The Wall Street Journal ran a piece today concerning the websites that pastors use to get inspiration for a sermon or in some instances they just read off someone else’s entire sermon. Anyone who has been to seminary or has pastored has probably thought about these issues–while I was at seminary I definitely saw students and pastors “borrowing” from others. This “borrowing” ranged from using an idea for an introduction or illustration to a pastor paying seminary students to transcribe sermons that the pastor heard on the radio or internet so that the pastor could recite the entire sermon.
Several pastors mentioned in the WSJ piece, including the purpose-driven Rick Warren and my fellow Cincinnatian Steve Sjogren, have no problem with pastors preaching their sermons without citing them. Sjogren calls attribution “a waste of time” and Rick Warren states that this activity “is not plagiarism.” I believe that Mr. Warren has confused his understanding of the definition of plagiarism. If Mr. Warren gives consent to let others use his intellectual property without attribution, which he is well within his rights to do, then when pastors use Mr. Warren’s material without attribution they are not committing theft because they are respecting the author’s intended use. However, they are still committing plagiarism–it is just legal plagiarism. The Oxford American Dictionary gives this as the definition of plagiarism:
to take (the work or idea of someone else) and pass it off as one’s own
This brings us to the question of how deeply must one borrow from someone else in order to commit plagiarism. I believe, contra to Warren, that the same general rules apply in formal oral discourse as apply in written discourse. If the ideas and inspiration are general and broad enough to be considered part of the public domain then you might not need to cite someone. If an idea or situation helps as you structure your sermon then again, you might not have to cite someone. But, if we are talking about particular phraseology, or information that you would not know off the top of your head or that you did not generate through your own research, you probably should cite your source.
Furthermore, it is a very different situation when one uses an idea for an introduction versus using a majority of someone else’s sermon (in the WSJ piece Ed Young states that the people that he “gets inspiration from” take 70% of their material from other people’s sermons). The question really is, have you worked with the material at hand enough to make it your own. If you are just cutting and pasting this is plagiarism.
This brings us to the question of why pastors should credit sources at all. As Warren and Sjogren propose, why not let the “experts” generate the sermons while the rest of the pastors just read them off on Sunday morning? This my friends will be the subject of an another post, but feel free to leave your comments regarding these issues.