Our Bishop’s Convocation takes place this week when the pastors of our Conference will be focusing on the ministry of Preaching. Dr. Thomas G. Long of Emory will lead us, therefore for the next few weeks, my Bishop’s messages will reflect on the task of preaching.
When Aristotle was offering, in his Rhetoric the “available means of persuasion,” including reason, emotion, and the character of the speaker, Aristotle listed the character of the speaker as the most important. In fact, a later rhetorician would define a good speech as, “a good person speaking well.”
The credibility of the speaker continues to be one of the most powerful aspects of a persuasive speech. Sermons appeal to the emotions, appeal to the reason, cite scripture, and use story. However, both the opinions of classical rhetoric, and contemporary studies of public speaking agree that the personality, the character of the speaker is the key factor in credibility of the speech.
Even though credibility is a gift offered by the audience to the speaker that does not mean that the speaker has no control over credibility.
At least five factors influence the credibility of a speaker:
Character. The speaker must be perceived as trustworthy and true. There must be congruence between the listeners’ assessment of the personality of the speaker and what the speaker is saying. Parish pastors have great opportunity to influence through character. Listeners get to know you intimately in the daily activity of the congregation. Of course this can be a two-edged sword! Because they know you so well, in their daily interaction with you as their pastor, then they are apt to pick up phoniness, artificiality, and incongruent between what you say and who they perceive you to be.
Competence. Your audience must perceive you as a person who has control over the subject.
Composure. Speakers, who are nervous, are less trustworthy than speakers who appear confident and composed.
Likeability. We listen attentively and positively to people for whom we have positive feelings. This can be a great challenge for the Christian communicator. After all, to be faithful to the Gospel, at times we must say things that are not likeable, ideas and beliefs that will challenge our hearers, that our hearers hear as criticism. Nevertheless, if our hearers are positively disposed toward us as people, they will receive even our criticism much better than they would if they were negatively inclined toward us.
Extroversion. Speakers who reach out to their audience, are positively perceived by their audience. The audience perceives that the speaker really cares about them, really wants to be heard by them. However, extroverts in public speaking also note that it is possible to be too extroverted. A speaker who seems too intent on pleasing an audience, in being liked by the audience, can be perceived by the audience as disingenuous and artificial. The audience, feeling that the speaker is putting the make upon them, may resist the speaker. Defenses rise when we feel we are about to be manipulated by another person for that person’s own ends.
Although most preachers do not stand up and enumerate for the congregation all of their academic degrees, and all of the schools where they have studied, we will say things like, “In my study this week of today’s scripture, I had a tough task before me.”
Or we will say, “In my twenty years as a pastor I found that….”
Conversely credibility can be engendered by the speaker admitting to his or her shortcomings. The speaker says, “One of my weaknesses is I tend to judge people by their appearance. I will see someone shabbily dressed, and I think that this person is rather shabby. Have you ever done that?” Preachers who are sometimes perceived by their congregations as people who have solved all spiritual problems for themselves and are now, from their exalted perch of perfectionism, seeking to instruct the congregation. Letting some of our humanity come through in our speech is a means of establishing greater credibility.
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” says Paul. We preachers are thoroughly human vessels, yet God has given us a treasure to communicate to our people and one way we communicate is through who we are. Character and credibility are thus closely linked.
William H. Willimon
Be sure to join me on October 26 at 9:00 am at the North East District Office to hear Dr. Peter Steinke as he leads a very important seminar on Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.