What's The Big Deal With Plagiarizing Pastors?

by Jonathan Leeman December 11, 2015

A concerned church member named Ben wrote me to ask this:

I recently found out that my senior pastor’s sermons are mostly plagiarized material from sermoncentral.com. He doesn’t just use a line here or there. He uses sermon outlines and dozens of paragraphs. And he doesn’t cite anything or anyone, but acts as if it is all his own. What should I do?

Here was my response:

Dear Ben,

I’m sorry to hear about your situation. I agree this is distressing. Here’s the short answer: if a pastor is consistently using someone else’s sermons or portions of sermons without giving credit, he should not be a pastor. He is guilty of falsely representing material and labor as his own when it is not. He is dishonest and not “above reproach.” And any other pastors or elders or deacons who are aware of his activity but do not inform the church are complicit in this dishonesty. They too should most likely step down from their offices.

That’s the broad principle. Now for the qualifications:

Few of us ever have original ideas. Much of what comes out of our mouths was said by someone else, somewhere else. I’m fairly confident that ideas or even exact phrases come out of my mouth that I once heard, say, from Mark Dever, but that now have been so absorbed into my system that I’ve lost track of which ideas are his and which are mine. And, no, I don’t verbally footnote everything that might be Mark’s when speaking publicly. If I know it’s his, yes, I always give credit. Plus, in the realm of preaching, there are some illustrations or theological formulations that are so common that we might call them “public domain.” I don’t think you necessarily need to explicitly credit the Westminster Assembly every time the words pass from your lips “the chief end of man is to glorify God,” at least if your congregation has a pretty good idea that the classic Protestant confessions are a well from which you often draw water.

That said, I do think an honest pastor will frame even “public domain” material with some sort of language that acknowledges that the story or formulation is not his: “You might have heard the story about…”; “I recall hearing another pastor use the illustration of…”; “As it’s said, the chief end of man…”

Last qualification: if, on any given week, my pastor’s homiletical outline bears a passing resemblance to something in a James M. Boice expositional commentary, or a Logos Bible software outline, or a sermoncentral.com outline, I don’t think I would be terribly upset. I hope he’s not doing that most weeks, and I hope he’s using his own language even if following the structure; but I know what it’s like to spend days studying a passage on my own, then make the “mistake” of looking at an amazing Boice outline, and feel like it has an inevitability to it. So I end up structuring my sermon in a manner that resembles his. I put “mistake” in scare quotes not because I think it’s wrong to look at another man’s outline before I devise my own, but because I know it can put me in this very predicament.

These qualifications stated, we cross a line when we knowingly lift exact paragraphs, even exact sentences, from another person’s commentary, sermon, or book without crediting the source. It is always dishonest, and it typically amounts to stealing. The only reason I don’t say it always amounts to stealing is that some unscrupulous websites post sermonic material precisely so that preachers can “borrow” the material. And shame on them. Such websites tempt pastors toward dishonesty. Sermoncentral.com, which you mentioned, at least tries to protect against such practices (see here).

Now, if your pastor wants to insert in the weekly bulletin that his sermons are coming from sermoncentral.com, he at least would take care of the honesty issue. That said, I would still contend that he is compromising his job as a pastor. God does not raise up elders to deliver stump speeches. He raises them up to oversee individual flocks by delivering God’s Word to them. Only he can apply God’s Word week after week to this particular flock. How would your wife feel if you asked someone else to write the loving notes inside her birthday cards, which you then signed? So even if a man admits, “I’m preaching someone else’s sermons,” he is cheating the flock out of what God intends for them (to say nothing of what they are expecting and paying him for).

Everything I’ve said so far, Ben, I have said to equip you for some difficult conversations that might be in front of you. All this adds up to the why you should confront. Now for the how. Several thoughts here:

1) I think you are free to start by confronting him privately (see Matt. 18:15). But I also think you are free to speak with one of the other pastors first and do it together (see 1 Tim. 5:19). In some sense, his sin (if indeed he is guilty of what you are saying) is a public one because it’s being committed against the whole congregation. That’s why you need the help of fellow pastors. This is not just an offense between you and him (Matt. 18:15). As such…

2) Whether or not you begin by going to him privately or not, you eventually need to go to the other pastors. Hopefully, he’ll want to do that. But even if he resists, you should. Since this is a potentially broad sin that affects the whole church as well as his qualifications, you want other godly men examining the evidence. It should not rely only on your and his judgment.

3) In your conversation with him and with them, give him the benefit of the doubt and start with questions. Can he bring any facts to light that will change your assessment of the situation? Do they agree with your assessment of the facts?

4) I hate to say this, but expect initial resistance or at least excuse-making. If he has been doing this for a time, his heart has become a little hard, and his first response may not be his best and final response. Give it prayer and a little time. If he is guilty, hopefully he’ll soften.

5) Let me imagine a worse case scenario: The evidence, so far as you can tell, is black and white; but he resists you, and the other pastors circle the wagons around him and say that you’re making mountains out of molehills. Maybe they even threaten your job. In such a situation, first, I would quietly take your “evidence” to a trusted, mature, and objective outsider: a seminary professor, a former pastor, etc. You don’t need to tell them whose sermon it is. Just show them the two sermons side by side. Is this something that even a non-Christian would say is plagiarism? Assuming your outside advisors say, “No, Ben, you’re not crazy, this is obviously plagiarism,” I would involve a couple of the most godly and mature (non-staff) church members I could find in confronting both the senior pastor and/or the elders. Assuming he and they still resist, I dare say, I would bring it to the church—in one way or another. Now, Ben, honestly, I’m not encouraging you to pursue these final steps unless you are extremely certain the evidence clearly points to pastoral lying and stealing.

6) If there has been a consistent pattern of this, I do think he should permanently step down. He has compromised the congregation’s trust, even if there are voices in the congregation that want to smother everything over with words of forgiveness. Yes, forgive him as a Christian and as a church member if he is repentant! But the office of elder depends upon a man’s character and qualifications (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). It is, in a sense, merited in a way that being a Christian or church member is not.

I have two friends who had to step out of the pastorate for this very thing. Praise God they were repentant, remorseful, and stepped down willingly. They responded with humility. And the Lord has been restoring health to both those congregations, those two men, and their families ever since.

Should your senior pastor and/or his staff respond by downplaying sin or covering it over, I fear the rot at the top will slowly trickle down into the life of the congregation in all sorts of unseen ways in the years to come. It will not be a healthy church. If he or they do resist you, I would suggest urging them to bring his practices into the light. If what he’s doing is not wrong, there is no need to fear the light. If they refuse to bring his activities into the light, then I hope you know what you’re dealing with, and I think it’s time for you to start sending out resumes.

Last thought: everything I have written, Ben, I have written at a principial level for a broader audience, to be applied to a variety of different situations. I don’t presume to know your church, your situation, your boss, how you came about this information, and a host of other specifics. Therefore, I don’t pretend to offer an evaluation or assessment of your situation. I’m responding to a generic problem as you’ve presented it: a young staff member discovers that his preaching pastor plagiarizes. Now it’s up to you to determine what the real story is in your situation. And, again, that means you start with questions rather than accusations. I pray this is useful, and I pray the Lord would preserve your congregation in righteousness and holiness.