Nice Sermon, Pastor-Who Wrote It?
by Hal GordonEarlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story on members of the clergy who buy sermons off the Internet. The Journallisted five websites that offer sermon ideas, and even entire transcripts, for modest fees. One of these sites, amusingly titled, desperatepreacher.com, offered this comforting quote of the day from Henry David Thoreau: "Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life."
Indeed, the morality of using canned sermons does not seem to weigh heavily on some of those who labor in the Lord's vineyard. One clergyman quoted in the article, the Rev. Steve Sjogren of Cincinnati, actually advised his fellow preachers to "get over the idea that we have to be completely original with our messages, each and every week." Instead, they should recycle the best material they can lay their hands on. "Don't be original," says the good reverend. "Be effective."
As a speechwriter, I readily agree that if someone else can get a point across more wittily, more profoundly, or more effectively than I can, it makes sense to use that other person's words. But I also believe that I should attribute those words to their author and not try to pass them off as the speaker's.
Yet, astonishingly, some of the ministers quoted in the Journal's article don't see anything unethical about quoting without attribution in a sermon. According to Rev. Sjogren, it doesn't count as plagiarism. "Real" plagiarism, he says, "is taking stuff out of a book and putting it into another book." But "taking people's material and putting it into a speaking forum, is not plagiarism."
Then what is it, pray?
I once worked for the CEO of a major corporation who scrupulously removed quotes from speech drafts, even when they were properly attributed, because, as he put it, "I don't quote authors whom I haven't read." This man—who graduated "with distinction" from the U.S. Naval Academy—thought it was dishonest to appear more learned than he actually was. Maybe he should be lecturing divinity students on the ethics of rhetoric.
Fortunately, the Journal article quotes other preachers who are disgusted by the casual attitude toward attribution displayed by Rev. Sjogren and his ilk. They worry, with good reason, that parishioners will feel betrayed if they find out that their pastors have been passing off canned sermons as their own. When this happens, the erring shepherd is sometimes driven from his pulpit by his outraged flock.
Thomas G. Long, a preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, suggests that too many preachers have succumbed to the sin of pride. They want to be clerical superstars, like the ones who attract millions of viewers on television. "Our churches have turned into theatres," sighs Mr. Long, "and our preachers have turned into witty motivational speakers with high entertainment value.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I think that if a preacher can't find the inspiration he needs to preach the gospel without surreptitiously borrowing from the sermons of others, he ought to find another line of work. As St. Paul—no slouch as a preacher himself—once said: 'Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.'"