrestling with the text rather than a crutch. Let them be part of the work you do not the only work. Allow them to reach but make sure people know where you got it from.
It's been a few years since someone commented on this great article, but Carey Neiuwhof from Connexus Church in Ontario recently wrote a good related article:
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