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Temptation to Plagiarize Great—Even for Preachers

Preachers and seminary professors agree that coming up with fresh sermons a few times a week is challenging. So where should ministers draw the line when it comes to using another preacher’s material?

Writing for the Institute for Global Ethics, Rushworth M. Kidder said part of the problem is that the electronic age has convinced many that the idea of ownership is “old-fashioned.” If one believes that everything available to the public should belong to everyone, then in the electronic age plagiarism is obsolete, he argued.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
But plagiarism is not acceptable now; it’s just easier. And preachers have found that the electronic age has made more and more resources—and temptations—available to them.
Sites like sermons.org, sermoncentral.com, internetsermons.com and even desperatepreacher.com offer sermons by the thousands—some for free and some for a price.
So what’s wrong with reading and using other preachers’ sermons?
Preachers and seminary professors agree that coming up with fresh sermons a few times a week is challenging. So where should ministers draw the line when it comes to using another preacher’s material?
“Over the years [preachers] accumulate ideas and interpretations, which originated with someone else,” <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., told EthicsDaily.com. “As time passes, that idea or interpretation becomes their own.”
Snider didn’t condone this, but acknowledged it is very common.
Using another preacher’s material and passing it off as your own is “inexcusable,” Snider said.
“If you do not give credit, you intentionally deceive the congregation,” he said. “This is clearly plagiarism. It is stealing and bearing false witness at the same time.”
Michael Quicke, professor of preaching and communication at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “Preaching should be a personal act by someone called to preach to a particular group at a particular time.”
“Preachers should be listening to God’s word in Scripture in their own context first,” Quicke told EthicsDaily.com. “There is no substitute for personal hard work of exegeting, interpreting, designing and delivering.”
Peter Rhea Jones, professor of preaching and New Testament at McAfee School of Theology, acknowledged that using another preacher’s material without attribution “damages the freshness and authenticity of the pulpit.” But, he said it is unrealistic to expect preachers to prepare three original sermons weekly.
“The preacher need not be pedantic in acknowledgement in the pulpit,” Jones told EthicsDaily.com.
Ron Hinson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Blakely, Ga., said using another’s material in preaching cannot necessarily be compared to the academic notion of plagiarism.
“The nature of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not have as its purpose a concern for literary exclusiveness,” Hinson told EthicsDaily.com. “Giving ‘credit’ to creative preachers who put spin into their hyperbole or who have a gift for scripted metaphor, is always appropriate. But at the same time, few would debate the primary nature of Christian witness as overriding most concerns about whether this is an entirely ‘original version’ of a particular message. We preach Christ!”
Quicke noted a recent paper given on “Preaching and Plagiarism” by Carter Shelley. Shelley argued that plagiarism mattered for five reasons:

  1. there’s the call to preach with honesty and authenticity
  2. there’s the conviction that preaching is an active event
  3. there’s pride of ownership
  4. there’s the very real danger of undermining one’s credibility
  5. there’s the lost possibilities because to depend on others can hinder one’s own development

“Any device that offers a short cut to preaching savages its heart,” Quicke said. “It is the authentic listening to God in Scripture and to other voices in culture and community that makes preaching personal and costly.”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.