A Matter of Faith podcast explores the persistent problem of busy and stressed preachers lifting their sermons from online sources
September 2, 2022
Thanks to the pandemic, tens of thousands of worship services are now posted online each week. For at least some stressed preachers who may be pressed for time, the temptation can be overwhelming to hear a well-crafted online sermon somewhere and pass all or part of it off as one’s own.
“It’s a really important and thorny issue,” Dr. Thomas Long, the Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, told A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe during a recent edition, which can be heard here. “It’s important because, among other reasons, a number of churches have discovered to their sorrow that their preachers have been taking their sermons off the internet or from other sources, pretending that they’re their own.”
“Even when the pastor repents and the congregation says, ‘OK, we understand and we forgive,’ I’ve never encountered a situation where the relationship could be sustained and repaired,” Long said. “Inevitably there’s always a break of trust and the pastor has to move to another church or another form of ministry. The stakes are pretty high here.”
Long’s comments stemmed from a listener’s question about whether the practice is wrong and how it can be stopped — or should be stopped.
One complication, Long said, is that “not many pastors think of their sermons as intellectual property. They think of them as attempts to communicate the gospel to the people of God, and so they don’t have the same sense of ownership about a sermon that an author would have [about a published work].”
According to legal scholar Richard A. Posner, the author of “The Little Book of Plagiarism,” two things have to go together to constitute plagiarism, Long said: You have to use somebody else’s work without giving them credit, and the people to whom you have presented the work have to be deceived.
Sometimes, Long noted, a preacher will preach another person’s sermon, but no one is deceived. One example is a famous sermon preached in Appalachia called “The Deck of Cards Sermon.”
“The preacher will stand in the pulpit and pretend he or she is dealing a deck of cards,” Long said. An ace of clubs might stand for the oneness of God, for example, and so on. “Many preachers have preached that sermon, and nobody is fooled into thinking it’s [the preacher’s] own original creation,” Long said.
But when the preacher takes someone else’s sermon — or a portion of it — and presents it as their own, and people in the congregation “assume by the way it’s presented that my pastor created it, wrote the sermon, and they’re deceived,” Long said. “When they find out — if they find out — that the pastor has done this, trust is broken. Their expectation about what constitutes responsibility in ministry has been betrayed. It’s a serious breach of trust.”
“There’s so much material out there readily available that people succumb to the temptation [to plagiarize] more easily,” Long said.
Nobody’s sermon is entirely original, Long said. “We’re all standing on the shoulders of others and we’re doing riffs off other people’s work. … You know it in your heart when you cross that line and are misrepresenting something.” If Long hears a sermon from, say, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor “and that inspires me to preach a sermon on the same passage with a little of the same flavor that she had, it’s not really her sermon that I’m stealing. It’s her sermon that’s inspiring me. There’s a line in there, and in our own conscience we know when that’s the case.”
Doong wondered if Long had guidance for preachers “looking to maintain originality and protect what they’ve put out.”
“I think every pastor has to figure out where to draw the line on that,” Long said. “My personal decision — and a number of my sermons are available on the internet — I have decided I will tilt in favor of accessibility. Use the sermon, quote from it, find inspiration from it — and then preach something that’s moved by that sermon. I rejoice in that. I just have to trust that other pastors will be accountable and responsible.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
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