The year before I enrolled in seminary I taught at a prep school in Indiana.
In mid-April the school celebrated Parents' Weekend, one of the major events of the school year. The chapel that Sunday morning was packed, and I knew the chaplain was under pressure to deliver a great sermon. And he did -- it was well-crafted, worked creatively with the text, and proclaimed the gospel in a way that was both moving and accessible. It was, in short, a big hit with both the kids and their parents.
Trouble was, it wasn't his sermon. Two weeks earlier, you see, I'd been visiting the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While there, I was given a copy of John Vannorsdall's "Dimly Burning Wicks," a collection of his sermons. Vannorsdall was then president of the Seminary and a fine preacher, and so in the days since my visit I'd been reading through his book ... which was why I was so surprised to see in the bulletin for chapel that April morning that the sermon was entitled "Dimly Burning Wicks." What a coincidence, I thought. Except it wasn't -- it was Vannorsdall's sermon word for word. Word for word! The guy didn't even try to embellish or adapt it for the context.
I never told the chaplain I knew he had ripped off that sermon. But I never really respected him again.
So what's the big deal, some may wonder. No one was hurt. I mean, it's not like Vannorsdall lost any royalties. Further, it was a really good sermon. So the Word was preached and heard. Isn't that what really matters?
The issue with plagiarism from the pulpit is neither about property rights nor about the efficacy of the Word. It's about the integrity of the pastoral office. When you stand up and offer another's words as your own, it's not primarily that you're committing an offense against the original author (though of course you are), it's that you are lying to your congregation, misrepresenting yourself, and devaluing the trust that is essential to effective pastoral ministry.
I'm not a homiletical donatist. I realize that the efficacy of the Word is not dependent on the integrity (or for that matter even the ability) of the preacher. Because it is God's Word, God can use plagiarized words and compromised pulpits as means by which to grant faith. But if a congregation comes to mistrust a pastor who has passed another's words off as his or her own, their confidence in their preacher -- and in preaching in general -- erodes.
And it's not just sermons out of another preacher's book. The same goes for sermons off the internet and canned illustrations and stories that you tell in the first-person. If you're passing another's words off as your own, you are compromising not only your integrity but that of the pastoral office more broadly. Period.
With this in mind, let me offer some counsel in response to a few questions that may come to mind:
What if I'm not a very good preacher?
Keep working at it. Most of us won't learn to preach in a semester or even in a seminary career. But most of us can learn to preach well by consistently working at it. There are seminars, continuing education events, Doctor of Ministry programs, and excellent print, audio and web-based resources that can help you. (Okay, so this is a shameless promotion of Luther Seminary's D.Min. in Biblical Preaching, Word & World, and the Center for Biblical Preaching's "In the Company of Preachers," not to mention WorkingPreacher.org -- but keep in mind, this is about the evils of plagiarism, not institutional self-promotion.)
What if I'm not just "not very good," but am really a pretty bad preacher?
Consider another line of work. Seriously. God can use you lots of places. Or, at least consider hiring a partner who is a good preacher and letting her do most of the preaching.
Do I have to cite everything I use? Won't that make my sermons a little boring?
Actually, I don't think you have to cite everything. You can usually get away with "As one commentator writes...," or "As a preacher once said...." Cite the author in a footnote to your manuscript, but you don't have to cite her or him in your delivery. Remember, it's not primarily about property rights; it's about integrity. Acknowledging that a thought, line, or striking image wasn't your own is often enough.
So when do I cite someone?
Three times, at least. 1) When it's a complex or extended sentence or paragraph. If you use a lot of someone else's thoughts, it's best to cite them directly. It would probably feel odd to your hearer if you didn't. 2) When the author is somewhat well known, by citing her or him you establish contact between your sermon and the cultural background you share with your congregation. 3) When there is what I'd call "identity-strengthening" value. That is, if the quotation is from a major figure in your church tradition or congregational history, then citing that person directly can reaffirm the listeners' own awareness of and connection to their tradition.
Didn't Luther and the other Reformers write sermons for others to preach? Didn't he say, in fact, that if you can't preach you should use someone else's work?
Yes. But does this look like the 16th Century? What may have been accepted practice then isn't today. If it breaks trust or violates reasonable expectations (even culturally conditioned expectations), you've done damage to yourself and to the office you hold. (Besides, Luther said and did a lot of things you probably wouldn't want to say or do today.)
So can I ever preach someone else's sermons?
Sure, just tell your congregation when you're doing it. The issue, again, isn't that they're someone else words, it's that you're passing them off as your own and in doing so just plain lying to your congregation. (Tip: If you do borrow -- and! cite -- another's sermon, however, try not to do it too often, or you'll end up looking really lazy.)
Bottom line: When you preach you're stepping into Mary's shoes: clothing God's Word in the flesh of your own words. It may not be perfect; in fact, it never will be, but the effort you put into giving voice to God's word matters. Even more, the integrity with which you undertake the preaching office affects how your people regard you, your words, and the gospel you preach. And that matters even more.