Ethics: Prominent Pastor Plagiarizes?

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What would you do Wednesday!

The question of plagiarized sermons comes up every now and then. Whether or not one should preach someone else’s sermons has been debated in the blogosphere, too. Selling sermons must not be too bad of a business considering the eight sites listed on Sermon Source that continue to sell sermons. There are probably more than just these eight sites selling sermons.

Of course, buying someone else’s sermons does not mean that they will be delivered as original work from the pulpit. However, this does happen to the extent that one pastor recently stepped down over sermon plagiarism.

Today’s scenario is slightly different though it is based on a true situation. The situation is that one relatively prominent pastor  has used sermons of another prominent pastor with no citation of who the work belongs to.

The situation is that someone discovered the same sermon on two different church websites from two different pastors with both listing the source of the sermon as that church’s pastor. One pastor has had the sermon on the website dating eight years earlier than the other. It would seem that the pastor with the later dating copied the work of that of the earlier dating.

Consider the following ethical questions concerning this situation keeping in mind that you are not part of either congregation.

Are you obligated to say anything to anyone? Is it best to keep silent? If you don’t keep silent, what biblical principle should be followed? Is Matthew 18 to be followed? How would you start the process and the follow-up?

Is using someone else’s sermons immoral or unethical? Do the churches have a right to know? Should the churches who pay these pastors have a right to original sermons?

Maybe the second pastor has permission from the first pastor to use his material. Maybe neither man cares if anyone is cited as doing the original sermon, then what?

Would you feel responsible if you reach out to the churches and reveal what has happened and a pastor loses his job? What about his family? Does it matter that the sermons are spiritually healthy and the flock is being fed by them?

What would you do?

What would you do if one of the above were your pastor?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Frank Gantz January 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Mark, this really is a delicate issue because of the people and families involved. Yet it can put a really bad mark on a sermon. Years ago I had just finished reading a book which was made from sermons when I listened to a preacher preach a chapter of the book. The kicker was using the same personal illustrations. I knew that both guys couldn’t have sat next to the same person on an airplane.

2 Josh C January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Pretty sure Matthew 18 would apply. Give the pastor the opportunity to confess and repent. If not, confront with 2 or 3 spiritual leaders (hmm…multiple elders would help in a situation like that). If not, bring it before the church (plural elders could do this also…)

All pastors should be honest and forthcoming about their labor and sources. We don’t need Turabian footnotes in a sermon, but direct quotes, or major structural ideas should be given credit (even “A pastor friend of mine showed me these points, or tells this story.) Jokes should not be put into 1st person if not actually 1st person. Some bivocational pastors rely on others’ outlines and illustrations. Totally understand. Sometimes, we’ve heard a good sermon in a passage and can’t see it divided up or alliterated any other way than what we heard. But we need to acknowledge this is not our work or story if so.

I once heard a pastor at a youth meeting preaching Isaiah 6. One of our students proceeded to tell me all 3 points of the man’s outline before they were preached. Apparently our former pastor (from the same state) used to preach the same sermon. OOPS!

3 Mark January 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Frank, did you say anything to anyone? It is a sensitive issue, but who is the one putting the family in the potential crosshairs?

Josh, it may be difficult to follow-up in some way while following Matthew 18. If none of the pastor(s) want to pursue the issue against their preacher, how would the issue be brought before the church you’re not a part of? Hmm…

That’s funny, sort of, about the Isaiah 6 sermon.

4 Jules January 18, 2012 at 10:24 pm

I think this is another product of vocational ministry.

5 Frank Gantz January 18, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Mark, it was a large gathering and I was not able to speak with the guy. He did leave the ministry a few weeks after that. And yes, I agree about the one who put the family in the crosshairs.

6 Mark January 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Jules, do you believe, then, that such plagiarism would not happen in a setting where the preaching is from one who is a non-vocational pastor? If so, why?

I’m trying to understand your comment.

7 Jason Smathers January 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Interestingly, The Biblical preaching blog has this to say in today’s post:

3. Don’t feel obligated to cite your sources. If you do quote, no need to cite sources every time. Preaching is not an academic essay. Sometimes the reference to an unknown name can be unhelpful, sometimes (depending on the name), downright distracting or humourous! If who it was makes a difference, cite them (i.e.Churchill), but if not, just say “one writer put it like this…” (anyone who cares can always ask you afterwards).

http://biblicalpreaching.net/2012/01/18/the-preacher-commentaries-dont-preach-them/

8 Michael Buratovich January 19, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Borrowing from other preachers is inevitable. You can’t keep a good idea, joke or illustration down. Preaching another preachers sermon, however, seems to me to be pure laziness. Your audience is not the same as the audience in the borrowed sermon. Did your prayer preparation lead to say exactly these things in exactly the same way? When my pastor taught a homiletics class at my school, he spent the entire first class in prayer with his students to emphasize the importance of prayerfully preparing a sermon. Borrowing is good, but even if you do not acknowledge your sources in the sermon, do so in your notes and mention them occasionally. It will get you accustomed to giving credit where credit is due. Borrowing a whole sermon seems to be a lazy thing to do. Maybe it’s bitterness over the hours and hours I spent preparing each and every sermon I have done. But I’m just a lay preacher. That’s my take on this.

9 prchrbill January 19, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Borrowing an outline, fine. Borrowing an anecdote, okay. Borrowing someones life events, that’s just wrong.

10 Mark January 20, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Thanks for the comments, folks.

A friend of mine blogged about the pastor resigning over this issue. It is the same issue I mentioned in the post, but I wasn’t sure if the information was public or not. You can read about it here: Qualification Number 1: Character .

11 cathy culver January 3, 2013 at 3:01 pm

My Pastor has been preaching Joel Osteen messages verbatim for a year and a half. He tells us this is a word from God, Never said he is using Joel’s material. My Pst. is a Rhema Bible Graduate.

12 Mark January 3, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Cathy, why don’t you graciously ask him about it?

13 cathy culver January 3, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I have spoken to him, as others have. In a very kind way. His reply to us……….I believe it is what God wants me to do. He was a Word Pst. before he started this.

14 Bruizer76 April 20, 2013 at 3:25 pm

If anyone is still reading this blog I could use some insight from a veteran pastor. My pastor has been stealing/plagiarizing sermons for the last few months (that I know of). He is stealing not only the outline but is preaching someone else’s sermons word for word, including illustrations and life experiences. As a staff member of the church I am really struggling with how to approach the issue. I have done my homework, and I firmly believe that what he is doing is wrong – but not only that – I believe it’s preventing our church from reaching its potential and misleading the congregation. That said, I have documented the sermons he has taken and have audio CDs that he has produced to support my claim. He is not the most approachable pastor and tends to retaliate and lash out when confronted. What do you think?

15 Matt April 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Are you on staff?

16 Constance Cole (@ogremum) April 20, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Wow, I’m not sure what to say. While I KNOW that the ‘lay readers/assistants’ in our church who do the morning prayers in the Rev’s absence (he splits his time between two congregations) completely copy and read sermons from online; it is the apparent ‘approved’ practice for them to do so. Of course, when you’re reading someone else’s life experiences, it sounds very odd. They do, however, give credit to the author of the sermon, even if they do not modify it to include applications that have local relevance.

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