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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” kinds 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 that 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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Brian William

commented on Nov 8, 2012

Very well written, and timely for me. Twice in recent months I've received emails from a fellow pastor who is promoting their upcoming sermon series. Both times, I read it and immediately said to myself, that just doesn't sound like his style of speaking. 10 seconds later a google search showed that the text was from the publisher's promo for books. Now I imagine if he's really purchased one of Andy Stanley's books and he's planning on preaching a series that North Point used, *and* he'll be giving credit within the messages, it's okay to use their promo. But when I saw a second one, I just got kinda nervous.

Doug Conley

commented on Nov 8, 2012

Why are you looking for credit? Pride, maybe? Is your work for your glory or God's? Do you preach because you love the Lord or personal gain? I can't believe that Paul said to Timothy, "Now, if you tell them what you've heard me say, make sure you give me the credit for it". I've handed other preachers my manuscripts. If they can use my work for God's purpose, great! How about concentrating on souls saved instead of who gets the worldly credit for it!

Paul Porter

commented on Nov 8, 2012

I disagree with point #7. A "unique insight" is simply an idea. Unique insights are disseminated and passed along in all circles of academia, journalism, and literature without attribution. Story lines in works of fiction are protected by copyright law. However, theories and explanations in historical and other works of non-fiction are not protected unless an actual quote is used. For example the authors of "Messianic Legacy" were not able to claim damages from Dan Brown when he used their ideas to form the backbone of "The Da Vinci Code". That said, there are cases where it would be ethical and respectful to give credit for a concept.

Kenneth Cutler

commented on Nov 8, 2012

Pastor White, Thanks this is very useful because we know there are those who get caught up in their Pastoral duties during the week and allow little time to prepare for Sunday morning. Pastoral plagerism makes for a lazy preacher.

David Nuhfer

commented on Nov 8, 2012

How many times have we been through this issue? Not that I don't agree with a lot of what was said, but everyone knows that none of us preach anything that is original anymore, except for the personal illustrations we use. In fact, if this is such an issue, why does sermoncentral.com exist? I has a pastor tell me the other day he used much of a message I had preached a few years ago because he thought it was good. My response was, "Let me know how you were able to improve it."

commented on Nov 8, 2012

I've only shared tidbits, short lines or phrases, without giving credit mostly because I feel that it would disrupt the flow to give my congregation the name of a person they've never heard of. If it is someone more well known, I will share the source because the name carries some weight with it i.e. Oswald Chambers. I personally think that while it is plagiarism, on a more personal level, it is lying. If I were to pass a personal story off as my own I would be lying. I also think there are only a few instances where the verbatim use of another's message is appropriate: 1 when it's a special sermon to you, and you still give credit; 2 when you are a church planter and you are transparent about your use of other people's sermons to allow you to focus on other tasks. I also don't think that it is a pride issue for all pastor's who don't want to be copied without credit. I think a positive reason would be a desire to see our brotherhood of minister's grow in their own style and skill set. Looking at other people's styles is a good way to help us find our own.

Zachary Bartels

commented on Nov 8, 2012

Great reminder! I agree with all your dos and don'ts, with the exception of "do buy mp3s, etc." Go to sermonarchive.org and it takes just a few weeks to figure out who gives great sermons and who gives stinkers. No need to buy the sermons you listen to. There are more good ones out there for free than we could ever exhaust.

commented on Nov 8, 2012

The world keeps edging deeper and deeper into the church. I would ask what is your point in declaring it's pastoral plagiarism? I have frequently heard pastors say "I heard a message and the preacher said..." And proceed with the story or point- but I don't believe there is a need to list name in those instances because it doesn't really mean anything in the big picture. I write music and I would be proud to have someone use what God gave to me in their church music. I don't need to be recognized for someone to use my work to bring someone to God- it's not for my benefit that God gives me the song. This sounds just too much like the world- we shouldn't be seeking the accolades like world does. Your reward is not here unless you want to settle for that. I understand that you don't want a pastor using your info, but people who are not pastors do that all the time, they recall a message they heard, may not remember the person who said it but the seed was planted enough that it stuck with them. You're getting used over and over without even knowing it. You should be grateful.

Don Kesner

commented on Nov 8, 2012

I agree with your points regarding plagurism, but I'm not sure to what degree. I can't imagine taking someone's sermon and reading it "Word for Word" and allowing people to think it's mine. And secondly, I think a lot comes into play if you are intending to sell the CD and prosper from it letting others think it is your own when it isn't. When people from my congregation walk into my office, they see hundreds and hundreds of books on my library shelves. They know I spend lots of time studying for my messages and that I use numerous resources. I love to study because there is so much to learn from God's word and from the insights God has given others. I glean from my resources, taking what I agree with and can use, and tossing aside the rest. There are numerous times I give credit to a source, particularly if, 1. I use a large amount of their information although it's not used word for word. 2. If I give a direct quote, then I think it should be credited. Otherwise, I study for sermons, use resource after resource and put my message together. There are times i like someone's three-point outline (for instance) buy as I'm studying, my studies take me away from everything the person said about his message other than his three-points. I preach to inspire and to enlighten my congregation. To challenge them and to allow God to change them. I don't do it to make money on my messages or to publish them as if they are mine. I thank God for those I learn from during my studies. My favorite quote: "If I can see further than any other man, it's because I've stood on the shoulders of giants who have walked before me." There are a lot of spiritual giants out there and I thank God for every one of them. And, I have looked up the source for my favorite quote, and have found it credited to at least four different individuals, so to whom do I give the credit?

Jason Pennington

commented on Nov 8, 2012

I have to say, that if a pastor has been preaching someone else?s sermons word for word for two years running, then he is not listening to God to get what his particular church needs to hear from their heavenly Father. We as Pastors are to feed the flock of God and that means God will give us a word from him uniquely for the flock he has trusted us with to lead. But on the issue of plagiarism; the Bible and its doctrines are not inspired by man, it is inspired by God. So we are supposed to repeat the same truths or doctrines and preach the same messages, it is his word not our own. So how can any preacher who is preaching the word of God practice plagiarism? To tell you the truth that is how you know when a preacher is telling the truth when his message lines up with all the spiritual giants that have gone before us. Plagiarism should not be a problem if the preacher is preaching the word of God because it is not his own words but Gods. If you are worried about other people stealing your sermon ideas then it sounds like they are just that, your sermons and not Gods.

Caleb Ingersoll

commented on Nov 8, 2012

I don't get the impression at all from this that James Emery White is proudly trying to claim recognition from all of his sermons and not wanting anyone else to steal his glory, although several people have commented and implied as much. The feeling that I get is that he is concerned about the integrity of those who do the stealing/plagiarism. If someone took all of my music CD's to make digital copies and promised, "Don't worry, I'll give them back," I wouldn't be upset because I felt like I was loosing anything. I would be upset because I was somehow supporting or encouraging their theft (because it IS illegal to digitally copy and distribute copyrighted material). Even though my sermons aren't copyrighted and I'm not trying to claim any recognition or fame for my efforts, I don't want to encourage or support lazy pastors who make a habit of preaching sermons that are largely copied and pasted from others. This isn't from a motive of pride, but concern for the integrity of my fellow pastors.

Ginette Marie Dun-Robin C

commented on Nov 8, 2012

ethics, moral relativism, and especially the virtue of justice requires giving God and people thier due! God gave man his faculties and his liberty in order that he might freely work for the accomplishment of his destiny. It is said in(Psalm 10:8): "The Lord is just, and hath loved justice." He is in duty bound to strive to fulfil the designs of his Creator, therefore he should exercise his faculties and conduct his life according to the intentions of the Almighty, his Lord and Master. Therefore because he is under these obligations he is thus invested with God-given rights. Such are man's rights. Sacred in their origin, and inviolable. Beside these he may have other rights given him by Church or State, or acquired by his own industry and exertion. All these rights, whatever may be their source, are all of the virtue of justice. Justice requires that all persons should be left in the free enjoyment of their rights. It is also said of Psalm 110:4: "He is a merciful and gracious Lord." Justice concerns our dealings with others. Good works are built on virtues. Thus we must give others what is ttheir due!

Bill Williams

commented on Nov 8, 2012

I agree with Caleb. This isn't about the author's desire to get credit for his messages, and anyone who sees it that way, I fear, is greatly missing the point. This is primarily about the integrity--or lack thereof--of the preacher who passes off someone else's work as their own. What is so difficult about giving credit where credit is due? This doesn't happen too often at my church, but once in a while our pastor or one of our elders will begin the sermon saying something like: "I recently heard (or read) a sermon by Pastor _____ whose message was such a blessing to me, that I felt inspired to share that message with you." Then they'll preach the sermon using their own words and illustrations, and adapting the message as needed to our own context. All it takes is a simple statement at the beginning of the sermon to protect the integrity of the preacher.

Bill Williams

commented on Nov 8, 2012

@David, true, no one preaches anything that is original. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, there really isn't anything new under the sun. Still, the preacher is expected to do his own study of and meditation on the Scriptures as the basis for his preaching. This doesn't mean that the preacher can't occasionally use someone else's sermon, while giving credit, especially if that sermon presents a clear presentation of the content the preacher has discovered for himself in Scripture. But I think it is hard to argue that the practice of preaching verbatim someone else's sermons consistently for two-and-a-half years as if it was his own hasn't crossed the line a long time ago!

David Nuhfer

commented on Nov 8, 2012

Bill, I absolutely agree that taking someone's message verbatim for over 2 years and calling it your won is wrong. I have been blessed numerous times by other sermons, and they have helped stir my thought process as I have worked through a message prep time. What I enjoy most is when the Holy Spirit takes the message a different direction than what was written on the page - all God, nothing from me. I guess my point was that we see these articles again and again, but never really come to any conclusions because there are so many different angles from whcih people come.

Bill Williams

commented on Nov 8, 2012

@David, I see where you're coming from. And you're right: there are many angles by which people view this issue. My guess is that the reason why we never come to any conclusions is that there is no definitive right or wrong answer. Perhaps this is not a question of what right or wrong, but rather a question of intent. Is a preacher intentionally trying to pass something off as his own that isn't? Is a preacher intending to deceive? Obvious cases like the one presented in the article are easy, but I suspect most cases require a bit more discernment. If we look at it this way, then perhaps the reason for these articles appearing "again and again" is not to resolve the issue once and for all, but rather to encourage the preacher to examine constantly their hearts and make sure they maintain their integrity. Anyway, I appreciate your comments and your point of view!

commented on Nov 8, 2012

They follower of Christ like they are to bring light to the world, lived in Christ way,We are not preaching the words of God to please God but to change people to know God, to change from bad way to God way. They spirit is one but the gift of God is difference, if your good of giving sermon that will change people you should be proud of people copying it in good way because is seed for other to be saved

Maurice Mccarthy

commented on Nov 9, 2012

At my present church I followed a guy who announced his sermons, texts and titles, a year in advance. I thought the guy was amazing to be able to do that, then I googled one of the titles and found that every last one of them came from Dr. James Merritt. I was horrified that he was so lazy, but at least he was using the material of someone who worked at message preparation. I would hate to think what a guy like that would preach if he got a message himself. As far as I am concerned he was a liar and a cheat.

Saul Dela Cruz

commented on Nov 9, 2012

Thank you my brother Dr. James for a bright ideas on this articles you have written, I really agree that some busy pastors have an instant sermon using other sermon without any attribution to it.

Saul Dela Cruz

commented on Nov 9, 2012

Thank you my brother Dr. James for a bright ideas on this articles you have written, I really agree that some busy pastors have an instant sermon using other sermon without any attribution to it.

Bala Samson

commented on Nov 11, 2012

Jesus said:"..out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." Lack of flow of 'Living water' is the reason for bankruptsy of ideas and thoughts. When the anointing flows on you, the words, thoughts and revelations just gushes out

Tuesday Jones

commented on Jan 15, 2013

Here is what I found about the Economic Atheist Series (Tithing) that is running all over the web from various churches. This pastor at 12 Stones Church did the sermon on Feb 26, 2012 and then the pastor at Fountain Springs Community Church did the same basic sermon on November 4, 2012. Basically same sermon and no mention that it is someone else's. If you listen to them both you will see that the stories are basically the same too!

Tuesday Jones

commented on Jan 15, 2013

Here is what I found about the Economic Atheist Series (Tithing) that is running all over the web from various churches. This pastor at 12 Stones Church did the sermon on Feb 26, 2012 and then the pastor at Fountain Springs Community Church did the same basic sermon on November 4, 2012. Basically same sermon and no mention that it is someone else's. If you listen to them both you will see that the stories are basically the same too!

Tuesday Jones

commented on Jan 15, 2013

Here is what I found about the Economic Atheist Series (Tithing) that is running all over the web from various churches. This pastor at 12 Stones Church did the sermon on Feb 26, 2012 and then the pastor at Fountain Springs Community Church did the same basic sermon on November 4, 2012. Basically same sermon and no mention that it is someone else's. If you listen to them both you will see that the stories are basically the same too!

Sara Brown

commented on Nov 29, 2014

It's 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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