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Plagiarism in Sermons

I know I’m in the midst of this “Authentically Black” series. I hope is has been good and helpful, but I just keep coming across other things that I also feel are “blog worthy.”

Today’s blog is taken from Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog. Scot is a theologian and excellent blogger. The post is about plagiarism in sermons. Now most of us have heard a plagiarized sermon before, we just don’t know it.

McKnight sheds some much needed light on what is wrong with plagiarism in sermonic material and I think all us pastors, preachers, teachers and church leaders should take note.

Here it is:

“The NY Times ran an article about pastors swiping sermons from sermon sources, and then Out of Ur ran a piece which got some comments. I’m wondering what you think. Here are my thoughts:

I once was in a situation when a pastor admitted to using sermons from sermon sources, and he also said he hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with it. What most confused me about the situation was that he was using illustrations from other preachers in the first person — and you really did think these experiences were his. So far as I know, he stopped.

What are the issues? Here’s what I see:

First, it is not honest. Part of the pastoral task is to preach (if that is part of your “job description”), and that means preparing their own sermons. I don’t know any search committees that prefer their pastoral candidates and preachers to use sermon sources [in order to borrow or swipe sermons preached by others on a routine basis or without acknowledgement — added in light of Steve May’s fine suggestions and clarifications below].

Second, the temptation is evidently strong, and I’d like to know what you think drives plagiarize sermons, but here’s what I see. Sometimes they don’t have the time to get a sermon ready. Sometimes they have too many sermons or talks to get ready for the week and resort to using somebody else’s for one of the talks. Sometimes the pressure to be a good preacher is so strong the preacher is tempted to use someone else’s already-shown-to-be-good sermon. Sometimes there are so many good preachers in the area swiping sermons is the only way a preacher can “compete.” Sometimes a pastor’s job is on the line for how he or she preaches and they are able to postpone the inevitable with a few good sermons swiped from a source.

Third, pastors should not subscribe to such services if they are at all tempted to swipe sermons. I suppose these services are designed to help pastors see what good preaching looks like — but that’s another series. If the temptation is there, it is far wiser to make it unavailable.

Fourth, sermon services are partly culpable here: I’ve never been part of this so I’d like to hear how they work. Do they warn of plagiarism? Do they educate on the proper use? Someone will know more than I about these services.

Fifth, what is a sermon? Well, it’s a whole life brought to bear on a text each week for a single 30 minute or so sermon before a specific congregation. It shames the preacher not to be who he or she is in the pulpit, and to pretend to be someone else. It de-localizes the sermon from the local context. It distorts who the preacher is before the congregation.

So, the sermon is highly biblical, highly personal, highly local, and highly temporal: it is the individual preacher engaging God and Bible and congregation, in that specific location, for that time.

Sixth, which brings up the philosophical issue: Is there not nothing new under the sun? Well said. To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that were used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting, it is convergence — it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others. It brings together other people’s ideas and says so if it is substantial; but it is a uniquely personal, local, and temporal bringing of those things together. Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.

Now let’s be honest: sermons don’t have footnotes and need not. You need not end each separable idea with a “I got this point from Ortberg and this one from Niebuhr and that one from Bonhoeffer.” We all use things from others in sermons, and when we use a lot from someone about some point, we say so. By and large the congregation doesn’t care about that. But, I think they expect the preacher to be preaching his or her own sermon and not someone else’s.”

Well said, Scot.

  • ClayMan

    Ironic that you posted his entire blog entry! 🙂 LOL

    It’s also well stated. Heck – I know that most of my blog ideas come from what I hear others mention.

    I agree with what you and Scot said. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re all trying to find new and innovative ways to present the ancient truth. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that somewhere, somehow, we’re all just re-hashing old sermons.

  • Sean

    Well, it would be ironic–and plagiarism, by the way–if I had posted in and not given credit to Scot McKight. But I probably know some people who would do that.

  • Michael

    Sean,
    I totally understand what you are saying. We have to believe that the Holy Spirit leads us to scripture and its new all over. Many people can orate, but not all can get up and take the word of God and pierce the hearts of people. I want to be a preacher who can use a God gift and have life breathed into scripture. We all understand that every sermon won’t be a homerun. However, we have responsibility to be true to our congregants, scripture, ourselves, and our God.

  • NChitwood

    being a former minister’s wife, i have always struggled with this issue. there were many times when my husband wanted to use someone’s sermon–or atleast a story from it–but i really discouraged him from doing that. my personal conviction is that God calls very special people to share his Word with us. The Spirit speaks to them in a clear and special way so that they can relay Gods message to us. If they take sermons from others, then they are not giving the Spirit credit for HIS work. They do not allow the Spirit to speak to them, and completely disregard what God had in mind for them to share on His behalf. It is way to easy to take someone else’s words–just because we feel like the people “need to hear it”. God will deliver the RIGHT message to the minister ALWAYS.
    very good blog!

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