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Plagiarism: Whose message is it?


When Jeffrey Locke travels six hours to the Georgia Baptist Convention annual meeting next week, he is hoping to return to his Faceville congregation with more than just good memories of friends and a few good meals under his belt. With pen in hand he will be busy getting sermon ideas for messages he can preach later in the year.

Based on this year’s program his congregation will have the opportunity to hear speakers such as O.S. Hawkins, Jerry Vines, Don Hattaway, Wayne Hamrick, and Larry Wynn, as well as devotionals by Jeff Crook, Douglas New, Jeremy Morton, Keith Fordham, and Jim Perdue. In effect, since his congregation cannot come to the convention, he will bring the convention to them – one of Georgia Baptists’ most far-flung congregations just a mile from the Florida border and only 40 miles from Tallahassee.

But when he puts pen to paper in the Gwinnett Arena he stands at a crossroads in his ministry – if he writes just a sermon outline he will be within the bounds of what many say is acceptable gathering of information; if he writes the entire sermon he might be accused of plagiarism and place his ministry in jeopardy.

Joe Westbury/Index

Ministers attribute sources in a variety of ways. Bill Blanchard, pastor at Mountain Park First Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, has made it clear to his congregation that he leans heavily on mentors Clyde Francisco and Adrian Rogers. And, he recently distributed a position paper to his congregation outlining his personal policy, which includes thoroughly documented and sourced footnotes should anyone question sermon content. Blanchard was given Francisco’s teaching Bible upon the death of his mentor, a legendary professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville.

On the other hand, those arguments are null and void if the speaker is someone who has a philosophy such as national renowned author Rick Warren (who is not on this year’s agenda) who encourages pastors to preach his sermons intact with no need for attribution.

What’s a pastor to do?

That’s the question many are asking as they navigate the increasingly choppy waters of sermon preparation. What is considered to be sermon sharing among some is quickly defined as sermon stealing by others. With no clear definition of what intellectual property means, a pastor’s entire ministry can hang in the balance by how he delivers one sermon.

In some ways Locke is the proverbial Everyman among Georgia Baptist pastors, caught between a rock and a hard place.


Shifting sands of time

What was once highly acceptable as pastors gathered on Monday mornings to swap sermons is now held in low regard. Pastors are stereotyped as being lazy for not generating a streak of sermons that knock a home run every Sunday, but not all are gifted with the same oratorical skills.

Scripture teaches that different gifts are given to believers, but not all gifts are given to each believer. In the real world, one individual will excel better at being a pastor to his flock than being a pulpit wonder; others have the gift of oratory but poor people skills, delegating those responsibilities to others.

The average pastor is the point man to minister to the sick, counsel the spiritually and mentally afflicted, deliver stellar inspirational sermons three times a week, and turn off the lights and lock the doors at the end of every service. And, asking a pastor if he has ever preached a sermon verbatim is like asking if he still beats his wife. Any response will indict him.

While pastors can be lampooned for preaching part or all of another’s sermon, politicians armed with professional speech writers receive no such criticism for coming up with such historic phrases as “Ask not what your country can do for you…” by John F. Kennedy, “nattering nabobs of negativity” by Spiro Agnew, or even “evil empire” immortalized by Ronald Reagan. They are expected to be their own ghostwriters, wowing their congregations Sunday after Sunday with nuggets of truth they largely mined themselves.

In some ways Rick Warren has become the ghostwriter for pastors as he repeatedly coins phrases that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, brings about a greater harvest for the Kingdom.

Recent interviews with Georgia Baptist pastors and nationally recognized authorities produced a patchwork of responses with no unifying thought of what defines plagiarism. Some erred on the side of full disclosure if a certain percentage of a sermon was preached, while others hesitated to break the sermon flow by stopping to acknowledge its source.

Joe Westbury/Index

In Southeast Georgia, Derwin Griffin of Second Baptist Church in Waycross uses the Internet as well as bound volumes to prepare his sermons. He believes in making verbal attribution if a paragraph or more is used, but sometimes breaks that rule. “There are times when the Holy Spirit is working and to stop and make an attribution would hinder His ability to work in someone’s life – it would just destroy the mood of the service,” he says. Pastors need to attribute but not be bound by legalism on every occasion, he added.

When mentoring is factored in, the discussion became even more unclear – especially in the examples of relationships between Elisha and Elijah, and Paul and Timothy.


Intellectual property

In order to better understand the topic it’s necessary to know how sermon preparation has changed through the decades, says Mike Minnix, former vice president for evangelism for the Georgia Baptist Convention and founder of PastorLife (, an Internet-based sermon resource for pastors.

“Years ago before the Internet, pastors received a tremendous amount of their sermon content from books, and only those who read those books would have noticed it. W. Herschel Ford, pastor of First Baptist Church of El Paso, Texas, and perhaps the greatest writer of sermon material in the 1950s and ‘60s, wrote at least 20 books on prayer, funerals, and Christian doctrine.

In the foreword to each of those books Ford was very explicit in how the content could be used: ‘I hope this book will be a blessing to those who read it. I will be glad for you to use the thoughts therein as your very own, without giving any credit to me. After all, you bought the book and everything in it is yours.’”

Ford, while generating income from the books, did not place constraints on how the content could be used. He felt he was simply a conduit through which God worked and wanted to share what he had been given with others.

Getting sermon ideas from such books was common practice among pastors of the era, who frequently gathered on Monday mornings for coffee and sermon swapping. Intellectual property was a foreign concept to the profession among ministers who did not grasp the long term potential of saving their sermons for compilation into books for purchase.

“That’s just the way pastors thought back then. There was no sense of protectionism; as long as you did not use a direct quote in your sermon without attribution, it was acceptable to use whatever content in order to inspire your congregation and motivate them to be more effective in sharing their faith,” Minnix explains.

There was a tremendous amount of cross-pollination among pastors and in many cases, it would have been difficult to even try to document original content since a sermon may have been compiled from a variety of sources. A pastor might attribute a phrase to Pastor John in Macon when it was really Pastor Tom in Valdosta who coined the sentence three years earlier.

“I don’t want to be seen as approving of a lack of study, but people need to know sermon sharing was a common practice for years in our Baptist tradition and was never questioned. You can’t steal what someone has given to you,” Minnix states.

And, in fact, PastorLife clearly states that its free content can be used without attribution. About the only constraint is not using copyrighted material without attribution. But that’s when the water begins to get a little muddy, since few sermons are copyrighted.

“When a discussion of plagiarism enters the picture I think you would have to ask yourself ‘What is the point of a sermon?’ I would answer that the bottom line is that it is to convey the truth of scripture to the heart of the listener so the lost may be saved.”

“The bottom line in plagiarism is determining if someone has taken something that is not theirs and used it in such a way to lead an audience to believe it originated with them. With no attribution through verbal or other acknowledgement, it would be wrong.”

Former SBC President Jerry Vines, now a Georgia resident who lives in Canton, agrees with that statement. He has a website at where he gives away a considerable amount of content for a small subscription fee to cover costs.

“I don’t mind at all if someone else preaches my outlines. I believe we read in Corinthians where the apostle Paul rhetorically asks ‘What do you have that you did not receive from others?’ I feel that God gave me insight to share with the church and feel it is appropriate to share it with others.

Joe Westbury/Index

Lonnie Gibson of Union Baptist Church in Doerun has been preaching for 43 years and was mentored by a much older pastor when he was still in his twenties. “My mentor was 75 at the time and taught me much about the ministry and sermon preparation. I believe we have an obligation to pass down to future generations the insight which God gave to those who came before us,” he says.

“Vance Havner said that when he started preaching he tried to be original or nothing, and soon found out that he was both. The culture has changed on how we gather and share sermon material, but I feel that the bottom line is that whatever we have is for the edification of the church.”

Derwin Griffin, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Waycross, agrees.

“When it gets down to it, whose kingdom are we concerned about – ours or God’s? It’s clear that the apostle Paul did not worry about protecting the use of what God gave him in mentoring Timothy or others.

“In some ways I feel what is driving this discussion are guidelines from the secular world that are invading the church, a form of legalism that is seeking to restrict what is being preached. Some have lost their jobs over real or perceived plagiarism. What is accomplished for the kingdom when that occurs? The pastor who becomes preoccupied with documenting minutiae will soon deliver sermons that have grown cold and impersonal.”

In the Bettstown Community south of Bainbridge, bivocational pastor Gwan Garrison struggles with working a fulltime job and pastoring a country church.

“It seems that plagiarism is becoming more of an issue because pastors are now selling their sermons because they feel they have value as intellectual property. I realize that I am not the greatest pastor, but I give my typed manuscript to a woman in our church who shares it with her homebound brother.

“If it eventually gets passed around and preached somewhere and helps bring someone to Christ, I would rejoice. I don’t feel like I own my sermons, God does. I’m just the channel He uses in the process of bringing others to Him.”


The Wild, Wild West

The rules of plagiarism are hard and fast – depending on who you talk to. There is a world of grey between the two extremes, a virtual Wild West of social enforcement where not all originators share the same point of view.

Take, for instance, that position shared by Ford. Or in a modern-day application, the most popular author – Christian or secular – in America today, Rick Warren. The California pastor maintains that what God has given to him, he freely gives to others. He offers complete sermons and says attribution is not necessary. He considers his material to be in the public domain and does not restrict its use as a catalyst in the process of salvation.

A blanket definition of plagiarism is difficult to arrive at because there is no court of appeals other than that of public opinion. And that makes it difficult for pastors to live in the grey areas where the lines are smudged beyond recognition. About the only agreed-upon constraint is that it’s best to attribute to avoid placing your integrity in question.

It’s similar to living in the Old West and riding your horse through a variety of towns where you pick up supplies along the way. Each town will have its own sheriff to enforce locally agreed-upon laws, but each will have his own interpretation for how closely those laws are applied.

Some will freely give you items – a meal or a sack of flour – out of respect for your role as a fellow traveler and in appreciation for how they had been befriended on such occasions. Others will sell you the same items, which is their right. But it would be wrong for a sheriff to pick and choose among your possessions and determine what you had purchased and what you had been given and to brand you a thief.

To carry the analogy further, it would be unfair for you to be arrested by one sheriff for what another did not see as a crime. The point, some say, is that it is very easy to be accused of plagiarism when rules have not been codified. It requires knowing, or spending time researching, the preferences of each sheriff – or author or sermon website – to know how to avoid breaking the law, or at least avoid being accused of intellectual property theft.


A moving target

There appear to be two universal agreements among those interviewed for this article, which included pastors with statewide and national ministries, as well as seminary professors. But even those can have exceptions.

• Never preach another’s sermon as your own in which you withhold attribution. Some give a disclaimer prior to or during the sermon while others list the information in their footnotes and make those notes available to any who ask.

• Never use another individual’s personal experiences or stories as your own.

BP File Photo

Prominent Florida pastor and former SBC President Jerry Vines, who has retired to Georgia, says pastors should never preach another’s sermon verbatim without some kind of attribution. But through his website at he offers ministers a variety of sermon content which they can freely use in their sermon preparation.

With that said, the idea of what is intellectual property – and what constitutes intellectual property theft – remains a constantly moving target.

Minnix gave the following real-life example of how easy it can be to assume plagiarism existed when such was not the case. A prominent Georgia pastor mentioned that he had accepted a speaking engagement but didn’t have time to prepare a sermon. He then accepted a sermon that had been recently written by a friend.

The pastor preached the sermon in an evangelism rally where many came to faith in Christ. His friend, who wrote the sermon, preached it a month later in his own church and was confronted by a layman who said “I know now where you get your sermons because I heard ‘John Doe’ preach it in a revival last month.” The pastor assured him that he was the writer of the sermon and had done nothing wrong. The layman left, not fully convinced, Minnix said.

One misstep can be disastrous. Consider the case earlier this year of a mid-Georgia pastor who was struggling under stress of personal problems and had trouble focusing on weekly sermon preparation. Over a six-week period he preached several sermons verbatim without giving attribution.

When confronted he confessed and shared his problems and asked forgiveness from the church. It was not an act of laziness but pure survival, he maintained, trying to hold his ministry together in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. While the church apparently extended the forgiveness, the pastor did feel his ministry had been severely damaged and resigned from the church.


“Grind it all up”

Lonnie Gibson, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Doerun, follows the advice a mentor gave him in his youth.

“As my 75-year-old mentor told me when I was just 25 years old, ‘take everything you read, see, and experience and put it in your own hopper and grind it all up. What comes out is you.’

“That advice has served me will for the past 43 years. I’ve used other people’s outlines but I always put my meat on their bones,” he explains.

But he’s not a total legalist in that application. Gibson has had several mentors and in turn has mentored others. When it comes to mentoring he said he expects those who he mentored to use some of his thoughts and ideas in their sermons – no attribution required.

“That’s why I mentored them,” he says, and does not consider his input into their ministry to be proprietary.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking another individual’s ideas and using them as long as you wrap it in your own experiences. There has to be a trust factor between a congregation and a pastor. As long as they believe that you are above board in all you do, you will be OK.”

Former SBC President Jim Henry, who retired as pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando in March, said he remembers a statement from J.D. Grey in a class at New Orleans Seminary. Grey, who had served as SBC president and was the legendary pastor of First Baptist Church of New Orleans, described sermon preparation like this: “Get your milk from as many cows as you like, but be sure to churn your own butter.”

(What is interesting is that others interviewed for this article attributed the quote to Adrian Rogers or other speakers they had heard use it without attribution. It is not known if Grey coined the phrase or if it was already in the public domain 50 years ago.)

“In my ministry I’ve encouraged others to use as many sources as they can, but to be sure they wrap them in their own experiences. The real danger is using someone else’s personal experiences as your own,” Henry said.

Henry was not always as careful about attributions as he is today.

“About 25 years ago I took the extra step of adding extensive footnotes to my sermons to be sure that everything was documented. Your memory will fail you five or ten years down the road and you can honestly forget if the illustration originated with you, if it was in public domain, or if it was borrowed from another speaker. With this system I can verify, as closely as humanly possible, the first time I used the material and where it came from.

“If I quote several sources I may not always attribute every source simply because it would disrupt the flow of the message. But to protect myself I do footnote the sources in case someone asks me for documentation,” Henry explains.

There’s an additional benefit for documenting your sources.

“You need to have your sources footnoted so those who want to go deeper into the message have a springboard for additional study. You are actually providing them a service by sharing your sources because, in effect, you have saved them hours of research and have done the initial legwork for them. A layperson’s time is just as precious as those in the ministry, and they will appreciate your sharing your sources.

“In the past I may have used 3 or 4 major points from someone else’s outline but I do that less and less. And when I do use someone else’s ideas, I am careful to paraphrase their outline and use my words, just to be on the safe side.

Henry even goes the extra mile in trying to give adequate attribution.

Jim Henry Ministries

Former SBC President Jim Henry of Orlando, Fla., keeps extensive sermon footnotes similar to Mountain Park pastor Bill Blanchard. Henry began the habit about 25 years ago to keep his mind fresh of where his content originated, he told the Index.

“I really try to document whenever possible. In fact, in the foreword to one of my books I included an apology to the readers to the effect that “If somewhere in this book I used something you said and I didn’t credit it, please forgive me. I did my best to attribute every possible source,” he says with a laugh.


Rules of engagement

Baptists have as many opinions on how pastors should generate their sermons as, the old saying goes, Carter has Little Liver Pills.

David Cook, pastor of Colonial Woods Baptist Church in Lilburn, noted an unspoken irony in all of this – while the congregation expects three fresh sermons a week from the pastor, the rules of engagement are considerably different for music directors. Pastors are expected to deliver a fresh word from God specifically for their congregations, yet music directors are excused from divine intervention and the writing of four or five new hymns or choruses each week, he observed.

In fact, many music directors rely on the same 20 or 25 songs that they rotate throughout the seasons. Not only are they limited in teaching congregations new music, many could lose their jobs from staying from the old standards.

The notion of a fresh word from God is rooted in the early church when groups would gather in homes to worship. It was a day far removed from the organized religion of today when the demands on pastors are considerably greater and services have been institionalized as three per week – one on Wednesday and two on Sunday – regardless whether the pastor feels like he has heard from God that week. The pastor frequently finds himself under pressure to perform to a level set by congregations.

Henry said he understands how fellow pastors are pressed for time and don’t have time for adequate sermon preparation. “But if that is the case,” he continues, they really need to bring it before the church leaders and be given adequate time for sermon preparation.”

Counseling demands are increasingly taking a larger portion of a pastor’s time, he said. But if other staff can help to free up the pastor, his sermons will reach far more people than a counseling session and will actually help members to solve their problems without a one-on-one encounter.

“I love counseling but I came to realize a few years ago that if I spent adequate time in sermon preparation I could counsel more people in that hour in the pulpit than I ever could throughout the week. People are struggling with all sorts of problems in their lives and they want a word from the Lord. Pastors are the channel to deal with those problems from a biblical perspective, and many problems can be addressed in a sermon.”


100 percent, 100 percent of the time

Greg Brown, pastor of Western Heights Baptist Church in LaGrange, says laypersons need to realize that a sermon is not a research paper, it is a proclamation of truth. “If preaching is an art and not a science, then pastors should have the same artistic freedom to create that is afforded to other artists.

“Why do some become tempted to plagiarize? Many feel intense pressure from their congregations to hit a home run twice every Sunday and again on Wednesday night. In today’s entertainment-driven society, many church members expect it as their right to be entertained, inspired, and motivated every time they attend worship.

“They will not waste their time in a church that does not give them 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”

David Allen, dean of the school of theology and director of the Center for Expository Preaching at Southwestern Seminary, said Solomon was right when he said there is nothing new under the sun. But he tells his seminary students not to use that as a license to use the work of others without attribution.

“Whenever studies are done, 10 out of 10 pastors report that they rely on the work of others as they craft their sermons. The question is, ‘When do I give credit and when do I not give credit?’ A world of grey lies between those two questions. The issue is not ‘Do we use other people’s material?’ We all do. The question is how do we attribute our sources?”

“The fact is that preaching is oral communication – it is not written communication. Hence, the rules are far more lax in requiring rigid attribution. People do not expect pastors to attribute everything they say from the pulpit. To do so would bore people to death and dilute the message,” Allen maintains.

“If a preacher uses what we call ‘common currency’ – material that is accepted to be in the public domain – there is no reason to credit the source. For example, if you hear Jerry Vines using a common example, you do not have to attribute your use of it to Jerry. He was not the originator of that thought, even though it made a lasting impact on you the first time you heard it from him.

Joe Westbury/Index

Jeffrey Locke serves as pastor of one of Georgia Baptist’s most remote locations nearly 20 miles south of Bainbridge, but his congregation has access to some of the nation’s greatest preachers through his extensive note-taking through the years. Locke holds sermon content he wrote from listening to Charles Stanley on a Pittsburgh, Pa., radio station 20 years ago.

In closing, Allen jokingly used a phrase that others used in discussing this topic: “When Jerry Vines preaches better sermons, I’ll preach better sermons. Everyone borrows from someone else.”

Then he added that he is a firm believer in milking a lot of cows but making his own butter.

Jeffrey Locke, who pastors a church in rural South Georgia, takes copious notes whenever he hears a sermon.

“I pastor a 55-member church in the middle of nowhere but I’ve preached some of Johnny Hunt’s material right here in Faceville. That means our people were able to hear the insight of the pastor of one of the biggest churches in our state, one of our convention’s greatest speakers.

“I would hear him at a conference and would sit there, notepad in hand, writing as fast as I could and then bring it home and preach it. I would use my own illustrations but it would be his outline and I attribute it to him. I don’t see a problem with that.

“I cannot prove this, but I understand that Billy Sunday was mentored by Mordecai Ham, and that at the end of Ham’s life he gave all of his sermons and related material to Sunday and told him to use them to glorify God.

“Ham was Sunday’s ‘Paul’ in his ministry. Those sermons became the foundation of Sunday’s ministry. Of course both individuals are now dead, but I never read anything about Billy Sunday plagiarizing Ham’s sermons. Was he guilty of plagiarism? I’m sure Sunday used the material and enlarged on it with his own experiences, but if there was a sermon or two there that was divinely inspired to the point that Sunday wanted to preach it intact, was that wrong?

“Maybe he attributed it, maybe he didn’t. What would those say who came to Christ through the preaching of that sermon? Let me ask you another question: ‘Would Billy Sunday have the reputation he enjoys today as one of America’s greatest preachers if he had never been mentored by Ham and didn’t have access to those sermons?’”

Carol Francisco, daughter of the late Southern Seminary professor Clyde Francisco, takes an “old school” approach toward protecting the intellectual property left behind by her father. Francisco was revered as being one of Southern Baptists’ greatest theologians before he died in the pulpit during a speaking engagement in 1981 in McRae.

Carol Francisco, who lives in Nebraska, told The Index that her father was “never, ever, protective of what he wrote or taught his students. His primary calling was not as an academician but as an intercessor for the young pastor trying to survive by maneuvering the minefields and power plays that existed in small country churches.

“Daddy never really cared about what happened to his original material, he was just concerned with getting it out there in the hands of the pastors where it could be used. He frequently told his students to take his illustrations and class notes and use them as their own to bring others to Christ.

“I never remember any dinner conversations where he expressed concern about the use of what he felt God had given to him. My mother took the same approach until her death in September, and I will follow that same path.

“I have a considerable amount of his manuscripts – some nearly illegible because no one could read his notes but Mom – but there are no plans to restrict their use. “Daddy would not want that.”