I knew I needed to apologize after the moment the words left my mouth. I felt I couldn’t do it quickly enough! But the congregation was dismissed and the opportunity gone. In a moment of frustration at the end of the service, I had scolded families for not using our nursery and children’s ministry. It was a foolish, immature response during my early years as a pastor. Our church was growing at a frantic pace. Space was tight, yet several families continued to bring babies and young children into the auditorium and kept them there even when they were crying loudly. It was distracting, but my response only exacerbated the embarrassment and didn’t solve the problem. I should have taken a deep breath and finished the service, conversed with ministry leaders and some families during the week, then moved toward a workable, palatable solution. Instead, I found myself seeking out families to make private apologies, followed by a public apology during worship the next Sunday. While some damage was unavoidable, apologizing had a mitigating, even nurturing effect. It was an opportunity for me to express sincere regrets and an opportunity for the church to see (quite plainly!) that its young pastor knew that he still had much to learn.

I wish I could say that was my only apology-worthy incident during my pastor years. If you’re a ministry leader in any capacity, it will happen to you, too. You’ll make a wrong decision or say the wrong thing, and you’ll become quickly aware that you hurt people or damaged the ministry. When it happens, don’t bluff or wait. Don’t assume that the offended person or party should come to you first. Be proactive. Take initiative and seize the opportunity, but do it the right way. People know instinctively if you’re being disingenuous, or if you’re merely apologizing to get yourself out of a pickle.

A sincere apology should include three elements.

First, state the offense. Be crystal clear. Articulate, up front, what was your mistake and the pain or problem it caused. Don’t offer buffer language such as “if I offended you” or “I didn’t intend to hurt you.” It matters little whether or not you intended the offense. What matters is that you committed the offense, and an apology isn’t effective unless it includes a clear sense of what you’re apologizing for.

Second, own the offense. Take full responsibility. It was, after all, your decision or your action that caused the hurt. If there were reasons for your actions, state them, but do not use them as excuses. And don’t pass the blame—or even share the blame. If you’re a leader, others might have been involved in the mistake, but they were likely following your lead. Blaming them always backfires.

Third, promise change. Indicate, frankly, how you will avoid making the same mistake in the future, and the measures you will take to improve and provide accountability. At this point, it’s vitally important also to listen. Ask questions such as “how can I make this right? What do you think I should do improve?” and be willing consider the responses soberly, even if they hurt.

An apology should be kept within the realm of the offense. A personal offense should be handled personally and privately. A public offense demands a public apology. In any case, don’t fear apologizing. A demonstration of honesty and vulnerability will build trust between you and the people you serve.

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