Milk a Lot of Cows, But Churn Your Own Butter: Avoiding Plagiarism

A few months ago I worshipped at the church of a talented young pastor whom I had been coaching. His sermon was good, surprisingly good. While I was chatting with him after the service, another parishioner we both knew well joined us and told him how much she enjoyed his message. She then remarked, with all sincerity and not at all accusingly, “I heard Andy Stanley give that same message this week. He told the same stories you did.” My young friend was clearly embarrassed. I invited him to lunch that week and waited to see if he would bring up the incident. He quickly did. He admitted he had been under a lot of time pressure and had preached Stanley’s message almost verbatim. I assured him that I had been guilty of doing the same thing—as had most other pastors—but that there was a better way.

Preparing effective, God-honoring, biblical sermons is hard work, and it takes time. Sometimes in order to avoid the hard work or to save precious time, we are tempted to plagiarize—to steal someone else’s words or ideas and pass them off as our own. Plagiarism is a serious problem. Never before has so much good sermon material been so readily available, and some denominations may even encourage their pastors to take advantage of it to ensure they are preaching biblically sound sermons. Given all of the tasks that a pastor has to attend to each week, using someone else’s sermon is very alluring. A pastor can easily justify the plagiarism by saying that the time saved in sermon preparation could be better spent in evangelism, discipleship, or caring for the flock. This ignores the fact that the primary way that God has called us to evangelize, disciple, and care for our flocks is with the preached word of God. A good reminder of this is Acts 6: the Apostles chose to spend their time preaching and praying rather than doing much needed parish work.

Let’s be honest: plagiarism is dishonest. It is intellectual theft. It is so serious that it has cost many a columnist or educator his or her job. But something else happens when we plagiarize sermons, something even more harmful to our flock than our dishonesty. When we plagiarize a sermon, WE don’t show up. When we use someone else’s message, THAT PREACHER is in the pulpit, not us. The incredible thing about God is that He loves incarnational, relational ministry. He could have chosen to continue sending His word via the Prophets. But in His wisdom, in the fullness of time, He didn’t send more Prophets but came himself. In order to convey the great wideness of His truth and love, He had to come and show us Himself. Your people don’t want a perfectly crafted message (though they may think they do). They want you.

I recall one of my first summers in my church as a young, inexperienced preacher. A fairly recent seminary graduate, I lined up two outstanding Gordon-Conwell professors to fill my pulpit while I was on vacation. When I returned, I asked my deacons how the guest preachers had done. One dear elderly deacon said, “They were ok, but we really like your sermons, pastor.” Both professors were godly, gifted, veteran preachers. There was no question they were better preachers than me, but their problem was, they weren’t me. My church had called me to be their shepherd, with all of my flaws and inexperience.

In addition to the inherent dishonesty and the fact that we abdicate our pulpits through plagiarism, there’s a third negative: When we borrow (steal) someone else’s sermons, we rob the Holy Spirit of the opportunity to do His work in our lives that comes from wrestling with the text. What preacher hasn’t come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit as he or she has studied the text to challenge a congregation to obey it?

Let’s be truthful—most of us have plagiarized sermons, at least parts of them. It’s like telling white lies or thinking lustful thoughts; we have all done it, but it’s not right and we don’t feel good about it. Like those columnists who sooner or later get caught, a plagiarizing pastor will get caught, either by an observer or by his own conscience.

Here are some practical suggestions for avoiding this preaching pitfall:

  1. Accept the fact that “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Very few human beings are original thinkers. In fact, as Bible preachers, we don’t want to be original! We want to be faithful to God’s original work. For 2,000 years the greatest minds in history have pondered the same texts; it is inevitable that we are going to have to use some of their ideas. I once asked my friend and mentor Dr. Harold Bussell, the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hamilton, Massachusetts, and chaplain of Gordon College, where he got his preaching ideas. From John Calvin’s sermons, he answered. (Dr. Bussell was of French-Swiss descent and could read Calvin in the original French.) I asked him where he thought Calvin got his ideas. From Augustine. I then asked him where he thought Augustine got his ideas. “Augustine was original,” he said. So unless you are an Augustine, you are going to have to borrow some ideas from others. The next time you are struggling over a text and are tempted to plagiarize, try this: Instead of stealing the sermon wholesale, take the barebones outline, but flesh it out honestly with your own exegetical and homiletical work. Then, give the author credit for the outline when you preach it.
  2. Build adequate preparation time into your schedule. You will never have enough time to be fully prepared to preach. Weekly sermon preparation has been compared to writing a song each week and then singing it unfinished on Sunday morning. I’ve never written a song, but I know I rarely ever felt completely ready when I stepped to the pulpit. We preachers have to rely on the Holy Spirit to fill in our deficiencies. Early on in my ministry, I left sermon preparation until late in the week. I must confess that many times, especially in the first year or two, I was working late Saturday night and getting up at 4am on Sunday to finish. I recall the anxiety it caused me, the stress it put on my family, and the regret afterward of knowing I could have done better. It was that anxiety, stress, and regret that eventually led me to start preparing earlier in the week. I consistently needed 15 to 20 hours of preparation each week. I was fortunate to be in full-time ministry, but since many pastors today are bi-vocational, 8 to 10 hours is probably more realistic. Sunday morning worship is the one hard and fast deadline a pastor faces each week. Many other aspects of pastoral ministry may be postponed, but the weekly sermon cannot. So start early, and schedule in the time you need to prepare.
  3. Plan as far in advance as you can. One way to work ahead is to preach series of related messages. I found that preaching unrelated sermons week to week meant I spent way too much study time just trying to think of what to preach about. I started planning series based on a book of the Bible or a broad biblical topic or spiritual principle. This approach helped with preparation because I could be thinking ahead about upcoming messages. I would create a separate file for each message in the series, and then as I did exegetical study or as homiletical ideas came to me, I would drop them into the appropriate file. As any preacher knows, we are always thinking about what we are preaching. I found that the Holy Spirit often brought to mind insights about a future text and ideas about how to illustrate it. The earlier I planned for my preaching, the better I felt about my preparation.
  4. Form a preaching cohort with other pastors, either in your area or through social media. Agree to preach the same texts, and then help one another with exegetical and homiletical work. I did this with a group of pastors for a season and it worked fairly well. Because the needs of our churches were different, we often approached a single text with very different ideas. However, enough fresh thinking was generated by the group that it was helpful for all of us, regardless of how each preacher developed each sermon.
  5. Go into your prayer closet and struggle with the text. Prayer is the most important part of the hard work of sermon preparation. Luther said, “He who has prayed well, has studied well.” Let the text convict you of your own sins; let the Holy Spirit preach the text to you before you preach it to your people. Pray for your people as you study. That is, talk to God about your people before you talk to your people about God.
  6. Use as many resources as you need. Use commentaries to make sure you are interpreting the text correctly. (Eventually, you will become your own commentator.) Use the original Greek and Hebrew, if you can; otherwise, interlinear texts or transliterations are useful. Read the sermons of great preachers, and have one or two favorite preachers whose style you want to emulate. Read, listen to, and watch their sermons; study how they interpret a text and develop an outline; note how they introduce and conclude a message; reflect on how they use illustrations and humor. Especially, study how the preachers you admire apply their message to the needs of their congregation and what life transformation they are aiming for. Don’t copy them. Instead, develop your own style, share your own life experiences, use your own humor. Your people want you to bring God’s message, not someone else. Drawing creatively and thoughtfully on many resources is like milking a lot of cows, but churning your own butter. In this way, you resist the temptation to plagiarize someone else’s work. God will honor your integrity and His word.

—Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Jack L. Daniel, Overseed Press, 2018.

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