Advice to a New Elder: Apologizing

shepherd3You’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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: Apologizing

  1. Dwight says:

    Jay, I was just about to post something that has been on my mind in a similar vein. This problem of apology isn’t just an elder issue, but a person issue, but the more right you are the more wrong you cannot possibly be, so the higher you go up in authority and influence in the church…elder, deacon, preacher the more the problem is deep seated. From an authority position, an admission of guilt or wrong, is to destroy the character of the person and thus the position as well.
    Preachers, who speak so much truth, are especially prone to this because how can you speak truth and be wrong and thus be capable.
    Sadly they don’t hold Peter us an example of being an apostles and having the HS and still being human and capable of wrong without losing his mission and losing God and others when they correct themselves.
    The truth is that we are all imperfectly wrong, because we are not perfectly right.
    We ought to embrace our wrongness, because this places us all on the same level before God, as it should be.
    Only God decides what level we should be on, not us.
    The more we think we are right, the further we get from God in humbleness.
    It is not wrong to think we are wrong, because we are (often and completely), but it is wrong to think we are (always and completely) right, because in this frame of mind, we cannot change.
    It is easy to say, “I am wrong”, unless being challenged by another and then we become defensive in “I can say I am wrong, but you can’t”.
    I have been in too many conversations with preachers where despite there being witness to them blatantly stating the wrong thing in a sermon, they were not wrong and could not be wrong. It must have been heard wrong.
    This is a Pharisaical vantage point, where you cannot be wrong, because your position makes you right and you could not possibly be in this position and be wrong.
    It is as you suggest, we need to work from the aspect of meekness and wrong to get to the right.

  2. Mark says:

    I want to add one other thing similar to and as rare as apologizing. That is speaking up. There are occasions where an elder needs to speak privately with someone then publicly especially when someone is damaging Christianity. An example is when a speaker (invited lay person, preacher, etc.) trashes people (especially the young) who are in attendance for the sins of others, thinking differently, and/or being “liberal”. The best result is the young get mad, forgive, and return. The worst result is that they leave Christianity. I was never sure why this was acceptable. I could only presume that the elder(s) condoned it and merely used a surrogate to deliver it.

  3. Monty says:

    Interesting, I preach for a small congregation without elders. I find that members have accused me(come to my office-which I’m thankful for) for things like a facial expression which according to them seemed to display a momentary look of anger or frustration say in Bible class when someone made a comment to a question I asked. Now I pray often before a Bible class- Lord please don’t let me make a face that might get misinterpreted-seriously.

    I have been accused of saying It’s OK to get drunk because I wouldn’t condemn someone for having a glass of wine with their meal. Not that they drew their own conclusions about what I said but that I actually said the words ,”It’s Ok to get drunk in my class.” Funny that these two ladies who were best friends are the only ones that supposedly heard me say that. In both situations I expressed my apologies for their misunderstanding(their interpreting my facial expressions wrongly or misunderstanding of what I said). But it does raise a bit of a consternation I’m sure for ministers of smaller churches that my actions or words can be so suspect, even blatantly wrong and the membership gets to keep being so petty. I cannot really defend myself other than to apologize for having a certain look on my face, or assuring them I believe drunkenness really is a sin.

    I once visited a woman who told me she had been harboring ill feelings towards me for years over a sermon I preached where she said I was speaking directly to her while I said being fat (overweight) was a sin. I assure you I have never said such a thing. But it’s kind of hard after many years to remember what you did say that might have been misconstrued. But whatever I said that’s how she perceived it. Right or wrong when a member gets their feelings hurt and wants to hold it against the preacher the only solution is for the preacher to admit at least some amount of guilt and responsibility for making them feel how they feel. Please understand I am truly sorry for their misunderstanding of what I did or said. But I have yet to find a member who apologized to me or said, I’m sorry, for misinterpreting what you said or I’m sorry for believing that you said something you didn’t say. Perception is reality when it comes to members and their complaints against the preacher.

  4. Dwight says:

    Monty, preachers and speakers make themselves an easy mark, for better or for worse. The same position of speaking that often brings approval will often lead to disapproval. In some congregations the preacher walks on water and questioning them is a serious offense, never mind the preacher gets up to question the congregation. But the more one speaks, the more one gives a chance for praise and/or offense.
    The problem is that we don’t speak very well to each other within the churches. Approach is looked down upon, which would almost always solve the problems instead of letting them fester. We often know how to talk, but not be talked to.
    And I have actually posted on Facebook to have my posting be considered an offense, by my own preacher and have had to bring him back down to what it said. But it is true the burden of offense is often on the speaker and not the hearer. But we all need to subject ourselves to the truth of speaking and hearing, because it is easy to interpret wrong, and especially when we want to.

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