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.