Preachers: Thou Shalt Not Steal


By Joe LaGuardia

In the movie, The Words, actor Bradley Cooper plays a struggling writer named Rory Jansen.  Like so many amateur authors, Rory is unable to get published, much less noticed.

He marries, and while on a honeymoon in France, he stumbles upon an old, unpublished manuscript in an antique shop.  It is a brilliant novel.  Rory rewrites it, claims it as his own, sends it to his agent, and becomes famous.

The movie reflects instances in our own society in which the temptation to plagiarize hampers many a writer.

But writers are not the only ones who occasionally plagiarize.  Preachers are also tempted to copy others and pull from sources not their own.

I’m not talking about the use of a little quote here or an illustration there.  I am talking about the type of  plagiarism whereby someone rips off an entire body of work.

It’s not just obscure preachers who fall into temptation.  Big scandals have accompanied big names, such as famous West-coast pastor and author Mark Driscoll, as well as famed pastor Craig Groeschell.

Several  years ago, the then director of the Southern Baptist Church’s Ethics Commission, Richard Land, was reprimanded for lifting material from a Washington Post column and claiming it as his own on his radio broadcast.

This disheartening news reminds us of a very basic moral standard of our faith:  In the book of Exodus, God told Israel, “Thou shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Plagiarism is a constant threat because preachers have borrowed from the work of others as far back as the early church.  Read any sermon from antiquity, and you’ll find preachers quoting other preachers, scripture, and bodies of literature without citing sources.

In colonial America, circuit riding preachers disseminated news throughout the frontier from newspapers and opinion pieces.   A significant portion of any pastor’s personal library — past and present — is made up of books filled with illustrations and sermon outlines.  Most of these sources were fair game: Authors designed such resources to be used for pastors and for preaching.

But times have changed, and intellectual property is just as valuable now as physical property.  The proliferation of literature has welcomed tighter scrutiny towards those who claim another’s work as their own.

This is an easy fix, however.  It is not too cumbersome to give credit where credit is due, even in a sermon.  A pastor may say something like, “According to so-and-so”; or, “It has been said”; or “So-and-so once opined.”

In some cases it is difficult to cite a source — a congregation does not attend church to hear a scholarly lecture.  Therefore, it is wise to cite sources either in the notes of a sermon, such as in footnotes or endnotes, if published; or in that day’s bulletin.

There is no doubt that plagiarism is tempting because being a preacher really is hard work.  One award-winning preacher, Fred Craddock, argued that an effective communicator spends one hour of preparation for every minute of sermon material.  That means a pastor has to spend nearly 20 hours of prep time to deliver a 20 minute sermon come Sunday morning.   With standards like these, it’s easier to “borrow” from someone else.

Frankly, if a pastor is doing her homework each week (reading a regular devotional, catching up on the local newspaper, or reading books and articles related to issues of faith) then there is no reason she will need another person’s material to call her own.

Yet, every pastor needs to quote someone every now and then; so every pastor needs a system on cataloging useful quotes, devising a “highlighter” system when reading and retaining work, and taking notes in a book or word program devoted to sermon ideas.  This keeps the pastor accountable to remember where a source is located and to whom credit is due.

The bottom line is that pastors are not immune to breaking the eighth commandment, but congregations deserve better.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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