Preaching and Plagiarism

To what extent is there an expectation that a preacher's sermon is original work?

Surely the expectation is that the preacher proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ.  But is there also an expectation that the words of the proclamation are original words composed by the person speaking them?

If sermons are borrowed from another source, should that fact necessarily be announced in the Sunday bulletin or even from the pulpit itself?  ("Today's sermon comes from Great Lutheran Sermons Volume 32").

What about particular ideas, concepts, or quotes?  Should the sermon follow the term paper rubric, such that every idea, concept or quote that comes from another source is cited?  How should those citations be shared in the delivery of the sermon?  Surely it could be cumbersome to speak and to hear a sermon that constantly references theologians or writers, for example.  Truly, how many of the ideas and concepts we share in our sermons are really original, anyway?

Most Lutheran congregations do very little that can be considered original on Sunday mornings.  Our liturgy and its prayers have been handed down to us over the centuries.  The readings are chosen according to a lectionary cycle and church year calendar that too has been shaped by a tradition that is much larger than the local congregation.  The hymns and anthems?  Almost always they are not original, but composed by others and given to us to use for the glory of God.

So should preaching necessarily be different than these other elements of our Sunday service?  I don't think it makes great pastoral sense to simply pull sermons from (not a real website) and deliver those week after week on Sunday mornings.  But if the point is to proclaim the Good News – and not to display a particular preacher's creativity, intellect, or faith – what does it matter the source of the sermon?  And if the sermon is not original, or if it is full of borrowed ideas, what is the best way for the preacher to give credit to these sources without clogging the delivery with endless citations and references?

I write all of my sermons, and have never borrowed sermon text from any outside source.  However, are my sermons "original work"?  Not entirely.  I borrow quotes and ideas all the time.  I will reference a source in my preaching if I read from a direct quote (ex, "as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his The Cost of Discipleship …").  Otherwise, when I incorporate substantive ideas or interpretation of a particular text from a commentator, I incorporate those ideas into my sermon generally without making reference to the source in my delivery.  However, when posting sermons online, increasingly I insert a footnote and a link, if available, so that readers might know the source of the particular idea.

At our evening prayer services during Advent and Lent, however, we do not preach original sermons but instead read excerpts from great pastors, theologians, and writers.  We will read from Luther, Bonhoeffer, the Church Fathers, contemporary theologians, etc..  Many of the readings come from the wonderful little prayer book For All The Saints, which includes as part of its order of prayer readings from theologians and writers from across the centuries.  These readings, and their authors, source, and a brief historical context, are always announced prior to the reading.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Preaching and Plagiarism

  1. Great questions, I wonder what others think….
    I don’t see any harm in borrowing ideas or themes from other preachers or sermons. I do think it is wrong going to to download a sermon and just use that…..I believe in order for people to hear the gospel they need it preached to them in their context. If I just download a sermon and preach that I am not addressing the needs of anyone in my congregation.
    But when does citation go too far? What if we use Sundays and Seasons to help us pick hymns? If we don’t write our own prayers should we cite the source of that as well? How far should we take it?

  2. This is an interesting topic Chris. I have gotten upset sometimes because someone will use a sermon that I have written, printed out, and put online (for those times that I do) without getting my permission first. I have felt upset about this practice, but then I realize, sometimes I do the same thing. It may not be a word for word borrowing, as was some of the cases that happened to me, but a concept borrowing with my own spin on it. I often wonder if I am plagiarizing or not.
    If I quote someone directly, I will always say “this is coming from so and so.” I have sometimes taken concepts from books and will say, “this sermon is inspired by the book…” But, word for word from a sermon site/blog site, I can honestly say that I have never done that, nor would. To me it is not, as you mentioned, contextual to the people. I read very early in my career the book “Water Buffalo Theology” that had a great impact on my preaching in that it drives the message home to be contextual and preach to your audience. I have heard preachers read stuff right from preaching sites and they are usually horrible. They don’t fit, it seems off, and it seems totally uninspired.
    If I have been inspired by a fellow pastor, say at a ministerium or something, I will often ask if I can use one of the concepts that inspired me before I set out to writing it. I find it helps ease my conscious and lifts up the other preacher.
    I am assuming that “professional preachers” come to expect that their stuff will be taken. I have heard things written by Barbara Brown Taylor in people’s sermons without the nod toward her or stories by Tony Campolo used often. I am assuming they put it out there with the idea that it will be used. Campolo begged in one of his books to credit him.
    I also recognize that most new ideas, when it comes to preaching, aren’t always new, they more than likely came from somewhere or a church father/mother thought of it, but maybe you have never come across it. So, it truly is a difficult discussion. Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. If we are willing to accept that “Thou shalt not steal” means avoiding things like software piracy, music/liturgy copyright infringement, and showing movies publicly without proper license, then I think it’s fair game to also say preachers shouldn’t steal material and take credit for it as original.
    I listen frequently to the Day One podcasts, and have heard several good examples of attributing ideas/themes to other preachers. (Barbara Lundblad seems to be a frequently quoted source!). Usually they say, early on, “As preacher and author XXX says….” and then later after several paragraphs saying ” Lundblad argues that…” I’m always intrigued that I don’t know where the attributions begin or end (unlike footnotes) but I do recognize that this preacher is borrowing a key illustration, theme, or concept from another source. I think that’s sufficient in many cases.
    For my own practice, if it’s a readily recognized source (e.g. Luther, Bonhoeffer, another local pastor, one of our bishops, or Campolo) I will use the name. But if it’s a less-recognized source (like some Christian Century contributors, Working Preacher, or other academic types) I stick to the “I read recently that…” and note the source in my manuscript so that if someone asks, I can give the specifics.
    I have to say, though, that my own operational theology is a blending of key phrases and lessons from my parents, former pastors, professors, and authors. Sometimes it’s impossible to remember or to parse out who said what. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us.

  4. my husband tells me that using the term paper method does not sound natural or conversational. he tells me that it’s enough to make sure that people know a story (for example) or idea isn’t yours. you don’t always need to say, “as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says…” (for example).

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