"Thou shalt not" spelled out three times

Stolen Goods*

Post Author: Katherine Willis Pershey

*The title of this article is stolen borrowed from Thomas Long's article of the same name, published in the April 17, 2007 edition of the Christian Century. But since the author clearly credits her source, we will assume that she is not committing an act of plagiarism.

I admit that I love the feeling I get when I consider that the results of my prayer and study might help other preachers bear gospel fruit in the pulpit. I know how grateful I am for the insights and wisdom I discover through my weekly visits to Textweek. Reading commentaries, reflections, and sermons is an invaluable part of my preparation. I find my own voice in part by listening to the voices of others. During my first year of ministry, I didn’t always trust my voice – so young and so female—so adding it to the chorus challenged me to a new level of confidence.

Then things got interesting.

The December 2006 quotations column in Christianity Today included an excerpt from one of the linked sermons – my first Christmas Eve homily. It was completely surreal to see my words on that page; all the other quotes were from theologically orthodox men, and there I was. Well, there “Katherine Perchey” was—my name was misspelled, but whatever. The typo helped me keep my humility when I saw my words alongside such luminaries as Augustine of Hippo and John Piper.

A few months later, I read Thomas Long’s article about sermon plagiarism in the Christian Century. In “Stolen Goods,” Long addresses the rampant plagiarism among contemporary clergy. The advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever to “borrow” the sermons of other preachers – and it has also made it easier to discover such indiscretions. The article piqued my interest in how the quote from my Christmas Eve homily was credited by the preachers who used it in their own work. Though I had ego-googled “Perchey” when Christianity Today came out, I hadn’t googled the actual quote.

I typed in a few words from the quote. A handful of church websites and sermon blogs came up. A few preachers had used it in conjunction with variations of that honest trick, “As another preacher has said.” I’ve used that trick; sometimes it’s just unwieldy and overly academic to attach a name to a quote, and anonymous attributions are better than none at all.

And then, after clicking on one of the search results, I froze. There was the quote, surrounded not by quotation marks, but by the entire text of my sermon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was not merely heavily inspired by my manuscript; this was my manuscript. I scrolled down to find the footnote indicating that this was not the original work of the preacher whose name was proudly listed on the sidebar; the footnote wasn’t there. As I scanned the words, I noted with more than a little bitterness that the only altered sentence was the one in which I had mentioned how much I love my friend Rosamond’s sweet potato casserole. The Reverend Plagiarist at least had the decency to insert his own favorite Christmas treat.

By the end of the hour, I had discovered a second instance in which the whole manuscript had been preached and published in full. By the end of the day, I had fired off irate emails that called out the plagiarism and requested that the manuscripts be taken down immediately. By the end of the week, both pages had disappeared from the web. One of the pastors offered a short yet sincere apology, blessedly free of justifications. The other pastor never responded.

This whole episode left me angry and rattled. Preaching is a deeply personal and profoundly spiritual practice for me. The alchemy of text and context is exhilarating, and even though I whine about the weekly “grind” as much as the next person, the fact of the matter is I love writing and preaching sermons. I thought of myself as a preacher even before I thought of myself as a pastor. Sermon plagiarism was thievery that cut to my soul.

In addition to that gut reaction, I found myself acutely aware of what a vulnerable position I was in. If an unscrupulous pastor is willing to preach – and publish – another pastor’s sermon manuscript, what’s to stop him from insisting that said manuscript is his original work? As far as I could tell, both plagiarists were middle-aged men who’d been around the Christmas Eve sermon block a few times. In the imaginary courtroom for ecclesiastical plagiarism, wouldn’t the jury give the seasoned professional the benefit of the doubt, and tar and feather the young female novice? I worried that my integrity and trustworthiness as a preacher would be compromised if my congregation considered for even a moment that I might preach another’s manuscript as my own.

After uncovering this small scandal (Long calls it “homiletical petty larceny”), I stopped publishing sermons as often. I’m ambivalent about that decision, and have slowly begun to add new manuscripts to my church website. I do want to keep contributing to the pool of wisdom that continues to sustain my study. I also know that sharing the gospel is more important than protecting my reputation.

But come January, I will be googling that phrase again. If I find the manuscript attached to somebody else’s name and church website, this young female novice will have the heck halfway up the flagpole before the Magi even arrive at the manger. Mark my original words.

Katherine Willis Pershey pastors a Disciples of Christ congregation a few blocks from the coast in Southern California. (Someone has to do it, right?)

Katherine's hobbies include knitting, obsessing over music, and doggedly investigating plagiarism cases. She and her husband are expecting their first child in January.

Image by: aitoff
Used with permission
20 replies
  1. Mary Hess
    Mary Hess says:

    Given the rampant and zealous enforcement of “intellectual property” issues that our overly corporate culture pursues, I think we pastoral leaders need to be trending in the opposite direction. I know something of how painful and violating it is to have your own words put in someone else’s mouth — but on the other hand, isn’t it powerful that the proclamation you attempt to voice into the community is now being amplified and picked up in other places? And consider the earliest communities following Jesus — sharing the Word orally, sharing the word through memory and repeating of other people’s stories — isn’t it at least remotely possible that God would smile that your sermons are being picked up? I agree that they should be cited, and I agree that sermons are deeply contextual, but I still think our anger and frustration at having our words repeated is something we ought to problematize… Why don’t you consider placing a Creative Commons license on your work? That way you’ve publicly marked it (electronically) for sharing!

    • bonnie
      bonnie says:

      This response is typical. “You’re a christian artist? You must work for free!” Volunteering is one thing, being reprimanded for not sharing one’s personal, creative *professional* calling is entirely another.

  2. reverendmother
    reverendmother says:

    After I had a sermon published in a preaching journal I ran across it on a church website. The whole darn thing. To the preacher’s credit, she cited me throughout, which was almost more annoying: “As Rev. So-and-so said…” Over. And Over.
    Very good article and comment. I like the young clergy angle–who will they believe? Good question.
    I am actually somewhat OK (very somewhat) with my work being used in the pulpit without my permission. Sincerest form of flattery, right? The church of Jesus Christ is large enough that I am very unlikely to suffer harm by someone else using my words. But I would be totally pissed, though, if someone passed my work off as theirs for publication or some other purpose. Or in the unlikely event that we’re both “competing” for the same call and they pass my work off as their own.
    There’s also the poor (wo)man’s copyright–put a copy of the sermon in the mail to yourself, but don’t open the envelope. The postmark date will prove when it was written, should there ever be a question as to whether the sermon was written by you or Lazy McPlagiarist.

  3. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    Part of the reason this kind of plagiarism bothers me so much is that, for me, preaching is all about authenticity. Even when I preach a repeat sermon I have written, I find that I can’t preach it with conviction. I find it difficult to believe that someone could preach an entire sermon that they didn’t write, and have the words speak deep meaning to the congregation. Or, maybe I’m just naive and in twenty years, when I’m preaching my twenty-third Christmas Eve sermon I’ll be desperate for new material, too!

  4. Sunny
    Sunny says:

    Katherine- What an interesting web-based world we live in. I agree that it is somewhat flattering that people would want to use your sermons- shows that you are creative and intelligent. However, you were right to send off irate emails- I can’t believe that someone would post it on their website as their own work- or even if they credit you. Yikes, how lazy preachers have become.
    Also, I read you blog and think its great. I really enjoy reading other preachers sermons- I think it enhances my own preaching (even though I don’t use them as my own!). So I hope you keep posting them.
    I sometimes use stories or quotes from other preachers- but I always use their names (especially when I post my sermons on my own blog), and I directly quote them and try not to quote a large amount of material.
    Thanks for the discussion on this topic though, its a good one in a world where ethical behavior seems to be a little bit elusive to some in regards to sermons.

  5. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    Jason Byassee had a great response to the Long article at the Theolog- and the comments trail for that post was fascinating (http://www.theolog.org/blog/2007/04/stolen_goods.html)
    One thing that Byassee pointed out that I sort of ignored in my article is this: “Every preacher knows (or ought to) that her words are not hers: they are God’s.” I do think that’s true, and it does call into question classifying sermons as “intellectual property.” When I refer to “my” sermon manuscripts, I do so recognizing that they are the result of prayer and study – that they are dependent upon the inspiration of God and the Communion of the saints. Though they are not private, they are personal. The process of writing and preaching sermons is where my relationship with God and my congregation is formed, distilled, stretched, nurtured, celebrated. And that’s where Sarah’s mention of authenticity is so crucial. That can’t be duplicated without duplicity.
    One of Long’s points is that there is a “tacit agreement” between the pulpit and the pews that the preacher is proclaiming an “original” (all qualifications noted) sermon. Violating that agreement skewers integrity. I do think it’s a good idea for pastors who are not opposed to having their sermons preached by others to place a Creative Commons license on their work; likewise, pastors who preach (licensed) sermons by others should state this clearly.

  6. Susan O
    Susan O says:

    This happened to me. In much the same way you describe. I was maybe 30. I’d preached the best sermon of my life (to this date), and a trustee from the college asked for a copy. She gave it to her pastor, who then preached it verbatim for (I’m told) about 800 people at a denominational breakfast meeting of some sort. I was stuck. I couldn’t approach him, what with the whole trustee of the college thing. And there I was, young and female—and there he was–55, male and well respected enough to be asked to preach for a big event. Who were they to believe?
    Some years later, I was at a college of preachers event, and we were talking about approaches to a particular text, and I mentioned how I’d approached it in that sermon. Someone present said, “Oh, you mean you read so and so’s sermon on the topic.” And I said, no, I was the one to write that. She just looked at me like, “sure you did, you plagiarizer.”
    And that’s the thing. When someone plagiarizes your work, YOU can end up looking like the plagiarizer, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
    For the congregation, I take issue with preaching a sermon you didn’t write without acknowledging it—-it’s a violation of trust. (Having worked at a University where the president was caught plagiarizing, I know something of how that violation can shape and influence trust. We never again trusted his integrity.)
    And while I don’t care if pieces of my sermon end up strewn from one end of the continent to the other, I want you to admit that they aren’t your words. I don’t care if you give me credit personally or not (“as another pastor said” is fine with me), but I don’t want to ever (again) look like I’m a plagiarizer, and when someone takes my authorship away from me, they’ve done that. I may give you a pass on the delivered sermon, if I’m in a good mood. But when you publish it on the web, or as a podcast, well, that’s the point of no return for me.
    I don’t know. I hear the “it’s not your words” argument, and think it’s a good one. I need to think more about this, I guess.

  7. reverendmother
    reverendmother says:

    Sure would love to know who that person was… /nosy
    Susan brings up the exact kind of situation that I would be royally pissed about–a denominational gathering is a high-profile event. Yes, such opportunities serve the larger church but they are also major career-building, dress-to-impress opportunities. The degrees of separation are much smaller. Paths will cross. And people will make assumptions about the Big Denominational Speaker vs. Little Old Me (or Susan).
    As opposed to the pastor of Podunk Presbyterian who cribbed my sermon without permission or attribution. Especially if it didn’t end up on the web or otherwise published under that person’s name. (Would I even know?)
    Mind you, I don’t want to come off defending the latter behavior. At All. It would just bug me as the author much less. In that case I would feel sadness for the person, probably even some pity, rather than full-out anger. That’s just me, though.
    And I think the issue of integrity and authenticity in the pulpit is important. But that’s really between the pastor and his/her congregation and less about me as the author. For the integrity question, it’s somewhat irrelevant whether the original work was mine or someone else’s. In theory, I should be equally bothered whether it was my sermon or Katherine’s.
    It’s not about me, in other words. It’s not like I would have had the opportunity to preach that sermon in that congregation, but the plagiarist deprived me of that opportunity. It’s not a victimless crime, but nor am I the victim. The congregation/pastoral relationship is what suffers.
    Anyway… it’s all very complicated!

  8. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    One of the comments on preaching I have found most helpful over the years(but ironically for this thread, I cannot remember where or by whom…) is that preaching is the word of God distilled through personality. So, I side with those who say one should never preach someone else’s sermon.
    Creative Commons is useful for protecting work — but be careful which category you go for. Unless you choose ‘no-derivatives’ you are actually giving people permission to use your work and change whatever they want to in it — which means with a word here, and a word there, you could be quoted as saying something that you never intended at all. The ‘no derivatives’ licence is too restrictive in that it says people should quote in full, but until they come up with a new category, I think it is the only safe option.

  9. God's Weaver
    God's Weaver says:

    Not so much a comment about this article, but about The Young Clergy Women Project. I applaud you. I was once in the same age bracket as you. It is a bit unnerving to realize that I could have baptized some of you. That makes me sound ancient, but I’m not. I’m as young as springtime. I give thanks for my sisters, young and old.
    I will share the link for this blog (& project) with some of the young clergy women in my Conference (VAUMC).

  10. theflagsofdawn
    theflagsofdawn says:

    I am taking a leap and confessing myself as one who has used another’s words in entirety as a sermon. Both times it was a fiction piece, once a short story and the second a monologue. Both times, I found the author online and contacted them directly to ask permission. They were both delighted. I should say the author of the short story is a very popular short story writer and radio show host in Canada and was very gracious and responded to me personally.
    As easy as it is to find sermons online it is almost equally easy to contact the author directly.
    When I publish my sermons I put my name at the end and the parish website, so no one has an excuse for not contacting me. If someone did contact me I would not hesitate to offer my permission with or without credit.

  11. Erica
    Erica says:

    OK, here’s one angle to add to the whole whose work is it, God=speaking-through-us thing:
    I had a sem-prof who said he thought, if there were a really excellent sermon, it would be entirely acceptable to preach the whole thing word for word IF you make it clear from the get-go: “These are not my words. This sermon is by…” This individual, a great preacher, said he had done this a few times. But he was clear about what he was doing. And, he didn’t do it as a time-saver. He took the time h would take in crafting an original sermon and used it to work on his delivery.
    His reasoning: yes, ultimately, sermons are God speaking through us. And sometimes that happens in such a powerful way that those particular sermons need to be heard again and in another place.
    I don’t know if I could ever do this. Like Sarah, I have a hard time re-preaching a 2-year old sermon because it feels less authentic to who I am now. Heck, I have trouble repreaching sermon a week later if I’m visiting a different church!
    But this approach makes sense to me. Because it is honest. Taking someone else’s sermon in its entirety and not attributing it, simply by the not attributing, admits that something is wrong. The plaga-preacher is hiding something.

  12. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    Isn’t it funny, we wouldn’t dream of passing off a scripture quotation as something we ourselves came up with! And yet some would steal another person’s gospel account and present it as their own.
    And how much of it did s/he really understand? Therein lies another problem with plagiarism, we can’t present another’s work as our own because it is not fully our own thought and experience. We just can’t stand behind it. Imagine a man presenting a sermon that speaks of expectant waiting from a mother’s point of view. It just doesn’t fit! And often times, someone who’s really paying attention notices.
    Perhaps that is why my favorite way to give the words of institution are a paraphrase of Paul in Corinthians, ” I pass on to you that which was given to me…” Maybe we should inject this line as a disclaimer each time we use another’s work of words.

  13. Julia Seymour
    Julia Seymour says:

    I’ve not caught anyone doing this to me yet, though I haven’t looked and I’m afraid. (Some of my sermons have been linked in “larger” capacities than my own blog.) I had thought about changing my blog format so that copying and pasting was not possible (or at least more difficult), but a friend convinced me not to. Frankly, the amount of shortcut taking that I see in a certain type of clergy makes me livid all around. Thank you for writing this.

  14. laura
    laura says:

    Beg my pardon if I’m uninformed here – I’m only someone about to attend seminary, so I may be utterly out of place. However, in my own journey and relationship with God, I work hard to eliminate the “me, me, me,” and rather, do my best to spread the good news of the Gospel to all I engage with, in whatever ways I can. It is the decrease of my own ego self, and the increase of Jesus in my heart and soul, that I struggle to live more with each passing day. Subsequently, while I cannot speak to my future self, I would think that if one were to find my words inspiring, and want to use them to further inspire others to turn their heart to God, I could not be at all upset – nor flattered, as it is not about ME, or “me getting credit” but about God.

    Maybe I’m just an uninformed newbie, but this is how I’ve come to relate to my journey to God. I mean, sure, it is perhaps unethical or lacking in integrity for someone else to plagiarize – I’m actually a published author of books for parents, and so I understand this full well. However, isn’t it about the big picture? Are you not happy that your words have moved the hearts of others? Isn’t it GOD who should be getting the credit, after all?

    I apologize – as I said, I am new to this, and have so much to learn…so very much. I may be utterly out of line here, and if so, my apology. I’m just trying to learn and understand, and very much look forward to any response.


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  1. […] of discussing this with others, I’ve discovered that (sometimes unintentional) borrowing and bold-faced plagiarism happens WAY more often than many of us […]

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