This article is from Christianity Today exactly as it appeared:
An Honest Sermon
Plagiarism, the pulpit, and how to appropriate others' ideas appropriately. by Mike Woodruff and Steve Moore
Last spring Edward Mullins, rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, served a 90-day suspension issued by
the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. He was being investigated for an increasingly common but confusing
Mullins's messages were found conspicuously similar to the words of Jim Cymbala, Texas pastor Phil Ware,
and sources from the Online Pulpit.
Mullins's story has served as a catalyst for the debate about preaching and plagiarism.
Some have declared Mullins's actions unethical and Mullins himself unfit for pastoral ministry.
Indeed, just a few months prior to Mullins's suspension, the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church
in Clayton, Missouri, resigned after admitting to homiletic plagiarism.
Others have rushed to Mullins's defense, such as a church member quoted in the New York Times:
"People come to church for his sermons, whether they're his, they're incorporated, or however he does it.
He puts the message forth that needs to be put forth."
Others have claimed that what he did was perfectly legal—after all, he paid for the online sermon material.
In fact, the Internet has made "borrowing" sermon material from others far easier.
And, perhaps, more common.
Richard Stern, a Lutheran minister and professor of homiletics at St. Meinrad School of Theology
told Louisville's Courier-Journal, "People tend to drift into it. They get pressured (telling themselves),
'I've had three funerals and two weddings; I don't have a sermon ready, so I'll just look in this book
or go on the Web.'"
But the question isn't simply whether it's easy or common or understandable, but is it right?
How can preachers effectively and ethically incorporate into their sermons the great insights from others?
Does anyone not borrow?
As the newspapers reported on Mullins's suspension, they found several people who defended
his practice of preaching others' material. The New York Times reported fellow Episcopal rector,
Harry Cook, suggested that every pastor borrows at least some preaching material:
"If plagiarism of the sort that Ed Mullins is accused of is punishable, there would be no one preaching
Reba Cobb, an executive with the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, discovered painfully j
ust how pervasive plagiarism has become.
After delivering a message at a national gathering of Baptist Women in Ministry in Fort Worth, Texas,
Cobb was accused of preaching someone else's sermon.
Cobb, in turn, confronted the research assistant she hired to help write the sermon.
She discovered the researcher had plagiarized the entire message.
When Cobb went to the researcher's source for the sermon, she discovered that he, too, admitted
to lifting the sermon from yet another.
Cobb finally tracked her twice-plagiarized sermon back to a 1979 message delivered
by a Methodist pastor from Indianapolis.
To be sure, the problem is not a new one.
Back in 1735, the Rev. Samuel Hemphill was critiqued by one of his parishioners, Benjamin Franklin,
who remarked, "I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others than bad ones
of his own manufacture."
And while Franklin sarcastically criticizes Hemphill for copying others' work, he brings up
an important point: many of our sermons would be much improved if we included the insights
and thoughts of others more eloquent and wise than ourselves.
Borrowing others' ideas does help to communicate the gospel, and the availability of great messages
on the Internet is a good thing.
As one pastor put it: "Who owns wisdom? As I see it, all truth is God's truth.
Books are published to pass along ideas.
By passing along those ideas, I'm fulfilling the intent of the author.
You don't publish ideas hoping no one will use them.
Truth isn't to be hidden under a bushel."
Not everyone who uses others' material plagiarizes, and there's a better way to utilize
the collective wisdom of great preachers than to preach it as your own.
What is fair attribution?
The ministry of citation
In the debate over whether to give credit and how to cite references, we often lose sight of the pastor
who simply wants his congregation to value his preaching.
We preachers sometimes hesitate to divulge our sources because we're reluctant to admit
we are not self-sufficient, spiritual superheroes.
We want our hearers to see us as founts of overflowing wisdom, rather than cracked, clay vessels.
Unfortunately, our desire to hide behind the façade of "the preacher who went to the mountain
and returned with a word from God for the people," as I heard one TV producer remark recently,
actually undermines our congregation's spiritual growth.
By failing to acknowledge the people who have influenced our thinking and the limitations
of our own wisdom, we miss the opportunity to teach through authenticity.
By our unwillingness to publicly recognize others' influence in our lives, we unwittingly short circuit
their impact on the lives of those within our ministry.
Earl Palmer of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle freely recognizes those who have influenced him.
Everyone who knows Earl knows how he has been influenced by C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Karl Barth.
People don't think less of Earl because he reads and liberally quotes these three.
Instead, countless people have been inspired to read and study his trio of thought-shapers
because of Earl's attribution, and they've been changed because of it.
Revealing your sources
One Sunday, Bill approached the pulpit and told his people he was going to be preaching on Nehemiah.
He'd heard a tape series by a popular radio preacher, and it had both inspired and challenged him.
"I want to tell you how I've personalized the truths of that series," he said.
"I'm not going to try and quote the pastor on the tapes, but I undoubtedly will, because this series
has had a big impact on me."
At the door after the service, one older man remarked, "Pastor, I've heard that series of tapes
— and it is good.
But what I heard today was even better, because it became flesh in a man I know and respect."
Bill told us he learned a valuable lesson about borrowing that day: keep your motives pure,
and communicate truth by making your sources clear.
Another preacher, Mike, said he discovered the same lesson when he shared the sources
for his sermons through the bulletin, handouts, and citations on the printed versions of his messages.
He found that people were eager to dig into the sources.
"People started e-mailing me with their favorite quotes and illustrations on the subject,
or asking for additional explanation," he said. "It was like opening up an extended conversation."
Examining our motives for how we do (or don't) credit our sources forces questions like
"Am I attempting to deceive anyone in this message?" and "Am I portraying myself in any way
that is not truly me?"
Being open about our sources also may cause us to ask, "Have I been relying too much on the works
of Wesley, Calvin, Swindoll, Lucado, Graham, or anyone else lately?"
Anyone who stands in the pulpit regularly will wrestle with this issue—especially on Saturday night,
after a week full of surprise meetings, drop-in visitors, and emergencies.
Few preachers set out to plagiarize, but the urgency of the moment can often cloud the clarity
of the choice.
Choosing, before we get to that moment, to always share our sources and influences freely
will ensure our motives stay on track.
Where credit is due
David Seamands, who for years was the campus pastor for Asbury College and Asbury Seminary,
once jokingly remarked, "I have to get my sources right, because these sermons will be preached again
in student pastorates all around."
Yet discussions on the "do's and don'ts" of citation when using sermon aids and outlines,
Internet illustrations, and other forms of "help" can quickly turn into the kind of "jot and tittle" discussion
for which the religious people of Jesus' day were infamous.
Preoccupation with following every Turabian standard for citation can drain the lifeblood
from even well-researched, original sermons.
Whatever rules we suggest for referencing others' work, they must be understood as guides, not masters.
What is presented on Sunday is not an academic paper or research for a juried journal.
It is an attempt to be a voice of hope, encouragement, reproof, admonishment, grace, and truth.
Just as failure to cite correctly can undermine the integrity of a message, preoccupation
with citations, proper sources, and footnotes can cause our listeners to miss the point.
Sometimes brief recognition—such as Bill gave on his Nehemiah sermon—or a casual citation,
such as "I appreciate what Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great … " suffices.
If further citation seems necessary, you can include full citation in the bulletin or sermon notes.
This gets all the information into the congregation's hands—and lets people know you're not pretending
to be something you're not—without cluttering the sermon with footnotes.
After David Seamands joked about getting his sources right, he quickly added,
"But more importantly, I have to fan the fire of the Spirit at work in these young pastors
and future Christian leaders—for I know if the Spirit was at work, truth will work its way out!"
When it's your stuff taken!
Of course, it is possible that you may one day turn up on the other side—and someone is
"borrowing" from you.
We both have had experiences where we have heard or read things by others that originated with us.
At first, there is a feeling of being miffed: "Why didn't they recognize me?"
Then comes humility, the realization that someone was really paying attention to what we said.
David Owen, the Methodist pastor from Indianapolis whose sermon was plagiarized several times
over 22 years, seemed unfazed by it.
When the Courier-Journal asked if he had any negative feelings about the incident, Owen said,
"No. One would prefer attribution, but generally whatever I print or write or say is for the whole church."
While it is right and good to both cite correctly and be cited correctly, we must finally agree with Paul,
who challenges our desire to possess and control when he says, "whether in pretense or in truth,
Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice."
Anyone remember where he said that?
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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Winter 2003, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Page 35