“If you wish a thing to be done well, you must do it yourself.” Miles Standish, a middle-age widower in Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” uttered this epigram to his young friend, John Alden. Too bad Standish didn’t heed his own advice.
Standish, familiar with the ways of war but not women, asked Alden to propose marriage on his behalf to Priscilla, a lovely lady in the Plymouth colony. Priscilla had a thing for quiet, reflective men like John, so her response to JohnÂ¹s surrogate proposal was the memorable line: “Speak for yourself, John Alden.”
Every preacher should make it his or her solemn vow.
A prominent staffer at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Reba Cobb, ignored this advice prior to last month’s CBF General Assembly in Ft. Worth, Texas. Asked to preach at the Baptist Women in Ministry gathering June 26, Cobb paid a research assistant to gather material for her sermon. The assistant earned her paycheck by handing Cobb a message, The Bent-Over Woman, already published in a book of writings about women’s issues.
A reporter for Baptist Press, sent to CBF to dig up some dirt, hit a gold mine instead. Not only did Cobb, without attribution, use copious passages from the previously-published sermon. The source of the sermon was a book that included positive references to lesbians, New Age spirituality, Wicca and goddess worship and was recommended by BWIM.
To her credit Cobb admitted the plagiarism but said it was unintentional since her research assistant failed to inform her of the sermon’s source. It sounds plausible. After all, if the plagiarism was intentional, surely one would steal from a less controversial book, and one not on the preferred reading list of the organization one is addressing.
What about plagiarism, the taking of a person’s ideas and passing them off as one’s own?
It’s a common practice by pastors of every theological stripe. In the midst of a tough week, littered with committee meetings, pastoral emergencies and family demands a pastor decides to punt on the sermon. He pulls down his favorite volume of sermons, picks one out, tweaks a few of the illustrations to make them sound like they happened to him and voila—the bread of life is served up on Sunday straight from the pastoral microwave. It is compounded by pastors who purchase worship services and sermons straight from megachurches like Saddleback and Willow Creek.
Surely this transgression, practiced at one time or another by every pastor who ever sat up and took nourishment, is among the venial sins. And surely no preacher can be original when the text to be explained is 2,000 years old.
So what’s the problem with plagiarism?
For starters, it is stealing. The word derives from a Latin term that means “kidnapping.” Plagiarism takes ideas conceived, gestated and birthed by another person and treats them like the children of one’s creative efforts. A reasonable argument can be made that a printed or preached sermon is intellectual and spiritual property, like compact disks, videos or recorded music.
Second, it misrepresents oneself to one’s listeners. A good sermon displays a grasp of the Bible, illustrations that clarify and illumine spiritual truth, an apt turn of phrase and a passion for its message. It reflects positively on the messenger, not just the message itself. To preach another person’s sermon without acknowledgement is a choice to misrepresent oneself in order to obtain any affirmation rightly due its author. We don’t praise students who copy canned papers off the internet, coaches who pad their resumes with fabricated career accomplishments or scientists who falsify data to prove a theory. All are misrepresentations that belong in the same category with borrowed sermons.
Third, it is an admission of laziness. It takes time to wrestle with a biblical text and God in order to wrest from them a word for GodÂ¹s people. Using another preacher’s sermon is an attempt to take shortcuts through a process that blesses the preacher and hearer, often in proportion to the effort expended.
Fourth, it may be a statement about pastoral priorities. Every pastor is torn by competing priorities and, at times, may choose to preach another’s sermon rather than forego a trip to the hospital, visit to a prospect or meeting with a church committee. Pastors must choose where they will feel guilty because a congregation’s expectations for their pastor are often bigger than human capacity.
Finally, plagiarism of sermons often is a confession of spiritual poverty. It implies that the Holy Spirit does not provide a word that one feels deeply enough about or confident enough in to proclaim it. If we have any self-awareness, most preachers would admit that we feel the need to use anotherÂ¹s sermon at precisely the moments we feel least like God is speaking to or through us. Volumes of prepared sermons in our library are no substitute for a daily walk with God.
Preaching, wrote Phillips Brooks, is the “bringing of truth through personality.” Preachers who base their pulpit ministry on copied sermons underestimate the role they play as a channel through whom God speaks. Few more powerful messages exist that GodÂ¹s word interpreted through an authentic believer.
Most pew sitters, like Priscilla, don’t want a surrogate message. They want to hear a message conceived, believed and spoken by their pastor. So speak for yourself, preacher.
Michael Clingenpeel is editor and business manager of the Religious Herald. This article was reprinted by permission.