One thing great preachers enjoy about traveling is that they can hear other people preach. But the American orator A.J. Gordon received a shock during an 1876 visit to England. Sitting anonymously in a church, he realized that the sermon sounded extremely familiar -- because he wrote it.
"The man in the pulpit was reading it verbatim without saying a word about the source. After the service, Gordon introduced himself and we can just imagine the pastor's reaction," said the Rev. Scott Gibson, director of the Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.
Perhaps the pastor read one of Gordon's books or found the sermon in a journal. He might have lifted it from a major newspaper, because it was common in those days for sermons to be published in Monday editions.
But the preacher never thought the author would cross the Atlantic and land in one of his own pews, said Gibson, who is studying the history of plagiarism in preaching. It has always been hard for an offender to believe that a church member has read the telltale source or that a visitor with an excellent memory happened to be sitting in the right place at the wrong time.
"This is not a new problem," said Gibson. "Some people think the World Wide Web came along and suddenly you had thousands of pastors copying other people's sermons with a few clicks of a mouse. But there has always been a lot of laziness out there.
"Preachers get busy and they run out of time and then they just plain steal."
The temptations are timeless, but the Internet has raised waves of new ethical questions.
In his study, Gibson defines "plagiarism" as preaching someone else's sermon research or content without giving public credit for it. But is it plagiarism to use an outline or text the pastor has legally obtained -- even purchased -- from one of the thousands of preaching sites that have sprung up online? Is it acceptable to use a respected site such as SermonNotes.com without telling the congregation? What about quoting from the anonymous inspirational stories that arrive daily in everypastor's email? Is it wrong if a megachurch pastor has support staff members who do "ghost" work as researchers and writers? Does a preacher have to reveal each and every source of inspiration?
"It's hard to footnote sermons," said the Rev. Haddon Robinson, an internationally known teacher of preaching in Dallas and Denver before arriving at Gordon-Conwell. "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."
But all preachers read and hear stories and insights that they want to share with their flocks. It makes a sermon more colorful to feature a quotation by an author " who simply says something better than you can," said Robinson. Attributing direct quotes also adds authority, especially when quoting figures such as Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis or Billy Graham.
This is safe territory.
The danger is when pastors appropriate entire outlines or sermon texts and claim them as their own. Perhaps the strongest temptation is to personalize anecdotes that happened to other people. But it only takes seconds, noted Gibson, for a preacher to cite the source of a story or to say something like, "I heard a great sermon on this biblical text by pastor so and so and I want to share some of his insights with you." Some pastors add additional references in the Sunday bulletin or in study pages on the church website.
It's easy for preachers to play it straight, said Gibson. The question is whether many congregations have become so mesmerized that they will overlook plagiarism.
"Some people get so caught up in the experience of hearing that great preacher," he said. "It's not so much the content. It's his persona. It may not matter to them that he is using someone else's sermons. What you hear people say is, 'He's our preacher and it doesn't matter what he's doing. Let's move on.' "Some churches today just don't care."