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Reading the recent article in The Banner called “I Think the Pastor Stole that Sermon” got me thinking about sermon stealing. Over the years I’ve read a lot of articles on the topic of plagiarism, but I don’t recall that any of them provided concrete suggestions on how to prevent and/or stop this stealing sin. It’s been my experience that if we want either to stop a certain sin or avoid temptation, we need to prepare in advance. Let me offer some suggestions I’ve used for many years in the busy routine of pastoring to keep myself from the ever-present temptation of plagiarism:

  1. Determine from the start that you will not use another's work without giving credit for it. You just won’t go in that direction!
  2. Don't wait till the middle or the end of the week to start preparing your sermon! Procrastination is the mother of plagiarism, and the cure for both is long-term sermon planning and execution. Always be working ahead on sermon preparation.
  3. When speaking from the pulpit, don't be fearful or hesitant about quoting another by name. I recall an elder in one of my congregations who came up to me one of the first Sundays I preached and said: “So you really do study for these sermons, it's not just off the top of your head?”
  4. The temptation to borrow a sermon won’t happen if you prepare by setting aside several fairly complete outlines in your preaching Bible. This will carry you through times when you have several deaths in the congregation near the end of the week, back-to-back hospital emergencies, or you’re just worn out. Be humble enough to tell your people what the situation is so they can pray for you while you preach the Word of Life to them in your weakness. (You don't need to be their hero; you just need to be their messenger!)
  5. Although you may be tempted to try to be like someone else by using one of their sermons, (because they have such a large following or they speak so eloquently), remember that the congregation in front of you has called you, and you’re the person they’ve come to hear tell them what God wants them to know.

Is sermon stealing really more frequent today, or is it just easier to track down with Internet checks? Could this problem be fueled by pastors having too many responsibilities and/or trying too hard to live up to what they think others expect of them? What do you think?


Two comments:

1. It's not new. There is an incident from the life of Ben Franklin. Franklin's young pastor was accused of using someone else's sermons. Franklin's comment was, I'd rather he preach a good sermon that someone else wrote than a poor one that he wrote.

2. All of George's "preventions" are from the point of view of how to prevent yourself from stealing someone else's sermon. I would like to suggest a better "prevention" which will prevent other people from stealing yours: write sermons that are so true to your life and so true to the specific life of the congregation before you that they would look silly if stolen and preached by someone else.

In my editing at Zondervan, I worked on a book entitled Should We Use Someone's Else's Sermon? by Scott Gibson. It is filled with lots of good information. One thing in particular I remember is that in some subcultures, it is almost honorable to use words and phrases of famous preachers of the past or even the present (and not necessarily with acknowledgment). But the author strongly speaks against wholesale adoption of the sermons of others. The last chapter is is entitled, "Preaching in a Cut-and-Paste World," where the author mentions websites out there that are intended to be resources for preachers (and many vignettes are unsigned).

John Zylstra on February 15, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If you are going to use someone else's sermon wholesale, you might want to consider having an elder read it instead.  The main problem with using or reading someone else's sermon is that people can dream up all kinds of reasons why the sermon probably doesn't apply to them.  In addition, there is a good likelihood that it won't apply to their situation in a pertinent sense, either because it didn't come from the local situation needs, or because the method of delivery creates a distance.   In some cases however, a reading sermon may be preferable to a locally written sermon, hopefully not too often. 

Both as a university chaplain and as a prof, I often found that students were troubled about the way they saw their pastors and youth group leaders using sources.  They often looked at it as a personal issue: "how come he can paraphrase big hunks of Tim Keller without saying so, but I get nailed if I do that in a paper!?"  Rarely did they want to admit that their pastor was being unethical.  In the academic world plagiarism is a HUGE sin.  In the church world it seems to be a minor one. To me this is a shameful dilemma.

The solution that I have advocated for pastors and youth group leaders is that they borrow freely -- and give the citations and credit freely.  I like it very much when a pastor says something like "portions of this mesage have been gleaned from...(a variety of sources... three particular authors... whatever...) and you are welcome to check them out if you are interested.  The details are posted (in the bulletin... in the hall outside my office... wherever)."  This keeps the sermon free of distracting creditings, makes it clear that the preacher does not claim total originality and wants to give the sources their due, and lets geeks like me track down sources and ideas that interest me.

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