I know a young student pastor who recently discovered that his church’s lead pastor was routinely plagiarizing sermons. This man was preaching other pastors’ sermons without any citation or credit of the original source, presented to the congregation as the original work of the lead pastor.
During my relatively brief time in pastoral ministry, I’ve been shocked and disheartened by the prevalence of plagiarism within evangelical pulpits. Pastoral plagiarism seems common, not rare, and it’s a serious threat to the health of pastors and congregations.
Pastoral plagiarism might be defined as preaching (or writing) someone else’s unique ideas (outlines, insights, examples) in such a way that causes the congregation to believe those ideas originated from the preacher.
At the heart of all plagiarism are two sins: (1) theft and (2) deception. When a preacher plagiarizes he is not merely making an “unwise decision” or engaging in “immature indiscretion.” He is violating both the eighth and ninth commandments (Ex. 20:15–16). He is insulting a true and holy God.
What would cause a pastor to steal from another shepherd and intentionally mislead his flock?
Here are three common reasons.
1. Feeling overwhelmed or depressed
On this side of the grave, we pastors have yet to experience the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). We are susceptible to feeling overwhelmed or emotionally drained. These times can be brought about by external pressures (e.g., pastoring in a pandemic) or by internal anguish (e.g., a prolonged battle with depression or anxiety). In the midst of these stormy seasons, stealing someone else’s sermon may seem less unthinkable than it did in the sunshine. When faced with this temptation, we must remind ourselves that compromise and sin never offer lasting rest (James 1:14–17).
When a preacher plagiarizes he is not merely making an ‘unwise decision’ or engaging in ‘immature indiscretion.’ He is violating both the eighth and ninth commandment.
2. Feeling inadequate by comparison
Today, with just a few clicks, we can cross continents and centuries to find the greatest sermons by the greatest preachers—from Augustine to Spurgeon to Piper and many others. Surrounded by such brilliant and articulate voices, our own abilities may begin to feel mundane or inadequate. If we do not keep our eyes on the Chief Shepherd and the sheep that he has placed around us, it will be easy to succumb to the noxious cocktail of discouraged envy.
Pastor, remember who placed you among your sheep (it wasn’t Spurgeon), and prepare a sermon for his glory. Remember the voice you long to hear say “Well done” (it isn’t Piper’s), and preach for his good pleasure.
Leading sheep can be burdensome (Heb. 3:17). Preaching and teaching the Word is a difficult task—one worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). In addition, within the heart of every man lies a sinful aversion to work. In light of this, it’s no wonder plagiarism abounds in so many pulpits. Plagiarism is easy! You can effortlessly find sermon content online. Pastor, resist this temptation and work hard at the task you’ve been given.
Nevertheless, I’ve heard several objections that seek to excuse plagiarism. Here are three.
1. “Everyone does it.”
I heard this excuse from an elder at a church whose lead pastor had just been found to be plagiarizing multiple sermons. I have no doubt this brother’s motivation was to defend and love a fellow elder. However, the idea that the prevalence of a sin somehow lessens its moral seriousness is a fallacy.
We can all agree that adultery is common among American evangelicals. We can also all agree the frequency of adultery in no way lessens its severity or the disqualifying nature of the sin.
2. “I had permission to use this material.”
This is one of the most common excuses and, on the surface, may seem legitimate. Many preachers today post their sermons online and give others full permission to use this material. In light of this, some ask, “How can using these sermons be wrong?” This question misunderstands the foundational sin of plagiarism. Yes, plagiarism is doubly a sin when it involves outright theft of another’s ideas. But theft is not the central sin of plagiarism. The central sin of plagiarism is dishonesty. This dishonesty—a self-serving misrepresentation of reality—lies at the heart of pastoral plagiarism.
Theft is not the central sin of plagiarism. The central sin of plagiarism is dishonesty.
My mother is a college professor and encounters plagiarism on a semi-regular basis. One of the most common responses she receives when a student has been caught is, “This is from my friend’s paper. He/she gave me permission to use it.” Obviously, this answer does not get the student out of trouble. Why? Because, the primary problem is not whether you have permission to use the material; it’s the dishonesty of presenting someone else’s work as your own.
3. “This church needs a pastor who’s more than just a preacher.”
I heard this excuse firsthand from a pastor who had been caught plagiarizing sermons. It’s true that a church needs the lead pastor to be more than just a preacher, and at times meeting various church needs will seem more than any one man can bear. But we must not treat a congregation’s need for “more than a preacher” as an excuse to neglect preaching or, in the case mentioned above, as a justification for stealing and lying. Yes, your church needs a lead pastor who’s more than just a preacher. But it certainly doesn’t need a lead pastor who is less than one.
Climb the Tree. Dig in the Dirt.
Preparing to preach with all you’ve got is hard. It’s grueling. But it’s worth it—not just for the sake of the sheep, but also for the sake of your soul.
God’s written words are sweet like honey and precious like gold (Ps. 19:10). Your congregation needs to savor them, to store them in their hearts, to marvel at their value. As a preacher, God has called you to be the primary human means by which this miraculous savoring and marveling is accomplished. For this to happen in the way God intends, though, you must first savor and marvel at the Word yourself—without the shortcut of using the fruit of someone else’s sweat.
Pastor, climb the tallest interpretive tree to find the sweetest honey. Excavate the rocky soil of words and phrases to hold the gold in your hands. Then, go exult in it with the flock God has given you. Then do it again the next week, and the next, until the Chief Shepherd appears (1 Pet. 5:4).
Don’t settle for anything less. Don’t settle for the easy sin of plagiarism.