Saturday, November 5, 2011

Plagiarism in the Pulpit

Saturday after Reformation Sunday
November 5, 2011

The Lord be with you

This coming Sunday will be celebrated as “All Saints’ Sunday” at Lamb of God. (All Saints’ Day was this past Tuesday, November 1.) Though I do not do it often, the outline for the sermon I will preach is not original. I found it in Concordia Pulpit Resources, a publication from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

I am working on a Doctorate of Ministry degree (D.Min.) at Gardner-Webb University. The degree requires a project. My project will be to introduce the Stations of the Cross at Lamb of God. In preparing “my” service I have reviewed samples of the Stations as found in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, General Protestant, and other traditions.

This sort of borrowing brings up the question of plagiarism. This is a relatively new issue. Five hundred years ago no one worried about this. If you thought Mr. A wrote or did something worthwhile, you just used it. Mr. A. was typically happy that his work or idea was deemed valuable enough to be used by others. Mr. A. did his work for the glory of his Lord, not for personal recognition. Of course, Mr. A. didn’t typically oppose being recognized, and often was recognized, but it wasn’t anywhere near as big a deal as it is today.

For some time now, though, the idea of “intellectual property” has been recognized by the law. The attitudes of a former age seem odd, at best. A person who uses someone else’s idea, without giving them credit, is perceived as dishonest and duplicitous. In this atmosphere, congregations generally expect the sermon a pastor preaches to be “original.”

This concern is widespread enough for the Council of Presidents of the LC-MS to have sent out to us pastors a few years ago a study discouraging plagiarism in the pulpit. In my time at Gardner-Webb I’ve learned that this is an issue that transcends denominational lines. However this presents a unique problem for the preacher. To stop and identify every source in a sermon would make the sermon unbearable to the hearer. Imagine if I started this coming Sunday’s sermon as follows:
    “They say that if you really want to know what a preacher is all about, or what is in the heart and center of his teaching, or if you really want to know what a church believes, teaches, and confesses, attend a funeral service at that church. (Douglas Rutt, Concordia Pulpit Resources, volume 21, part 4, 2011, General Editor Carl Fickenscher II, page 33, with the idea for the phrase ‘believes, teaches, and confesses’ taken from the Formula of Concord, Epitome, Tappert translation, copy write 1959, Fortress Press, pages 466, 473, 478, etc.)”
While the above opening of a sermon may well scrupulously observe the desire to not plagiarize, it would be unbearable for the congregation. Such a sermon would be five minutes of sermon and fifteen minutes of citing references!

The call to the ministry of the word is not a call to be original. It is a call to proclaim the truth of God’s Word. Originality, in my opinion, is overrated. Truly original thoughts are, more often than not, also false doctrine. A preacher should preach from a storehouse of received wisdom, handed down through the ages. In that tradition the “original” thoughts that have gained acceptance throughout the ages most likely represent the truth of the Bible. I say “most likely” because sometimes that tradition has erred. The final authority is always the Bible.

If you want to stand against the received tradition you better be sure you have a solid biblical foundation. Luther had such a foundation during the Reformation. He also had the tradition of the first five hundred years of the Church Fathers. More often than not, people who veer off the beaten track with an original idea do not have a solid biblical foundation.

Using the material of others does not hamper the Holy Spirit. The story is told about how John Wesley attended a meeting of Moravians on Aldersgate Street. While there he heard Luther’s introduction to Romans read and felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Clearly using someone else’s material can be used by the Lord. However the reader at that meeting was honest. He didn’t pretend that he had written the message. I think this honesty is the key to the plagiarism issue.

Note the beginning sentence from the Rutt outline cited above. It goes “They say that …” With those short three words he indicates that this observation was not original to him. In a sermon I might say, "Who cares who originally made the observation?". Rutt, and everybody else who uses this opening, has given enough notice that a source is being used.

The second thing about being honest comes when relating a story. If it is not your own story, don’t pretend it is. I remember hearing a humorous anecdote that illustrates the point. It seems a preacher said in his sermon something like, “While on vacation in California with my family a clerk said, ‘If I’m good enough I’ll go to heaven.’ My son piped up and said, ‘That’s not right. Jesus takes us to heaven just because we believe in him!’” At this point in the sermon the preachers young son said, in a voice just as loud as a five- or six-year old's voice can be, “Mommy, I didn’t said that, and when did we go to California?”

If it is someone else’s story, just say so.

Finally, there are a tremendous amount of sermon helps “out there.” They are published for the express purpose of being used by pastors. I expect that every pastor has used such aids at some point in their career. They probably adapt them to their local setting, but the flow, the ideas, and even some or all of the illustrations, come from “the source.” The pastor may be using the aids because they have had an exceptionally busy week. On the other hand, they may be using the aids because, as they were doing their research for the sermon, they just found their source to be excellent, quite appropriate for their congregation, better than anything “original” that they might come up with, and doctrinally sound. Should the congregation be given an inferior sermon (at least in the pastor’s opinion) instead of using the sermon outline he found? If he does use the sermon/sermon outline he found should he begin his sermon with words like “I found this sermon online at www.quick-and-easy-sermons –”? That isn’t exactly a great opening line, is it?

As I said earlier, the outline for the sermon I will preach this Sunday comes from Concordia Pulpit Resources. It was written by Rev. Douglas L. Rutt, PhD, the Director of International Ministries for Lutheran Hour Ministries. I expect that many other pastors around the country will be using the same outline. Because of that, our sermons will have the same flow and, at times, use virtually identical words and phrases. If those pastors, or I, reference each occurrence of this in our sermon with the phrase, “As Douglas Rutt wrote,” the point of the message would be lost. The congregation would, instead, leave the service wondering who Douglas Rutt is. Pastor Rutt submitted this outline in the hopes that people like me would use it. He submitted it with the firm belief that it contained biblical content worth communicating to congregations. That I am using source material will be indicated simply with a phrase like the one Pastor Rutt used in his opening line.

I am not troubled by this. My job is to proclaim the truth found in God’s Word. My job is not to be original. Even when I do not use any overt source, I am not being original. I rely on what I’ve learned. I rely on the truth handed down throughout the ages. Most of all, I rely on the Scriptures. I may illustrate this truth with contemporary or personal stories. I am, however, not original. Personally, I do not want a pastor who is.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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