Pastoral plagiarism is recently back in the news, drawing more attention to a problem that just won’t seem to go away. Every time this subject comes up in social media circles and the like, there appear to always be a few voices interested in suggesting there’s nothing really wrong with the practice, that every preacher should decide what best serves his own church. Ronni Kurtz and I answered that kind of wrongheaded thinking, and a few other kinds besides, in an episode of the For The Church Podcast on the subject. I also wrote a piece for 9Marks last year trying to lay out the myriad arguments for why plagiarizing sermons is dishonest and, actually, disqualifying.
But one question that keeps coming up, as well — and one that hasn’t been substantively answered, as far as I can see — is why exactly preachers would tempt getting exposed as frauds or even fired for undertaking this practice. Below I attempt some answers and offer some means of repentance for each.
Why might a preacher plagiarize his sermons?
1. He feels immense pressure to perform.
Whether from a congregation expecting to be dazzled with their idea of great oratory or from his own internal desire to entertain and be made much of, some preachers just feel a lot of pressure to “be great.” The desire to be seen as impressive lurks in every human heart, and pastors are no different. This is especially true in an evangelical marketplace where consumerism and pragmatism rule the day. The sermon is a product, and customers will always go where the best product can be found. If a preacher gets swept up in the spirit of competition, the drive to attract more people than the church across the street or down the road can become an obsession. And if you aren’t sure of your own ability to craft a superior product, you may be tempted to steal somebody else’s.
If this is you, here’s what to do: Repentance first entails remembering that Christ’s kingdom is bigger than our own, that we aren’t called to be successful but rather faithful, and that catering to customers is inferior as a strategy to the Lord’s call upon us to feed his lambs. Secondly, remember that the gospel doesn’t need bells and whistles to be powerful, and your congregation doesn’t need some fake version of you to be well cared for. Come back to your original love of God’s word and do the hard work of scraping up your own feed for the flock.
2. He just doesn’t think he has enough time in the week to prepare.
Some pastors may claim they have resorted to preaching other people’s sermons because they simply do not have adequate time in their ministry schedules to do their own work. This is increasingly a reality for both overextended megachurch leaders who are constantly juggling multiple areas of responsibility and small or normative-size church leaders who may operate in a solo pastor model where they are expected to supply all the ministry needs for their congregation. Bivocational pastors or those in similar situations may feel these constraints doubly so.
If this is you, here’s what to do: Depending on your particular situation, the specifics of your strategy may differ from others, but in every case where this is the excuse, repentance looks like a significant reprioritization. Remember that the ministry of the elder is first typified in the Scriptures as “prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Pastors must do more than this, but prayer and ministry of the word is the categorical essence of congregational leadership. You may need to learn how to delegate more, develop a strategy for equipping the saints in your church for more ministry to each other, or simply get the guts to say “no” more often. You may need to communicate to your church that sermon preparation is of primary importance in feeding them well. If sermon preparation is getting leftover or marginal time in your week, your schedule is out of whack.
3. The people who provide the material he’s plagiarizing say it’s ok.
This is an increasingly common excuse and often used as a reason why it’s somehow not unethical or dishonest to pass off other people’s work as your own. But imagine your child was caught cheating in his English class. It turns out that he was paying another student to write his essays for him. The reasons are immaterial. Is his turning in someone else’s work somehow all right simply because the real writer of the essay gladly took payment and gave permission? Of course not. And we’d all acknowledge that people saying a thing is permissible doesn’t automatically make it permissible in the Lord’s eyes. Morality is not subject to majority vote or influencer fiat.
If this is you, here’s what to do: Repent of borrowing your ethics from unscrupulous people.
4. It just takes him way too long and feels way too difficult to write original sermons every week.
I get it. I really do. As one who preached a weekly sermon nearly every Sunday of the year for years at a stretch, I know it can sometimes feel like a slog. Some texts are more difficult than others. The pressure to perform (see number one above) can be intense. But some preachers who plagiarize may do so because they simply can’t figure out how to put a decent sermon together. They feel overwhelmed by the task and don’t know what to do.
If this is you, here’s what to do: A ruthless self-inventory is in order. Obviously some texts of Scripture are more difficult than others to exegete, some topics or issues you want to address may be very complex. But if you are finding that every single week, you’re not sure how to craft an original sermon to the point you are tempted to be dishonest with your church, you need to be very honest with yourself. The only qualification listed for pastors that approximates a type of skill is “able to teach.” If it’s taking you too long, it’s possible you’re trying to do too much and you’re misunderstanding what a sermon is meant to even accomplish. If you find you just can’t reliably manage the process, it could be that you need to pursue more training in the area. Take some homiletics classes at seminary, read some more books on the subject, look into the availability nearby of a Simeon Trust workshop. Get educated. The alternative is, honestly, facing up to the fact that maybe you’re not qualified to be a pastor. And that’s okay. Being an honest layperson is always better than being a dishonest minister.
The problem of plagiarism in the pulpit isn’t likely to go away. But the Spirit can bring conviction wherever he resides, so if he is leading you to reevaluate your own approach to “sermon borrowing,” don’t resist or ignore his promptings. Remember, preacher — God loves you as you are. You don’t need to pretend to be somebody else to receive his approval. You may feel you need to do that for your congregation’s approval or for your network’s approval. But the good news is that you can be the preacher he has uniquely designed you to be, and he will use your efforts for his purposes, because his word will not return void. The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need eloquence or showmanship to work. You can trust it. The question is: can you be trusted with it?