The Preacher in the Shadows

Great job pastor, I really enjoyed your sermon!” This often heard refrain on Sunday mornings is far too often not accurate. A shockingly large percentage of those wonderful messages are actually stolen material. Plagiarism in the pulpit is becoming almost as usual as a Power Point to illustrate the points of the lesson.

I read just this morning of pastors who resigned in shame after being caught preaching someone else’s sermons. What a sad way to perhaps end a life of ministry!

We live in a fast and furious society governed by day planners and calendars and alarms on cell phones. And, ministers often have way too much on their plates to do any of it well. The ease of “cut and paste” and the temptation to circumvent the needed time to study and pray has produced a crop of habitual plagiarism preachers, …and bloggers.

Here are some simple rules to avoid being caught in the trap of stealing what someone else wrote or said and presenting it as your own original material.

  • Give credit! A simple mention of the source even if presented almost word for word makes you honest. I doubt that any minister, or writer minds being quoted if they are credited. I don’t think crediting the author will take away any of the impact of what is said or written. When I quote someone on this blog I credit them, often with a link, and send an email asking permission before, even if they have stated it isn’t necessary. Many have done the same for me and I am always glad.
  • Pray! Your ancient brothers seemed to give equal importance to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Shame on you if you don’t bathe your sermon preparation and delivery in prayer.
  • Begin your preparation with only a Bible. I have followed this rule for decades. My Bible of choice is the ESV on I even turn off the references and footnotes and read the text, comparing scripture to scripture at first using only my memory of other texts. Only after I have set what the heart of the study is do I look at outside commentary and other resources.
  • When you do use some other writer or minister’s material, make it your own before presenting it. I see nothing wrong with presenting one of Surgeon’s sermons with credit given but only after the message and biblical texts have gripped your heart and moved you toward God.

If we are nothing else, those of us who speak on behalf of God, must be people of integrity. It is easy to reason “It wont happen to me, I will not get caught“, perhaps the same sentiment of those who did get caught and resigned or were fired in shame.

I think most people are like yours truly. I am delighted when I receive a note asking permission to use a post or part of one in a church bulletin, or Sunday school class. I think you will find wonderful response when you ask permission or at a minimum give proper credit. By all means use books by gifted people, preach great sermons by others, but don’t steal anything and expect God’s blessing on your work.

I said this!


4 comments on “The Preacher in the Shadows

  1. Important topic! With the availability of material on the Internet, this is a timely reminder.

    “I even turn off the references and footnotes and read the text, comparing scripture to scripture at first using only my memory of other texts.”

    I’ve found it helpful, when possible, to read with verse and chapter numbers turned off as well. Someone else’s decisions about where to divide the text aren’t always helpful.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. I agree with Tim. This is such a significant topic, and I appreciate your writing about it, Royce. Everyone who preaches uses material (outlines, ideas, stories) that are not original. I like your suggestions on how to handle that.

    I believe that rank plagiarism is often the result of desperation. The preacher has failed to discipline himself and, come Friday, doesn’t know what to do. A practice that helped me along this line was preaching from the common lectionary. Every Monday morning (and long before, actually) I knew which text I’d be preaching from the following Sunday morning. I didn’t have to figure out how to start. So on Monday and Tuesday, I got to spend time just reading and listening to a passage over and over again. A weekly Internet Bible study based on the OT and NT lectionary readings for that week, and which were rooted in the original languages, never failed to help me generate more ideas than I could use. I would typically listen to it on Tuesdays. I was relaxed (relatively) about my next sermon, and confident.

    In sum, to avoid the temptation of plagiarism, a preacher needs a plan, a system (from which he can deviate if and when he wants). And, a very good plan is to follow the common lectionary.

    Excellent ideas as usual Frank. Thanks for your comment, its been a while!


  3. I preached for 30 years in churches of Christ and, for many years prior to going into ministry (my degrees are in psychology), I would watch my father-in-law “work” on his sermon on Saturday nights. He would pull out one of many sermon outline books and re-think one he’s already done many times. He’d write the dates he used each one at the bottom of the page. I thought that was how preachers got sermons! Then I went to Harding Graduate School of Religion and took expository preaching under Dr. Slate. An eye-opening and wonderful class!

    Many of the sermons I preached came from my study. Many of them came from excellent books by various preachers I admired, but I gave them the credit for the sermons and would even tell the church that this chapter in a book so touched my heart that I wanted to share it with them.

    Annie Mae Lewis (HGSR) drilled into my head to NEVER use another’s material without giving credit.

    Thanks for your blog on this. I’m no longer preaching, but when we were searching for a church home in our new location, I often heard preachers use material from others and not give credit where credit was due. We didn’t go back to those churches.

  4. Royce,
    Great material. Walking and working with integrity is a moral necessity and obligation for believers in all walks of life. As Christians, we are the representatives of Christ and honesty, trust, authenticity, openness, integrity, as well as grace, mercy and love should be virtues permeating throughout our lives.
    However, I do want to say that when I entered ministry, I spent several thousand dollars researching trademark, copyright services, etc in order to “protect” my ministry programs. After much energy and expense, I prayerfully came to the the conclusion and decision that as I was doing God’s work and since He was the inspiration informing and leading my work for Him, it did not matter to me who copied or used any of my materials. As long as He was getting the glory and His purposes were being accomplished. This probably appears naive and unprofessional, however, it is the decision that I can best live with and serve Him through. I wouldn’t presume my decision on any one else as this is a highly personal decision which for others may involve much more complicated arenas than I deal with. God bless us all as we strive daily to behave as well as possible for His purpose and share His grace and love to as many as we are able.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s