Question: "How serious of an issue is sermon plagiarism?"
Answer: Plagiarism of any stripe is always a serious issue. For a pastor, it is especially so. Sermon plagiarism—presenting all or part of another person’s sermon as one’s own—is a real temptation in this information age with so many sermons available online. But plagiarism in sermon preparation violates the qualifications of a pastor/elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1: a pastor is to be above reproach. Consider also 2 Timothy 2:15, which states that the pastor is to correctly handle the word of truth. A pastor is to be a person of deep integrity and truthfulness in his capacity as a preacher and teacher of the Word of God and in all of his life. Plagiarism is a theft of intellectual property, and such dishonesty is a serious issue in pastoral ministry.
What constitutes sermon plagiarism? Of course, preaching a sermon from another pastor more or less verbatim, with no attribution to the author, is plagiarism. Whether the preacher actually claims the borrowed sermon as his own or simply gives an unspoken impression that it is his, it is plagiarism. When using the gist of a sermon, following the main points or organizational structure, or quoting a creative turn of phrase, the preacher should give proper citation to avoid plagiarizing.
If it is discovered that the pastor has knowingly plagiarized a sermon, the leadership in the church will need to begin the process of loving church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18. As part of his restoration, the pastor will need to confess to the church body because he sinned against them and effectively lied. If the offense was something less than verbatim plagiarism, the leadership will need to approach the situation more cautiously. For instance, if the sermon contained points from another sermon used without credit but the pastor was clearly generating his own thoughts based on those points, the issue still needs to be addressed, but the leadership should not rush into church discipline.
Sermon plagiarism can be more of a temptation for those not committed to doing the hard work of study and original preparation on a consistent basis. In that case, the problem of discipline in the study needs to be addressed as well as the problem of plagiarism.
Pastors often have several favorite commentators whom they consult in sermon preparation. If the pastor is consistent in referencing and quoting a given commentator or other preacher, the congregation should be aware of this. If sermon material is drawn from another sermon, citation should be made.
Preachers are all standing on the shoulders of giants, and all are standing, ultimately, on the Word of God. Given all the sermons prepared over all the years, there are no truly original thoughts. Charles Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest English-speaking preacher, said, “All originality and no plagiarism makes for dull preaching.” The intent behind Spurgeon’s statement was to advocate for being well-read and studied in sermon preparation, not for stealing others’ words and passing them off as one’s own. A pastor should be encouraged to read others to make sure his thoughts are in line with other great thinkers. He should feel free to incorporate the ideas of others into his sermons to deepen and strengthen his messages. But he should take care to maintain his integrity in the pulpit, and, when he is leaning heavily on the thoughts of others, he should joyously and thankfully give them due and public credit.