Who writes the sermons?

Religions News Service (RNS) ran a story recently about sermon plagiarism in U.S. Christian congregations — and then, a few days later, they ran a story about why some U.S. Christian pastors feel they need to plagiarize sermons.

And before you say, “Oh those Christians, Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers would never do that” — UU ministers do indeed plagiarize sermons, and some have been caught doing it.

So why do Christian pastors — and UU ministers — plagiarize sermons? The RNS story suggests a couple of reasons. Well, writing sermons is exhausting and local preachers have other big demands on their energy (pastoral care, raising money, administration, etc.). And then people in a local congregation now get to hear those Big Name Preachers online, and they make it clear that their local preacher just doesn’t measure up.

But on the analogy that church musicians don’t write all the music they perform, the RNS article asks: shouldn’t local preachers be allowed to preach other people’s sermons? (That is, assuming they give credit to the actual writer, so it isn’t plagiarism.) Or at least, shouldn’t local preachers be allowed to rely on third party sermon prompts or outside sermon researchers to help them out? If we want congregations to hear the best, highest quality sermons, it makes sense for preachers to be able to search for, and use, the best sermons they can find.

On the other hand, maybe a sermon shouldn’t be understood as a weekly performance put on by a professional voice actor. In many Christian congregations, the sermon is often considered to be God’s way of speaking to one particular congregation, and the preacher’s sermon preparation includes both time spent ministering to the congregation, and time spent in prayer listening to God. UU congregations will understand this a little differently: I was trained to think of the sermon in a UU congregation as kind of conversation, where the preacher listens to what is going on in people’s lives and connects those personal events and stories to the big moral and existential questions.

I suspect that several pressures will drive UU congregations towards turning the preacher into a voice actor who puts on performances of the best sermons they can find. First, preachers have a limited amount of hours they can work each week, volunteers now have less time to devote to the congregation, so using other people’s sermons can free up the preacher’s time for other crucial tasks. Second, congregation members are increasingly aware of the excellent preaching available online, and this puts pressure on the local congregation to have a preacher who meets those high standards. Third, congregations compete for people’s leisure time in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and the demand for authenticity will not be as strong as the demand for polished production values. Fourth, as more congregations are unable to pay for full-time ministry, there’s going to be less time for sermon-writing and a greater demand for third-party sermons. In short, there are strong — maybe irresistible — economic forces that will change UU ministers from sermon-writers into voice actors.

I still prefer a preacher who writes their own sermons. I just don’t think most UU congregations will be able to make sermon-writing a priority as they budget money and staff time.