NASHVILLE (RNS) — Colleen Reese was ticked at her preacher.
Listening to the minister’s sermon at Franklin Christian Church, south of Nashville, she took exception when he began to criticize parents for passing bad habits — and bad genes — on to their children.
He included a joke about mothers passing on mental illness to their kids. Reese, who deals with depression, thought the joke was in poor taste and had little to do with Christianity.
When Reese typed the sermon title into Google, a link to her pastor’s latest sermon series popped up. But so did a three-year-old series from a church in Kentucky. The Kentucky sermon was almost identical to the sermon her pastor had preached.
Looking further, Reese discovered that her pastor had plagiarized hundreds of sermons — which made her feel as if she had been lied to. “I had to send my children to their rooms so that I could speak to my husband about it,” she said. “Because the words that came out of my mouth were really not Jesus-like in that moment.”
For many Protestant Christians, the sermon is the central act of worship during Sunday service, a moment when God speaks to the congregation through the Bible and their pastor. The sermon also plays a key role in attracting newcomers. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, people searching for a new place to worship want a “good sermon and warm welcome,” with 83% saying that the quality of sermons played a key role in their choice.
But as Reese discovered, pastors are not always preaching their own words. While there are no statistics on outright plagiarism — claiming someone else’s words as your own — preachers love to “borrow” from each other.
As a young staff pastor at a church in the Pacific Northwest, Jesse Holcomb said that he and his colleague would be constantly on the lookout for good ideas at other churches. They even had an inside joke about it: “If you have eyes, plagiarize.”
Other churches were doing great work, so the thinking went, “Why don’t we take these ideas and use them as our own and bless our community with them?”
Things started to go wrong, said Holcomb, when his pastor wrote a self-published book filled with other people’s ideas. “I just remember sitting there thinking, ‘man, this is what we’re doing with everything,'” he said.
Plagiarism in book form is easier to catch and has struck as recently as 2017. Abington Press withdrew a book of prayers by the Rev. Bill Shillady, Hillary Clinton’s longtime pastor, after discovering he had plagiarized passages in the book. In 2013, megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll had to apologize when plagiarized material appeared in his book “Call to Resurgence.” Driscoll blamed a research assistant for using unattributed material.
For Driscoll, the plagiarism scandal was one of the first steps that led to his 2014 resignation from Mars Hill, the Seattle-based multisite megachurch that later splintered into separate congregations and no longer exists.
Thom Rainer, former president of LifeWay Christian Resources, a major evangelical publisher, labeled plagiarism as one of the “four most common acts of stupidity that get pastors fired.”
Plagiarizing sermons may be more serious, however, at least theologically. A sermon isn’t just another speech, said theologian Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. Instead, it is supposed to be an encounter with God. Through reading, prayer and study, the preacher hears from God and then passes on what they learned to the congregation.
When a pastor short-circuits that by plagiarizing, it’s an act of betrayal, said McKnight.
“The whole idea of taking someone else’s sermon destroys what sermon-making is supposed to be,” he told Religion News Service. “I think that pastors who are plagiarizing are building a web of deceit and shame in their own life. They know what they’re doing is wrong. They live with the fear that they could be discovered. And they seek to mask it as much as possible.”
Among the sermons Reese’s pastor, Zach Stewart, reportedly plagiarized, were a number of sermon series from Southland Christian Church in Kentucky and another series of sermons on the 10 Commandments that originated with Driscoll, including a 2013 sermon entitled “Do Not Steal” that included slightly altered versions of Driscoll’s personal anecdotes.
After discovering her pastor was plagiarizing, Reese contacted the church’s elders, who eventually confronted Stewart, who left the church in 2016 without apologizing. The church removed all of his sermons from their site and tried to move on, Reese and other former members told RNS.
An elder from Franklin Christian Church confirmed that Stewart worked for the church from 2011 to 2016 but declined to comment otherwise. Stewart also declined to be interviewed and said his new church’s elders and their lawyer advised against commenting.
In 2017, Stewart posted what he called an “1,800-word apology” on his blog. The post did not mention his plagiarism or former church but said, “I have deceived others greatly. I have stolen much secretly. I have perfected the lie of making myself look better than I really am.”
In April, Stewart, now pastor of Twin Oaks Christian Church in Woodhaven, Michigan, preached a pair of sermons on the Book of Proverbs, which drew heavily from 2019 sermons by Driscoll on the same topic, in places reciting Driscoll word for word and mimicking Driscoll’s gestures, according to a video that was until recently available on the church’s website.
The pastor made no mention of using Driscoll’s work in the video.
“Now, I put much study, reading, preparation and prayer into today,” Stewart told the congregation at Twin Oaks, as he started a sermon entitled “How Do I Heal Emotionally.” “I am eager to pass on to you God’s wisdom from God’s Word, to help you heal emotionally through whatever grief that you have,” he said.
Stewart said that he had been fired after a coup at his old church and made no mention of his own plagiarism, just as Driscoll began his sermon by retelling the story of how he left the now-defunct Mars Hill.
Both men made the same gestures mimicking shooting an arrow as they told their congregations that sometimes, like a bow being pulled back, they had to go back to the past in order to move forward to the future.
After RNS reached out to Stewart, nine of his sermons — including the two on Proverbs — were removed from the Twin Oaks website. The titles of two upcoming sermons, which were identical to other Driscoll sermons on the Book of Proverbs, were changed. A number of sermons were also removed from the church’s YouTube channel.
Andy Traub, a former Franklin Christian member, said that Stewart’s departure left church members confused and hurt. People benefited spiritually from the sermons, no matter what the source.
Traub was particularly troubled by his former pastor’s use of personal stories in plagiarized sermons, telling the stories of other pastors as if they were his own. Church members were left wondering who Stewart really is. “Every story he told was somebody else’s story,” said Traub. “The hard part is that nobody knows Zach Stewart. When somebody lies all the time, what do you do?”
Preaching other people’s sermons can be done in an ethical way, said Gary Stratton, dean of the school of arts and sciences at Johnson University, a Christian school with campuses in Tennessee and Florida. And it can be effective.
He pointed to the case of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, whose heart was “strangely warmed” after hearing someone read from Martin Luther’s preface to the New Testament Book of Romans. Stratton said that Wesley went on to supply new Methodist preachers with a set of sermons to preach before writing their own.
Pastors often cite other preachers or books they’ve read during sermons, and no one bats an eye. “That’s what is so mind-boggling for me,” Stratton said.
Reese, who left Franklin Christian a few months after the plagiarism debacle, said she and some friends have kept an eye on Stewart since she left. She recently told her story on the Untangled Faith podcast with her friend, author and former Franklin Christian Church member Amy Fritz.
Reese said that the truth of the Bible can still come through, even with a pastor who plagiarized. But that does not make it right.
“God also will not be mocked,” she said. “And that’s what he’s doing.”