The topic of pulpit plagiarism has been in the news since pastor Bill Shillady sought to capitalize on a series of devotions he sent Hillary Clinton during her ill-fated presidential campaign by publishing them as Strong for a Moment Like This. After the book came out, multiple readers recognized some of their own work in the daily missives, and let it be known that Shillady had cribbed some of their writings without attribution. As the amount of uncredited material grew, Abingdon Press withdrew the volume from stores and said it would destroy all remaining copies.
Shillady and Clinton are long time friends, and his commitment to rising before dawn each day to compose and send Clinton an encouraging devotion is admirable. Few people can come up with something original every day — especially at 5:00 a.m. — so it’s not surprising that he often surfed the net for good material before incorporating it into his daily email to Clinton.
Failing to attribute his sources was both slipshod and wrong, but not surprising, because plagiarism has long been a common preacherly practice. Pastors who do their job well are busy people, and finding time during the week to prepare good sermons can be hard to come by. For needed (and appropriate) help, lectionary preachers may rely on resources provided at places like textweek.com and workingpreacher.org, or print sources like Feasting on the Word. Others may bookmark web sites where they can find sermons or useful illustrations arranged by topic or text. Any number of sermon books are available, featuring full sermons or outlines from all or parts of the Bible.
Purloined preaching predated the Internet, of course. Charles Spurgeon’s sermons have been regular pulpit fodder for well over 100 years. Decades ago, I attended denominational pastor’s conferences that were packed with preachers who listened to a parade of all-star orators, feverishly taking notes or buying tapes in case they missed a point. I’m confident those same alliterated sermons were preached many times over the next few weeks, with varying effectiveness.
It’s not wrong to use someone else’s material, especially if they’ve intentionally put it out there for public consumption. What’s wrong is to use it without giving credit to the source. What’s unconscionable is to use another person’s personal story or illustration and claim it as one’s own. More than one pastor has been ousted after a parishioner Googled a notable phrase from Sunday’s message and realized he or she had been listening to Rick Warren’s or Bill Hybel’s sermons.
The potential upside is that the copied sermons are often better than what some preachers can come up with on their own — but that can’t outweigh the downsides of preachers taking credit for someone else’s work or thinking that a suburban mega-church pastor’s “How To” sermon series will translate well to a small town or rural congregation that’s far away and has different concerns.
Many preachers are committed to doing their own work, borrowing with care, and giving credit where credit is due. Pastors who take a sloppier cut-and-paste approach to sermonizing would do well to pay more attention to studying both the scripture and their own congregation’s needs as they approach the sacred task of speaking to God’s people. The pastor doesn’t need to give verbal credit for every idea picked up from a commentary or other reading, but anything particularly distinctive should be cited. Good stories are good stories and worth sharing with multiple audiences — but each should know with whom the story originated.
The burden, of course, does not lie entirely with the preacher. Church members need to give the pastor adequate time during the week to study, to pray, to read, and to write. An old truism suggests that a preacher should spend an hour preparing for every minute of the sermon (another argument for shorter sermons!). Few preachers get — or make — that much time, but pastor and people should work together to ensure quality time for sermon preparation.
That requires understanding on the part of the congregation, and discipline on the part of the pastor. It may take getting up early in the morning, having the secretary (or an answering machine) take messages during certain hours, turning off the cell phone, ignoring email while writing, or all of the above.
Every preacher has to work out his or her own system, but good sermons grow from fertile soil. I think of good exegetical Bible study as plowing the ground, reading and reflection as working in needed fertilizer, and prayerful contemplation of the congregation’s needs as the hoeing or raking needed to put the garden in good order. We then plant the gospel seed by putting all of that into writing and practiced proclamation.
The preacher who is willing to do the work and the congregation who is willing to grant the time will find worship to be a more fruitful and authentic experience.