All preachers borrow ideas and illustrations from one another. I heard Adrian Rogers say, “I got this story from someone who got it from someone who got it from the Lord.” We all smiled and the purists among us were satisfied. He gave credit.
But what about when a pastor lifts the sermon in toto–lock, stock, and barrel–from another pastor’s book or website? Is that right? Is he guilty of something–possibly something illegal? or at least unethical? Does he violate some unwritten law somewhere? Should a church be concerned? And what if you are a member of that pastor’s staff and you are the only one who has learned where he is stealing those sermons?
A friend wrote to ask about this. He asked that we keep his identity anonymous, for obvious reasons.
His pastor is well-loved and highly respected. A father figure almost. Quite by accident the staff member discovered where the preacher was getting his sermons on the internet. The man is preaching them verbatim.
“It’s quite impressive, actually,” he told me. “That he can remember those sermons in such detail.”
The pastor obviously did not give credit to the source of those messages since as far as the congregation knows, the Lord was giving those messages to him directly from on high (as opposed to indirectly, by way of this other guy, the one who spends untold hours in his study, on his knees, working and hammering out those messages).
The pastor is being dishonest, of course. I’ve known of pastors being fired for such. And he has lost the respect of his staff member who reported it to me.
Who’s going to bell the cat?
What should the staffer do? If the pastor is insecure or frightened or anything less than a mature believer, to confront him–even in love–with what he is doing could be scary for someone who works under him.
My wife and I have discussed it at length. She’s been a pastor’s wife for over half a century and knows the calling as well as the heartaches and joys. We agreed that for the staffer to go to the pastor with this–“I have found out where you get your sermons”–would be risking his job.
I replied to the anonymous friend that I would reply on the website since I imagine he’s not alone having a pastor who is doing something unethical but wondering what to do about it.
One. You’re right to be concerned. Thank you.
Two. I know you’re praying. The Lord who called this man into the ministry in the first place needs to do something. Clearly, He already knows this guy has gotten off the track somewhere along the way, but it’s still the right thing to do to pray.
Ask the Lord to handle this. To awaken the pastor’s heart to what he is doing. Ask God to give the pastor burdens for messages he should preach and insights from Scripture that cry to be proclaimed so he will not feel a need to lift someone else’s messages.
Three. And let’s be clear on this up front: What the pastor is doing is unbiblical and unethical. “I am against the prophets who steal my words from each other” (Jeremiah 23:30). There is no justification for what the preacher is doing.
While it’s true that preachers borrow from each other all the time, I give you the words of Warren Wiersbe: “I milk many cows, but make my own butter.”
Four. This is an offence serious enough for him to be fired. I’ve known at least two ministers who were ousted for plagiarism.
I’m remembering one pastor who was fired for lifting sermons from books published by other preachers. As the matter came to a head, the newspaper in his city printed the transcript of his sermon alongside the text of that book. They were identical. The preacher even quoted the author’s personal story as having happened to him. Can you say ‘lying’? The effect was to shame him. Interestingly, a few years later, that same preacher was in the news again, this time for embezzling money from the offerings. Once we begin to cut corners and rationalize our sins, it becomes easier and easier to go for bigger game. The little sins lead to the massive ones.
Five. Unless the Lord should tell you otherwise in no uncertain terms, a staff member is not the person to confront the pastor with such a matter. As my wife said this morning over breakfast, “He might find himself out of a job.” So, if someone deals with the matter, it should not be one of the pastor’s associates.
Six. Be alert for ideas from the Lord on positive things you can do for the pastor. Perhaps giving him a great book by some well known pastor or teacher of preachers. Tim Keller’s stuff is great. Warren Wiersbe wrote several books on the primacy of preaching. Ask a preacher whom you hold in high esteem to recommend a good one (not too deep or the lazy preacher won’t read it; and not too good or he’ll preach it!!).
Seven. Keep telling the Lord you are not going to handle this, that this is the Lord’s problem and not yours. And try to be sweet about it. (Smiling?) Seriously, keep it before the Lord. The effectiveness of the pulpit ministry is at stake, and possibly the future of the pastor’s service in that church.
I’ll post a cartoon or two along the way. Perhaps the pastor will see one of them and get convicted. Or better yet, perhaps he will read this and think it’s about him.
“You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you.” –Carly Simon
Okay, you’ve noticed something here…
I really haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know. All I’ve done is agree that this is unscriptural, unethical, and unwise. And to ease the mind of the anonymous staffer that this is not his problem to solve.
Pastors guilty of this unworthy practice need to go back to the Lord who called them in the first place. Ask Him to clarify a couple of things…
–Did He think you and He were capable of coming up with sermons to fit the people to whom He would send you?
–Does He intend to speak to you out of His word? or was it His intention that you copy from other people’s work?
I would urge you to live in Jeremiah 23 a few days and take its message to heart. God said to the prophets who were stealing one another’s messages: “But who has stood in the council of the Lord, that he should see and hear His word? Who has given heed to His word and listened?” (vs. 18) He added, “If they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds” (v.22).
There is your solution. Get with the Lord. Read His word and listen. Stay there. Don’t be in a rush. Really hear His heart.
And don’t come back without the sermon He wants you to preach to His people.