You’re a married man. Married to your first and only wife. Therefore, at home, you’ve mastered the fine art of apologizing. (Don’t even try to deny it.) Husbands who’ve managed to stay married to the same woman for 20 or more years know how to apologize.
But I’ve been astonished at the elders and elderships that find this next to impossible. Somehow, some men get the impression that the refusal to apologize is a sign of strength. It’s not. It’s a sign of denial. Self-delusion. I mean, when you mess up — and even the very best elders mess up regularly — apologize. It’s amazing how far a simple apology goes to heal a fractured relationship — and it’s just as amazing at how much damage a refusal to apologize leaves unrepaired.
How to apologize
There is exactly one correct way to apologize: abjectly. Apologies couched in howevers, buts, and ifs aren’t really apologies at all. In fact, they often make the offended party even more upset.
You forget your anniversary. Let’s try a few half-hearted apologies on for size:
“I was just so busy trying to earn a living to support you that I got distracted.” I’m sorry: is there an admission of being wrong in there somewhere? I don’t think so.
“If I offended you, I’m truly sorry.” Again: no admission of error.
“Yes, I messed up this year, but you remember the time you forgot my birthday while you were in labor with our third child and I was out of town on business … ” Seriously? Her mistake justifies your mistake? That’s the smart play?
“Mistakes were made.” And the passive voice allows you to avoid saying who made the mistake. Are you saying you actually remembered and she forgot? What fantasy world do you live in?
You see, the biblical language for “apology” is not “lame excuse” or “futile effort to save face” but “confession.” The only kind of apology that really matters is one that includes a heartfelt confession. If you can’t confess error, you aren’t apologizing.
Now, elders supposedly have high EQs, meaning that are attuned to the congregation’s feelings, and yet I’ve often found that when the church most needs to hear an apology, the elders are the ones least willing to offer one — even when a genuine, confessional, abject apology really would allow a restoration of healthy relations. Often the church is anxious to forgive and move on. They just need an apology. And yet so often, out of pride or just sheer stubbornness, the elders are unwilling to say the words — hoping the problem will disappear by magic. It won’t.
When to apologize
I’m not smart enough to have thought of this one myself. I learned it from a fellow elder.
Suppose you know that a couple or group has asked to meet with you at the next elders meeting. You’re not sure what they are upset about, but they are plainly upset. Very upset. How do you open the meeting?
Most elders (like me) would say that we should hear them out and then react to what they say. The trouble with that theory is that (a) the elders may not have an agreed on position on their problem and (b) this people coming to see you likely lost sleep and have obsessed over this meeting for days. For them to come to you with a complaint, they have to be pretty upset. So by the time they get to you, they will have built this up in their minds as just awful. What you did was awful and how you’re going to react is just awful — and so they’ve been dreading this meeting for days, maybe even weeks. Right?
So my fellow elder, who is much wiser than I, suggests starting the meeting this way:
“We’re sorry. We don’t know why you’re here, but we know you. And you are such good people that we know you wouldn’t be upset unless we’d messed up somehow. And so we figure we’ve done something wrong — and whatever it, we just want you to know that we’re sorry and we’ll do whatever we can to make it right. So please tell us what we can do to make it right.”
“Joe here is going to lead us all in prayer before we begin, if that’s all right. And, Joe, I ask that you be sure to include a prayer for the elders to have open, listening ears and truly hear what our friends are here to share with us.”
Now, imagine that you’re one of the upset members. You’re afraid the elders won’t listen. That they’ll be defensive. That they’ll stonewall. You’ve been rehearsing arguments and facts sleeplessly until 3 in the morning to get ready for the meeting, half knowing that it will be a waste of time. Your wife or friend had to talk you into meeting with the elders because you were so afraid of how they’d react. And the elders began the meeting with the apology you wanted and figured you’d likely never hear.
If the elders really mean those words, the tenor of the meeting changes dramatically. The stress hormones subside, the anger slackens, and the discussion becomes less confrontational and more conversational.
Now, it may turn out that the couple completely misunderstood something the elders said or did, and a simple explanation from the elders solves the problem — with a heartfelt apology for failing to adequately communicate the truth of the matter. Or maybe the elders made a more serious mistake.
But the fact that the elders don’t begin by trying to defend themselves and being slowly forced to acquiesce to the members’ complaint by argument redefines the relationship of the elders to their flock. The members now see the elders as being all about shalom — being in right relationship — and willing to give up their pride and egos in order to be at one with their flock. The flock appreciates this, and the elders come across much better than if they began by being defensive. Even if the meeting ends the same way, starting it the way my fellow elder recommends changes everything.
I mean, who do you respect more? The elder who, after 45 minutes of angry exchange, grudgingly admits error or the elder who starts with the assumption that he is the one in error? Oddly enough, clearly, the elder who quickly admits error is the one who receives the most respect.
And if you don’t get that, you need to consider whether you are really called to being an elder. Because, to me, this is one of those big rock things.