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TGC Asks Glenn Lucke: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?

Editors’ note: 

Note from Collin Hansen, TGC editorial director: This week we’re examining the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. We’ve heard from pastors, ethicists, scholars, and researchers to work toward common understanding on this pressing, perennial dilemma. Finally we turn to Glenn Lucke, who runs Docent Research Group, which provides customized research assistance for pastors and churches.

Using another’s sermon material in one’s own messages is not a simple black-and-white issue, but rather a gray area requiring wisdom. Factors in play include quantity of material used, permission, attribution, and cultural conventions about published versus spoken material.

The concept of plagiarism addresses at least two concerns: (1) taking material from another and (2) representing another’s work as one’s own. In short, stealing and cheating. The amount of borrowed material affects deliberations about plagiarism in academia and publishing and should also in the church. Does reciting a minority portion of another’s sermon without attribution constitute plagiarism? Without permission, yes (stealing). With permission? No. What about a sermon that is paraphrased and personalized by another? Not as clear. What about the creative framing of a topic or a story or an outline? Do these require attribution? Grey areas, but these don’t require attribution. Does reciting another’s sermon nearly verbatim without attribution constitute plagiarism? Yes, because even with permission such a practice activates plagiarism’s second concern, cheating. Ask yourself, “Why would a follower of the Truth take credit for the work of another?” Last, by convention we place higher standards on published works than on speech acts. We recognize that breaking verbal stride to cite sources frequently in a sermon short-circuits the power of preaching.

Wisdom guide:

  • Don’t tell someone else’s first-person story in the first-person.
  • If the bulk of a message is from another, regardless of permission, briefly attribute the source(s). If you fear such candor would diminish you, crucify your ego. Or simply don’t use the material.
  • If a minority portion is from another and you have permission to use the material without attribution, enjoy the gift.
  • Err on the side of attribution . . . but too-frequent attributions distract from and thus dissipate the power of the sermon.