The Rev. Brian Moon says he has come up with ideas for his sermons after water-skiing, while watching "My Name Is Earl" on TV and while working on his 1969 Buick muscle car. He also finds inspiration on the Internet, as he did in August when he preached about "God's math."
"People are drowning, drowning in their marriages, drowning in their careers, drowning in hurtful habits," Mr. Moon told his congregation at Church of the Suncoast, in Land o' Lakes, Fla. "They need someone to rescue them and bring them on the raft. They need people driven by God's addition."
Those words, it turns out, were first uttered three years ago by the Rev. Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. His Web site, creativepastors.com, sells transcripts of this and others sermons for $10 each.
Mr. Moon says he delivered about 75 percent of Mr. Young's sermon, "just because it was really good." That included a white-water rafting anecdote similar to Mr. Young's in the original. Mr. Moon, who has now been a pastor for seven months, didn't give credit to Mr. Young, and he makes no apologies for using a recycled sermon.
"Truth is truth, there's no sense reinventing the wheel," Mr. Moon says. "If you got something that's a good product, why go out and beat your head against the wall and try to come up with it yourself?"
These days, a lot of preachers would agree. The sermon -- an oration traditionally expressing the thoughts of the cleric doing the talking -- has entered the age of reruns. Topics and transcripts are available on sites like sermoncentral.com, pastors.com, sermonspice.com, and desperatepreacher.com. In the old days, when a preacher wanted to pinch a sermon, he had to consult a book, a magazine or a sermon anthology.
The offerings have a multidenominational appeal, allowing Presbyterian traditionalists or megachurch evangelicals to download talks on faith, hope and charity for a few bucks, or even free of charge. Torah-Fax, in Davie, Fla., runs a sermon email subscription service for rabbis. Some sites pay the authors for individual sermons (about $50 apiece) and sometimes buy up sermon libraries.
The widespread buying of packaged wisdom has touched off a debate about ethics, especially after incidents in which pastors have resigned over plagiarism allegations. Some members of the clergy say sermon sales diminish religious oratory and undermine both scholarship and the trust between ministers and their flocks.
"Every minister owes his congregation a fresh act of interpretation," says Thomas G. Long, a preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. "To play easy with the truth, to be deceptive about where the ideas come from, is a lie."
The plagiarism debate grew louder in recent months after a sermon site posted an essay by the Rev. Steve Sjogren titled, "Don't be original, be effective!" Mr. Sjogren urged pastors to quit spending time striving for originality and instead, to recite the words of better sermonizers.
"We need to get over the idea that we have to be completely original with our messages, each and every week," writes Mr. Sjogren, founding pastor of the Vineyard Community Church, in Cincinnati. "The guys I draw encouragement from...get 70 percent of their material from someone else."
The Rev. Ray Van Neste, an associate professor at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., wrote on his blog, "Oversight of Souls," that Mr. Sjogren's words were "utterly disgusting" and said that unhappy churchgoers were writing in. "There are people in church who feel betrayed by their pastors," Mr. Van Neste says. "It feels like cheating."
After music minister Brian Jonson complained about plagiarism, a committee at Liberty Heights Church in West Chester, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, gave the Rev. Terry Fields guidelines for sermon preparation, including how to reference sources. The plagiarizing continued, said former Deacon Dan Williamson, who has since left the church.
After four or five more complaints, Pastor Fields resigned last year. He didn't return phone calls seeking comment. "I don't see preaching someone else's sermon as proclaiming the word of the Lord given to him," Mr. Williamson said.
Plagiarism allegations have also hit some well-known clergy, including Rev. E. Glenn Wagner, former senior pastor of the Calvary Church in Charlotte, N.C., and former minister-at-large with Promise Keepers, a national effort to promote family values among men. Mr. Wagner said he left his church in 2004 after admitting that he had delivered sections of sermons written by a preacher friend. Mr. Wagner said he had been depressed at the time. "Most of the pastors I know help each other out, swapping materials and ideas," he says.
Mr. Long, at Emory, believes plagiarism can come from a clergyman's desire to be "sizzlingly entertaining," and from vanity. "Our churches have turned into theaters and our preachers have turned into witty motivational speakers with high entertainment value," Mr. Long says.
Pastors once pored over periodicals and anthologies to learn the styles of famous preachers. Now Web sites offer ministers videos, skits and PowerPoint graphics to match the sermon transcript. Creativepastors.com, a nonprofit corporation owned by Fellowship Church, has posted revenue of $1.7 million since January 2004, and has 17,500 accounts, according to the church's pastor, Mr. Young.
"I think sermons are better today because of the vast amount of information at our fingertips," he said. Growing competition from for-profit Web sites and local churches has led some sites to give away content at no charge. Sermoncentral.com, considered the biggest, posts more than 80,000 free sermons, anecdotes and dramas and gets 170,000 visits each week, according to the site.
Users say preaching sites spark creativity, provide research and offer outlines to help structure scattered thoughts. Glenn D. Bone III, pastor of Good Seed Ministries in Chicago, says he adapts Mr. Young's sermons but adds "an inner-city" flavor. For instance, he will replace the big houses and cars that Mr. Young mentions with references to "gold chains." In January, Mr. Bone supplemented Mr. Young's sermon about tithing with a Barry White song.
The Rev. Brett Blair, owner of sermons.com, says anyone who buys from the trove of anecdotes and 6,000 sermons is paying for the rights to the material. Others are more restrictive. Pastors.com requires buyers to agree that the material is for their use, that it will not appear as part of a church's resources and will not be made available on another Web site or a broadcast. Sermoncentral.com requires users to register and provide contact information. The site says it will freeze the account of any contributor found to be submitting copied material and asks that users credit their sources.
Ministers don't agree about the necessity of attribution. Mark Evans, senior pastor at the Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock, Ark., says he routinely credits "Purpose Driven Life" author Rick Warren from the pulpit. Mr. Warren says that's unnecessary. "They are preaching a sermon, not footnoting a term paper," Mr. Warren writes in an email.
Mr. Sjogren says he has been amused to hear his own sermons delivered in other churches. He calls attribution "an absolute waste of time."
"Real plagiarism is taking stuff out of a book and putting it into another book," Mr. Sjogren says. "Speaking, taking people's material and putting it into a speaking forum, is not plagiarism."
Prof. Van Neste says any time a minister passes off material as his own, he's plagiarizing. "Credit isn't really the issue. Integrity is the issue," he says.
Bruce Blatz, one of Mr. Moon's congregants in Land o' Lakes, Fla., says he doesn't mind if his pastor preaches the words of others -- sometimes. But, Mr. Blatz says, "He needs to be able to have some originality."