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Preaching: The Importance of 'Churning Your Own Butter'

"Enjoyed your message, pastor," say the many who meet and greet him at the church's door. All the while, the pastor is curiously racking his grey matter to figure out just what they enjoyed. Wonder why? It must be because this sermon really was good. After all, it sounded so good on the Internet that the pastor "borrowed" it so that his congregation could be as blessed by it as he was.
By Bill Lamkin
Plagiarism: "To take the thoughts or ideas of another and claim them as ones own."

PCANews -"Enjoyed your message, pastor," say the many who meet and greet him at the church's door. All the while, the pastor is curiously racking his grey matter to figure out just what they enjoyed. Wonder why? It must be because this sermon really was good. After all, it sounded so good on the Internet that the pastor "borrowed" it so that his congregation could be as blessed by it as he was.

But there was a problem with this sermon. The pastor had not given any credit to the original author. This is known as plagiarism. Or, as it is also known: intellectual theft. Theft? Isn't that a harsh word? No. It is the truth! Plagiarism is stealing.

When one takes an idea from another without crediting the appropriate source and claiming that thought as his own, he has stolen that idea and becomes a law-breaker (even with good intentions). Webster defines plagiarism as "to take the thoughts or ideas of another and claim them as one's own." It is from the Latin - plagiarus - meaning to 'kidnap.'

A quarterback at Auburn University in the late 1980s experienced the accusation of plagiarism. He had an up and down career while at Auburn. It seemed that his off the field troubles just multiplied with each passing month. Late in his career; he was suspected of plagiarizing a term paper for a senior level class.

What had he done? He had failed to place a footnote after one sentence in a large term paper. The cost? The quarterback was benched for the highly valued homecoming game against Mississippi State and given an "F" in the class. Many were outraged; academics wanted him removed from the football team and school; football fanatics wanted him reinstated in the class. After all, it was just one sentence. But it was not his. He stole it and took credit for that thought as if it had been his own. Now, there are Web sites and clearinghouses exclusively devoted to helping students lie their way through their assignments.

Similarly, plagiarism seems to be growing among pastors. There are numerous pastors (let me add, these are good men, who love Jesus and his people passionately) currently under discipline in numerous denominations for the sin of stealing the thoughts of others. They didn't steal money out of the collection plate. They stole sermons from other preachers and presented them to their congregations as if these sermons were their own.

There are many resources within a computer's reach that will easily help a pastor in expressing God's truth. There are subscription services that will give an eager pastor the text, outline, illustrations, and even bulletin format for each week's service. All the pastor has to do is pay the fees for the Internet services, buy the books, and do a little studying of someone else's work.
Why is this happening? What are the consequences? Is there a cure? I am confident that the answers to these questions are like the interlocking Olympic rings that overlap in many ways.

Let's face it; pastors are busy men. There are numerous demands on pastors' time and schedules like: Marriage and family, counseling, following up with visitors, visiting people at home or work, seeking those who are far from the fold, administrative duties, and extra-curricular activities. Sundays occur in regular intervals and getting prepared is no easy task. There is so much to do that the work on the sermon gets pushed to the edge of the desk and the pastor wakes up on Friday or Saturday and remembers, "Oh no, I haven't written a sermon yet." What to do? Time is running out and there is so much study to be done.

One cure is to go to a volume on the shelf or go to a Web site and find a good sermon on the planned text. Sunday afternoon brings a brief respite and the sense of relief from getting through another one. Shortly, the cycle starts all over again.

Here are some reasons pastors are resorting to theft when preparing sermons and lessons.

1. Managerial ineptitude/Prioritizing: Pastors may not be experienced at managing a clock or calendar beyond scheduling major holidays, family events, and vacations. Those tasks that "appear" most urgent tend to get first priority. The "tyranny of the urgent" has ruined many capable and competent men. Rather than prioritizing those tasks in one's schedule that should have first, second, third place, a pastor becomes a "firefighter" who busies himself solving the problems of others while not giving himself to those things that need his best attention.

2. Lack of Planning: Failure to plan is planning to fail. Because some ministers are not experienced at efficient time management, they fail at organizing their week and sticking to the plan. Again, this leads to pushing sermon preparation to the end of the line (or the last minute). After all, the sermon is the last event of the week, why shouldn't it be the last event completed?

3. Intellectual intimidation: Some pastors may be intimidated by the knowledge of their flock and want to show the congregation that they know what they are talking about. So the pastor will find a well-read pastor's works and simply repeat it. Once they've found a minister who just knows how to say things, they begin to rob that man's mind and pen because "it can't be said any better than that."

4. Laziness: I know this is a harsh word, but the truth: People do what they want to do first and foremost. This leads to laziness with regard to those things that aren't as fun or pleasurable. Self-starters are rare people. With so many pastors working alone, there is usually no one around to hold the man accountable for his time and energies.

5. The Fear of Man: Jack Miller said that he was an "approval suck:" a vacuous being that would do much to suck approval from others. I am sure that Miller was not a rare person. Some pastors are addicted to the approval of others. They diligently labor for the 'attaboys' of their congregants. So these pastors become skilled at R&D (Robbing and Duplicating). Once they've found the 'right' sermon, they preach it because they sense that they are being judged for every word that comes out of their mouths and they want everyone to like them along with what they say.

6. Attempting to Develop a 'Good Style.' Some men may worry that their style of preaching does not meet a certain standard and attempt to mimic someone else. Of course, in doing this they give up their own identity and become someone they are not.

7. Spiritual Warfare. We cannot minimize the spiritual warfare that is waged in the pastor's study. Satan hates Jesus. Consequently, he hates and actively seeks to destroy those who love Jesus and want to serve him well. I am convinced that the rise in plagiarism is a direct result of the temptations and pressures from our enemy.


Plagiarism in school will cost you a grade or advancement. But, plagiarism in the pulpit has a much higher cost. Once a man leaves the confines of seminary and internship and gets ordained, the standard of measure is very high. The pastor is called to be a man of prayer and the Word (if you check Acts 6:2, you will notice that the order and priority is prayer then the Word). He is to be a man who exemplifies the obedience, joy, love, compassion, and honesty expressed in Scripture. Members have expectations based on Scripture and their own shortcomings - wanting him to be perfect so there is at least one person in their lives whom they can count on.

The scarlet "P" of plagiarism has "ministry killer" written all over it. Here are some consequences of plagiarism.

1. Loss of Respectability: Once a pastor steals a sermon and takes credit for it, he has become a liar. People will think, "If he's lying about this, what else is he lying about?" The pastor's word is truly his bond. If his word is good for nothing, his work will have little to no respect.

2. The Lazy Label: 'Lazy' is one of the first labels thrown on a pastor who doesn't do his own homework. Laziness and being worn out are two different issues, but they both can be confused for sloth. Suspicions with regard to the pastor's work ethic can lead to the question, "What does he do with his time?" The pastor must make effective use of his time. His effectiveness and reputation ride much on his time management.

3. Loss of Credibility (at home and in the pulpit): If the pastor's work ethic and truthfulness are questioned, his authenticity will be questioned. And it won't take long for a tired pastor to simply go through the motions of pastoring. Even if the pastor is a man of his word and leads a respectable life, once he steals a sermon every area of life will be questioned. About 10 years ago, a pastor friend was asked to speak at a mission's conference. He preached his 'best sermon ever' remarked the many in attendance. One ruling elder snickered; he knew the pastor's secret because this elder had been in Dallas the month before when the original preacher first preached that 'best ever' sermon. Consequently, peers, churchmen, and community leaders mocked (and still mock) the offending pastor for "not having an original thought in his entire body."

4. Loss of Trust: This only makes sense. If a man's words are not his own, how can we trust that he is genuine about the rest of his work?

5. Loss of Job: Plagiarism has cost many men the very career and calling for which they have diligently prepared. There has been an increase in the number of men who've stood in front of a session, congregation and presbytery with their heads hung in shame as they confessed to stealing another man's sermon and claiming it as his own.

Cures and Suggestions

Pastors need help! They need help in managing their time, in leading their flocks, and in studying the Word and prayer. There are simple ways in which pastors can avoid being a plagiarist:

1. Attribution: Give credit when credit is due. If you have taken an idea from another, tell your audience. Those who have nothing to hide, hide nothing. If the pastor is regularly saying "this sermon comes to you thanks to the good folks at the Sermon Warehouse" the L-word ('lazy') will become his moniker. As one revered pastor has said regarding sermon preparation: "Milk many cows, but churn your own butter." In other words, it is okay to study and benefit from other men's labors, but make the finished product personal. God's people want to be touched by the hand of God through their pastor, not someone else's pastor.

2. Plan Ahead According to Priorities: Every pastor knows that his schedule will be quickly eaten away if he does not protect it. There are a few men who are two-six weeks ahead in their sermon preparation. They are rare. But, those men share one trait - they plan ahead. An effective pastor will have the most important parts of his weekly schedule set in concrete and painted in red: personal times for prayer and devotions, study time, family time and pastoral care. When one realizes that his time is a rare commodity, he protects that time very carefully.

3. Set Goals: Have a target in mind. If you aim at nothing, you'll always hit it. Set a goal that the sermon will be finished by a definite time each week. When the goal line is established, you must make strides every day to reach that goal on time. When the goal is set, it can actually be attained.

4. Guard your time: For effective planning and time utilization, the pastor must set up safeguards around his study time. To be properly covered in the armor of God, a man of God needs quality time. It takes time to pray for the flock, pray for wisdom and study the Word of God. Ask the secretary to hold calls until mid morning. A good secretary, assistant or elder can handle the messages and calls for a few hours. Let your officers and congregation know where you have set some boundaries. Then be diligent to keep those boundaries in place. It is for your good and their benefit.

5. Guard your Environment: Create a place that is 'study-safe.' Some men can study at home when the wife and kids are out. Some can study just fine in their offices. Some need to go to the local library, a vacant Sunday school room, or other quiet place. A critical component to a 'study-safe' place is the removal of those things that will be distractions and time-cannibals.

6. Seek Help: First, from the Lord himself. Pastors are engaged in spiritual warfare and their heart, mind and attention are often the primary theaters of battle. Remember, the calling is to be a man of prayer. Secondly, seek help from your elders and deacons. No man is superman, yet a pastor is expected to be superhero. This wrong perception of his calling can lead to burn out, exhaustion and perhaps to the temptation to plagiarize. Ephesians 4 tells us that the work of ministry is not only the pastor's; it is also the work of the entire body of Christ. Enlist the help and assistance of the parish. They've been called and gifted; use them effectively.

7. Repent of the Idol Self-reliance: Some pastors may not enjoy the Word of God on their own. They are self-reliant in that they think they possess all they need to prepare a good sermon. Pretty soon, they will exhaust their shallow well of personal gifts. They may seek the joy and fulfillment that comes from diligent study elsewhere. When they steal another's work, they are not only stealing another's work, but they are robbing themselves of the joy of growing in the means of grace the Lord has given us.

The pastor is an essential part of the health of a congregation. His spiritual health is a good thermostat for rest of the body. As he grows, so grows the church. If he is not actively cultivating his own spiritual garden, but is taking from the labors of another, he is robbing himself of the pleasures in God's Word. He is also robbing his congregation of the pleasures of the fresh aroma of having been in the garden and tilling the soil. Pastors need to sacrifice the idol of the "perfect sermon" and enjoy the richness of the calling to be a man of prayer and the word.

There is a story of a pastor whose sermons were beginning to lack enthusiasm and creativity. An elder asked, "How long does it take you to prepare a sermon?" The self-confident man replied, "Oh, just the amount of time it takes to walk from the manse to the church." The next week the session voted to buy the pastor a home across town. They knew what the pastor apparently had lost, that his time in the Word is essential to their health and spiritual prosperity.

TE Bill Lamkinlives in Jacksonville, Fla.
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