Pulpit plagiarism--or sermon borrowing, depending on whom you ask--is as old as the art of preaching itself. Now, in the age of the Internet, cribbing sermons is easier than ever. But so is getting caught.

A pastor at Clayton's Central Presbyterian Church near St. Louis, Mo., recently resigned his pulpit after confessing to his 1,800-member congregation that he had preached sermons that were not his own. The admission came after church staffers and members recognized some of his sermons as the work of the Rev. Tim Keller, a nationally renowned preacher at New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Text and audio versions of Keller's sermons are among the scores of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu sermons or teachings available online. Cregan Cooke, director of communications and media for Redeemer Presbyterian, said the unauthorized borrowing of sermons is "not an issue" for the New York church, because Keller--like many religious leaders who post sermons online--simply wants to spread his message. "All ministers borrow from each other. It's a very common thing," said Cooke. "The only issue is attribution."

Indeed, originality has never been paramount in a profession built around the exegesis of ancient texts and propagation of age-old doctrines. Theological accuracy, inspirational power and dynamic delivery matter more to most religious leaders. Many St. Louis area clerics say they often cull online sermon guides--as well as journals, tapes, CD-ROMs and books--to mold their own remarks.

Brian Larson, editor of Preachingtoday.com, an online portal for sermon materials, sees demand rising for Internet sermon services like his. Just 2 years old, the service had 12,512 subscribers in January 2001. Last week, he counted 17,790. Larson said he has no problem with preachers sharing materials, if the author gets credit and the church accepts the practice. "All preachers are preaching from God's word," said Larson, who is also editor of Preaching Today, a long-standing audio service. "It's not their idea."

The use of canned sermons has plenty of precedents. Some writers, including a few in St. Louis, make their living crafting sermons and sermon outlines for subscribers. Books and mimographed copies of sermons have long been big sellers at clergy conventions.

From Massachusetts to Texas, preachers have been caught delivering sermons verbatim--and without attribution--that they purchased from online and print sermon services. In one case reported by the Boston Globe, a minister lost his job after publishing cribbed sermons under his own name.

Baptist preacher and civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was criticized after his death for plagiarizing parts of his doctoral dissertation and sermons. Many scholars denounced his actions in the academic realm, but defended his sermon borrowing as permissible. "In some aspects of the oral tradition, you hear a number of stories ... that are good but can't be tracked," said Enoch Oglesby, United Church Professor of Theology and History at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "If it enhances the common good, so be it."

Still, Oglesby--like most clerics, scholars and ethicists--draws the line at the verbatim delivery of sermons that belong to others. Religious leaders who cross that line, and do not credit their sources, risk losing the trust of their followers. They may also preach sermons ill-suited to their particular faith communities, since the canned talks were intended for another audience. "You're cheating your congregation of your own holiness," said the Rev. James Cormack, Catholic pastor of St. Catherine Laboure Parish in south St. Louis County.

Cormack, a Vincentian priest who won the Great Preacher Award from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in 1995, said the occasional preaching of another's sermon is acceptable, as long as the speaker tells his congregation that the work is not his own. But repeated reliance on the words of another signals a problem. A prayerful, hard- working priest can capture his audience's attention, Cormack said, if he takes the time to pray and reflect on Scripture. "In the end, that cuts deeper than somebody who's slick and glossy and doesn't seem to have any depth," Cormack said.

Still, clerics agree that smooth delivery--and a few good jokes, which can be easily skimmed from Internet sites--liven up a sermon. Rabbi Ze'ev Smason presides over Nusach Hari-B'nai Zion Congregation, a 300-member orthodox synagogue in University City. To add to his repertoire of jokes and hone his speaking skills, Smason combs Internet sites in English and Hebrew and recently attended a public speaking seminar. In the age of the Internet and cable television, Smason said, religious leaders must work harder than ever to keep the attention of their audiences. "It's almost as if we're expected or we need to put on a show," he said.

Pressure mounts around the high holidays, Smason said, when synagogue attendance multiplies. At those times, Smason tries to "hit a home run" with sermons designed to draw sporadic attendees into more regular observance. The day-to-day pressures of full-time ministry--visiting the sick, teaching classes, offering marriage counseling--also make life busy for Smason, who said he usually has free time "between 2 and 4 a.m."

Good sermons require a substantial time investment: Homiletics instructors sometimes tell preachers to prepare one hour for every minute they speak in the pulpit. For preachers like the Rev. Jesse Williams, the senior pastor at Washington Tabernacle Church in St. Louis, that translates into 30 to 40 hours of preparation each week for his 45-minute sermons. "In the black church, the preaching moment is so paramount in the worship experience," said Williams, who also teaches preaching at Eden Seminary.

To compose sermons for his Missionary Baptist church, Williams browses the lectionary text, sermon books and commentaries for inspiration. He allows that originality is hard to come by in a theologically sound sermon. "We do all share ideas," Williams said. "But when it comes to composing the sermon, we owe it to the congregation to be original."

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