When you should apologize -- and when you shouldn’t

When someone is upset with you or with something that has happened in the ministry, should you apologize?


If you know you made a mistake, the answer is yes. You forgot a meeting. You snapped at a staff member. You didn’t get the worship information for the bulletin in on time.

Here’s how you do it. “I’m so sorry I missed that meeting/lost my temper/was late for the bulletin deadline.” Don’t add lots of explanations: “This week was really overwhelming because…” It weakens your apology. If there was a real emergency or a sudden death in the congregation, you can mention it. But under most circumstances, discipline yourself to stop after “I’m sorry that I…”

When someone gives you feedback, take some time to reflect, even if you don’t think you did anything wrong. There may be something to learn about how you relate to others. Prayerfully consider it, and get counsel from those you respect.

However, just because someone is upset with you doesn’t mean you should apologize.

The fact is, if you are leading your congregation forward, people are going to get upset - even angry. You are upsetting the balance. Their emotions may be focused on something completely different than the nature of the change. For example, if you are leading them to be more focused on external mission, something may pop up in the choir, or the youth program (two frequent focuses for anxiety in congregations). It’s like a mobile: you touch one piece, and others start bouncing. That’s the nature of a system. It’s not personal. It’s systemic.

So: you are instituting changes to move the congregation forward. Or you take an important stand in the congregation or with a problem individual. You fire a staff member, or a volunteer. (Yes, you can fire a volunteer.) Someone is very upset about it. You don’t have to apologize. You can express genuine regret for the way things have turned out, or for the way they feel about it. That’s not the same as an apology.

What if someone comes to you and says that someone else is upset by something you have done? You can handle it in a couple of ways:

First, You can ask the person talking to you to ask the other individual to talk to you directly. (If the person complaining does, that’s a sign of maturity on their part.) Or,

Second, You could go to the individual and say, “Susan said you were upset with me, but I know that can’t be true because you would have come to me directly.” (A classic Edwin Friedman end run around the triangle.)

And remember, if someone says, “People are upset with you,” without naming names, be sure to ask, “Who?” Often it’s just that person, and maybe one more.

Here’s the deal: people complain about and to pastors all the time. (See Generation to Generation, p. 206 (Table 8-1) for a whole chart of content-related complaints about clergy.) If you apologized every time you weren’t measuring up to someone else’s expectations of you or projections onto you, you wouldn’t have time to get your work done. And in fact, you would be doing the opposite of the work you should be doing. You need a strong backbone, and a thick skin. If this doesn’t come naturally to you (it never has to me), you can toughen up over time.

Of course you can be pastoral and compassionate to people who are unhappy with you. But don’t allow them to overly dominate your time. Keep in touch, then get back to your work.

How do you handle apologies in ministry?

Get Margaret’s top six strategies for creating an energized and sustained ministry here.