Monday, November 28, 2005

Pervasive Pastoral Plagiarism?

I was talking with a friend recently and he happened to mention that the senior pastor at his church “does Bill Hybels’ stuff” for his sermons. From time to time, I am impressed by how many pastors repeat or simply copy the sermons of famous pastors who sell or make their sermons generally available. Another friend of mine is a pastor of a mega-church and he has told the story a handful of times that his first few series were point for point right out of Rick Warren’s first series at Saddleback.

I am seriously wondering about the problem of plagiarism among pastors. Plagiarism is not only illegal, it is unethical and it is a fairly heinous sin. How many pastors even see things that way, and does the label “plagiarism” even apply to sermons?

I was plagiarized once. I had put together a detailed set of notes and handouts for an adult Bible study on Spiritual Formation. Unbeknownst to me, the tapes of the sessions were being shipped off to an associate pastor in another town (a good friend of mine, actually). He proceeded to teach the same series and received an offer to have an article on the subject published. In his words to me, “I was going to send him to you, but when I found out how much it paid, I went ahead and wrote the article.” That’s right-he actually conveyed the whole thing to me as if it were a funny anecdote.

What that told me then, and what I think has been confirmed several times since, is that many pastors don’t even know the word “plagiarism” much less are the capable of applying the concept to their sermonizing.

How should pastors apply the ethics of borrowing and citing sermons when so many of them are available for free (radio, internet, podcasting, etc.)?

To at least begin the reflection, I think it is incumbent upon pastors to do their own work for their congregation for their time and place. No doubt we will hear or read points that apply to our weekly sermons, but we need to be careful to attribute quotes, thoughts, or a train of thought.

One take on this issue is that it is simply lazy for a pastor to simply repeat someone else’s sermon. What about their role as prophet-as one who speaks for God to their congregation’s situation? That takes actual prayer and work, and pastors who fail to do that do a serious disservice to their flocks.


Vicki said...

Glad I found your blog. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with you on this topic. At first, just the thought of plagiarism itself bothers me, but it's worse than think a pastor wouldn't spend enough time with the Lord in preparation for his weekly sermon, to hear from the Holy Spirit for his own congregation's sake...that's sad.

Maybe even dangerous.

Good blog. I'll be back!
God bless you.

Rich Tatum said...


I agree with you about the morality and legality of plagiarism. No preacher should ever stoop to stealing ideas and sermons without credit--and even payment and permission--of the original sermon writer.

That said, is there any "new thing" under the sun in theology that is worth following? In a real sense, there is security in standing in the traditions of orthodoxy and knowing that we have not discovered a "new" way of looking at a text or an issue and, perhaps, inadvertently, serving up heresy.

That's not to say we should not think creatively about applying the text, nor should we not think creatively about an approach to the sermon that best fits a particular time, place, and audience.

However, do we credit every illustration we use from an illustration library or resource? Do we all credit every quote we pull from a quotation database or from the local newsrags? Many do, but more often, I simply hear, "John Doe once said..."

I work for Christianity Today and one of the projects I work closely with, and in fact was the project manager for at it's inception and launch, was Preaching Today, which is a sermon resource that makes available to subscribers sermon illustrations, quotes, sermon outlines, and even full-length sermon audio and sermon transcripts. We've tried to make it abundandtly clear to our subscribers that reusing sermons, whole-cloth, is plagiarism. Pastors have been fired for recirculating others' sermons without modification or credit--and rightly so. And we recognize that there is a possibility that some of our subscribers may be doing this. But we believe there is a value in providing this resource for those who use it properly: When master exegetes and preachers with the benefit of years of education and study and experience make their materials available through a service like ours it raises the bar for the little local preacher who hasn't had the benefit of an MDiv, a doctorate, or six years of intensive Greek and Hebrew exegesis. These outlines and transcripts provide a roadmap that can be used to provide richer journey through the Word and good teaching that might not be possible for many preachers.

Is it immoral and unethical for a cook to use another's recipe to prepare a meal? Is it immoral and unethical for a builder to use another's plans to craft a home? Is it imorral and unethical to use someone else's textbook to train a mind?

Credit must be given, and the resources must be used with permission of the author. But I am not quite convinced that God cannot use the words prepared by another preacher to feed your own flock.

I agree: you need to craft every sermon to meet your church's particular needs. You really need to "personalize" it, and you need to absorb and "own" the contents of the text you're using as a blueprint. But if the resource you're using was provided with the author's permission and it's legitimate, sound, preaching, should the congregation be denied the sermon because it wasn't your original idea?

I think there's nothing wrong with a preacher saying, "I'm indebted to Bill Hybels for the main thrust of this message," or to put a footnote in the church bulletin saying the same thing. If you do this every Sunday, of course, you will start to dilute your own authority, and folks will question how much work you're putting into the sermon. But if you've been preaching for any length of time, you're going to be recycling your own sermons, too, at some point, because if it was worth preaching to congregation A, it just might be worth preachng to congregation B.

Please note, though I am an employee of Christianity Today International, I am not a spokesman for the company, nor do I fully represent it's positions and opinion.



Rich Tatum said...

I found this comment in an article by Malcolm Gladwell that I think you might find interesting here:

From: - the cellular church

"At the beginning of the Internet boom, [Rick Warren] created a Web site called, on which he posted his sermons for sale for four dollars each. There were many pastors in the world, he reasoned, who were part time. They had a second, nine-to-five job and families of their own, and what little free time they had was spent ministering to their congregation. Why not help them out with Sunday morning? The Web site now gets nearly four hundred thousand hits a day.

"I went to South Africa two years ago," Warren said. "We did the purpose-driven-church training, and we simul-cast it to ninety thousand pastors across Africa. After it was over, I said, 'Take me out to a village and show me some churches.'"

In the first village they went to, the local pastor came out, saw Warren, and said, "I know who you are. You're Pastor Rick."

"And I said, 'How do you know who I am?' " Warren recalled. "He said, 'I get your sermons every week.' And I said, 'How? You don't even have electricity here.' And he said, 'We're putting the Internet in every post office in South Africa. Once a week, I walk an hour and a half down to the post office. I download it. Then I teach it. You are the only training I have ever received.'"



Tim Van Tongeren said...

"The study of 5,300 graduate students in the United States and Canada found that 56 percent of graduate business students admitted to cheating in the past year, with many saying they cheated because they believed it was an accepted practice in business."

And of course, here is my source:;_ylt=AmypKVLMffB8qF8avk9E3W8Z.3QA;_ylu=X3oDMTA3MXN1bHE0BHNlYwN0bWE- :)

Tim Van Tongeren said...

The same reason ought to have still kept me from preaching; yet I
thought, that, by taking a sermon, or the greater part of one, written by
a spiritual man, and committing it to memory, I might benefit the people.
Had I reasoned scripturally, I should have said, surely it cannot be the
will of God, that I should preach in this way, if I have not enough
knowledge of the Scriptures to write a sermon. Moreover, I had not enough
light nor tenderness of conscience to see, that I was a deceiver in the
pulpit; for every body supposes, that the sermon a man preaches is, if not
entirely, at least as to the most part, his own composition.

I now set about putting a printed sermon into a suitable form, and
committing it to memory. It was hard work. There is no joy in man's own
doings and choosings. It took me nearly a whole week to commit to memory
such a sermon as would take up nearly an hour in repeating. I got through
it, but had no enjoyment in the work. It was on August 27, 1826, at eight
in the morning, in a chapel of ease, in connexion with which my friend was
schoolmaster. At eleven I repeated the same sermon verbatim in the parish
church. There was one service more, in the afternoon, at which I needed
not to have done any thing; for the schoolmaster might have read a printed
sermon, as he used to do. But having a desire to serve the Lord, though I
often knew not how to do it scripturally; and knowing that this aged and
unenlightened clergyman had had this living for forty-eight years, and
having therefore reason to believe, that the gospel scarcely ever had been
preached in that place; I had it in my heart to preach again in the
afternoon. But I had no second sermon committed to memory. It came,
however, to my mind to read the 5th chapter of Matthew, and to make such
remarks as I was able. I did so. Immediately upon beginning to expound
"Blessed are the poor in spirit" I felt myself greatly assisted; and
whereas in the morning my sermon had not been simple enough for the people
to understand it, I now was listened to with the greatest attention, and I
think was also understood. My own peace and joy were great. I felt this a
blessed work.

- George Mueller, "A Narrative of Some of the Lord's Dealings with George Mueller"