Resist the temptation to plagiarize other pastors’ sermons. Here are five practical steps to consider when preparing a message.
By David O. Dykes
I became the pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, in 1991. Our Sunday morning services were broadcast live on the ABC affiliate and covered much of East Texas. Years ago, my administrative assistant, Arlene, received a frantic phone call from a pastor in another city. He told her he had been recording my sermons on his VCR each week and re-preaching the same message in his church the following Sunday.
He asked her why I wasn’t on television the previous Sunday. Arlene replied, “Because Pastor David is on vacation.” The anxious pastor asked, “So what am I supposed to do for this Sunday?” Arlene paused for a moment and said, “I suggest you go on vacation.” And she hung up.
Sermonic plagiarism is no laughing matter. Plagiarism is “the practice of copying another person’s ideas, words, or work and pretending that they are your own.” Most academic institutions have clearly written policies about punishment for plagiarism. But I’ve never heard of a church having a written policy against a pastor preaching someone else’s sermons.“At best, sermon plagiarizing represents laziness. At worst, it is deceitful and constitutes theft.” — David Dykes Click To Tweet
Plagiarism is only illegal when it involves violating copyright for financial gain. But of course, just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. It is a matter of integrity and honesty. At best, sermon plagiarizing represents laziness. At worst, it is deceitful and constitutes theft.
Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth:
“Therefore since we have this ministry because we were shown mercy, we do not give up. Instead, we have renounced secret and shameful things, not acting deceitfully or distorting the word of God, but commending ourselves before God to everyone’s conscience by an open display of truth.”2 Corinthians 4:1-2, CSB
Resist the temptation to plagiarize other pastors’ sermons. Here are five practical steps for pastors to consider when preparing a message to share God’s Word.
1. Plan your messages months in advance
Each August during my pastorate, I took a few days for a personal study retreat. I planned out the messages for the following calendar year. My primary preaching plan involved verse-by-verse exposition of entire books of the Bible. During a long series, I would interrupt the verse-by-verse study with a topical series for four to six weeks.
You may not be able to plan a year in advance, but planning your messages for the next quarter is a worthy goal. On my message plan, beside each Sunday, I listed the Scripture text and two or three topics the text addressed. Of course, I always reserved the right to insert a different message if there was a world crisis or other event that needed to be addressed.
2. Set aside large chunks of time to prepare to preach
Following the advice of W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, and others, I spend the first four to five hours of every morning in personal Bible study and message preparation. Years ago, I did a personal time audit and discovered I had to devote an hour of study for every minute I would preach. Some pastors spend so much time trying to manage the affairs of the church they neglect study time. Remember, we aren’t CEOs; we’re called to be shepherds feeding our congregations the Word of God. They need more than fast food or warmed-over leftovers.“Remember, we aren’t CEOs; we’re called to be shepherds feeding our congregations the Word of God.” — David Dykes Click To Tweet
3. Start info files on the next four messages you will preach
I start folders on my computer for each of the next four messages I will be preaching. These files contain the text, possible titles, broad ideas, possible illustrations, applications, outline ideas, and sources to study. I write out a “sermon in one sentence” to begin to formulate the main gist of the message.
Then I consult one-volume commentaries, use online tools like BibleGateway, and access messages on Sermon Central and other message sites. I do this to pick up key thoughts, illustrations, and quotes. I make a point to always cite the source of a quote.
4. Devote about two-thirds of your study time to the message for the following Sunday
My goal is to have a working outline by Monday at noon. The longer I have preached, the simpler my outlines have become. In my first preaching class at Samford University a student asked our professor, “How many points should good sermons have?” Without hesitation, the professor said, “At least one.”
After establishing an outline on Monday, I spend the rest of the week adding “flesh” to the skeleton of the message. I follow the simple formula I learned years ago: For each point, provide explanation, illustration, and application. My early preaching mistakes included spending too much time on explanation (after all, I took all those Greek and Hebrew classes), finding illustrations from old preaching books (many of which were something that happened on a train), and offering little to no application. In my final decades as a pastor, I devoted more time to telling stories (illustrations) than to explanation and application.
5. Write a full manuscript for the message
For about half of my pastoral ministry, I utilized an “oral manuscript” where I would write out thoughts, quotes, illustrations, and Scripture passages on several pages of a legal pad. For the past 25 years I have written full manuscripts. And it has had a positive impact on both the quality and timing of the message.
Since we were on live television for many years, I developed messages that lasted 30 minutes. I soon learned a manuscript a little over five pages (one-inch margins, Times New Roman, 12-point font) took exactly 30 minutes to preach. If the first draft of the manuscript was longer, I would go back and delete parts that weren’t as important. This allowed me to focus more attention on the conclusion and final application rather than rushing through it. But on Sunday, I didn’t take the manuscript to the pulpit and read it. Instead, I had notes with points, quotes, and Scripture passages.“Pastors who plagiarize may be communicating the truth, but they remove their unique personalities from the process.” — David Dykes Click To Tweet
Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church is probably best known for writing the Christmas song, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” But Brooks is also known for saying preaching is the communication of truth through human personality. Pastors who plagiarize may be communicating the truth, but they remove their unique personalities from the process.
David O. Dykes
David is pastor emeritus of Green Acres Baptist Church, Tyler, Texas.