The Pastor and Plagiarism
With so many online sermon resources available today, a pastor literally has hundreds of thousands of choices in terms of preaching material available for reference or re-use. Though you may not be the most gifted individual at communication from the pulpit, your church members will have a certain level of expectation from you when it comes to study and preparation of your weekly message. Pastors have been reprimanded, even fired, for plagiarizing others’ teaching material. At the same time, illustrations and teaching helps shared among pastors and available to all through resources like Pastors Edge are the norm.
How does a pastor use the tools available to him, but not plagiarize? Note the objective here is not to hide your sources or references in such a manner as to avoid suspicion. That’s not honest. Rather, it is to use sources available to you in a Christ-like manner so as to strengthen your teaching and give proper credit where due. You will need establish a standard by which you will model your use of others’ material and illustrations. This doesn’t have to stand up to forensic examination but should certainly keep you honest. At a bare minimum I would recommend the following:
Citing researched material. If you have a clear source for your material, it’s best to simply cite it. “The Surgeon General says…” or “Billy Graham was quoted as saying,” etc. Be careful using statistics or statements where you do not have original or credible source material. “Last year more people were killed by demonic possession than by heart attacks”, for instance, would be a statement you would need to back up with a credible source.
Legally obtained sermon outlines. If you purchase or download free sermon preparation or outline material, which is legally obtained and for your own use, there is no reason not to use the outline as-is, with your own words filling in the gaps. This is considered a gray area by some. For instance, nobody would have issue with you singing a hymn written by someone else, because it is clear to all present that you did not write the song, but are simply performing it. A sermon, however, does not often bear that same mark of performance.
For this reason it is important to use clear phrasing that indicates you obtained portions of your message. “When I was researching online this week,” or “In my study I found this helpful material…” are good breadcrumbs that indicate your had help in formulating your message. More importantly, when asked, be willing and open to cite your sources. Dr. Merritt’s pastoral mentor was Dr. Adrian Rogers, and he will often quote or cite Dr. Rogers in his messages. Likewise if you use material from Dr. Merritt or other pastor-teachers, it’s simple honesty to refer to them as mentors from whom you draw teaching material.
Experience versus story. Often sermon material available online contains specific personal stories by the original author. These experiences should never, ever be passed off as your own. Never tell someone else’s story as if it happened to you. On Pastors Edge we attempt to alter most of Dr. Merritt’s personal stories in our messages where they are told from the viewpoint of a third-party observer. In this way you are recounting a story versus claiming it as your own. If possible, when you read a story by Dr. Merritt or another online source, the better option would be to substitute a personal experience that is similar to the example provided. If there is no similar experience, then you must talk as if telling a story if you are to use it.
Never lie. Ever. A widely held misconception by pastors is that church members will not respect a pastor’s study as much if they reveal that they obtained their material from a variety of sources. On the contrary, when quoting individuals, statistics or stories, and citing your sources, the result is that you sound much more prepared and studied than if you attempt a veiled “fake” in your own words. In the pulpit, your authority is derived from God’s Word, and to a certain degree you speak with God’s voice to believers and guests when you lay out principles and precepts from the Bible in your messages.
Words can easily be stolen. It begins with “John Smith said…,” and then the next time your quote moves to “Someone once said…”. Then the next time you’ll say, “I’ve heard it said…” and then finally, “You know, I’ve always said…” Before you know it, another’s words have become your own. To falsify any portion of the message is to destroy the trust and Truth present in your words, which undermines your ability to preach at all. Better to not preach at all than to falsify any portion of your message.
When confronted. Most often the issue of plagiarism comes to the forefront when a church member approaches you and says, “That point in your sermon was interesting. I think I’ve heard that before.” When this occurs, the right response is to simply say, “Yes, you have. One of my pastoral mentors, Dr. James Merritt, taught a very similar message. I used some of his material, with his blessing, because I didn’t think I could improve upon what he had said.” In this statement you acknowledge the members’ thoughts, cite your source and do it openly and with integrity.
The goal of teaching is to clearly communicate God’s Word for its intended purposes (teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 2 Timothy 3:16). Properly cited and used source material may help you accomplish this. Ultimately we must approach the task of the pulpit with humility, wanting only God, and not ourselves, to obtain the credit for preaching that connected.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.