The Southern Baptist Convention recently began a new chapter with the installation of a new president Ed Litton. It wouldn’t be a new chapter if it didn’t have some bit of controversy. It seems that Litton has been caught in a scandal of plagiarism of many of his sermons over the years. He was found out because much of a sermon was nearly identical to that of JD Greear. In fact Litton’s church has removed approximately 140 sermons from their site as they are all plagiarized. What makes the controversy even more scandalous is that many of those who have preached against plagiarism have excused and supported Litton through all of this including Greear who has apparently given permission for Litton to use his material.
It also seems that Litton and many other large churches have a staff of writers and researchers who do a bulk of the sermon research, study, and writing for them. They labor through the week to write material for the minister to preach and it is his job to deliver the material to the congregation.
So what is a church (or even a denomination) supposed to feel about plagiarism of preaching? If the Word of God is preached truthfully and soundly isn’t it good that Litton’s (and other’s) churches have heard that Word? This isn’t the first minister to be caught plagiarizing his work. Every week, there are hundreds of churches “borrowing” material from ministers they love and trust as they seek to bring a word of encouragement and truth from Scripture. I know because I have seen it myself in online videos comparing ministers sermons.
When I hear about plagiarism, it disappoints me. Week after week, members of churches go to hear the Word of God preached from men they have put their trust. Men who were hired to deliver these words and present messages that are timely and specific for their people. If others won’t say it (they have) then I will: Plagiarism is wrong. There are some reasons why ministers do it. Let’s explore this and then speak to the role of why ministers shouldn’t plagiarize their sermons.
The minister’s job encompasses a lot: teaching, preaching, counseling, visiting sick people, and a host of other duties. Many ministers have a tough time juggling all these tasks through the week as well as making time for their family. It is tempting to say, “I don’t have enough time this week, so I will borrow from this other minister who has a great sermon that fits what I want to talk about.”
Busy-ness is something that ministers have to learn to balance. We have to learn to say ‘no’ to some things that are going to take up time during our week that aren’t part of our role as minister. It’s tough to say ‘no’ because we feel like people rely on us to help them in every aspect of their lives. But as faithful ministers, we have to also know when to say when and realize we cannot do everything. We must find ways to give tasks over to our shepherds and other ministry volunteers. Our shepherds need to also realize they have been tasked in shepherding the flock and they are not just business managers. Shepherding is also a call to ministry of a different kind. They need to be available to meet with people and make visits.
There are also other tasks that you may do that should be given to members and deacons. We have a sign that people say they love to read. We put pithy sayings, trite quotes, and sometimes plain Scriptural text. It doesn’t take a long time to do, but changing it multiple times a week adds up. I just don’t see the value in it. So I put it at the bottom of my schedule. Others think it’s more important. So I leave it to them to change it even if it’s my turn. Truly, we need to find some people in the church to take on this task. That would be a faithful solution to that job. But things like this need to be prioritized if you find yourself running out of time in your week.
It is also time to start scheduling your time better. Get a weekly calendar and map out the time you have for meetings, for personal study and prayer, and for family. Then put in things like sermon prep, Bible studies, visits to people’s home and hospitals. Then add in other things like funerals and weddings.
Something I do every year is to take a spiritual retreat. It isn’t a vacation…it’s work. I spend time thinking about what my group needs to hear and I work out my yearly teaching schedule. I map out what the year will look like. It isn’t perfect and I have permission (from me) to adjust for time I will be gone and for things that come up in the lives of our church that need to be addressed. I can see how this has helped me to plan out if I need to order any materials or if I need to find someone to fill in for me.
Then when someone asks, I can tell them what we are doing that year. It is a relief to hear that the minister has taken time to think ahead for what he is planning. It gives confidence that he is doing the work faithfully and thoughtfully.
I AM DRY
This is common. Ministers pour out their hearts every week to their congregations. Many have to come up with three to four unique lessons as they preach Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening as well as a Bible class on Sundays and some teach other classes mid-week. It can become difficult to provide good material multiple times a week that is refreshing, encouraging, and challenging. We only have so many life stories we can tell before they start to be repeated.
My Cohort friend Wes wouldn’t want me to share, but I know how hard he works for the Kingdom to bring faithful messages to his congregation. He has been doing it for 16-17 years now. New material. New series. New messages. They aren’t all hits. But he has been doing it multiple times each week for a decade and a half. I am proud of his accomplishments. His PowerPoint slides are works of art. When I see him preach, it gives me confidence in what I need to do and gives me endurance to do my best work in all I do and to get creative.
My friends, this is where we have to use the gifts God has given us to seek wisdom from others. Find out what other ministers are preaching–the ideas, not their actual words. Join a group of ministers weekly to bounce ideas off of. Ask them what they are preaching through, what study helps they are using, and use that time to seek God’s wisdom about what your congregation needs to hear from you. Or you could put together a group of trustworthy members of your congregation to bounce these ideas off of or to ask them what they want to hear about. Again, you have permission (from yourself) whether you take their ideas or not. You get to veto things.
Also if you find yourself becoming dry, make sure you are reading books, studying Scripture, going to conferences, and listening to other ministers preach. Hearing the word and reading timely books can help your spiritual thirst. If you are dry, it could be that you aren’t spending enough time with God. Spend time in prayer. Fast and pray about your upcoming series.
IT’S JUST EASIER
Friends, this is laziness. If you have gotten used to this, it will just be even harder to change and go back to the way you were taught in your Bible college or seminary. Preparing sermons isn’t meant to be an easy little task like other jobs. If we feel called to preach, then we’ve also realized the call comes with struggle. We’ve been called to dig into the text and examine everything we can about it. It is our work to extrapolate everything we can learn about the text to the point we can teach it like it is our closest friend. We’ve also been called to wrestle with the implications it brings. It becomes a conviction to teach the meanings behind the text and have tears as we call out the sins and the joys of those we bring the message to.
For those ministers who give the task to study the text to research teams, this is also not faithful to the role you’ve been given. It is your ministry to do your own study. Many well-known ministers have other people do their work for them. I don’t understand how they can be familiar with the history behind a text if someone else did the reading and research for them. Not everyone is as fortunate and has a ministry staff of one to do the same work and they won’t get the national or worldwide recognition. But I have more trust in them than I do a best selling author because I know that the little church minister has done his own work.
Let me encourage you to start anew. Step into the next sermon series with the will to do your best work yet and preach something you have come up with yourself. You will see the difference in the response of your church members.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH IT?
Many ministers will feel like there isn’t anything wrong with taking other minister’s work and reusing it. Let me now speak to why plagiarism is wrong.
As Christians, we are called to make disciples. As ministers, we need to make discipleship an important part of our role in preaching. Our congregations need to hear the Word preached to the issues that they face every day. We face a secular world intent on converting people away from Jesus to be more like them. It is active and we should feel that urgency. If we are taking other ministers sermons we are not speaking directly to our people but to a vague, faceless member who might be listening. We aren’t guiding God’s people to the things they need to hear about.
We should be speaking to our congregation’s issues. If you know that your congregation is dealing with a crisis, you should proclaim God’s Word and what He says about that crisis to your people and be specific. Ministers should challenge their members to live into the reality they are in. The congregation needs to hear your words about the things they deal with.
This leads me to another aspect about plagiarism that doesn’t seem so bad. Reusing the same sermons over and over again–even if you wrote it. This is not plagiarism, but it isn’t faithful to discipling your congregation. Your members may not remember hearing it, but preaching the same messages every five to ten years isn’t helping advance people in the Gospel. It keeps your membership living in the milk of their infancy and not advancing to the meat that adults need. When you reuse sermons, you are keeping people in their past, unable to move ahead into more mature living.
Plain and simple. Stealing is wrong. It is a sin. We can use a word like plagiarism, but that is just a big word for stealing. But you may say, “I’ve been given permission…” Shame on whomever gave you permission. This goes along with the discipleship aspect. How is preaching someone else’s sermon helping your congregation’s members grow? They need to hear messages from you to them. In order to grow, your members need to hear about the things that they are going through.
What about study guides and curriculum? I believe this is different. Yes, use curriculum where relevant. But make sure your congregation knows it’s a curriculum and when you use it, make sure to bring in your own stories, your own ideas, and your own study of the same passages of Scripture. Use multiple resources to get the most faithful teaching of that curriculum possible. I have heard ministers preach from curriculum a stolen sermon from the same curriculum as though it was his own. He used the same illustrations (with names changed). I also once attended a youth rally where the speaker used an entire Jerry Seinfeld routine about airports as though it was his. As a stand-up comedy fan, I immediately knew where it was from. No one else did and they laughed through it. That speaker won the audience but lost my respect. It’s wrong. Don’t steal.
IT’S YOUR JOB
Like it or not, full time ministry is your job. If you are paid to preach, you’ve been given an extra incentive to do well. If I were to work anywhere else, I couldn’t take other people’s work as my own. I’d get found out more quickly, but it would just show that I didn’t do the work. Why would I do that as an ambassador of Christ? Watching Ed Litton discovered a fraud in his preaching in secular news gives the church a bad name and only helps the lost run from the Church.
You’ve been given a job. God has called you to ministry. If you cannot do this without stealing, then maybe you should find other work. I know that is harsh. As someone who wants to preach and help congregations grow in maturity, it makes me sad that there are people stealing other’s work to get a paycheck.
Preach with excellence, integrity, and with all the fervor you can. Do Christ’s work faithfully and help your congregation grow in their walk with Jesus.