Recently there have been pastors dismissed based on the ignorance of a few influential, judgmental, overzealous, Internet-exploring individuals. The accusation — their pastor is plagiarizing sermons.
When someone is accused of plagiarizing, they are accused of an egregious act. Meriam Webster Dictionary online defines plagiarism in this way, “to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”
When any accuser states a pastor of plagiarizing a sermon, the accuser is questioning the pastor’s integrity. The pastor’s reputation is tainted, his leadership equity is diminished, his job is on the line and his future in ministry is at stake. The accuser is questioning if the pastor is suitable to pastor Jesus’ bride, the church.
The internet provides access to thousands of online sermons. In the time it takes to make a few keystrokes, one can be viewing sermons by the greatest preachers in the world.
Wise pastors are doing just that. They’re viewing the best preachers in the world on a weekly basis. As they do, they become better preachers. They’re also finding great content that will bring transformation to the lives of the congregants God has placed under their teaching ministry.
Sometimes the wise pastor utilizes the outline that was seen or heard. Sometimes the preacher is grabbing a mind-boggling turn of a phrase that will stick in the minds of his congregation. Some weeks the pastor is plucking from the online sermon an undeniably effective illustration. The wise pastor longs to be the best preacher he can be for the betterment of and spiritual growth of his congregation. He realizes that bringing the best sermon he can to his people for the sake of their spiritual transformation is more important than originality. He’s humble enough to realize that learning from and embracing the ideas of others is the way he can bring his best sacrifice to the altar each and every Sunday.
Is this plagiarism? Hang with me to the end and I’ll answer that question.
Here are six reasons it’s nearly impossible for a pastor to plagiarize a sermon.
Tim Keller, one of the great thinkers, Christian authors and preachers of our time wrote, “I don’t think anyone expects oral communication to have the same amount of detailed attribution as we expect in written communication. To cite where you got every allusion or basic idea or general illustration in a sermon would be tedious. A certain amount of leeway must be granted. Also, if you take a basic idea or illustration and “make it your own,” I don’t think you have to give attribution. Often the preacher you fear you are stealing from got that idea from some Puritan author and reworked it into more contemporary form. And the Puritan might have gotten it from someone else. In fact, in the act of preaching, we often say something that we know we heard somewhere, but we can’t even remember where we got it. I think we need to be charitable to preachers and not charge them with plagiarism for every un-new idea.”
1) Unlike the written word found in books and articles no money is at stake.
2) Preachers are not concerned when others use their work. In fact, they’re most likely honored that what the Holy Spirit gave them as they prepared their sermon is blessing another congregation.
3) Every preacher is using the information gleaned from others in preparing the next sermon.
4) Preachers aren’t the accusers — laymen and non-preaching staff members are. Those who do not have the intimidating and humbling responsibility of bringing a life-transforming sermon each and every week have no concept of the pressure of preaching. They live in an idealistic world anticipating their pastor preach an outrageously challenging, inspiring, captivating sermon each week.
I asked a friend and colleague with much knowledge of preaching and a great understanding of preaching and academia for thoughts on when someone was plagiarizing a sermon. This dear brother received the preaching award from the seminary he attended and presently teaches at a Bible college. He said that someone is plagiarizing a sermon when from the beginning of the sermon to the end they’re using the words of someone else.
My son, Josh Howerton, pastors a church that averages about 15,000 in weekend worship (Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas). God has given him a special preaching ability. On multiple occasions I’ve called to ask him if I could use some of his sermon stuff in a sermon I was preparing. He finally said something like this, “Dad, you don’t need to ask. If my bullet fits your gun then shoot it.”
I want to say to preachers: if my bullet fits your gun then shoot it. I’m guessing you’d say the same to me and I’m nearly certain that almost every pastor in the world would give the same wise counsel to every other pastor.
Rick Howerton is south central regional consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention.