Plagiarism and Preaching

March 12th, 2012

We're often asked at Ministry Matters whether credit needs to be given for materials used. The short answer is "no" for things that are intended for use in worship, like sermon illustrations and calls to worship; but "yes" for things like reprinting an article in your church newsletter. When in doubt, a line naming the author and website is a good idea. Richard Stern explores this concept more . . .

Plagiarism is one of the most likely factors to be included on a list of ethical practices for preachers, and yet it is also the one most likely to be violated. Plagiarism, which comes from the Latin word for kidnapper, is the use of resources without proper acknowledgment. In preaching it is manifested in the use of someone else’s specific, personal, copyrighted, or unique ideas as though they originated with the preacher. It also includes claiming the experiences of others as though they were the preacher’s own, for example, using others’ stories as though they happened to the preacher. Finally, it can include using the basic outline or thrust of someone else’s preaching as though it were one’s own.

With the proliferation of readily available homiletic resources such as books, periodicals, and the Internet, plagiarism has become easier and more common. Plagiarism can be blatant or subtle, intended or unintended. Nevertheless, commentators seem to agree that it is a clear breach of ethics. A preacher can appropriately use copyrighted material without disruption of the sermon’s flow. One does not need, for example, an author’s permission to use material from sermon helps marketed and sold precisely for use in preparing to preach (including sites like Ministry Matters). However, the matter of plagiarism comes into play when a preacher uses this material without credit or acknowledgment, acting as though she or he created, imagined, or experienced it firsthand.

Standards are understandably more rigorous and the consequences more dire for plagiarism in other arenas and disciplines. Academic scholarship usually passes scrutiny over a longer time, while preaching is, in one sense, a disposable medium intended for one people, place, and time. But the repercussions for plagiarism in preaching can be severe. In recent years, some preachers have resigned or have been removed from their positions because of plagiarized sermons. This situation would suggest that most members of the congregation assume that preachers do not flagrantly or intentionally plagiarize. A preacher’s credibility rests in part on this assumption.

None of this is to deny that good ideas can come from others and can be useful in one’s preaching. Most certainly this is the case. What is at stake is the honesty of the preacher and the integrity of the preacher and the word preached. Are the ideas of others subverting or preventing the preacher from developing his or her ideas, or are the ideas enhancing, supporting, or even correcting his or her ideas? Ethos, personal credibility, is one means of persuasion. The congregation presumes the preacher to be a person of faith, someone who strives to practice the ethical dimensions of that faith. Using the work of others as though it were one’s own certainly compromises the preacher.

There have been times in church history when preaching was so poorly practiced that some preachers purposefully prepared sermons for others to use. Even today, with clergy who are more likely to have seminary training, there is a resignation or a rationalization among some preachers that their parishioners would be better served by a well-crafted but plagiarized sermon than by more mediocre fare prepared by the local preacher. This is, at best, an unfortunate attitude accommodated because of the increasing demands on and diminished morale of many clergy. As administrative and other demands increase, time to devote to preaching decreases. Other causes of plagiarism seem to be poor time management, misplaced priorities, lack of discipline or interest, and overcommitment. An occasional lapse slips into a permanent practice in one’s (lack of) preparation.

To be sure, there is a gray area where it may be difficult to assess whether a sermon or portion thereof is a product of plagiarism. Preachers are encouraged to research biblical passages for the levels and range of meaning, history of interpretation, and relevance to the current situation. Does every idea garnered from research need to be documented in the sermon? Probably not. However, as slight a nod as, “I came across this story … ,” “The newspapers have been claiming that … ,” “One commentator notes … ,” or “Luther once wrote … ,” seems to be sufficient acknowledgment that the idea or story was not original to the preacher. When done appropriately and sparingly, such attributions suggest support for one’s sermonic claims. If one biblical commentator proposes an idea that is significantly out of the mainstream of interpretation, that should be noted: “Most commentators seem to agree, but Fenstermacher claims that …”

Richard L. Johannesen’s discussion of communication ethics within a religious perspective asserts four principles: (1) “Humans deserve full respect as reflections of God’s image.” (2) “Honesty should be practiced in all aspects of persuasion.” (3) “Only the best language should be used.” (4) “The genuine needs of an audience should be determined and an attempt made to meet those real needs” (Johannesen 1983, 78). In this instance preaching can be considered as a form of persuasive speaking. Using other people’s materials, ideas, and experiences as though they were one’s own clearly violates all of the above principles. Even using “the best language” means more than simply using dazzling words. The best language is that which fits the situation of the congregation, and the local preacher would be the best judge of that.

Bibliography: Richard L. Johannesen. Ethics in Human Communication. 2nd ed. (1983); Richard L. Johannesen. “Perspectives on Ethics in Persuasion.” Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility. Edited by Charles U. Larson. 5th ed. (1989) 28–55.

This article is from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.

comments powered by Disqus