Plagiarism and Preaching (Panel Discussion)

We have received a wide variety of responses from Wesleyan ministers and people outside the Wesleyan church in response to our series on plagiarism. Ministers have said everything from “Why is this such a big deal right now? I for one have never struggled with this” to “I am so glad you are dealing with this, it wrecked my ministry and I didn’t see it coming.

I personally have some reservations about spending this much time on plagiarism. It might send some of us the signal that the Wesleyan Church is cracking down on this sort of thing and “consider yourself warned.” That is not true as far as I know, and perhaps the opposite may be true.

When Russ Gunsalus asked me to start a conversation surrounding this issue it was a grace-oriented suggestion. We decided it would be nice to have an Armistice for pastors day. A day when you could come out and confess your plagiarism, clear the slate, and start fresh. It would be a “fear no evil” sort of day when you would be able to confess in a safe space. I am not sure that will happen on this site. The internet is just not a safe way to share vulnerable information like that. But that is the spirit of this panel.

We have asked some ministry leaders to be honest about their own perceptions of plagiarism and preaching. Some of them bear a subtle tone of confession, others bear the tone of challenge and a high standard. We’ll leave the decisions up to you. We just want to get the conversation started. In case you are not familiar with our ministry panel, see their bios at the bottom of this article.  They have served as pastors, educators, and denominational officials seeing this issue from multiple vantage points.

1. Have you ever copied a sermon, or told a personal story as if it was your own, or used someone else’ outline without giving credit? If not tell us what has kept you from it. If you have tell us what convicted you to change:

sempleHeather Semple: While I have never told someone else’s story as my own, I have used illustrations, ideas and outlines not original to me. The more experience I have gained preaching, the less I have used other outlines. There have been a couple of series we prefaced with “adapted from _______” as a way to ascribe credit. However, that has not been the case every time. When I first began to speak on a weekly basis, my umbrella of direct oversight was much larger. Now, after growth and more staff, I am able to devote more time to sermon preparation. I believe I am a better preacher and leader because of others generous leadership and open permission to “steal boldly” without giving their name.  

That being said…I find that I can speak with greater intensity and passion when the sermon is uniquely inspired by God, crafted by us, and delivered to our church. I also now have greater freedom and better rhythms that provide more time and space to hear from God and then tell our people what He said.

wilsonMark Wilson: I honestly cannot recall a time when I intentionally used another person’s sermon or personal story as my own.  Occasionally, I have used outlines from others, but as far as I can recall, have always attributed it to the person who created it, or changed the outline so much, that it became mine.

Once when I was a youth pastor, we had a guest speaker who preached a powerful sermon.  A few weeks later, I took the youth group to a huge conference, where the keynote speaker preached the exact same sermon, word for word, including personal illustrations.  One freshman leaned over to me, wonder in her eyes, and said, “Amazing!  They went to the same school and knew the same people!”

gorveatteMark Gorveatte: Early in my ministry I heard a few painful, cautionary tales about plagiarism and ministry failure that motivated me to fearfully avoid that pitfall.  But, I also knew that there were many preachers far more gifted than I.  John Maxwell was famous in those days for saying something like this: “borrow and use everything I’m giving you today and you don’t have to give me credit because I can’t remember where I got it in the first place.”  If John needed help from other sources, I knew I needed help.

I’m not sure who I learned this from early on it became my practice to give credit up front either for the big idea or the series. In fact, I remember telling the LBA at my last church during the interview process that I didn’t write all my own sermons any more than I wrote all the songs that we were going to sing.   I recall many sermons that were at least 80% attributed material.  But, I drew the line at telling someone else’s personal experience as if it happened to me.   If I couldn’t remember a similar incident in my life that I could use to help make the same point, I’d set up Rick’s story by saying “Rick Warren tells about a time…..”  

2. Preachers use other’s thoughts all the time. They study scripture (not their own thoughts), read commentaries (not their own thoughts), dictionaries (not their own), original languages (not their own), and tell stories about others (that they did not experience).

So when, in your opinion, does using someone else’s thoughts become plagiarism, dishonest, wrong in preaching? Help other preachers with some rules of thumb:

wilsonMark Wilson: It is like cooking a stew.  We glean ingredients from a variety of sources and crock pot them.  What comes out is a flavor unique to the individual preacher.

As far as what’s off limits — pastors should never present another person’s story as their own.  Of course, another person’s story can trigger an idea from the memory banks for my own personal story, and that’s legit.  In fact, the way I use Internet sermons is to jumpstart my own ideas.

It’s ok to borrow insights or ideas, and I don’t think it’s best to attribute all of them.   Otherwise, a sermon would feel more like a research paper.  However, if the idea or the wording is unusual, it is best to identify the source.

It is definitely ok to share other people’s stories, as long as you are being truthful.

I suggest reading widely and frequently — not to steal ideas – but to find your own.  Most of my best sermon ideas come from journaling. Journaling helps clarify ideas and interpret life.  My journal helps me refine thoughts gathered from various sources and create my own.

sempleHeather Semple: I used to be an English teacher. I remember wanting my students to come up with their own conclusions and back them up through reliable sources. I didn’t want them “shortcutting” the learning process. However, I wasn’t looking for ideas that no one else had discovered. I wanted to know if they saw what I knew they needed to see. When a student discovered an idea within a story and then found a unique way to communicate that idea, growth had happened. There is not a sermon or idea that is completely original. What becomes original is the creative method of delivery. A new way to state an established truth breathes fresh air into the message.

With that in mind, the bottom line (my general rule of thumb) becomes, “is it what God has told you to say to His people?” After that, it is about the most relevant way to deliver the message.

gorveatteMark Gorveatte: For me, when I pastored there were two rules of thumb: 1) If it’s borrowed, say so. The best way to do that is early and often.  It’s easiest to do that right up front for a series and/or the specific sermons.  2) Never tell someone else’s story as if it happened to you.  That’s not research. That’s lying.



3. How do you feel about others using your sermons?  Please be honest, not falsely humble.

gorveatteMark Gorveatte: Well, first, I’d be surprised.  Then, I’d be honored.  If I wrote a song that someone else wanted to sing, I’d feel the same way (but I would cash the royalties check).  If I wrote a book, I’d be disappointed if no one ever quoted from it!




wilsonMark Wilson: I am honored when other preachers use my thoughts, stories and outlines, and hope they give me credit for the good ones.





sempleHeather Semple: Go for it. Take without question or reservation. Use it however you need to use it. While God talks to me about what to teach our people, I do not presume to think it is only a message for us and not other parts of the Church.

A few years ago, I remember listening to a preacher give a message with the exact outline I had given him earlier that week. As I listened, I thought, “How could he take MY stuff?” Unfortunately, I had completely missed what was taking place. Was it really MINE? No. I was, however, the clear owner of a large pile of pride. And pride is ugly. Ego is ugly. That outline was never mine to claim. 

I have been on the receiving end of generous leadership. Other preachers/teachers/communicators have given me the freedom to learn from their creativity, methods and phrasing. I am grateful. Why would I not do the same? I do not need credit for anything I teach. It came from the Lord. Give Him the credit.

4. What do you wish you could tell preachers in the Wesleyan church about copying, cheating, citing sources, or plagiarism in general?

sempleHeather Semple: While I suppose there are some church communicators looking to take the easy way out, I tend to think that most just want to effectively teach people how to love God and be loved by Him. Most often, it is an effort toward finding creative ways to deliver a truth and not about an avoidance of digging out the truth.

Honestly, as it relates to this issue, I’d like to say, “lighten up.” About a year ago, our creative team thought we had come up with a “never before thought of” title for a new sermon series. We were so excited! Look what WE did, or so we thought. Just for fun, we decided to google the name of our new series. Of course, we humbly learned that we were not the geniuses we thought we were.

As the leader of a church, my main responsibility is to hear from God and then lead people where He has said to go. When I said “yes” to His call on my life, I surrendered my agenda. I promised Him that I would always do what He tells me to do. Most of the time, our own leadership team creates the map that takes us to that God directed destination. Other times, we use the GPS system created by another leader who has already walked the road.

gorveatteMark Gorveatte: Wesley encouraged his itinerant preachers to use his “Standard Sermons” because he understood that some people are just better at writing sermons than others.  Just because you can’t write good sermons doesn’t mean your people don’t deserve to hear good preaching.   But, just tweaking a few words or throwing in your own stories doesn’t make the sermon yours.  If Kevin Myers or Andy Stanley were listening, would they think it was your sermon or theirs?  Give credit where credit is due.  Then, think about those resources as training wheels on a bicycle.  The sooner you can ride safely without them, the happier you’ll be.  If you really can’t learn to develop anything worth preaching, perhaps you could apply to be the host for a campus/venue for Celebrate or 12Stone or!

wilsonMark Wilson: Internet sermons are tv dinners.  I believe a home cooked meal is much better than a microwave tv dinner.  However, I guess if a person can’t cook, a tv dinner is better than starving to death.  If you can’t create an interesting sermon, I suppose it is better to borrow one from some who can.  But, when you do, it’s best to admit it up front.

People don’t mind if you reveal where you obtained your content.  In fact, they appreciate it.

Never preach points or ideas that would embarrass you if someone googled them.  Who knows?  They may even be fact-checking you on their phone while you’re preaching.

Once, I heard a great sermon and raved about it all week.  Then, my wife googled the 3 main points and discovered the guy had swiped it directly from Rick Warren.   My estimation of the preacher decreased significantly.

The best source for a good sermon is the Holy Spirit.  Get alone in prayer and ask the Lord what to preach.  A preacher’s job is to deliver a message — not a sermon.  We are not delivering God’s special message for his children when we’re scrambling on Saturday night, and presenting someone else’s leftovers.


Interviewed by Dave Ward, June 2014.