Plagiarism in the Pulpit

Kris BarnettKristopher Barnett, Preaching

After placing our kids in the children’s ministry, we slid into the church service a few minutes late.  The band cranked out an inspiring worship set.  The pastor took his place on a stool on stage and dove into his message.  The introduction captured my attention.  The pastor transitioned smoothly into the body of the message.  The sermon had my attention but I sensed that something was off.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I tried to shake it but I couldn’t.  The second illustration ignited a spark of memory that identified the problem.   This message sounded familiar, eerily familiar.  By the third illustration, no doubts remained.   I had listened to the same sermon a few weeks earlier on a podcast of a nationally known preacher.    Before the next point, I leaned over to my wife and said, “He’s about to say ______.”  When he used the exact phrase, she looked at me like I had a third eye.  I repeated the trick a couple of times just for fun.  After the service, my wife said, “I thought the sermon was good, but how did you know what he was going to say?”  “I thought it was good too when I listened to the podcast last week,” I replied.   

Pulpit plagiarism takes the words, thoughts, or structures of another and utilizes them without citing the original source.  In the egregious example I related above, the pastor never once implied that the words of his message were not his own.  While pulpit plagiarism has likely been around since preaching began, recent technological advances make the practice much more accessible.  Most nationally recognized pastors podcast their sermons, as do scores of pastors who would never be recognized outside of their congregation.  The internet makes so much preaching available, that pastors can easily download someone else’s sermon.     

That week, the pastor of the church I attended committed pulpit plagiarism.  I don’t know if he did it each week because I only attended once.  Frighteningly, the pastor delivered the message in a fluid manner.  The ease with which he “borrowed” someone else’s message left me with the impression he had done it before.   Once was enough for me and my family.  In my eyes, pulpit plagiarism ruins pastoral integrity because it reveals deceit and laziness.  

Pulpit plagiarism is deceitful.  Taking someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is a form of fraud.  Essentially, plagiarism steals another’s work and accepts credit for it.  As a professor, I place a warning in my course syllabus against plagiarism.  The problem on college campuses is so rampant that a website exists where instructors can submit papers in order to test them for plagiarism.  In my class, plagiarism results in a zero for the assignment and repeated offenses can result in suspension from the University.   

Perhaps someone should invent a website that tests pastor’s sermons for plagiarism.  The lack of such a website seems to embolden pastors to plagiarize.  “No one will ever know,” they rationalize.  Of course, the reality is that God knows the truth even if no one else ever finds out.  In addition, the technology that makes plagiarism accessible to pastors also enables congregations to find them out.  Pastors cannot presume that they are the only ones trolling the internet for quality preaching.  If they “find” a quality sermon, they should recognize that someone in their church might have “found” the same message.   

Dishonesty is not a characteristic that congregants look for in their pastor.  Deception destroys the trust between a congregation and their pastor.  If they can’t trust a pastor in the pulpit, they can’t trust a pastor in his ministry, his leadership, or even his personal life.  Don’t ruin your pastoral integrity by taking the deceitful shortcut of pulpit plagiarism.                 

Pulpit plagiarism is lazy.   As a former pastor, I understand the hectic pace of ministry.  Pastors have hospitals to visit, meetings to attend and members to counsel.  While these and other aspects of pastoral ministry are important, they cannot supersede the prominence of pulpit preparation.  In Acts 6, the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the word, entrusting others to maintain the ministry to widows.  They recognized the priority of preaching.  Contemporary pastors must do the same.   

When pastors take someone else’s sermon and use it as their own, they are not wrestling with Scripture themselves.  Preachers need to meditate on the Word.  They should allow the Word to speak to their hearts, so that they can take that Word to their people.  Failure to wrestle with the Word personally results in shallow preaching and shallow preachers.   Don’t ruin your pastoral integrity by taking the lazy shortcut of pulpit plagiarism.   

Pulpit plagiarism can be avoided.  This does not imply that preachers should avoid the sermons of others at all cost, lest they be tempted to plagiarize.  Instead, it reveals the need to cite sources appropriately in the pulpit.  Pulpit source citation differs from the footnotes or endnotes used in academic writing.  Pulpit citations only require that the preacher acknowledge when they are using someone else’s work.  This can take on several forms: 

  1. You can print a list of works cited in the bulletin.  Again, this is not an academic bibliography, but you can include brief bibliographic material on books that influenced their message.  This honestly reveals the influence of others and it also points the listeners to sources for further study.
  2. You can provide your sources on the projection screen during the message.  If you use slides in worship, the slides could include the name of the source or the title of the book.  Again, this enables members of the congregation to do further research.
  3. You can provide brief verbal citations.  This is the tactic that I employ most.  If I come to a quote or a section of thought inspired by something that I read or heard, I will verbally acknowledge that the material came from another source. For example, I will say something like “In a sermon I listened to this week, I heard….”  Notice that I did not even cite the name of the source.  That is intentional.  If you cite the name of a preacher that no one knows, it only distracts your audience.  If they want to follow up, they can ask you for the name of the source after the service.  However, if the source is well-known, I typically go ahead and state the name of the source.  For example, I might say, “This is a great line from my favorite author, Max Lucado.”  In both methods, the audience knows that the content originated somewhere else, which is the goal of any type of citation.      

Don’t preach someone else’s sermon!  Instead, preach the sermon that God shapes in you through your personal interaction with the Word.  Give credit where credit is due.  Protect your pastoral integrity, avoid pulpit plagiarism.