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Stealing Someone Else’s Sermon

plagarismI just invented a new word: plagiarism.

(Actually, I didn’t. Someone else did. I didn’t even write that joke. I saw it on Twitter. I’m horrible. Forgive me. Hold me. Love me.)

You know how there are some things you’re sorry for because they’re wrong, and other things you apologize for because you get caught?

How does that flesh out with your teaching?

A friend of mine was busted on this and recently shared a raw confession about being a lazy preacher.

I should have seen it coming but I didn’t.

Just that morning I had stood in front of the church and I preached my guts out.

I pointed to the road ahead.

I called the people to live with a different mindset.

I unpacked the text.

I invited them to love God more.

I was eloquent. I was funny. I was motivating.

There was just one problem. One extremely large problem.

It wasn’t my sermon…

And then something happened that stopped me in my tracks. I got called on it.

(You can, and should, read the rest of his post here)

teachingCan you relate to this – whether you’re getting away with it or getting called out on it?

It’s common in ministry to use curriculum and sermons that someone else wrote to share what you feel should be said. It’s another thing to make it sound like your own and not give credit to your own journey. To use my friend Chad’s description of it – we take part in a sort of “homiletical karaoke” when we’re stealing someone else’s sermon.

Then again, couldn’t you use another person’s material and make it your own somehow? Musicians often cover each other’s material – can people in ministry do the same thing?

What’s your spin on this?

When is it okay?

When does it cross a line?

21 thoughts on “Stealing Someone Else’s Sermon

  1. Amber Cassady

    Great post, Tony!

  2. This is a great post. I can honestly say that the hardest part of writing a sermon for me is real life experiences. I know I have it in there somewhere but some weeks, it’s just harder to get it out than others. My friend pastor jokes that some weeks, writing a sermon for her is like giving birth. It feels like it is coming out but it is a painful struggle. I have to say, some weeks it takes me 2 hours to write it; other weeks, 30-40 hours. I hit panic mode when I am not on the conclusion by Saturday. This is when I tend to turn to other people’s sermons. I listen to their examples and if I resonate with it, I think of experiences in my life where that was the case and share that. Or if he/she shares an observation about life that I have also thought about, I use that.

    I don’t feel like that is plagiarism. Isn’t that the purpose of that sermon: to inspire me and to help me see God working my life? If I am saying his/her personal story as if it were mine, that is clearly plagiarism. I have actually heard 2 preachers share the exact same story on the radio and say it was their own. But I am using my own story highlighting it like the other preacher. In terms of the message of the sermon, “there is nothing new under the sun.” It is just in what order you make the point or what you emphasize.

    All in all, this article definitely is making me rethink and reexamine what I am doing…It is so easy to justify it all.

    • You hit on so many key dynamics here, Daniel… from what our learning curve is, to what our gaps are. I wonder if the real issue is that we grow into teaching/preaching like we do anything. There’s what we first bring to the table; then copying/learning from others who inspire us; then eventually finding something we want to say; then eventually becoming someone who has something to say. I wish that was an overnight thing for me, too – and I’m thankful for the time I’ve had to learn from others. I also had some messages that moved people that they later found out who inspired me on them… I always felt bad, like I should have given credit where it was due… even if to just say, “John Ortberg inspired me on this next thought.”

  3. It is never appropriate to take credit for someone else’s content whether written or spoken.

    If you are repeating something that you heard somewhere else, give credit. But to be truly authentic, provide your own message and your own words.

    If you have any expertise on your topic it shouldn’t be too hard. If you can’t, you probably shouldn’t be speaking on the topic in the first place.

    In your examples of karaoke and cover bands, there is no authorship of the music or lyrics by the performer. In fact the audience is familiar with the material and knows that they are being performed as a type of tribute.

    • That’s a great catch, Marc. Maybe the difference with a sermon is the audience is expecting original material… whereas with music, it’s hard to not know when someone is singing something that’s been on the charts publicly. Maybe that’s the hurdle with Google – someone might post a quote from “their pastor” only to have another person say, “He didn’t say that… __________ did!”

  4. Let’s be real…the Bible tells us that there is nothing NEW under the sun…there is no new revelation. Everything we need to know here on earth is in the Word. Using parts of someone elses sermon is not a problem. The lack of seeking God’s direction is a problem. Preachers need to stay connected to God at all times to recieve the direction He wants them to go. Regardless of what you preach it comes from the Bible which in fact is another persons story anyway. You have no “new” or “original” material because it all comes from the same book. I agree your personal story will always be impacting in your sermon which is great.

    • Noel, I think you nailed it in these two sentences: “Using parts of someone elses sermon is not a problem. The lack of seeking God’s direction is a problem.” How amazing is it that we are one of the remnants of what Jesus did? We can be as inspired by the Epistles/sermons/letters written to specific churches as we are what the Spirit is doing in this generation. But you’re right – the detail we’re assigned to isn’t “copy and paste” but to be rooted and bear fruit. How can we best do that in ministry where we’re expected to produce on a regular basis?

  5. Steven Dowling

    If we as pastors were truly in a “business” whose sole purpose was to make money then I think this would be an issue. That’s not our aim however. We are about people being restored to their Creator. The very reason this is a point of discussion is that we are in a pastoral climate today where many pastor’s are more focused on their public persona and preaching portfolio than they are on loving the people God has placed in front of them. Our “business” is to call dead people to life. If another pastor wants to borrow, steal, or remix a sermon of mine with the hope that it’ll meet people where they’re at I’m all for it. Originality is great but if we’re more focused on being homiletical entrepreneurs in order to safe guard our ascension up the ministry ladder than helping people know Christ than we’re missing the point. Paul “stole” points from the prophets and even Greek playwrights in order that people would know the Gospel.

    • Hmm… I wonder if part if that focus on self is also an issue of job security. i.e. If I don’t “nail it” this week, will families leave the church for something sexier down the street? Hence, your phrase “homiletical entrepreneurs.”

      • Steven Dowling

        Tony that’s a great point, didn’t even think of it from that angle. The pressure of knowing there’s another guy out there waiting for an opportunity. No matter what ministry you’re in you face that pressure. In youth ministry the same sort of thing goes on but it was to do with taking sermon series idea, camp themes, even on down to whats the trending minute to win it game.

        Also, went back and read my last post and it came across a lot more cynical than I intended. Was just trying to speak to the trend of matching ministry up too closely to the professional realm.

        • Makes sense, Steven. I sense that students may not catch a borrowed theme as easily as savvy Christian adults might… but I think students can sense authenticity, though. Early on in ministry I mentioned to a prospective senior pastor who was interviewing me how I didn’t think using curriculum was a good idea when we should create our own stuff. He set me straight, explaining that it has its place – especially if it frees a youth worker up to spend more time with students versus message prep. I wonder what that balance truly looks like without it getting lazy.

  6. I have preached sermons that were heavily drawn from what God taught me through the sermons of others. I usually say something like “this is an area where God has used so and so to teach me and lead me. Much of what I am going to share with you today is what I learned from him/her”. Credit is established up front and if possible I even direct them to that person’s sermon(s) that I drew from so they can hear their version as well if they are interested. It’s all about being authentic and honest.

    • That’s fair, Travis. I imagine it helps your church to know there are breadcrumbs to your own journey on something. Do you think that the average person listening to a message allows for this or expects this to not be a trend, though?

      • I think it’s different if every week one is preaching someone else’s stuff. It is a fair practice but I wouldn’t want to make a normal practice of it.

      • I think it’s different if every week one is preaching someone else’s stuff. It is a fair practice but I wouldn’t want to make a normal practice of it.

        And in the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t preach full time so it is not as much of an issue for me as it is for others.

        • Good catch on that, too. I sometimes feel that when people ask me, “Why doesn’t so-and-so speak more?” I want to reply, “Because so-and-so needs extended time to develop a message,” but that would sound/hint like I’m a superhero at it for doing it regularly. It does place that expectation (either way) that every message will be a homerun versus a base hit.

  7. It sounds like the issue is in the selling, not the content. If you try and pass something off as your own, that’s not just (a form of) plagiarism, that’s dishonesty towards your audience. With videos and pictures, it can be very easy to see that it’s not original. With words, though, it’s more difficult to pinpoint.

    To be fair, to ask someone to come up with original content all the time is really taxing. You don’t have to compromise creativity for originality. I’m not that creative. Several great speakers I know aren’t that creative. They have teams around them to help craft messages. If you use a team, does that take away from the genuineness of your message? I’m always upfront and honest when someone wants to compliment me on something I borrowed that it wasn’t me, but something I heard or read. Really, if you dig down deep enough, this is a heart issue. If you can’t be honest with your audience, you’ve got deeper problems, like pride or self glorification.

    • It’s interesting that you mention the idea of having a team of people helping others craft messages. In a former church, I had a new senior pastor come in and ask me to start writing his messages for him. I wasn’t a fan of the idea, which he picked up on… and within a few months, I was no longer employed there. Perhaps it was related to other issues, or perhaps that was the main issue. In hindsight, I could have been more of a team player – but it would have been hard for me personally to get behind someone who I felt wasn’t being genuine with the church about where his content was coming from.

      In other news, I have been a ghost writer for some authors who have more street value at selling a book than I do. I didn’t have a hard time doing it then… I wonder what the difference is in my hypocrisy. It wasn’t so much the paycheck, because I wasn’t paid on every job. Hmm… now I need a quiet time. 🙂 Thanks, Charlie.

  8. Bishop Rick Heines

    The associate pastor and I (the youth pastor) at our former church used to filter each others messages for our statements original authors! His joke was that on my tombstone he was going to engrave, “never an original thought.” – I would engrave on his tombstone “don’t worry, it’s a dry heat.”

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Stealing Someone Else’s Sermon

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