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Do Evangelical Preachers Plagiarize the Sermons of Others?

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Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama was recently elected as the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant Christian sect in the United States. While Litton is a Fundamentalist, evidently he was not Fundy enough for extremists within the SBC. Outraged over his election, these keepers of Baptist purity scoured the Internet looking for evidence to smear Litton. And sure enough, they found it.

Litton is a serial plagiarizer. Scores of online sermons were found where Litton had ripped off the material of others and presented it as his own. In other words, Litton is a thief. He took that which belonged to someone else, failed to provide proper attribution, and presented it as his own. In any setting, this is wrong. I have had numerous bloggers over the years quote my writing without giving attribution. Some Evangelical bloggers quote my work but refuse to link to this site lest their readers are tempted to read my writing for themselves. You know, I work for Satan and my calling in life is to lead people astray.

As I have followed the Ed Litton saga, I have noticed the outrage among Evangelical preachers over Litton’s thievery. While pointing out how dishonest and unethical it is to not provide proper attribution, some offended preachers believe such behavior is rare. As I shall show, it is not.

I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I preached my first sermon at age fifteen, my last at age fifty. All told, I preached 4000+ sermons. While I bought several sermon outline books early in my career, I never used them. Every sermon I preached was my own. I worked hard at crafting sermons that would speak to those who heard me preach. Having OCPD (Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder) drove me to be exacting in my preparation. I was a consummate outliner. Whatever people thought of my preaching, there was no question that my sermons were my own. When I quoted a preacher or an author, I ALWAYS gave proper attribution.

The first church I worked for was a GARBC church in Montpelier, Ohio. While I was there, one of the deacons accused the pastor of stealing material from the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) rag, the Sword of the Lord. This was the first time I saw plagiarism firsthand. The pastor won the battle, and the deacon and his family left the church.

In 1983, I started Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. I pastored this church for eleven years. Before purchasing an abandoned brick Methodist church building, Somerset Baptist used the upstairs of a facility called the Landmark Building. The aforementioned plagiarizing pastor had left Montpelier Baptist by then, so I asked the new pastor to come preach for me. This pastor asked me if I had anything specific he wanted me to preach on? He told me that he had memorized a number of sermons that had been published in the Sword of the Lord, and he could preach several of those if I wanted him to. One such sermon was Greg Dixon’s sermon titled “The Sinking of the Titanic.”

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I replied, “why don’t you preach something original?”

In the mid-1980s I managed a Christian bookstore owned by a family that attended Somerset Baptist. Evangelical preachers came to the store to purchase books of sermon outlines. I was surprised by how many preachers wanted these books. While I was happy to sell the books to them, I silently wondered why they weren’t crafting their own sermons. I concluded that these preachers were either poorly trained, lacked the requisite skills necessary to write a sermon, or were just downright lazy. (The ministry is a perfect place for lazy men to hide.)

From 2002-2008, my wife and I, along with our children, visited over 125 churches. Please see But Our Church is DIFFERENT! for a list of the churches we visited. We heard lots of sermons — good and bad. We heard preachers who had no public speaking skills. And I mean none. These men were atrocious speakers who had no business preaching. I was taught in Bible college that whom God calls, he equips. These preachers may have been “called,” but they most certainly were not equipped. My wife’s father graduated from Midwestern Baptist College in 1976. He started an IFB church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio in 1981. I was his assistant for 2 years. Dad was loved by the church, but he couldn’t preach. Dad took speech and homiletic classes in college, but what he was taught didn’t stick. His sermons were often rambling and incoherent. Dad turned chasing rabbit trails into fine art. I tried to help him. I remember sitting down with Dad and showing him how to craft an outline. Sadly, my instruction failed. We heard many Dads over the years; good men who lacked basic public speaking skills.

We also heard a handful of gifted orators, men who knew how to craft sermons. What was surprising was the number of men, regardless of skill level, who “borrowed” the work of others without attribution. I will admit that I was a sermon critic. I could spot theft from a mile away. Let me conclude this post with a story about a new church plant in Bryan, Ohio.

We attended this church for several weeks. After hearing the pastor preach a few times, I came home one Sunday and told Polly that there was something not right about his sermons. His words had a familiar ring to them. After doing a bit of sleuthing, I determined this pastor was using the sermons of Rick Warren word-for-word. He wasn’t even trying to disguise his theft. The tell? He quoted a lot of different Bible translations, a classic Warren trait. Busted!

I am not suggesting that all Evangelical preachers are thieves. However, it is clear to me that plagiarism is far more common than Evangelicals are willing to admit. There’s nothing wrong with quoting the work of others as long as you give proper attribution. Doing so is not hard — “Rick Warren recently said _______.” Easy-peasy.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Bruce, it’s obvious you are an honest soul who would never deliberately steal someone else’s words. I’m assuming that the preachers didn’t attribute the sermon because they wanted everyone to believe they crafted a fine sermon. No quoting from a sermon, just wholesale ripoff. I have to admit learning all the shenanigans that pastors pull when they are supposed to be honest and decent just disappoints me. I don’t know why, I guess I had some lingering idea that most people went into the ministry to show God’s love and work for conversions. Now I wonder how much of my better memories are lies. sigh

  2. Avatar
    Obstaclechick

    Even in middle school and high school students are taught to give proper citations, not only in English/literature classes but also in science classes. (Maybe not all teachers explain why though). You’re absolutely correct that it’s theft to omit proper citations.

  3. Avatar
    Obstaclechick

    I had another thought about this. Pastors will cite Bible verses ALL THE TIME. They have no problem quoting a verse and listing its source. Obviously, they know how to give proper citations. Now, is it possible that they cite the Bible as an appeal to expertise/authority, because they think it’s the literal word of God and want to use that perceived authority to their advantage, yet they see the works of fellow pastors as worthy of using but not worthy of giving credit to because it’s the word of humans and not if a deity? It’s probably just laziness or worse, trying to make themselves look better, but evangelical thought is so convoluted it could be something else….. maybe I am just making myself crazy trying to understand fundies. 🙃

    • Avatar
      William

      I have had quite a few of my sermons used, it never bothered me, my thoughts were that the Spirit gave me the inspiration so I never really owned them anyway, the glory was not about me.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I believe in giving credit to whom credit is due. It’s such a simple concept, but some preachers don’t seem to get it.

      William mentioned believing his sermons came from the Holy Spirit. I believed the same. That said, the Holy Spirit told me to give proper attribution. 😀😀

      • Avatar
        Kel

        The head pastor of my previous church sometimes denounced, from the pulpit, the acts of fellow pastors who apparently loved to plagiarise his sermons (to be fair, he was an excellent orator).

        On one hand, I could understand his anger. But on the other hand, I used to think like William did: why should he be that annoyed if everything comes from the Holy Spirit after all? Aren’t we all just unworthy vessels?

  4. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I only attended Evangelical churches for a few years, but damn, I was unimpressed. Clearly there were lots of popular tropes that different preachers all seemed to favor, along with ridiculous arguments like “Liar, Lord, Lunatic”. Oh, and they all boiled down to the idea that I was pond scum and a used tampon. Not exactly helpful to someone suffering from undiagnosed depression.

    By comparison, the Catholic priests who held the masses I attended growing up preached short sermons, but they were on topic and matched the personal style of each preacher. (For those who have had the good sense never to get involved in the Catholic Church, it is liturgical, with a particular focus each Sunday already specified by the liturgy, so the priest’s job was to figure out how a topic that got covered every year could be presented in a fresh and meaningful way.) The focus of the priests who served in the liberal churches of my growing-up years was not so much about sinning; Catholics know what sins are and how to discharge them with the sacrament of Confession. They were about how to be better parents, co-workers, community members, and so forth. I gather, since I bailed, the churches of my 1960s-70s childhood have become more focused on how people are pond scum. Not sure why, it isn’t working for Evangelicals as far as keeping rears in pews goes.

  5. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I took about a decade of part-time work to get a MS degree (geology), the first three years of which were spent doing undergrad catch-up since my BS was in computer engineering. I was in my mid-forties when I started, and caring for aging parents, hence the slow process. But along the way, I made friends with some of my professors, friendships that have outlasted my time at the university.

    Plagiarism is a fierce problem on modern US university campuses. The number of people who actually believe it’s morally wrong to steal someone else’s words and pass them off as your own seems to have shrunk considerably. It wasn’t an issue in graduate classes, where the papers we wrote were sufficiently focused on the ones we read and discussed that you couldn’t steal to build your case. The upper-division majors classes were also mostly focused enough, at least in geology. The classes were also small, so that by halfway through the semester, a professor could easily identify a situation where a particular student veered from their ordinary writing style. But outside that bubble, plagiarists and cheaters were like cats on the kitchen counter: “no” simply meant “don’t get caught”.

    My friends who taught lower-division classes and upper-division nonmajors classes worked extremely hard at making sure students understood what plagiarism is, how cheating of any sort would be prosecuted, etc. Turnitin was ubiquitous. My thesis adviser, in his nonmajors classes, printed up differently-organized short-answer tests (same questions, different order) for odd and even classroom rows. In our geology department, every professor taught at least one lower-division and/or nonmajors class, and every one of them ended up failing at least one student per semester for repeated plagiarism or cheating.

    Watching my friends struggle year after year has made me think even less of plagiarism and plagiarizers than used car salesmen and software pirates. Thieves all.

  6. Avatar
    Chikirin

    I heard my pastor tell a story about his childhood, it had a funny ending and everyone laughed. A few months later his mentor from seminary came as a guest preacher, and told the same anecdote down to the smallest detail, so I guess my pastor must have took it from him. Pretty harmless, but it made me sad that he felt he had to embellish his own childhood by stealing someone else’s story.

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Bruce Gerencser