Craft of Preaching

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Field notes from preachers you trust -- Nathan Aaseng, Patricia Tull and others.

Self-Plagiarism

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I remember a story Billy Graham told about when he was studying for the ministry.

He and his fellow students often supply-preached at area congregations on weekends. Apparently, some of the students, including Graham, occasionally cribbed sermons written by older and wise pastors.

The perils of the this practice became obvious to Graham when he preached a sermon one Sunday that was identical to that preached at the church a couple of weeks earlier by another student.

The story came to mind when I recently read an article decrying the practice of preaching sermons written by other people. I was not aware this was really a thing.  Like most pastors I have met, I'm either too stubborn or too conceited to cede my time in the pulpit to someone else.
There have been occasions where someone has asked if they could use a sermon that I had written. I have no problem with that; in fact, I view it as an honor. There is, of course, an ethical imperative to attribute material to its creator. As Graham discovered, that obligation is as much for the preacher's benefit as for the writer's.

There is, however, one person whom I occasionally plagiarize. That is myself. (When I put it that way, it really does sound conceited.)

I have heard debates as to the wisdom of self-plagiarization. Many preachers believe that going into the "file" and "recycling" an old sermon is wrong. The arguments go:

Each sermon should be a fresh encounter with God through the Scripture readings for that week.

Each sermon should be geared to the specific audience to whom you are preaching.

Each sermon should be geared to the specific cultural context in which you are preaching.

We're so much smarter now than when we wrote those earlier sermons.

It's lazy.

Good arguments, all of them. Yet, as I said, I occasionally ignore them. Here's why:

Sermons are for the congregation, not for the preacher. If the sermon I wrote years ago created a particularly fresh encounter with the Word, I do the congregation a disservice by giving them something less just for the sake of presenting something that is new only to me. 

With few exceptions, the sermons that were particularly effective the first time I preached them have had the same effect when I preached them to a different group.

There is nothing harder for a pastor than trying for a 3rd or 4th perspective on a lectionary reading. That's why Easter and Christmas sermons are the hardest to write. This is just one of many reasons why I'm intrigued with new lectionary possibilities.

Every "recycled" sermon I preach honors points 2, 3, & 4 above. I never present them verbatim, as if I'm reading from an old script. Each is adapted to the differences in audience and context. If anything needs to be changed because I'm so much wiser now, that, too, can easily happen. If it turns out that the audience is too different or the context too changed, or the level of my past ignorance and immaturity too great then, obviously that's not a sermon that should be repeated.

As for laziness, as we often observe in our staff meetings, working hard and working smart are not necessarily the same thing. If I can be more effective in my preaching with an adapted previous sermon and at the same time have more time that week to spend on other important tasks, that seems like a win-win situation.

Having said all that, there is certainly a danger that adapting sermons from the file can result in a living-in-the-past mentality. I don't advocate it as a routine practice, but neither do I feel we need to apologize when doing so is our best chance of proclaiming the Gospel that week.

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