I have been preaching for a long time. I do not preach every Sunday at my church. But, I do preach often enough to know that it is not easy. And, it is not something that should be taken lightly by those who bear the responsibility. It takes a great deal of effort and even time to prepare a sermon.
Sermon Prep and Plagiarism
Over the years the process of preparing the sermon has gotten easier. I have learned how to interpret the scriptures (a practice that continues to be sharpened). I have also learned my voice. I know who I am and I have a good idea of what the Scriptures are saying to me. All of these aspects of sermon preparation come easier to some and take more time for others. I do not possess some special giftedness. I simply have worked very hard to improve this area of my vocation. I know that I will be called upon to do, so I work at getting better.
Several months ago, I came across a couple of articles (here and here) regarding the problem of plagiarism in ministry. There was a curfuffle about a book that had been written and one of the authors had not cited properly the sources used. And, as it turned out, there were large sections of the book that were essentially plagiarized.
This event caused a flurry of posts (ok maybe about half a dozen) among some of the professional bloggers in the Christian world and they started to discuss this issue and a related one, the use of someone else’s sermon. I found the entire conversation about borrowing sermon outlines or manuscripts somewhat comical because the idea had never occurred to me. That was until I had a conversation with a friend in our church.
I Wrote that Sermon
What happened was that my father (who planted and is the Senior Pastor of our church) had been fighting a cold. He was hoping to be able to overcome the malady and be ready to preach on that Sunday. On Thursday he decided that he just didn’t think it was going to happen. He was not feeling better and didn’t want to wait any longer in letting me know. So, I started to work on my sermon for that Sunday.
On the following Monday, I was talking with my friend about the service and asked he what she thought about the sermon. It was at this point that I was “accused” of having used someone else’s sermon. In this case my fathers. She proceeded to tell me that she was so impressed with the sermon and that she was surprised that I could take my dad’s sermon and make it my own.
To make this already comical situation more awkward, I told her that the sermon I preached the previous day was not my father’s. I had written the entire thing myself. There was a moment of silence and she then said that because the sermon’s topic was not delivered in a manner that was typical of my style she thought I had simply borrowed the outline.
At this point, we had an interesting conversation about the entire process of homiletics and sermon preparation. I told her that while my typical approach to sermon prep and delivery is more of a “call to action,” the scripture and the subject that I had been given did not lend itself to this kind of presentation. I did not force the scripture to say what I wanted. My job was to communicate what was there in a faithful way.
Do not Re-Gift a Sermon
I also let my friend know that I had never, in my 19 years of preaching, had ever borrowed a sermon outline or manuscript. I have never felt the need to do that, nor the inclination. I have always felt that the sermon is my gift to the people who have given me the opportunity to share with them from God’s word. I do not think it is appropriate to “re-gift” someone else’s sermon.
I have repreached my own messages, but I have always tried to improve them, rework them, and re-evaluate the effectiveness of the sermon I will repreach. If I were to preach the same message 30, 40, or 50 times, it would be the same outline or manuscript, but I would be a different preacher. That is an important distinction between taking a sermon I have written and preaching it more than once and preaching a sermon someone else wrote for another group of people. I know what I was trying to do in and with that particular message for those particular listeners.
I say all of this to say to you my dear pastor or preacher, “Write your own sermons!” That sermon is a part of you. And, if you “cheat” a little bit, you will deny your listeners the part of yourself that is changed in the process of preparing and struggling with that sermon.