There is an old joke about a famous preacher of a former generation who regularly mounted his tall steeple pulpit, raised both hands level with his shoulders, and proceeded to preach while holding two erect fingers in the air until his sermon was finished. When asked about that habit he replied, “I do it because everything I say quotes somebody else!”
“Cut-and-paste preaching!” Twice in the recent past, investigating groups
contacted me to ask about published sermons of mine that another preacher preached as his own. In one case, it was my entire sermon as published on the Internet, including a personal illustration given verbatim in the first person as though the event was an experience of the preacher. In the other, a major portion of one of my books was cited with no reference to the source, and someone in the congregation recognized it as unoriginal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” the commandment tells us (Exodus 20:16, NKJV). To present the work of another person and claim or-even through silence-imply that it is all yours is never right, and it is never more wrong than when it sounds forth from a pulpit. Have you checked out the root of the word hypocrisy recently?
As a preacher, I am all too aware of the weekly pressure of finding something new to say about an age-old truth. What was it Churchill is rumored to have said about us? It was to the effect that “any man who thinks he can say something new about the same basic subject to the same basic audience week in and week out is a fool!” He may have been right, but for the moment Sir Winston seems to have forgotten that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe”(1 Corinthians 1:21, KJV).
I know that weekly stress very well and those moments when it looks like Sunday is coming and the message is not. But I also know the indescribable thrill of experiencing the Spirit wafting me along and taking these lips of clay to deliver a message that will transform lives. He always delivers at the right time. Only after we have been personally broken and reshaped by the Spirit’s message do we have the right to call a sermon our own or preach it. To do less is to cop out on our calling and to run the risk of ruining our credibility before our audience. Preaching someone else’s message also can be the means by which we deliver ourselves and our ministry into the hands of enemies.
You receive regular invitations to “sign up now” for outlines, illustrations and the entire sermon each week. Seldom do they have footnotes, and no copyright demands are attached. Some “services” actually suggest that a preacher simply take their words and use them without crediting a source. At least one that I have seen comes in neat manuscript form, ready to carry to the pulpit, if manuscript preaching is your modus operandi.
Since long before the Internet, or even the inauguration of Preaching magazine, I have made it a practice to read two sermons by other preachers every day as part of my personal discipline. I find what others think about a particular text or subject and how they approach it for preaching to be very helpful. Often I find that these readings provide kindling by which I can light my own fire.
I also know, however, the temptation to get by with more than just “a little help from these friends.” And there are times when I hear Solomon’s “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV) and think, He is right! What, after all, is the sense in reinventing the homiletic wheel? Sometimes I actually use the ideas from these sources. So, if Solomon is right, why not just take the work of another and, like that old preacher, hold my hands high with two fingers held erectly at my shoulders and recycle it? Again, the answer is because it is wrong; to do so undermines our personal spiritual growth, diminishes our creativity and lacks integrity. Worst of all, to do so denies the Holy Spirit an opportunity to do in our hearts and minds the work He designs to do.
So, how do we avoid becoming a plagiarist and destroying our credibility along with our personal sense of integrity? Simple: First, try saying what someone else says in a different way. Rephrasing is often a good way to breathe new life into an old idea and make it your own. Second, resolve never to claim as yours-by either fact or implication-a personal experience related by someone else. Third, give credit when using somebody else’s “stuff.” Say something like, “In a book by Bob Smith he talks about…” Or, “I read a sermon by a pastor named Joe Jones on this text, and he told about. … I liked his idea so much I thought I would share it with you.” Or, “Some of the ideas I am bringing you this morning come from a sermon by Charles Spurgeon …”
All these and a variety of other ways are appropriate, but re-running another preacher’s work and implying it is yours is not. Of course, if we publish our sermons in any form, we should always give our sources as either footnotes, endnotes or a concluding bibliography. When the day is done and you and I put our heads down for the night, we have but one thing to give the Lord and that is the integrity of our calling. Let us protect that for the sake of the One who calls us and in whose name we preach.

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About The Author


The Rev. Dr. Leslie Holmes is professor of ministry and preaching at Erskine Theological Seminary in Columbia and Due West, SC. A Presbyterian minister, he was most recently senior pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA. Dr. Holmes has served churches in six states, including Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, and First Presbyterian Church in Pascagoula, MS. He has taught preaching, worship, and pastoral leadership on six continents and throughout North America. He is the author of several books.

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