Plagiarism. There goes that word again. Plagiarism is the persistent plague of preaching, and the summer of 2003 is no exception. A prominent Disciples of Christ minister in Washington, D.C., has just gone through the gut-wrenching discovery and admission of using someone else’s sermons as his own.
One possible response is, “What do you expect?” Preachers are busy. Prepackaged sermons are plentiful. Even the Web site hosting this article includes a growing collection of manuscripts in the field. So why ask Pastor Joe to reinvent the wheel on Ezekiel or plow new ground on the Parable of the Sower when others have done it before and quite probably better? Why sing another chorus of “Yield not to temptation!” when the congregation may actually be better off to hear something prepackaged than be subjected to something half-baked?
Actually, nobody ever said you can’t use someone else’s ideas. You just can’t pretend they’re your own. Put simply, plagiarism is the sin of theft. It’s a besetting sin of preachers precisely because we want to speak with conviction and authority. We’re supposed by our congregations to be speaking God’s words mediated to us by the Holy Spirit in conversation with the Scripture. Actually admitting that the mediator was CheapSermons.com or “Something they passed out at that last conference I attended,” would seem to admit our failure to do our job.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s perfectly permissible for a pastor to walk into the pulpit and say: “When I was studying this week I found a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor on this very passage that speaks to exactly where we are as a church this morning. I can’t say it better than she said it, so listen with me to her words.” You might even say, “We had so many crises in our church family this week I spent all my time in pastoral care, so this morning I’m going to read you a sermon by Tom Long.” You wouldn’t want to do it every Sunday, but you can do it, and the average congregation will appreciate your candor.
What you can’t do is lie to them. Phillips Brooks’ old definition of preaching as “truth through personality” comes into play here. The covenant between pastor and people in part suggests that he or she will share with them Sunday by Sunday his or her own personal journey of faith. It isn’t the brilliance of phrase or even the depth of research that makes a sermon genuine; it’s the authenticity of struggle. They don’t want to hear what somebody else thinks about being Christian this week in your town. They want to hear what you think.
Maybe that’s what makes a preacher’s plagiarism so repugnant. It violates that covenant of common struggle which binds pastors and congregations together. It turns us into dishonest delivery-workers foisting off somebody else’s warmed-over preaching pizza as homemade. Be it ever so delicious, they’ll still get indigestion.
If I sound like I’m preaching, so be it. This isn’t a subject for mincing words. We can’t call them to the narrow way and then take the easy road ourselves. It just won’t wash.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.