When the rector of a large Episcopal church near Detroit came down with a bad case of preacher's block, he sought not divine inspiration, but the guiding light of cyberspace.
There, the Rev. Edward Mullins of Christ Church Cranbrook found a trove of used sermons and recycled spiritual eloquence to call his own. He also landed in a steepleful of trouble. On Feb. 1, Mullins was ruled out of line for going online _ suspended for 90 days amid accusations that he plagiarized sermons as well as material for the church newsletter.
The Web's easy access to others' work has posed major cheating problems for universities. But tongue-tied ministers have gotten tangled in the Web, too _ a Presbyterian pastor resigned his post in St. Louis last year after admitting he borrowed a New York pastor's sermon without attribution.
And now there's Mullins, who awaits his fate while his diocese conducts its investigation.
One thing is clear: These days, temptation is just a click away. Like a form of Cliffs Notes for the clergy, specialty sites packaging and indexing hundreds of fully written sermons abound, with such names as desperatepreacher.com, sermons.com, gospelchapel.com and blacksermons.com.
Some are folksy and free of charge, like Sermons On-Line from the Crystal Lake (Ill.) Church of Christ, which begins with this down-home greeting: "Hats off to Nelda, Kim, Paula, and Susan for typing these sermons in from cassette tapes _ it's a lot of work and your efforts are appreciated. If only we could get Ray to type his sermons. . . ."
But many are high end and available only for a fee, such as Sermon Notes (sermonnotes.com) of Humboldt, Tenn., which "offers access to hundreds of sermons and thousands of illustrations" for $49 a year.
On the "I Preach & I Teach" page of Cokesbury.com _ an online catalog offering all manner of religious resource material _ a reassuring headline proclaims "The Word at Your Fingertips," with the promise that the new service "will ease the burdensome joy of preaching and teaching."
The proliferation and popularity of such sites address an age-old problem for ministers: the need to move people with eloquence and substance week after week. Some of these sites insist that preachers attribute whatever they borrow, yet others encourage subscribers to use the sermons carte blanche.
But how damning is pulpit plagiarism? Does crediting the author really matter, or is it the message that's most important? Are there acceptable boundaries? And is secondhand wisdom better than original banality?
"Frankly, there are few enough good preachers that I would rather hear someone deliver another person's sermon well than give me half-baked or quarter-baked or raw ruminations, just because it had to come out of their own brain," says A.K.M. Adam, an associated professor of the New Testament at Seabury-Western Episcopal seminary in Evanston, Ill. "I think it's much more respectful to a congregation that a good sermon be preached than a sermon that's mediocre thought up by the one who's preaching."
Adam would have the support of founding father Benjamin Franklin. In a recent New York Times letter to the editor, a reader cited Franklin's 1735 defense of a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia accused of plagiarism: "I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture."
In Michigan, Mullins' accusers say he gave 10 full sermons obtained from Internet sites, with no attribution. His supporters say the plagiarism charges are a political ploy by dissidents in his flock who have clashed with him over his management style to force him out. They contend many preachers turn to the Internet for help with sermons.
National theologians and other religious figures also have an array of opinions ranging from endorsement of nonattribution in some instances to unwavering insistence on giving credit where credit is due.
Just passing along the word of God
For the Rev. Joe Teague of the First United Methodist Church of Miami, formerly a Methodist minister in St. Petersburg, it comes down to one consideration: If a person will benefit from hearing the word of God, it doesn't matter who wrote the words.
"It's an interesting question," he says. "A guy may have written a sermon, and the purpose of it was to be a spokesperson for God. But another person may get that message across with maybe more flavor."
If an online service requests attribution, Teague says it should get it, but "There's an awful lot of material out there that says you have the freedom to use this to give the glory to God. It's spreading the word. It doesn't matter who does it."
Teague says he wouldn't object to any pastor recycling his sermons, even word for word. "If somebody (was saved) because of a sermon I wrote, I'd have no problem."
Seabury-Western professor Adam has a similar view.
"If someone were simply to stand up and preach the text of a sermon I had written, I wouldn't have any problem with it at all," he says. "Nor, if I were in a congregation, and somebody preached a really good sermon that they had not written, would I mind."
But Adam does include a caveat.
"The only problem I would have is if the person were not utterly candid about the fact that it was a sermon someone else wrote," he says. "So, if on the way out, someone said, "Wow, that's the best sermon you ever preached!' And you said, "I didn't write it myself.' Then, that's fine. If you say, "Thank you very much, I worked hard on it,' that is not fine."
Bishop John B. Lipscomb, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida in Ellenton, suspects the real issue in the Mullins case is the rector's alleged use of unattributed written material in the church bulletin. "I don't think the actual fact of using the material (in sermons) is as significant as apparently the context of literally publishing nonattributed resources," he says. "If you copy whole passages and take it as your own material, it's just not right."
Lipscomb says he scans the Internet services for "illustration purposes" but writes most of his sermons from scratch. Is that a more ethical route?
"Not necessarily," he says. "I do mine, because that's how I was trained."
Still, he adds, "Most clergy who are really doing good sermon preparation are going to spend time with their commentaries, trying to make what has come out of their study relevant to their congregation."
Sermons to go
At the Sermon Notes office in Tennessee, editor Steve May insists his 6-year-old company is intended only as a jumping-off point for preachers, a place its 5,000 subscribers might find a creative spark to ignite their own sermon writing.
"We provide a service that allows a pastor to see how another minister deals with a particular topic or text," he says. "It may give a pastor insight or a fresh idea on how to approach something or be used as part of the research."
"I don't think anybody should ever teach somebody else's sermons word for word," he adds. "The people in the pews want to hear their pastor step into the pulpit with an empowering word from God that reflects his own experience."
May's main caution: Never tell another minister's story as if it happened to you _ or risk crossing into the territory of plagiarism.
"I see a lot of preachers across the country (borrowing) the same joke, each telling it like it happened to them," he says. "I advise our subscribers not to do this. It's a slippery slope, from telling a joke like it happened to you to telling a serious story. It can wind up sounding very suspicious."
Make it your own _ and credit others
The Rev. Boyd Carson of St. Bede's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg steers clear of the Internet, period. "I'm not very computer literate," he says.
Carson knows there many excellent online resources available for sermon writing. But relying on those resources too much, he says, could pose a serious problem apart from potential plagiarism:
"When I read sermons, I ask myself, what is it actually saying? How does it apply to me today? What is it saying to my parishioners, and how does it apply to their daily life? If you just take a canned sermon off the Internet, that person doesn't know your environment from anything."
When other material is used, attribution is a must, says the Rev. Ray Vince of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Tampa.
"I also teach freshman English at the University of South Florida, so one of my concerns there is the whole business of plagiarism, and the positive side of trying to teach kids to use sources responsibly _ whether you are actually quoting or alluding to something or using somebody's idea," he says. "And I've always tried to be responsible in terms of my sermons."
Vince says he doesn't cite all his sources when speaking but includes full sourcing in his sermon texts. "Occasionally, people will ask for copies of my sermons, and so they can check it on there," he says.
Clay Morris, who works for the Episcopal Church USA, assisting in music publishing, says the concept of copyright and sourcing is intrinsic to his work. "I'm not aware that the Episcopal Church has ever found it necessary to cite a policy, but it seems self evident that if you're borrowing somebody else's ideas, you give credit where credit is due," he says. "You follow the law where it needs to be followed, and good sense where there isn't absolute policy."
The Rev. Claudia Highbaugh, chaplain at Harvard University's divinity school, takes a similar stand.
"I tend to use other people's material a lot for stories," she says. "I'm a big children's advocate, so I get a lot of resources and statistics from the Children's Defense Fund. And I just say, "This is information from the Children's Defense Fund, or this is a story I read by John Lewis, a civil rights person.' I say where I got the story.
"And if my story goes into print, I make notations at the end of the sermon, as though it were a research paper, including what Bible version I've used, which text I'm quoting, which set of commentaries I've used. Because I want people to understand how much work we do in writing a sermon."
Highbaugh says she does not look at Internet sermon services, "because I live in a highly focused preacher world, and I don't want to hear my information used somewhere else."
But, she adds, "Parishes are partly to blame in that they don't allow preachers adequate study time. I was taught when you have a parish, you negotiate with a church 40 sermons a year, instead of 50 or 52. It's a lot of work, and a lot of pressure."
Highbaugh tells a story of two colleagues who each read the same compelling article in the Christian Century. One minister wrote and preached a sermon based on the article to his congregation, without mentioning the source. The next Sunday, he invited his good friend to preach, and that minister gave a strikingly similar sermon.
"But neither one of them said they had read the article," she says. "The congregation, of course, knew and thought it was funny. But they both learned their lesson."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story.
Sermons in cyberspace
Here are some Web sites that offer sermons.
Founded by the Rev. Dr. L. Ronald Durham, pastor of First Mount Zion Baptist Church of Newark, N.J., its mission is to "reach the "called of God' with pulpit help that will inspire new fire in service, and win souls to Jesus Christ." A quarterly subscription costs $39.
This Lebanon, Pa., Web site describes its purpose as "furthering God's kingdom on earth by helping the Christian church to find original and creative ways to reach people with God's message of love, peace and hope. . . . offering various resources and references aimed to enrich the preparation of messages to the glory of God and our Savior, Jesus the Christ." A subscription costs $39.95 a year.
This Web site's sermons have been preached by Ralph Bouma at Gospel Chapel Ministries, Conrad, Mont. He offers them free of charge.
This Knoxville, Tenn., service says that more than 10,000 pastors in the United States, Canada and Korea rely on its materials for sermon preparation. It offers 500 sermons on CD-ROM for $99.