10 Tips for Avoiding the Pitfalls of Plagiarism

SermonCentral provides a wide variety of resources to help you more efficiently prepare biblical sermons for greater impact.  In providing the approximately half a million pages of free sermon content, we seek to enhance your preaching ministry—and guard it from the dangers of abuse.  As plagiarism in the pulpit is an issue that can indeed hurt your ministry, I again address the topic as we have before.

Plagiarism can be simply defined as taking the content of another and presenting it as one’s own.  It’s a pitfall that has cost some preacher’s their jobs.  However, sermon preparation never has to involve plagiarism.  Here are 10 tips for avoiding it:


1)    Start with the Bible as your primary source for sermon preparation.


It may seem obvious to make such a statement but it’s worth emphasizing.  God’s Word is our final authority in life and conduct and any message we give that fails to build upon it frankly shouldn’t be preached in the first place.  Paul told Timothy, “Preach the Word!”  We can’t preach the Word unless we’re in the Word and building our very thoughts upon it.  Some begin by holding such a standard and then drift from it.  There’s no better day than today to return to the Bible as the core source of your sermons.


2)    Determine to nourish your own spirit and soul before you feed your flock. 


God has designed it to be this way. “The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:6). The preacher should be the first to enjoy the spiritual benefits of preaching. When you yourself are filled up, the temptation to plagiarize will hold little sway over you.


What about the desert times of the soul?  They’ll certainly come but that shouldn’t undermine your own pursuit of intimacy with the Lord through his word.  And when dry times do come, there are other helps for steering clear of plagiarism.


3)    Regularly acknowledge your sources to your listeners.


Let them know you have gleaned input from others and let the acknowledgment be proportional to the degree to which you use others’ materials.


A singular quote succinctly delivered may call for no citation at all.  Rick Warren is fine with you telling your audience “It’s not about you,” even if you don’t cite him.  And declaring that “Death, thou shalt die!” may be just as well quoted without citing John Donne.  If something is common knowledge in the news or in literature, it may be even more powerful to NOT quote your source. This doesn’t mean you pretended to originate it.


But there should be no pressure to suppress sources of your content.  Great preachers have always drawn on the works of others.  But the great preachers don’t need to secretly use the work of others without acknowledgement.  If you use a seven point structure to present a message on the atonement—and all seven of the points come from a John Piper sermon—a clear acknowledgement of Piper’s contribution is in order.  Your primary source should receive the main citation.


But don’t encumber your preaching with myriads of citations which go beyond the expectation of any reasonable audience.  The question isn’t whether you are citing everything.  The question is whether you are representing yourself accurately or not.


4)     Always keep trust between you and your congregation in full view. 


As you guard trust, when and how to utilize material in your sermons will naturally fall into place.


Your concern ought not to be whether your sermon sources are discovered.  It must be, “Are my sermons and the way I present them strengthening trust between myself and my congregation?”


The most eloquent sermons will be completely undermined in the absence of trust.  But less than ideal sermons can still have great impact an environment of trust.  It’s better to be authentic with your listeners.  Try this one at the beginning of a sermon which you’ve struggled to prepare:  “I haven’t prepared for this sermon as much as I would have liked, but will you join me in asking God to speak to us today in spite of my own weakness?”


5)    Use multiple sources, not just one.


Some might ask, “Can I use a sermon taken verbatim from a single source?”  If your congregation is comfortable with a statement like, “I’d like to mention that the sermon I am about to give is taken verbatim from Pastor so and so,” then it’s probably within ethical bounds.  However, I doubt that appeals to you as a pastor, not because it would be embarrassing, but because it is not really the path you want to be on.  (If you’re asking such a question, there is no doubt a deeper issue in your ministry that needs to be addressed.)


Instead, in your sermon preparation position yourself in the midst of multiple sources rather than just one.  This will guard the doctrinal balance of your sermons and it will allow you to put your own mark on the content as you synergize ideas from many sources.


6)    Develop an array of citation techniques.


Make them second nature and part of the flow of your preaching.  Use phrases like.  Use phrases like:


·        Someone said

·        According to

·        I’d like to acknowledge . . .

·        I’d like to give credit to . . .

·        Pastor so and so says . . .

·        A model preacher said it this way . . .

·        I once heard it said . . .

·        Someone more experienced than I am tells me. . .

·        So and so has helped me get a grasp on this . . .


7)    Don’t seek to impress.  Seek to edify.


Sure, the “Wow” factor in preaching can have some utility in catching and keeping the attention of your audience, but the goal is not originality or to demonstrate your intellect.  It’s edification.  The goal is not to impress your listeners with your great preaching or sermon preparation.  It’s edification.


Acknowledge that there is very little original content under the sun—maybe none!  (See Ecclesiastes 1:9)  What can be original is your arrangement and presentation of the ideas you preach.



8)    Temper the drive for efficiency in sermon preparation


with the reality that efficiency has its limits and that labor in study must be invested.  Recognize you will never escape the need for labor in preparing your sermons.  Sales people need to make phone calls.  Carpenters need to hammer nails.  Drivers need to cover miles.  And preachers need to prepare sermons.  It takes work and there is a glory—and sweat—in doing that work.


9)     Whenever possible, avoid the Saturday night sprint.


The greatest pressure to plagiarize comes at the last minute when you are desperate for a word to share.  If the Saturday night sprint is a habit you find yourself struggling with, it’s time to step back, admit it’s an issue, and pursue support, including accountability with another pastor or friend.  Other things that can help include:  dedicated sermon preparation time earlier in the week, a solid preaching calendar developed in collaboration with others, and possibly even a change in preaching style that doesn’t require an inordinate amount of sermon preparation.


   10)  Above all, whatever you preach, make it your own.


You may take a sermon by Lee Strobel provided with the very purpose that you use it openly with your congregation.  Of course you’ll cite the source.  But what is really necessary is that you comb through the content and make it your own. Challenge and modify the ideas as you craft the final form.  Insert personal examples and thoughts.  Transform the message from being Lee Strobel’s to being your own.  And work in other sources as well.


Refuse to preach something for which you lack conviction.  Does that mean you shouldn’t preach if you don’t have something you have conviction to preach about?  Quite possibly.  Our preaching must leave space for the Holy Spirit to be actively engaged.  Your lack of conviction may be an indicator that God has something else in mind:


·         A change in topic or passage.  Is this what God has for your congregation at this time?

·         A change in preachers.  Does God want to speak to your congregation through someone else at this time?

·         A change in heart.  Does God want to do something in you before you share this message?


As someone once said, “A message from a mind will reach a mind.  A message from a heart will reach a heart.”  Speak from the heart!


Make what you preach your own conviction before God.  As Peter admonishes, “If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.”

Perhaps the greatest authority today on the craft of preaching is Dr. Haddon Robinson.  He addresses the issue of plagiarism: “It’s hard to footnote sermons.  There’s no way to make people in the pews understand all of the sources you are using, especially if they’re highly academic sources. I don’t think anyone expects preachers to stand up there and quote all of their reference books and commentaries by name.”

That’s a nice word of balance to close with.  We don’t have to be preoccupied with the small stuff.  We simply need to keep in mind the big picture:  As we preach, are we reasonably representing ourselves to our listeners?   

Originally published on SermonCentral.com. Used by permission.

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Ron Forseth
Ron Forseth is Editor-at-Large for SermonCentral.com and ChurchLeaders.com. He studied for two years with Wycliffe Bible Translators and has a passion to share Christ and see all people groups of the world reached with the Gospel. He served for several years as a college pastor in Colorado and in Christian service for most of the 1990s in China and Mongolia. He is Vice President of Outreach, Inc, an organization dedicated to inviting and connecting every person in America to a Bible-believing church so that they might have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Ron lives with his wife Carol in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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