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Someone brought something to my attention recently. A young woman on our staff came across a talk, given by a pastor, on a church’s website.

It was my talk.

He had delivered it, largely verbatim, from a manuscript purchased on the ChurchandCulture.org website. There was no verbal attribution ever given. Perhaps most egregious was his telling of my personal vignettes as if they were his own.

She dug into a few more, and found almost every talk for the last two-and-a-half years had been one of my talks.

I called him on the phone, and we talked about it. To his credit, he wasn’t defensive, but repentant.

Then it happened again this week. Someone stumbled onto a talk on a church’s website, and it was one of my talks.

Again, almost completely verbatim.

This is serious.

A pastor of a large church in our city lost his job when one of the members of the church heard a talk on the radio by a well-known radio preacher. The pastor had given the same talk earlier that week in the church, without attribution. The member told an elder; the elder looked into the matter and discovered a pattern of plagiarism.

What are the “rules” of plagiarism for communicators?

I’m not sure we know, because they aren’t as spelled out as they are in the academic world. But I think we can—or at least should—agree to the following 10 commandments:

The Dos and Don’ts of Plagiarism

1. Do take inspiration from another person’s talks.

2. Do allow yourself to be informed by another person’s research.

3. Do feel free to quote another person, tell their story, use their outline and repeat memorable phrases with attribution.

4. Do buy mp3s and manuscripts of speakers to grow as a communicator as you listen to their style and structure.

5. Do borrow ideas for series from other speakers and churches.

But... 

6. Don’t ever use another person’s creative outline without attribution.

7. Don’t ever use another person’s unique insights without attribution.

8. Don’t ever use another person’s stories without attribution, and never, ever go even further and tell it is as if it happened to you.

9. Don’t justify plagiarism by trying to spiritualize it with “It’s all for the Kingdom” or “It’s not really theirs, because God gave it to them” kind of statements. That is true of everything, such as our property, yet God says, “Don’t steal.” That includes intellectual property, too.

10. Don’t let the abundance of online resources keep you from doing spadework on the Scriptures, exertion on the exegesis and prayer for the pulpit, which makes for anointed talks.

In truth, there is little excuse for plagiarism. It’s so easy to give attribution in a flowing, natural way.

If you have listened to many of my talks, you know how common it is for me to start off a talk or series by saying, “My thinking has been informed on this by …” or “I’m indebted throughout today’s talk to...”

I’ve started many a sentence with “Philip Yancey tells the story of...”, “John Ortberg writes about this in a funny way...”, “Andy Stanley talks about this in terms of...” or “C.S. Lewis once observed that...”

The point is that good communicators borrow material all the time.

But ethical ones let you know where they borrowed it. 

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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Minister Sanders

commented on Aug 4, 2014

Excellent Article! Plagiarism is very serious because people are taking what others have received from God through study and divine revelation and claim it as their own God inspired Word! It is OK to study from other preachers and maybe even use a quote or 2, but don't take someone else's sermon and make it your own do what 2 Timothy 2:15 says, "Study to she's thyself approved unto God, a workman that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."

Stephen Ventura

commented on Aug 4, 2014

Obviously you have inspired that young man by your messages. I have always been inspired by great speakers and always asked God that I would be able to speak and share like so many preachers out there, but then God lets me know He has called me and will speak according to my gifts and abilities. I think the biggest thing is this young man is not allowing himself to learn, grow, hear and formulate his own message that God has for him to deliver to His (God's) people. Great article. Keep up the great work for the kingdom.

Dale Pierce

commented on Aug 4, 2014

This was an EXCELLENT way to say what so often needs to be said...People at our church often say to me "you don't need to give credit for that outline or info" when I do borrow it - but I just say that my integrity says I need to give credit where credit is due! Another way to do it is to put an asterisk at the bottom of the page with the words that James mentioned: "*I am indebted to ______ __________ for his insights on this passage." You can plagiarize that if you'd like :P Thanks, James - and I am going to join churchandculture.org, because there MUST be some good stuff there!!! ;)

Scott F Marsh

commented on Aug 4, 2014

As a pastor, I write out my sermons in manuscript format, and I footnote every quote, insight, or idea that is not mine. These manuscripts are available in print or online to anyone who wants one. But I do not always verbally cite the resource while I am preaching, as some listeners have told me that is distracting to them. Since the written copy has attributions, and these are available to anyone who hears the message, is that considered plagiarism?

Grady Franklin Evans. Sr,

commented on Aug 6, 2014

PLEASE SEND YOUR WEB SITE. I APPRECIATE YOUR APPROACH TO THE SUBJECT. GRADYEVANS@COLUMBUS.RR.COM

Terrence Carr

commented on Aug 4, 2014

I don?t plagiarism the work of others as I feel in order to be true to the call one has to be true to self and not simply copy someone else. Also if we spend time with God and His word we won?t run out of stuff to say. But having said that, I also don?t feel that a person selling their sermon manuscript online for profit cannot cry out with holy indignation when a person uses it without crediting them. Let the money they received be their credit

Kevin Wilson

commented on Aug 4, 2014

Every word of this article is correct. Churches are so full of "clergy killers", I can't imagine someone risking it. Writers however who are concerned with someone stealing their intellectual property should consider another hobby. If God did indeed give it to you, who are you to claim any kind of right to it? It's ego at work generated by the desire to climb the Christian food chain to gain notoriety. I don't contribute much but what I do you may use without any reservation or attribution.

John Gullick

commented on Aug 4, 2014

I agree with what you say but also James your material is pretty good. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. If he keeps preaching your stuff he may become like you - hopefully he will become like Jesus.

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on Aug 4, 2014

This subject has come up before. The Lay Preachers Association in Victoria at their AGM last year admitted that many preachers use ideas and notions from other preachers who put their work on line. That is not a fault as they may well be able to say what you want to say but say it so very much better. I have told every congregation that I visit that I utilise many resources to put the Message together and therefore I acknowledge the use of these resources. That gets everyone off the hook as it were. However it does NOT give you permission to lift whole sermons off the internet and present them as your own. It does not give you the right to utilise others work and not do your own study. If you come across a sermon that is particularly appropriate to your proposed Sunday then use the internet and GET PERMISSION from the author. Whenever I have done this it has never been refused and I always attribute it accordingly. We all work for Jesus and work is the operative word. Stealing is not working for Jesus. It is counterproductive. Get permission and acknowledge the originator. ALWAYS.

Roosevelt Pope

commented on Aug 5, 2014

I heard someone comment on an article such as this and he made a great statement...There is nothing new under the sun. Also, above person Terrance Carr said it even better...If youre getting paid for it..let the money speak for it self...lastly, I need to cancel my subscription to sermoncentral.com because this is clearly plagiarizm then. I paid to see a sermon but I have to give credit to my congregation? I've never even heard of James White until I read this article.

Kevin Ross

commented on Aug 6, 2014

Seriously Pastor Pope? If you have a problem with what was written and the ethics or lack of, then I wonder if you understand plagiarism. Maybe this will make sense to you - Take one of any of the books from your shelf. Type it out, word for word, or even take 50 of it and copy it verbatim, leaving the other 50 for "original" thoughts of your own. Identify yourself as the author and take it to any publisher. Tell them it's your book, your stories, your life, and your thoughts. Then wait, wait to hear their response. See if it matters or not if you claim something to be yours when it's not. I think you will discover that there is a right way and a wrong way to write and communicate using others thoughts. As several have mentioned, the saddest part of it all is that you miss out on allowing God to inspire you. Studying over God's word and mining the nuggets God may have specifically for you. As James White acknowledges, we all use other resources to compliment what we are communicating. However, to copy and claim something as own when it's not can lead us and our churches down a path of disillusionment. I encourage you to give it a try and see if God doesn't inspire you with something new and fresh for your own personal life and for your church. Be blessed by the work of others but don't fail to put in work of your own.

Estwick Coulthrust

commented on Aug 5, 2014

I perhaps have a different opinion to yours James. I write, and preach many sermons, and it does not worry me in the least who uses them or whether they credit me or not. If at least one person can be saved by the use of my material, most assuredly use it to lead a soul to God and His Kingdom. I consider this as more important than me about being acknowledged as the writer. I believe God inspired me to inspire others. This does not mean however, that I agree with preachers who would be doing this verbatim and not taking the time to do their own studying. We must at some stage ask of God, "What will you have me to say, and allow Him to give us new, fresh ideas." I am inspired by many things in God's Creation, and sometimes by a point or idea from other preacher's sermons, which then encourage me to preach a sermon of power to the benefit of my Savior.

Kim Davis Jackson

commented on Aug 6, 2014

Well spoken

Chris Stephanus Smeda

commented on Aug 7, 2014

Chris Smeda August 5,2014 Some good thoughts on plagiarism. When I was a teenager in Rondebosch DRChurch I heard Dr J.A.Heyns preach an outstanding sermon on the Song of Moses : "like an eagle." I am now 71 and have preached that sermon many times in my life.I have never felt that I have committed plagiarism. In fact, I feel that he would have wanted me to preach that sermon as many times as I could - verbatim? No. But the thoughts behind the truths woven with my life experience? Yes. And the sermon was probably a little different every time. Do you think Paul would have wanted Timothy to copy his sermons?

Sara Brown

commented on Nov 29, 2014

I've been reading these articles and to be honest I'm doing it because I'm trying to have an opened mind and get other's view points on this very thing which I am struggling with. This article has been the most helpful. These are my thoughts: I think that if a pastor has studied it would be impossible for him site every source he used. I also dont think that the congregation would expect him to do that IF indeed he is studying. It is one thing to barrow or quote a trusted source. It is another thing when a church member can come to a website and read sermons word for word, including illustrations, as if they had been actual experiences their pastor had himself. That kind of "barrowing" would likely make those who found out about it question a lot of things. I still believe God would use something like this for those who want to learn. If the Holy Spirit gave the message to someone else then God is the Author and He will use it for the good of those that love Him; however, at the risk of someone finding out I don't think it should be done because of the damage it would cause. We are all sinners though and if we all knew everything God knows about those we love, self included along with those I love and am loved by, then we would be a lot more disappoint in some people than we ever thought we could be. We should be careful to remember our own faults and speak to each other, even our pastor if we need to, in love.

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