Preaching and Plagiarism

preachingHow much copying is too much? When does inspiration by others turn into stealing other’s intellectual property? If a sermon is inspired by God, can a preacher own it? If we get a spark of an idea from another preacher, can we use it without mentioning them? Or does the barest mention of someone else’s phrase or idea have to be referenced every time?

These types of questions are dealt with in every homiletics course I have ever taught. Yet, the consistent conclusion that always seems to emerge is that there are no hard and fast rules. In my opinion it is better to err on the side of caution than on the side of forgiveness where plagiarism is concerned. At the same time, how cautious is too cautious? Pastors have a lot of worries beside the preaching moment. Sometimes they do not feel they have a clear word of their own origin to share. Is it ethical to share another’s ideas?

Here are some tests that may help you discern whether or not you have gone to far in “begging, borrowing and…”

1. THE PEOPLE TEST: If your congregation Googled the phrases of your sermon, would they think you mislead them? If they might think you mislead them by passing off someone else’s work as your own, then you probably need to reference. After all, whether or not it is ethical becomes a moot point once you lose your congregation’s trust.

2. THE QUANTITY TEST: If 90% of a sermon is yours, most people will not blink an eye at an idea or a phrase or a metaphor you forget to mention. They will ascribe it to forgetfulness or limited time. But if even 30% of a sermon’s main concepts are not yours, you’re shaving the integrity ice awfully close unless you are constantly saying “according to..”

3. THE QUALITY TEST: If the best portions of the sermon are yours and yours alone then it’s a good sign. In other words if quotes and metaphors others offer come from diverse sources and only support your ideas, it’s a good sign. But if all the best insights are someone else’s, especially if they are from the same source, you’ve crossed a line. You have to tell people “Most of the best parts of this sermon come from so-and-so’s great work titled such-and-such. I hope you will take the time to look it up and read it. To reference every idea I use would simply take too much time, but I cannot take the credit for the lion share of this sermon.” And if we have to say that, most preachers would opt for their own C+ sermon anyway.

4. THE HEADLINE TEST: If the headline of a newspaper accurately described how many sermons you preached this year that were “borrowed” how bad would you look? The headline, “Local pastor preaches someone else’s outline last sunday” probably won’t raise too many eyebrows. But you should reference it in the future, unless you substantially change the outline and make it yours.  “Pastor preaches someone else’s sermons 75% of the time” is probably the end of your ministry there. Or how about this “Pastor preaches someone else’s sermon word for word.” That only has to happen once and you may be moving.

5. THE COMMUNITY TEST: This shouldn’t come first. Frankly, there is a significant number of pastors who seem to lack integrity in the preaching department. The internet hasn’t just made sinful material easy to find for free, it has found preaching easy to steal for free. And a lot of pastors are justifying it to themselves. Find a few pastors whose integrity is strong, who won’t just tell you what you want to hear, and run your use of other’s material by them.

6. THE OLD SCHOOL TEST: If you presented a sermon that you just preached to your old school’s preaching professor with only the references you listed, would you pass the sermon? If they found your sources of inspiration, would they also find references to support them? Our students fail an assignment at Indiana Wesleyan for one instance of plagiarizing another’s work without referencing them. If it is done twice they fail the course. If it is done three times, they are kicked out of the University. I am not sure that’s the model for how we should handle preachers’ plagiarism in the pulpit. Academic work is different than ministry work. At the same time, if you would fail the assignment otherwise, consider referencing the source.

Referencing sources verbally in sermons is actually easier than you might think. Here’s some “cover your integrity phrases” you can use easily:

1. “Here’s an idea I heard while listening to another pastors’ sermon this week. I think it is a powerful way to put it…”

2. “Like a great author once said…”

3. “As the poet put it…”

4. “Today’s sermon outline was greatly inspired by Chuck Swindoll with some significant changes of my own.”

5. “I want to share with you a sermon presented by a pastor I look up to greatly. She said it better than I could. So if you’ll forgive me, I am going to share with you major sections of that sermon because I think they fit our church like a hand in glove. Where they don’t fit, I’ll add in my own thoughts.”

6. “For today’s sermon I used a significant amount of material I found in my research. A list of the sources is posted online for those of you who want to dig into it some more.”

You get the idea. If in doubt, give a shout out.


This article was Written (in its entirety) by David B Ward | Director of Kern Program | Assoc Dean, School of Theology & Min. at Indiana Wesleyan University
© 2014

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