BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. (AP) -- Plagiarism charges have caused trouble lately for historians and college students, and even clergy are being questioned about whether they should cite more sources from the pulpit.
Thousands of sermons have been collected online, making it easy for religious leaders to peruse the words of others for inspiration. And the point where research becomes plagiarism is murky for ministers and rabbis, who have many demands on them beyond composing a weekly sermon.
But by borrowing too much, some say preachers risk bruising their credibility.
''Preparation doesn't mean clicking 'print' or ripping it out of the magazine and carrying it to the pulpit with you,'' said Steve May, who edits a sermon-sharing Web site, www.sermonnotes.com. ''The real problem with that (is it) indicates the guy isn't spending time in the Word himself.''
The plagiarism question has gained attention in this Detroit suburb at Christ Church Cranbrook, where parishioners are waiting to see whether the Rev. Edward Mullins will return to his post as rector.
The Detroit Free Press reported this month that Mullins was given a 90-day suspension Feb. 1 while the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan investigated complaints by parishioners of plagiarism in his sermons and church bulletins.
Officials with the diocese and church where Mullins has served since 1996, as well as Mullins' lawyer, declined to discuss the investigation. At the church, parishioners have mostly shied away from talking about Mullins' suspension, though some have indicated the dispute has more to do with conflicts within the congregation than outrage at alleged plagiarism.
''We do feel that this is a family matter within the church family,'' said Ann Davis, junior warden on the vestry. ''Many members of the parish are in support of Father Ed, and we are trying to deal with it within the church.''
Generally, reading and listening to other preachers is recognized as a natural part of crafting a sermon. As with any kind of public speaking, it helps to know what else is being said.
Sharing sermon ideas has also been encouraged to varying degrees by denominations -- from helpful speaking tips to specific edicts about what should be said from the pulpit.
Episcopal Church USA, which incorporates the Michigan diocese and Christ Church Cranbrook, even publishes weekly sermons that it encourages pastors to use. And preachers following liturgical calendars generally address similar topics as others in their denomination.
Clay Morris, liturgical officer with Episcopal Church USA, said his faith's policies don't explicitly address how to cite sources for sermons. But finding a way to acknowledge the source would be akin to the church's policy with music.
''We're very clear in the Episcopal Church that if you're going to copy a piece of copyrighted music into a leaflet you must do what you must to cite a source,'' Morris said.
The problem for preachers lies in failing to give credit -- or not putting in the time to make a sermon original.
''These resources can be a shortcut for a busy pastor, but the downside is that a sermon for a general audience cannot address the needs of a local congregation as well as the local pastor can,'' said Clayton Schmit at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Plagiarism accusations are more often aimed at authors, not religious leaders, although the Rev. W. Barnwell Heyward Jr. at a Presbyterian church in Clayton, Mo., resigned in October after admitting he plagiarized sermons.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin admitted this year she borrowed from other works without attribution in her 1987 book ''The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.'' At least six books by popular historian Stephen Ambrose have been questioned for failing to properly credit source material.
And 38 students have left the University of Virginia since a professor developed a computer program to find duplicated phrases in students' work.
Some think it's unfair to judge a sermon or a church newsletter by the same plagiarism standards as an academic paper or book. Others question whether preaching should be copyrighted at all.
''I think the main responsibility of a congregation pastor or rabbi is to offer comfort or care to those who need it, and to speak or present the good news of God with conviction, clarity and emotion,'' said David Blewett, executive director of the Ecumenical Institute for Jewish-Christian Studies in Southfield.
May said most people use his Web site for research when developing sermons. And though May doesn't mind if preachers use some stories word-for-word, he requests that users don't republish the material.
''I don't believe that plagiarism in a sermon exists in the same sense that other people might,'' he said. ''The only thing I think is unethical -- plagiarism in preaching -- is if you tell a story that happened to someone else as if it happened to you.''
Schmit, an associate professor, said it's relatively easy for a pastor to make mention of the source of a sermon. And this can clear up the problem altogether.
''We know to use attribution when we're using material from another source, but we do so in very subtle ways,'' Schmit said. ''Who wants to listen to a presentation that is full of footnotes? But we have ways of doing it that are honest and subtle.''
On the Net:
Christ Church Cranbrook, http://www.christchurchcranbrook.org
Episcopal Church USA, http://www.episcopalchurch.org
Sermon sites: http://www.heargoodnews.org, http://www.sermonlinks.com/
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