(RNS) Thou shalt not steal another pastor’s sermon?

Recent cases of high-profile pastors who have been accused of lifting others’ material are raising questions about whether pulpit plagiarism is on the rise — and whether it has become a more forgivable sin.

Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was accused last year of plagiarism in material he wrote with Tyndale House Publishers and InterVarsity Press. “Mistakes were made that I am grieved by and apologize for,” Driscoll said in a statement. Most recently, popular Oklahoma City-based megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel has been accused of plagiarizing the work of writer and comedian Danny Murphy.

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

Most recently, popular Oklahoma City-based megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel, pictured here, has been accused of plagiarizing writer and comedian Danny Murphy. Photo courtesy of Lifechurch.tv


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Groeschel is the pastor of Lifechurch.tv, a tech-savvy megachurch founded in 1996 that has quickly grown to one of the nation’s largest churches, with 80 weekly “worship experiences” across 19 campuses in five states.

On his blog, Murphy suggested Groeschel used material that Murphy wrote in the now-defunct magazine The Door in 2000. The material was later used by Groeschel in a sermon and in a book now titled “Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After,” printed by Multnomah Books. Murphy’s name never appeared with it.

It’s not the first time Murphy has found his work in the hands of others; he was “minding my own business in the back row of a church” when he heard the preacher use the same material from the article in The Door. When questioned, the pastor said he had found it in the best-selling book “Not a Fan,” by Kyle Idleman. Murphy flagged the issue for the publisher, Zondervan, and the attribution was fixed in the next printing of the book, he said.

According to Murphy, Multnomah has also inserted a footnote with attribution in Groeschel’s text, although Groeschel never admitted to lacking earlier attribution, maintaining the content was his.

“I feel strongly about giving credit and have done so over and over again in sermons and books,” Groeschel said in a statement. “We first used this idea in a sermon illustration video, which I sincerely thought was an original concept developed before the author’s article. To be above reproach, I asked my publisher to give this author credit, which is already reflected in the most recent reprinting of the book where this illustration is used.”

As more instances of plagiarism are being alleged, it’s unclear whether plagiarism is more common, or if it’s being reported more often. 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.

“In this day of celebrity publishing, a lot of the quality control is eroding,” said David Gushee, Christian ethicist at Mercer University.

Sermons can be ephemeral things, in one ear of many parishioners and out the other. If the sermon is not written down or posted online, an unattributed quote can be easy to miss. Books, however, are an easier place to spot unsourced material.

There has been a long-standing debate among preachers over whether they can use sermon illustrations that they didn’t personally experience, Gushee said. “There are ways to borrow illustrations without being deceptive,” he said.

The ease of the Internet could be a double-edged sword for some pastors looking for material. With sermons and books so easily searchable online, watchdogs have better means of cataloging, searching and reporting offenses. And it’s much easier to learn about and report offenses of plagiarism than ever before.

Last year, an Episcopal priest in Massachusetts, the Rev. John E. McGinn, was accused of plagiarized sermons from Sermons.com. He was suspended by his diocese and said he planned to retire.

Richard Land, who was president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, came under fire in 2012 after being accused of plagiarism in his radio broadcasts. He has since become president of Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Tim Goeglein, who led the Bush administration’s point outreach to religious conservatives, resigned in 2008 after it was revealed that he plagiarized in columns he wrote for his hometown paper. He has since joined Focus on the Family.

In 2003, the Rev. Alvin O. Jackson, who then led Washington’s National City Christian Church, plagiarized sermons and then sold them for $50. He has since joined Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City.

Preachers have always borrowed and quoted and voiced other preachers, said Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School.

“Most people understand that verbal footnoting is cumbersome,” Lischer said. “Christianity is not as focused on issues of copyright as other sectors in academics.”

There is an attitude among Christians that “what’s mine is yours,” that you don’t necessarily need to footnote Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream,” he said. 

“It’s the nature of preaching. It’s like singing a song. You don’t just sing it once to never sing it again,” Lischer said. “It’s not so much cheating as it’s demonstrating a continuity with people who came before.”

Congregations might also be more willing to forgive a pastor who has plagiarized than they might have been in the past, said Ron Cook, a professor at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary who has served on the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

“Not giving credit is not stigmatized as much as it was a quarter-century or even a decade ago,” Cook said. “In some cases I’ve known in recent years, the congregations are more willing to give their pastor a second chance.”

(Greg Horton contributed to this article.)

KRE/MG END BAILEY

42 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

    • 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.

      • I don’t think people should tell others stories as their own. They should speak the truth. What’s words they use is irrelevant.

        But stories are only a small part. My comment stands.

  3. 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 Pastors.com 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.

          • 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.

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

    • 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.

  4. 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.

    • @Todd,

      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.

  5. 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

  6. 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. .

  7. 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”

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  1. […] Thou shalt not steal another pastor’s sermon? Recent cases of high-profile pastors who have been accused of lifting others’ material are raising questions about whether pulpit plagiarism is on the rise — and whether it has become a more forgivable sin. Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was accused last year of plagiarism in material he wrote with Tyndale House Publishers and InterVarsity Press. “Mistakes were made that I am grieved by and apologize for,” Driscoll said in a statement. [Read more] […]

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