Last Saturday evening Gary and I attended a wedding reception where the matron of honor gave this bit of advice to the groom on how to relate to his new wife (her sister), “If you’re wrong, speak up. If you’re right, shut up.” To keep relationships healthy, we must learn how to apologize if we make a mistake and not flaunt it if we are right. The speaking up part seems so simple, but it’s not. At least it’s hard to do it right.
This has been the year of the apology, hasn’t it? This full page ad appeared several times in The Grand Rapids Press last week. “On Monday morning, 19,500 barrels of oil leaked from an Enbridge Energy Partners pipeline into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River… We apologize to the people of Marshall and Battle Creek. Enbridge understands that the leak has disrupted people’s lives and made a mess of properties, public spaces and waterways… We will make this right. We will answer your questions, we will be accountable for our actions, and we will take responsibility for what has happened. Sincerely, Patrick D. Daniel, President and CEO, Enbridge, Inc.”
I was impressed by the immediate and clear admission of culpability in the ad. No excuses, no rationalizations. “We will take responsibility.” Compare that with the apology of BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who infamously said a few days into largest oil spill and environmental disaster in American history, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption this has caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” Hayward’s insensitive comment, which focused on primarily himself rather than the victims of the oil spill, did not appear genuine and certainly did not endear him or BP to the American public.
Other high profile apologies this year include Tiger Woods, Jim Joyce (whose wrong call spoiled Armando Galarraga’s perfect game), and Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, who flew halfway across the world to apologize in Washington D.C. on April 24, “When the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well.”
An apology can be one of the most profound ways to bring healing and reconciliation. Author and screenwriter Erich Segal’s famous line in the 1970 movie, Love Story, has entered the mainstream of American life, “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” In contrast, I am convinced that love means being the first person to say, “I am sorry.”
Why are we so fascinated with apologies? Maybe it’s because being able to confess a wrongdoing and forgive those who have harmed us is part of the image of God within us. Perhaps it’s because restoring relationships by apologizing is what makes us human and distinguishes us from other forms of life. Maybe it’s because we find it so difficult to humble ourselves to apologize or because we’ve heard one too many fake apologies.
What makes for a good apology?
- We sincerely admit that we are sorry immediately after any offense
- We understand the harm that we have caused the other person
- We dialogue with the other person and develop a heart to heart connection.
- We take responsibility for our action by making amends
- We take positive steps not to repeat our mistake
What makes for a false apology?
- We are self-serving and do not show remorse
- Others get the sense that we are trying to wiggle out of something
- We say what others want to hear
- Our apology lacks conviction or empathy for the person we’ve harmed
- We don’t care enough to change our behavior
What is the best way to make an apology?
It’s always best to talk directly with the person we have harmed, face to face if at all possible. If we anticipate that the conversation may be difficult, we may both agree to have a mediator sit in on the conversation. I’ve played that role numerous times in my years as a pastor. Some people use texting, email, or snail mail to make an apology because it’s easier, but this is never as effective as a sit down meeting.
Did you know that there is a completely anonymous way to make an apology for those lacking courage or common sense? Just log on to the website thepublicapology.com. Since everyone has to apologize for something, this website offers a quick, easy, and painless way to say we’re sorry.
- We can write an apology without signing our name. The person we’ve harmed won’t know, but at least we can get it off our chest!
- We can check and see if someone has apologized to us, although I have no idea how we would recognize an anonymous confession.
- We can read all the apologies that others have made and even vote on the most heartfelt and most outrageous apology. It might even make us feel less bad about our own mistakes.
Over 29 years of ministry, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for church members and pastors to apologize to one another. The inability to sit down together and talk openly and honestly about differences is one of the greatest contributing factors to unhealthy churches. Pastors and church members who get into the habit of blaming everyone else but themselves create a culture of mistrust that undermines effective ministry.
Leaders must be especially sensitive to the importance of apologies. At times we need to take responsibility for things that are not our direct fault. We may not have personally done anything wrong, but if our organization or someone in our organization has harmed another, we are the ones to take the blame, apologize, and right the wrong. People who have been wronged are usually satisfied when someone in authority listens to them, demonstrates concern, and acts to make amends. Leaders are called to do the right thing rather than protect themselves or the organization.
Consider the scandalous revelations over the past 15 years of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Compounding the horror of the abuse itself, victims and their advocates blamed the Catholic hierarchy, which too often did not report abuse to the appropriate legal authorities or immediately remove clergy from the priesthood. Instead, such priests were reassigned to other parishes where they continued to abuse more children and youth. Moreover, once the abuse was brought out into the open, the hierarchy was painfully slow to apologize, care for the victims, and facilitate healing.
Within the past year new revelations of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and Austriaand subsequent cover-ups by high officials have put pressure on the Catholic Church to issue a strong response. At a June 11 gathering of nearly 15,000 clergy in conclusion of the celebration of the “Year of the Priest,” Pope Benedict said that he would do “everything possible” to stop “sin within the church.” He said, “And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light, particularly the abuse of little ones… We too beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again.”
Effective apologies demand courage and sensitivity from both parties. “You were right. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” Simple words that express humility, remorse, and commitment go a long way in restoring relationships. Plus, we gain credibility and respect when we admit that we are not perfect.
“Thank you for apologizing. I admire your honesty.” By becoming more gracious and forgiving people ourselves, we not only provide encouragement for others to apologize, but we also counter our culture’s often punitive attitude toward those who fail. (Read Ezra chapter 10, where the example of Ezra’s confession promoted the people ofIsrael to repent for intermarrying with the people of the land.)
In this year of the apology, with the church leading the way in modeling healthy relationships, I wonder if good apologies will become so commonplace that fake apologies become a thing of the past. If that doesn’t happen, I sincerely apologize. I am sorry for misleading you and will never suggest such a thing again.