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What About This Business Of Plagiarism? :: Michael Catt

Okay, I'll admit right off the bat, I've been guilty of using other peoples material and not giving them credit. Let he that is without sin, cast the first stone! We've all done it. Unfortunately, preachers are as guilty as anyone of stealing someone's message and preaching it verbatim. We're guilty of copying an article from someone's church newsletter and using it without giving credit (something that has happened to my church articles more times than I can count).

Surf religious television and you'll find preachers using another preacher's material almost word for word. Not only the outline, the illustrations as well. I know preachers who preach Rick Warren's sermons every week using Rick's outlines and sermons word for word. How many Sunday School teachers (and pastors) have used Warren Wiersbe's material without giving any credit to the author?

Plagiarism is a problem in the academic, political and religious world. Not long ago, I read of a pastor in Michigan who was given a 90 day suspension while his church investigates charges from some of his members that he plagiarizes his sermons.

Recent research reveals that Martin Luther King plagiarized. D. H. Lawrence did it. Delaware Senator Joe Biden was forced to drop out of the 1988 Presidential race when someone revealed he had lifted the words of a British politician.

In an excellent article that you can read in its entirety at www.indwes.edu/tuesday Dr. Keith Drury offers his take on plagiarizing sermons.

Face it, plagiarism is rampant among preachers. It is a common practice for evangelical preachers to borrow parts - or even whole sermons - from others and present them off as their own. One pastor in my own denomination didn't even type up notes, but simply cut the pages right out of Clovis Chapel's books and taped them into his Bible wholesale. He offered with a grin, 'That's why they print books of sermons - so you can preach 'em.' Some denominations actually print up sets of sermons for their pastors to use during special denominational emphasis seasons - is it plagiarism to use these?

At least one evangelical leader encourages pastors to 'steal boldly' in their preparation, telling them to 'beg, borrow, and steal' wherever they can...

But the trouble is this: the standards of the world are higher than the standards of the church on this issue. Plagiarism is a serious offence in the world…America just might have been willing to forgive Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon for their behavior - but never for lying about it.

So what do we preachers do? If we decide to live up to the world's standard of integrity, what shall we do? Create sermons out of our own head with no resources? Not! That would ignore the Spirit's speaking to the church through the last 20 centuries. What to do? The answer is so simple it seems childlike: Credit the sources. That's it. That's all. Just credit the sources of a sermon. We can do that one of two ways: verbally as we speak, or in print in the worship folder (a footnote of sorts). That's all we need to do. Just credit the sources.

I would encourage you to read the entire article that Keith has written. It is a reminder that those of us in the ministry are to have integrity in what we do. We are called to a higher standard. We are to be above reproach.

I believe that the reason we find so many ministers today using others' sermons is that we are busy doing the wrong thing. We've forgotten Acts, chapter six where the apostles said they were going to dedicate themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word. Today's pastor doesn't have time to pray or study.

We've bought the lie that we are supposed to be like a CEO, a mover and shaker. We are so busy lowering our handicap that we've handicapped the proclamation of the Word. Today's minister, if he were honest, wastes a lot of time in meaningless meetings when he should be in his study. We are so busy 'connecting' with our buddies and finding out what's going on in other churches, we don't have time to see what God wants to say to our church.

We've surrendered the best for the good and the mediocre. I would dare say the average minister spends less than 5 hours a week in sermon preparation. I know men who spend more time on the golf course and at the YMCA than they do in their study. While they may be in good shape spiritually, their people are dying from a spoon feeding of fluff.

When I am preparing a sermon, I try to use as many sources as possible. One, it is a sure way to make certain I'm on track. If I stick to just one source, my source may be wrong. I need to gather insights from a variety of commentaries to make sure what I am saying is in agreement with the Church Fathers, the Word and sound doctrine. A good idea may not necessarily be God's idea.

I served with a pastor in Texas who didn't study. When I went on staff, he had been there six months and had not yet unpacked his library. I took it on myself to do that for him. What I discovered was (a) he wasn't a reader, (b) he was basically using one commentary as his primary source and (c) he was, for the most part, preaching the sermons of a pastor in Florida. I had more commentaries in my library as a Student Minister than he had as a pastor. Would it surprise you to find out that he is no longer in the ministry? Moral failure. The man who is not in the Word for Himself is setting himself up for failure in one form or another.

I have one former pastor whom I highly respect. He was my first pastor out of seminary. He was a prolific reader and a brilliant theologian. My wife typed his notes for his series in the Gospel of John. For his study of that one book, he read over 4,000 pages of commentary material. Then, he gleaned from it, absorbed it and when appropriate, credited his sources. I have no problem explaining why his sermons were so powerful. They were true to the text, developed for a particular congregation and preached with authenticity.

What Rick Warren has to say in California doesn't necessarily apply in south Georgia. It's different in the Bible belt than in the Northeastern United States. Truth is truth, but you don't talk to farmers the same way you talk to financiers. The only way you can connect is to get before God and find out what HE wants you to say.

Yes, I have favorite preachers. I have writers and preachers that I lean on (because I trust them) in my study. You'll find I quote some of them on a regular basis. I've borrowed material from my late friend Ron Dunn before, but I talked to him about it and got his permission. When I come across a profound statement, I try to make sure I put it in quotes so that people will know the source. I'm not that smart, and my people know it.

I know of one pastor of one of the largest churches in Texas who has used Ron's material frequently, but has never given him credit. I once had a minister preach a meeting for me and that night he preached Billy Graham's sermon on John 3:16 word for word without ever giving credit.

Today, many of the best selling writers in the secular and Christian market use Ghostwriters. Some don't do any work, they just throw out an idea and the Ghostwriter does the rest (with no credit). One pastor in the Atlanta area hired a full time Ghostwriter on his staff so he could churn out one book after another. What does it hurt to say, 'by with'. That's nothing more than being honest. Some who use Ghostwriters don't even mention them in their acknowledgments.

Plagiarism is widely accepted and silently applauded. It is the sin of stealing and claiming ownership for ourselves. It may be profitable but it will be the death of the prophet. Maybe you won't get caught. It's possible that those who listen to you will never know, but in your heart of hearts, you know. It's possible we've become so callous, our philosophy has become, "What they don't know, won't hurt them."

©2002 MCC Used by permission. This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use. Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited. Michael C. Catt, I Left My Mind in Mississippi…But I Still Have My Ministry (Columbus, Ga.: Brentwood Press, 1994), p. 76-78.

Author:Michael Catt

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