Did your preacher steal Sunday’s sermon?

Publishing another pastor’s work is a clear breach of ethics, but with so many demands on their time — and the internet at their fingertips — many preachers borrow widely for their sermons.
Publishing another pastor’s work is a clear breach of ethics, but with so many demands on their time — and the internet at their fingertips — many preachers borrow widely for their sermons. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The Rev. Bill Shillady, a friend and pastor to Hillary Clinton, was quietly criticized in church circles last week for plagiarizing so much of his new book of devotionals that the publisher announced it’s pulling “Strong For a Moment Like This” and will destroy all copies.

Claiming colleagues’ work in a book is an obvious and egregious breach.

But a longtime Duke Divinity professor, along with one of the authors whose work Shillady stole, say preachers are much more cavalier about a deception that happens every week: Using other clergy’s work when crafting the Sunday sermon.

“It’s quite extensive,” said Richard Lischer, who taught preaching at Duke Divinity for 37 years and wrote “The Preacher King,” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence on American religious thought, including through his writing. “Preachers are like comedians; they’re always looking for good material.”

Shillady, a Duke Divinity School graduate, said he wrote the daily devotionals to Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. After the first instance of plagiarism was discovered, he apologized, saying he had taken “bits and pieces from a variety of places on the Internet,” but did not remember cutting and pasting sections from particular works he found.

A few weeks later, Abingdon Press, the publisher, said it was “alarmed” to discover other content unattributed by the author.

Inspiration vs. stealing

King wasn’t the first eloquent religious orator whose prose was purloined. Historians say church reformer Martin Luther’s fiery style of sermon writing, whose development coincided with the spread of the printing press, inspired preachers from the 16th century on. The Wesley Center Online says that John Wesley, the father of Methodism, published his sermons in the 1700s and actually supplied them to preachers to use.

Pastors now have vast resources from which to draw on in libraries, bookstores and online, and while Lischer said they should be reading and absorbing that insight, they also should acknowledge when they use it.

“There is a line between being inspired and guided by someone else’s thinking, and absolutely taking everything they have said and presenting it as your own. That sometimes even includes other people’s experiences,” Lischer said.

Lischer taught in his classes that there is a discipline to sermon writing. It begins early in the week with the scripture passage that will serve as the theme, whether that’s assigned through a denominational lectionary or chosen by an individual pastor.

“It takes time to figure out what to say and it takes thought to get there,” he said. “But there is a route of interpretation and thought and design that goes into a sermon. Anyone who will follow those steps — and think about what they need to think about, and pray it through — will come out on the other side with a sermon.”

Clergy’s daily pressures

After Methodist publisher Abingdon Press pulled Shillady’s book, composed of the devotionals he had emailed Clinton from August 2015 to December 2016, the Rev. Christy Thomas learned the book included material taken directly from her blog.

Thomas, a now-retired Methodist minister, began publishing The Thoughtful Pastor as a way to, among other things, share her reflections on the week’s lectionary before she preached her sermon on Sunday.

“I found out later that a lot of people were waiting for that to come out every week,” she said.

Thomas said she recognized early on that she was among a minority of pastors who generate original content and that it was widely borrowed.

“I have been aware for a long time that a lot of people use my stuff,” she said. Many clergy members ask permission to use the material or automatically attribute it to her. But some of her work has been shared hundreds of thousands of times, often without attribution.

“I considered that my gift to the community,” Thomas said.

But in the case of Shillady, she said, “putting it in a book and taking credit for it crosses an ethical line.”

In Thomas’ last job as a pastor, at a medium-sized church outside Dallas, she said she had the luxury of a congregation that appreciated her sermons enough to give her the 25 hours each week it took to craft them. Others in the church did some of the work she would otherwise have had to do.

“Most clergy could not even dream of doing that,” she said.

Instead, they have to work in writing sermons around visiting the sick, attending church meetings about planning and programming and finances, and pastoring individual members.

“There are so many pressures on clergy,” Thomas said. “They have to try to be everything to everybody.”

No wonder, she said, many end up pulling their sermons together on Saturday nights using some of their own work and bits and pieces — or large passages — from others.

A calling

Lischer said pastors feel the pressure on their sermons, too. They worry, he said, that if their weekly 20-minute message isn’t timely, well-informed and more interesting than whatever is trending on the phones the congregants glance at behind their bulletins, they might move their membership somewhere else, or stop attending church at all.

Congregations can tell, Lischer said, when a sermon isn’t written for them, and they don’t like it.

“How could anyone on the internet know what God wants you to say to First Church Burlington?” Lischer said.

“It’s a matter of understanding what does it mean to be a pastor. Am I just trying to crank it out in order to make a good impression, or is this something that really comes out of my own soul, out of my own faith, out of my own encounter with the word?

“It takes hours of work every week. But that’s what we’re paid for. That’s what we’re called to do.”

Meanwhile, Abingdon Press said the company is examining its publication processes.

And Shillady told CNN after his book was pulled: “I deeply regret my actions. I was wrong and there is no excuse for it. I apologize to those whose work I mistakenly did not attribute. I apologize to those I have disappointed, including Secretary Hillary Clinton, Abingdon Press, and all the writers and others who have helped me publish and promote this book. I ask for everyone’s forgiveness.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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