Well I suppose you are right on both counts: I didn’t quite answer your question, and I didn’t explain my most interesting point very well. Sorry. I’ll give it another go.
Just how much do pastors depend other people’s commentaries in their sermon development? How much is reading or quoting others and how much is new effort or synthesis?
I think the answer depends very much on the preacher — and the quality of the preacher’s preaching.
- A preacher who lacks skill or confidence will often depend almost entirely on commentaries.
- A confident preacher will be more likely to present his or her own synthesis.
That confidence, by the way, may be based on skill or it may be pure hubris.
And it isn’t just commentaries people depend on. There are websites that provide pre-fab sermons for a fee, and there are thousands of published sermons in books, on blogs, and on YouTube.
Failing to Cite Your Sources in Sermons
Famous preachers with books of published sermons have been known to visit churches and hear their own sermons preached to them.
The handshake at the door after the service? Awkward.
One time (I’m not making this up) I heard a seminarian preach a chapel sermon centering on a witty story about her son.
The next Sunday (the very next) I was in another city, and the pastor of the church I was visiting preached a sermon centering on the exact same witty story about his son.
It was such a distinctive story. It seemed there were only two possible explanations.
- The seminarian and the pastor, living hundreds of miles away from each other, had managed to have a secret affair. They produced a child, who had then had the experience behind the witty story.
- Both the seminarian and the pastor were plagiarizing the same published source of witty sermon stories.
But I digress.
The more common problem (I think and hope) is pastors who use commentaries excessively, making their sermons a patchwork of quotations, with or without acknowledgment.
Better Ways to Cite Your Sources in Sermons
It is perfectly legit to quote someone in a sermon. But you do also need to cite your sources in a sermon — though in a different way than you would in a paper.
I’d suggest you follow a couple of simple rules:
Rule 1. Mention Your Sources
Whenever you quote someone in your sermon, especially a published source, note the fact verbally:
As John Calvin once said…
or whatever. No need for formal footnotes. That would be deadly.
To quote (or substantially paraphrase) without acknowledging the source is simply dishonest. The words or ideas are not your own. Don’t pretend they are.
Rule 2. Digest Your Sources First
Make sure anything you quote in the sermon is fully digested and fully integrated into your own sermon.
That means your sermon should not go from quotation to quotation without providing connections and explanations in between. And your words and ideas should be substantially greater in volume than those you quote.
Rule 2(b). Especially the Funny Sources
This second rule has another application as well: especially when the quotation is a funny story or a moving story, look very closely to make sure it actually supports the point you discerned from your biblical text.
A good story has gravity — like a black hole. Many many preachers get sucked into a funny or moving story, and just can’t let it go. They preach the great story even though the story has nothing to do with the point Scripture is making.
Gotta go for now. I’ll explain the point you found interesting, about listening to God in the sermon, another time.
Fr. Dustin says
It’s funny that you mention “stealing sermons.”
Between the 15th and 17th centuries (if I’m remembering my dates correctly) the priesthood in Russia was basically a caste system. If your father was a priest, you became a priest.
Unfortunately, priests were not well paid and didn’t go to seminary. So, to make up for the lack of education, books of sermons floated around and priests were expected to read them in place of writing their own homilies.
Some of them, like the one I’m linking to below, were attributed to St. John Chrysostom, though that attribution is, ironically, falsified.
On a related note, I’ve found that confident preaching comes from practice and reading. The more I read, the more I synthesize the biblical story in my own way. I know of one author, Gary-something-or-other, who’s written some great stuff on prayer…
Gary Neal Hansen says
You are very funny.
And I know you always cite your sources in your sermons!
The production of books of official sermons also happened in the West. In the Middle Ages often there would be no sermon at all at the typical Mass. This was a problem to Protestant eyes. Reformers insisted that good preaching was required at every service. But, good preaching was a challenge. Luther produced fat volumes for pastors to use, and the Anglicans had volumes of “official” homilies — they insisted the priests use something reliable rather than relying on their own gifts.
Thanks for this helpful guidance! I’ve also heard a few sermons where the illustration (humorous or otherwise) seems to divert one’s attention from the central focus of the sermon. I’ve walked away wondering at times how to connect the two.
I do, though, footnote my sermons as much as possible. I’ve had too many times where a parishioner has asked specifically where the content was derived — or wondered myself months or even years later. I do a shortened Turabian to make it less “deadly” (author, title, page). I do the same in prayers and liturgical elements that I use. It’s helped me a number of times — and I can easily capture it from the commentary or other resource.
I do try to include a bibliography of sources cited, also. I can easily copy the Turabian (or other form) reference from my Bible study software (Logos). Sometimes, I don’t quote the article independently (eg. Feasting on the Word, etc.), but don’t mention that to my first semester church history professor. I do take a few shortcuts. 🙂