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Thou shalt not steal

A Matter of Faith podcast explores the persistent problem of busy and stressed preachers lifting their sermons from online sources

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Nick Morrison via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — 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 Thursday’s 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. “It’s like a jazz trumpeter playing someone else’s composition. Everybody knows it’s somebody else’s composition, and nobody is deceived.”

But when the preacher takes someone else’s sermon — or a portion of someone else’s sermon — 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. “Pastors are stressed, especially in the time of Covid. They are experiencing pressures and stresses that they haven’t experienced ever. Under that pressure, people can crack and simply say, ‘I don’t have the time or I don’t have the spirit or the will to do the original work and so I will go the easier route because I’m under pressure to take something from somebody else.’”

Dr. Thomas Long

Preaching has “a kind of immediacy” to it, Long said. “I am to listen to Scripture and to the Spirt and then tell the congregation what God is speaking right now to these people. If you’re taking a year-old sermon off the internet that somebody wrote in Arizona, you lose that immediacy.”

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.”

Many preachers feel like the sermon is “the moment when you have to hit a home run. If you’ve had a tough week and you’ve been visiting people who are sick and dying and you haven’t had much time to prepare a sermon, the temptation is to get one ready-made that will be a home run even though you are not the one who hit it,” Long said. “I think it would be better to get a more realistic view of preaching,” one where the preacher stands before the congregation and says, “Gold and silver have I none, but what I have I give you,” Long said. “I had lots going on this week that you would have wanted me to do as your pastor taking care of people, and I only had 35 minutes to prepare this sermon. So I have only one thought today, but that thought I will share with you.”

“That’s more honest,” Long said, “than faking it with somebody else’s sermon.”

In “Presbyterian and some other circles, anybody who’s a pastor is trained to produce at least a competent sermon — maybe not a breath-taking sermon, but the people of God are fed by a competent preaching of the Word,” Long said. “It takes time to prepare a competent sermon, and sometimes circumstances wear us down.” Standing in the pulpit “and giving our best of what we have is in itself a kind of witness.”

The Rev. Dr. Edmund A. Steimle, who used to teach preaching at Union Theological Seminary, used to tell students that a great sermon “is not tying up packages with a bow,” Long said. “It’s the circles on the surface of a lake where a swimmer went down in deep water.”

A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) podcast, “A Matter of Faith,” drops every Thursday.

As we move forward into the digital future, 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.”

For both pastors and congregations, “we hope they’ll be able to navigate the digital future in ways that are appropriate and respectful,” Doong said, “while bringing new perspectives to their sermons and to the words that they bring to their people.” After Doong thanked Long for his time and insights, Long returned the favor.

“Thank you,” Long told Doong, “for asking such wonderful questions.”

A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast is a weekly effort by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.

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