Plagiarism in the Pulpit

Three Reasons Some Pastors Plagiarize Their Sermons, and What Should Be Done about It.

Recently my beautiful wife and I had dinner with friends.  Our friends were troubled.  At a recent Sunday service, their lead pastor went before the congregation and confessed that he had been plagiarizing parts of some of his messages.  Our friends were troubled by the whole incident, and they were curious about my thoughts.  I didn’t have enough information from them to offer a firm opinion.  I had a couple of questions that they did not have answers for: 1) How often and to what extent had this happened?  2) Did the pastor confess this because he felt guilty, or did he simply get caught and was “compelled” to confess?

As a pastor, I am especially sensitive to this issue.  In defense of my pastoral colleagues, we speak A LOT of words each week!  It is absolutely possible to plagiarize without knowing it.  Very recently I was preaching a sermon in our church contrasting a “legalist” and a “relationship seeker.”  I usually write out my messages, but I will frequently go “off script” while preaching.  As I was about to conclude my message, a better way of wording my last sentence occurred to me.  So I said, “A legalist is concerned about breaking the rules, while a relationship seeker is concerned about breaking God’s heart!”  I was proud of myself!  I thought that last sentence was brilliant!.  But shortly after the message I realized that it was just a little too brilliant, and it seemed familiar.  I checked my twitter page.  The reason that quote was so brilliant was that it sounded very close to something Tim Keller had tweeted and that I had retweeted.  I did NOT do this on purpose, and honestly, I’m pretty sure Tim Keller wouldn’t care.  But it is plagiarism.  I represented his unique thoughts and words as if they were my own.  I will correct that this Sunday.  No one will be upset with me, as this was simply a mistake.

But what if it isn’t a mistake?  As I have researched this, I am beginning to believe that evangelical churches might have an epidemic problem on their hands.  Prominent pastors have been caught plagiarizing.  I have read accounts of pastors who have preached another pastor’s entire sermon WORD FOR WORD giving no credit to the real author!  One pastor I read about even plagiarized the personal illustrations of the pastor he was stealing from!

Why do some pastors do this?

  1. They are lazy.  I personally spend about 10 hours a week working on my Sunday morning message.  I could “borrow” another pastor’s message and familiarize myself with it enough to preach it probably in less than two hours.
  2. They are insecure.  If I consider myself a weak teacher/preacher, why not preach someone else’s sermon when I know that theirs would be better than mine???
  3. It is undoubtedly easy to get away with it.  My sister attends a church in NC (Colonial Baptist Church).  She recently told me about what a magnificent teacher her pastor is (Pastor Stephen Davey).  I listened to a couple of his sermons, and she was absolutely right!  Now I often listen to his sermons in preparation for my sermons.  But if I use one of his original ideas, or if I use his words, I am careful to cite him as the source.  But it would be SO EASY for me to simply transcribe one of his messages and preach it as my own!  I am a pastor in the Bronx. No one in my church knows who Stephen Davey is.  Humanly speaking, it is doubtful that I would ever get caught.

What should be done to the pastor who knowingly plagiarizes?  In my opinion, the answer is obvious: 

  1. That pastor should first be openly corrected in front of his church.  Referring to elders in a church, Paul writes: “Those who sin should be reprimanded in front of the whole church; this will serve as a strong warning to others.” (I Tim. 5:20 NLT)
  2. The pastor should be fired.  If I were working on my doctorate, and I turned in someone else’s research paper and presented it as my own work, I would be immediately thrown out of the program.  And rightly so.  Why would we not hold the man of God to that same standard?

I recently read about a pastor who was caught plagiarizing and was immediately fired.  He eventually was hired by another church.  In this job he was caught embezzling money!  Why would this be a surprise to anyone?  If he was dishonest enough to steal someone’s words/work, why would he have a problem stealing the church’s money?

I work very hard to make sure that the messages I deliver each Sunday in our little church are accurate, interesting, and relevant.  There are better teachers and preachers out there.  But none of them have been called to serve the people that God has called me to serve.  And when I see value in using specific ideas and exact words of other men of God, I will do my best to cite them as my source.  Why is this so difficult???

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