Pulpit plagiarism has been making the news again.
“Again” is the operative word. This is not new. A couple of friends, now in their 80s, recall making a wager about which swiped sermon a famous Baptist preacher/evangelist would deliver to a captivated crowd at Oklahoma’s Falls Creek Assembly when they worked there as young men. That was at least 50, maybe 60, years ago.
The latest brouhaha bubbled up this summer. Ed Litton, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been accused of stealing sermons from his immediate predecessor, J.D. Greear. Never mind both claim Greear gave Litton permission to use his sermons; Litton didn’t give Greear credit.
Again, this is not new. Preachers have gotten fired for stealing sermons for generations. But it’s become more problematic, now that the internet makes sermons available in a few clicks. A preacher delivers a too-clever line or comes across as unexpectedly insightful? Type in two or three key words, and find out who originally said that.
To be fair, preaching is hard. Don’t believe it? Try coming up with 30 to 45 minutes of original, insightful and inspiring material at least 48 times a year. And the “competition” is stiff. As my friend Mark Wingfield at Baptist News Global observed (giving credit where credit is due), laypeople can — and do — listen to the world’s best pulpiteers online, and it’s hard for their local pastor to measure up.
About now, logical folks are getting ready to say, “Well, why don’t they just cite their sources?” Good point. But think about a sermon: It’s supposed to be inspiring, uplifting and sometimes even convicting. It’s not supposed to sound like a book report or an academic paper. Reciting sources is like laying down speedbumps in the middle of a racetrack.
And then there’s the whole “inspiration” notion. Some preachers claim, “God told me to say … .” Even less-declarative pastors prepare to preach with their people in mind. So, assigning singular inspiration to a second-hand sermon is a hard sell.
Still and all. Why can’t more preachers give credit? Seems like a small price to pay to stay out of trouble with congregants, not to mention, as in Litton’s case, political enemies.
“When a preacher repeats material without giving credit, it’s plagiarism. When a preacher acknowledges sources, it’s research. Big difference.”
Here’s an idea: Find a way — not in the sermon, but beside the sermon — to give credit.
Almost every church, no matter the worship style, provides non-sermonic information to worshipers every Sunday. They publish a bulletin. They flash announcements on screens. They post notes online or imbed them in an app.
So, why not offer information about the sermon? “Pastor So-and-So gratefully acknowledges the contributions of these souls for this week’s sermon … .” Followed by the books, articles, sermons, songs and any other material the preacher considered while writing that sermon.
Here’s a distinction: When a preacher repeats material without giving credit, it’s plagiarism. When a preacher acknowledges sources, it’s research. Big difference.
I’ve tested this idea on two groups:
- Preachers often respond with blank stares. I don’t get why they don’t get this. Do they really think their listeners think they make all this stuff up by themselves, without any help? The best ones already name who they’re quoting. The most theologically astute also know there’s a wideness in God’s inspiration; thoughts inspired to instruct one congregation can bless another.
- Laypeople often respond with “amen!” They instinctively know (a) this solves the plagiarism problem and (b) it’s another way for the preacher to feed the flock. In fact, avid readers often say something like, “I’d love to know what my pastor has been reading” or, “Just think how much more we can learn if we know which books (or articles or other sermons) are worth our time.”
OK, one final caveat: This won’t work for personal stories. The unpardonable sin of preaching is claiming as a “personal story” an event that happened to someone else. That shreds the fabric of trust between preacher and congregation.
In that case, years from now, the preacher will be able to use a great illustration that begins, “Here’s what I learned from stealing a sermon … .”
Marv Knox is the founder of Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical network of compassion across Arizona, New Mexico, Northern Mexico, Oklahoma, Southern California and Texas.