Recently, I reviewed a copy of Scott Gibson's book, Should We Use Someone Else's Sermon? published by Zondervan. Scott's the Director of the Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and co-founder of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. His book squarely addresses the issue of plagiarism in the pulpit and has a lot of good insight into answering the question posed by the title of the book. The book is extensively researched and articulately written, including vivid examples of pastors who have gotten into deep water with their sermon preparation practices. Just the book's style and intellectual treatment of the topic makes it worth reading. It's a fairly brief book with just over a hundred pages and carefully prepared with 324 endnotes. I recommend that preachers get a copy.
In my observation, the book is a fairly hard-hitting presentation, starting with words like "sermon-stealing" and ending by calling plagiarism "sin." There is a whole lot in between that examines different angles on sermon sharing, including historical examples down through the centuries. I'll share my reflections here, some in contrast to the book.
The book basically answers its own question with "We shouldn't use someone else's sermon," or at least we shouldn't plagiarize another's sermon. A better title to the book might be Should We Plagiarize Someone Else's Sermon? I think my article title leads to a bit more of a messy discussion and, perhaps, conclusion.
With a fascinating and extensive run up to defining the word "plagiarism," Scott cites two definitions of the term, one from Haddon Robinson:
"In a world of preaching, a pastor who takes sermons from other preachers – word-for-word – without giving credit is guilty of plagiarism. That is stealing what is not yours."
I think the "giving credit" element is critical but also problematic. Dr. Robinson's definition raises other questions: If we quote 50 words from another pastor – word-for-word – and don't cite them, is that stealing? What about 100 words? 500 words? An entire sermon? What if we quote anything or anyone in as little as a sentence? Or two? Is that stealing? The definition can get blurry.
In another instance, Dr. Robinson is quoted as saying:
"It's hard to footnote sermons. There's no way to make people in the pews understand all of the sources you are using, especially if they're highly academic sources. I don't think anyone expects preachers to stand up there and quote all of their reference books and commentaries by name."
Robinson's point is excellently made, though it seems to conflict with the earlier point. If we preach a sermon like a professor writes a text book, the art of preaching will clearly be undone. We're faced with this tension, and it's not going to go away. Hopefully, pastors can develop a framework which can facilitate healthy decision making in their sermon preparation process.
The other definition of "plagiarism" in the book is from a journalist:
"Plagiarism is borrowing someone else's words and passing them off as one's own, whether in print, in speech or performance."
So here's another question: If we borrow someone else's words and don't pass them off as our own, are we okay then? For example, if I memorize and recite the Sermon on the Mount or the Declaration of Independence, is that plagiarism? No. The world knows the content is not mine. The same is true of a homily in Latin provided from the Vatican or Archdiocese. The audience understands from the context that the priest didn't write the sermon.