Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Plagiarism, Integrity, and Giving Our Best

How do you give your very best to sermon prep every week?

I will never forget the night in the fall of 2000 when a member of the house church we had just started approached me and said, "Pastor, you are not going to believe this. A few weeks ago at a church here in New York, I heard the same exact sermon I heard at a church while visiting friends half-way across the country!"

As he described the sermon, I soon realized it was from Rick Warren's site www.pastors.com now under www.saddlebackresources.com. Most of the sermons on this site were topical in nature, and many were 6-12 week series. With your purchase came a full manuscript, an outline, and a bulletin insert so the congregation could follow along. The site also gave carte blanche permission to use the sermon without citing Rick Warren.

When we jump to hard and fast judgments about "plagiarism and preaching," we avoid more essential questions: Are pastors demonstrating pulpit integrity with how they prepare and preach a sermon? What does good sermon preparation practice look like in your setting?

Most preachers are fully aware that the number of Internet sermon resources available online has exploded since the early 2000s. Many of the sermon resource sites now provide greater biblical and theological content and are not focused on providing full sermon manuscripts, but rather resources to assist in sermon preparation.

But the rise in online resources raises a pressing question: How do pastors know if they have become too dependent on the sermons and resources of others? Plagiarism in preaching isn't always easy to define. Of course speaking verbatim large portions of someone else's material without giving credit should be off limits, but in most cases what constitutes plagiarism in the pulpit varies depending on who is asked. Every pastor will have crises that come and go in the life of the congregation, impacting weekly schedules and our best intentions. Furthermore, each congregation comes from a cultural background that influences every aspect of the church, including the preaching.

For instance, most pastors agree that a preacher can be inspired by another's sermon and that it's acceptable to borrow from others as long as it is properly credited. As Dr. Haddon W Robinson said, "I don't think you have to footnote anything from a commentary or a resource of that nature, but when you get the substance of what you're talking about from another's sermon, you're obligated to say 'what I want to talk about this morning, I've gotten a great deal of help from …' and attribute the source."

There will also certainly be weeks for pastors when, due to a crisis in their life or in the life of the community, borrowing a complete sermon from others may be necessary. In such times, Scott M. Gibson suggests that pastors share with the congregation, "This week has been a tough one … I was not able to prepare as well as I would like and as well as you deserve. However, I do have a sermon for you. It isn't mine, but what he has to say is important. His words are my words to you." All pastors have had weeks where preaching someone else's sermon was needed and helpful.

So when we quickly jump to hard and fast judgments about "plagiarism and preaching," we avoid more essential questions: Are pastors demonstrating pulpit integrity with how they prepare and preach a sermon? What does good sermon preparation practice look like in your setting?

This article will draw heavily from a major research study I conducted with over 400 preacher-respondents. After reviewing the research, I'll conclude by offering a few suggestions on healthy sermon preparation practices—not simply to avoid plagiarism, but to help preachers make sure they are giving their very best to each sermon.

The Study on Internet Resources

In 2008, I conducted a qualitative research study focused on the use of Internet sermon resources in Christian preaching. Approximately 3,600 pastors from the Church of the Nazarene received an invitation e-mail with a link to an anonymous open-ended questionnaire. Over four-hundred pastors participated. As expected, the pastors had a wide-range of opinions relating to appropriate use of Internet sermon resources.

For instance, the study asked, "If pastors preach sermons that are primarily (75 percent or more) obtained from an Internet resource or resources (cut and pasted from numerous sources), should pastors let their congregations know?" A majority of respondents believed that pastors should let their congregations know if they are preaching a sermon where 75 percent is obtained from the Internet, though that is especially challenging to do so when a sermon is cut and pasted from many sources. As one pastor stated, "Yes, (let their congregation know) … your church should simply get a subscription to a church media ministry and play the video each week. It would definitely be cheaper than paying a pastor to cut and paste a sermon together." Yet responses were also passionate with the opposing view, "No, (they do not need to let the congregation know) … I don't use that logic when I use inspiration from books … I love the resources whose authors say 'use it as you please.'"

Many of the respondents shared that congregations often place unrealistic expectations on full-time pastors, expectations that require pastors to become heavily dependent on the work of others. Not only are pastors expected to be dynamic preachers, but they are expected to do a significant number of other things well in the church each and every week. With so many unrealistic expectations placed upon pastors, it's easy to understand why Internet and other sermon resources are so appealing to pastors especially when they can "use as they please."

Pastors on all sides of the issue of the regular use of Internet sermon resources believe co-vocational pastors should have greater freedom in using sources. Realizing this exception for co-vocational pastors, it hit me that none of the classic books on preaching still used in undergraduate and seminary preaching classes mention what appropriate sermon preparation should look like for the co-vocational pastor. Those of us who teach and write on preaching should recognize our responsibility to consider what sermon preparation looks like, not only for the busy and co-vocational pastors, but also for those who find themselves pastoring with little to no biblical or theological training.

With the wide-range of educational and cultural backgrounds, pastoral expectations and challenges, it's easy to see how preachers can become too dependent on Internet and other sermon resources. Yet the question remains: Are pastors demonstrating pulpit integrity when they draw heavily on sermons and work of others, regardless of where they obtain it?

Giving Our Best

Gardner C. Taylor tells of a conversation he had with James S. Stewart (two of the greatest preachers of the 20th century) where Stewart was talking about another great preacher, Arthur Gossip. "He (Gossip) climbed the steps that go into the pulpit, preached that day, and when he came out of the pulpit, it was as if, he said, a Presence met him on the stair and said to him, 'Was that the best you could give me today?' He said penitential tears came gushing out of his eyes and up out of his heart" (Taylor, 82). That is the fundamental question that all preachers should continually ask themselves: "Am I giving my very best to the sermon this week?"

What "giving our best" looks like will be different from pastor to pastor. Due to the complexity of ministry contexts in which pastors find themselves, and the numerous challenges they face, only the pastor can determine if they have given their best in the sermon.

Though not an exhaustive list, what follows are three considerations for pulpit integrity, regardless of ministry context, as each pastor strives to give their very best to their preaching.

Chew and Digest the Word

Ezekiel 2:9-3:3 comes in the midst of a visionary experience in which God is charging Ezekiel, who was both a prophet and a priest, for the ministry God has for him:

Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me, and it held a scroll. He unrolled it, and I saw that both sides were covered with funeral songs, other words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom. The voice said to me, "Son of man, eat what I am giving you—eat this scroll! Then go and give its message to the people of Israel." So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. "Eat it all," he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey. (Ezk. 2:9-3:3, NLT)

Ezekiel is eating the Word (the scroll) so that he will then, and only then, be prepared to go and give God's message to the people. Ezekiel was qualified to proclaim God's word during this very difficult period once he had fully taken in and digested the Word of God. Like Ezekiel, preachers are to completely submit themselves to the Word of God by "gorging" and "filling" their lives with the Word.

Eugene Peterson calls for biblical reading known as lectio divina. In Eat This Book, Peterson writes, "Lecto divina comprises four elements: lectio (read the text), meditation (meditate on the text), oratio (pray the text) and contemplation (live the text). Lectio divina is a way of reading that becomes a way of living."

John Stott does not use the classical term of lectio divina, but he too stresses the importance of taking in the text:

Read the text, re-read it, and read it again. Turn it over and over in your mind.… Probe your text, like a bee with a spring blossom, or like a humming bird probing a hibiscus flower for its nectar. Worry at it like a dog with a bone. Suck at it like a child sucks an orange. Chew at it as a cow chews the cud.

If preachers are not immersed in the Word and taking it in, chewing on it, applying it to their lives, then the potential exists for their preaching to merely mirror the commentaries, sermons, books, and resources that they read.

As pastors read, meditate, and pray over a passage of Scripture on which they intend to preach, they are being transformed to live out and proclaim the Word that has been formed within them. Like Ezekiel, allow the Word to become incarnated within you, before reading how it was incarnated within another pastor or commentary writer.

Embrace the struggle

Preparing a sermon is difficult, especially once the exegetical work begins, but do not forget how that time is spiritually forming to you as pastor, and in-turn, your congregation. In his classic pastoral theology book written in the 17th century, Richard Baxter states his thoughts on the importance of hard work in sermon preparation.

Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow. … But especially be laborious in the practice and the exercise of your knowledge. … By avoiding labor and suffering, I shall draw on myself a thousand times more than I avoid; whereas, by present diligence, I shall prepare for future blessedness.

Baxter believes that the hard work and struggle a pastor experiences while preparing a sermon shapes and transforms the pastor's soul. Martin Luther also calls for a full commitment at all levels: "[A preacher] should venture and engage body and blood, wealth and honor, in the Word." As Baxter, Luther, and others clearly point out, blessing and maturity for pastor and congregation come with hard work and struggle in sermon preparation.

You'll need to carve out time in your schedule for the hard work of sermon preparation, and the time you have may often be out of your control. Educating church leadership on the importance of the time needed to adequately prepare a message each and every week is a must. Perhaps you, and church leadership, need to begin saying "no" to other responsibilities so that you can focus on the hard work of the sermon. Pastors cannot become better preachers if they keep avoiding time "in the study" preparing a message for the congregation they are called to shepherd.

Stay Accountable

To seek and accept the honest feedback of other preachers, trusted friends, mentors, or other congregants is invaluable. It's challenging to ask for constructive feedback, because criticism is hard to hear, and sometimes the critics in our lives are those who simply have a critical spirit. Find those who are critical in thought—not in spirit—toward you and your ministry. Asking others for their honest evaluation and input on your preaching is an excellent form of accountability. You will not have to take every piece of advice they give, but having that accountability and honest assessment facilitates continued growth development as a preacher. Sharing with them the resources used in preparing your sermon will also help create accountability in whether or not you have become too dependent upon the work of others.


As preachers, we are charged with a high and holy calling. It should humble and terrify us all at the same time. The reason my former congregant's experience of hearing the same sermon in two different churches has stayed with me is because I believe that he, and each member who sits under our preaching, deserves our very best. There will be those weeks in which it might be necessary to allow more dependence upon the work of others to help in your sermon preparation. Do not be ashamed to share that with your congregation.

However, never forget that God has called you to be the pastor and preacher to the congregation that sits before you every week. While the voices of others may seem "better" or "more qualified," you are the one God has called to care and shepherd your congregation, and they need to hear the Word incarnated in your life through your preaching. If God has called you, God has called you.

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2).

Sources for This Article

Gibson, Scott M. Should We Use Someone Else's Sermon. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Horn, Sara. "Plagiarism in the Pulpit: What You're Not Saying Yourself Could Say a Lot about You." <http://www.preaching.com/preaching/pastissues/sarahorn.htm>.

MacPherson, C. S. (2009). The Use of Internet Sermon Resources: A Study in Christian Preaching. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1343&context=ecommonsatsdissertations.

Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Stott, John. Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. London: Eerdmans, 1982.

Taylor, Edward L., comp. The Words of Gardner Taylor. Vol. 2. Valley Forge: Judson, 2000.

Corey MacPherson is the VP of Spiritual Development & Chaplain of Eastern Nazarene College and the former pastor at North Shore Church of the Nazarene on Long Island, New York.

Related articles

Craig Brian Larson

Plagiarism, Shmagiarism

The why and when of giving credit

Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize

Understanding the necessity of citation and the damage of deceit
John Koessler

The Island Syndrome: When the Only Sermons You Ingest Are Your Own

Much has been said recently about the dangers of sermon plagiarism, but the effect can be a misguided shunning of others' sermons. Growing preachers study the messages of other outstanding preachers.