Is pulpit plagiarism on the rise? Some blame the Internet

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Craig Groeschel, pastor one of the largest churches in the U.S., says men should "man up."

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Craig Groeschel, pastor one of the largest churches in the U.S., says men should "man up."

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(RNS) Plagiarism has been a long-standing issue among pastors, who are expected to churn out fresh content each week for sermons while in some cases also penning best-selling books.

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  • Greg Ward

    The bible was intended to be shared! These guys need to be preaching about greed! When the truth is told the only reason they are crying foul here is because of money! So sad!

  • Frank

    The bible and the messages it contain belong to God and are for humanity. No one owns them. If these pastors believe that their messages and words are inspired by the Holy Spirit than those messages and words are public domain.

  • Larry

    “God says I don’t have to pay for copyrights”
    -Mark Driscol

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  • When I met Rick Warren in 2004, I told him the story of a friend who was on staff at a mid-sized church where the senior pastor was discovered to be plagiarizing sermons. (They had gone back through past sermon audio and documented numerous instances where this pastor had committed plagiarism.) The staff confronted the senior pastor, but he denied it and denied it and denied it, until ultimately he forced his staff to choose sides (support him as senior pastor or “stop being divisive” and leave). My friend was forced out of that church (and out of ministry permanently, BTW, heartbroken) by that plagiarizing pastor.

    At the time, I urged Rick Warren to use his massive platform to speak out against plagiarism. The website Warren had started to encourage pastors in other parts of the world who are often bi- or tri-vocational (and have very little time to write original sermons) was, in fact, being used by some well-paid, full-time U.S. pastors to plagiarize, sometimes (in the case of my friend’s church, telling “personal” stories of hospital visits and evangelism encounters as if they had actually happened to them!). All I wanted Warren to do was to tell U.S. pastors: Don’t do that. Don’t plagiarize. It’s wrong. To my knowledge, he never did. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never heard or read a statement from Warren condemning plagiarism by full-time U.S. pastors.) This is the celebrity pastor culture that Warren has helped to create and has done nothing to correct. He doesn’t bear all the blame, of course, but he is certainly one close to the top of my list.

  • Frank

    See my response above.

  • Frank, so you’re OK with well-paid, full-time pastors sometimes telling other people’s “personal” stories (of hospital visits, evangelism encounters, etc.) as if they had actually happened to *them*? That’s plagiarism. Or, in other words, lying and deceiving. It’s wrong, as far as I’m concerned, and no church should tolerate that in the pulpit.

  • See my response above.

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  • Todd Collier

    Though some of these instances of plagiarism are indeed an ethical problem there are also a few issues that make preaching a unique endeavor. As some have said above, all preachers share illustrations and stories to make a point from this or that text. You learn to preach by listening to preachers and you learn to write sermons by borrowing and reproducing the sermons of those who went before you. Along the way, it becomes hard to track exactly where you picked up this or that story and it gets harder the older you get and the more stories you accumulate. (For me, the best I can do sometimes is to simply say “a preacher once said…”) You are encouraged to take and share and so I am not sure that some of these guys realize that the ethics change when you are going to publish. The second problem is the sheer volume of sermon material that is in existence that can be drawn from. While I was working on a sermon about ten years ago I found a wonderful illustration in a sermon online. I incorporated the basic idea with substantial alterations to make it fit my context. Two years ago I turned that series into a book, but could not find the original sermon to give proper attribution. After publishing I was reading an excellent book by another author and found what must have been the original. The latest edition of my book now says “Adapted from so-n-so” at the top of that illustration.

  • Atheist Max


    As a published writer myself I find it very important to follow this strict rule.
    If I don’t remember when i created it, I don’t put it in my books.

    I was recently called out on a post regarding C.S. Lewis’ line:
    “Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or Lord”
    I pointed out another option was obviously overlooked by Lewis; ‘LEGEND’.
    It wasn’t until I saw it in writing that I realized this had not been my own observation at all – but that of another Atheist and I had been sharing it so much in casual conversation I didn’t know who to attribute it to plus the overlooked word was so obvious that I thought it didn’t need attribution anyway.

    I’m glad it didn’t get published with my real name on it or I would have been embarrassed. If we do not own it we cannot claim it.

    I still don’t remember the person’s name.

  • ctpastor

    I understand when someone doesn’t say “as Karl Barth said” while preaching, but I’d expect them to footnote the quote in their written text. Then, it’s as if we’re sampling someone’s music. What I don’t understand are people who simply steal someone else’s sermon and preach it as if they wrote it themselves, or folks who re-use illustrations as if they’ve happened to themselves. That’s both theft and lying. and I think pastors who do that are in violation of their ordination vows.

  • Frank

    See my response above. 🙂

  • Frank

    Telling stories as if they were you own is the only questionable thing. Everything else belongs to God and therefore its public domain.

  • Larry

    There is enough of a market willing to pay to hear, attend or read the sermons to make this more than just an ethical matter but a very serious legal one as well.
    We are talking about paid lectures, books being sold, website advertising, all forms of broadcast media.

    This is not just “spreading the word of god” this is big business. In big business you credit ideas which have been memorialized in one form or another or bad stuff is expected to happen. .

  • Larry

    They are putting the stories in books, on videos, on radio and in lectures people are paying for. That’s copyrighted material.

  • Frank

    If someone can show that they are telling others stories as their own and that a certain person “owns” the story then they should be called out on it.

    The rest is public domain IF they believe their words are Spirit inspired. If not then its a different scenario and does rise to plagiarism.

  • Larry

    If people are stealing others’ stories, especially when there is a clear profit motive involved, excuses should not be made for their behavior. Excuses like the ones you have been giving.

    It doesn’t matter if they think they are inspired by the holy spirit or the almighty dollar, theft is theft. Expect to be called out on it in public. Expect a lawsuit.

    If someone tells a story about their life, and it has been memorialized in one form or another, the story belongs to them.

  • Dmorg

    In regard to Craig Groeschel – he gives away all of his sermon content, videos, and artwork. The man believes in giving it all away as opposed to trying to turn a buck on the next pastor who is looking for good concise content with a modern appeal. There’s nothing new under the sun – the Bible is the most sold and most written about book of all time who’s to say that we aren’t all saying what might have been said before? If it works in turning the hearts of people to their God – go for it! If someone is offended by plagiarism in the pulpit then they are obviously more concerned about their pride than they are about the spiritual condition of those being spoken to. One should be proud to be able to share such nuggets of truth with others – especially since God gave it to them in the first place – oh wait they most likely think they came up with it all on their own – narcissists! Get over yourselves! I am crucified with Christ – I no longer live but Christ lives in me!! Oh hold on let me credit that to – “Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Galatians”

  • Jonathan

    Other comments seem to be missing an important point: pastors who take significant shortcuts while preparing their sermons are pastors whose lives will be less affected by their study, because they are not personally spending the time preparing. Some may disagree with me on that, but I think that if pastors make a habit of using others’ work instead of preparing well on their own, that will affect their long-term growth.

    I think there’s also a difference between using a short quote (making it clear that you didn’t create it, for honesty’s sake) and preaching an entire sermon you found. The first is an unattributed quote, but the second is like preachers’ malpractice, in my book. There have been documented cases of pastors just preaching through a book of sermons, word for word, story for story. In one case I heard in my preaching classes, the pastor even plagiarized stories talking about “my grandmother” (the grandmother of the original writer, not the preacher who plagiarized), never mentioning that it was not true of his own grandmother. A pastor who preaches like that cannot be trusted to be honest in any of his dealings.

  • Frank

    You are entitled to your opinion. It’s doesn’t mean its correct.

  • Kay

    I was also told to leave my local church by a plagiarizing pastor and his yes man deacon, I opposed the pastors lack of interest in study of the God’s Word and all those big stories he said happened to him but really that happened to the mega church pastor he got his years of sermons from. There is almost always other issues going on with these pastors than just plagiarism. In the case at my former church the pastor had been dishonest about other things in a business meeting. To this day I grieve and miss my local church so much, you never get over being told to leave, this was a church I had been in for over 50 years, we must obey Christ and not the fake ways or false men.
    Read the definition of plagiarism in the dictionary: To use other’s work or labor for gain, Synonyms: copy, thief, impostor, deception, fraud, lying, false witness. Compare each one of these to scriptural teachings on the Christian walk, for laymen and especially for one who calls himself a preacher.
    All pastors should learn from the teachings of others, but to just read someone else’s sermon, anyone could do that, and probably better.
    Having read every article I can on plagiarism and the comments following, those who use other’s work are pretty easy to tell from those who don’t. Sermon stealers have a few quotes they all repeat in the comment sections, but scripture on personal character or their love to study the Word is lacking.
    Those who know their subject well, usually have less trouble teaching it, and are less likely to need to use all of another’s hard work. How sad they quench the working of the Holy Spirit in their own ministry for an easy fix.. One labors, another steals, it is so even in the pulpit.

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  • Todd

    And I quote Jeremiah 23:30-32
    “Therefore,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. 31Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord.”
    And I quote: Ellicott’s Commentary
    “That steal my words . . .—Another note of the counterfeit prophet is found in the want of any living personal originality. The oracles of the dreamers were patchworks of plagiarism, and they borrowed, not as men might do legitimately, and as Jeremiah himself did, from the words of the great teachers of the past, but from men of their own time, false and unreal as themselves. What we should call the “clique” of false prophets went on repeating each other’s phrases with a wearisome iteration. In “my words” we have, probably, the fact that, in part also, they decked out their teaching with the borrowed plumes of phrases from true prophets.

  • Wesley Weber

    In 2012, I discovered that my pastor had downloaded and copied every sermon over the course of nearly 6 years. He read them word for word. He often read the closing prayers included in the downloaded sermons as if they were his own – and read all of the illustrations as if they were his own life experience.

    This was so obviously immoral, I don’t think I need to elaborate. The deception lies in presenting the work of another as your own.

    As a worshiper, I need my pastor to believe in the scriptures enough to study them and prepare material on his own.

    How hard is it to add a passing comment, for example, “That is why John Stott is so helpful here..” and then go on to quote him? It can easily be done without disrupting the flow of the service.

  • Leland

    This concern about plagarism is just silly. The Bible says that “There is nothing new under the sun.” For crying out loud, what is wrong with sharing ideas and illustrations that are well said the first time around? I personally find constant “footnote-like” attributions in sermons to be distracting. I don’t care who said it first, you don’t have to give attribution to make it something good for me to ponder. I don’t need to be sidetracked by a preacher’s need to cover their academic ass. I don’t believe this is about honestly or integrity, rather, it is about the intellectual meritocracy of our culture. A working pastor’s schedule should be taken up by ministering to the needs of people, not spending hours and hours every week struggling to come up with something new. Yes, there are times of inspiration. But not every week. Consider the simple math: Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of preachers preach hundreds of thousands of sermons, many on the same biblical text. This has been going on for centuries! Are we so vain and petty that we are “shocked” if a pastor dares to use beautiful work someone else wrote? Why? A sermon is NOT a research paper. Why play gotcha with people who have given their lives in service? Lighten up on preachers! Peace Be With You. (Oops! Somebody else already said that…) Vanity, vanity… All is vanity.

  • Frank

    Yes if the words are not from God its plagiarism. If they are it’s not. Thanks for confirming that scripturally.

  • Frank

    Wrong again Larry. God gives preachers message for humanity. They belong to God and are for humanity. Anyone can repeat the message from a God.

  • Frank


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  • I am not the only one who addressed this; I am going to share the original blog I did from 2010 when I was dragged into a plagiarism scandal when David Boyer sent me two plagiarisms then plagiarized me. When you work in my field as I am a publisher — you send a plagiarism to a publisher you see writers and editors who are going to be as vocal as I am. My field this is not forgiven because this is as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Paraphrase don’t plagiarize. You want publishers going f with two words k then you know what follows it — it’s academic fraud and journalistic fraud. This is what I speak about. They never had read about Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. Believe me I get grisly with some of my analogies with plagiarists– it’s like going into shark infested waters with a gash on your arm. You know what happens it’s blood in the water.

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