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How to Apologize When You Mess Up in Youth Ministry

how to apologize

The details don’t really matter. Maybe you lost a freshman in the corn maze. Maybe there was a fight—like an actual fight—about predestination. Or maybe it was more serious. A volunteer said something inappropriate. Kids acted recklessly when you were responsible for them. We all mess up, and we all say we’re sorry. But we don’t all know how to apologize well.

People are naturally awful at apologies. We mutter and struggle to look the other party in the eye. We try to apologize for “what happened” and hesitate to admit our own fault. That makes people upset.

But in youth ministry, the stakes are even higher: A bad apology will make the problem worse. That’s why you need to get it right and know how to apologize effectively.

First, try really hard not to screw up. Then, when that doesn’t work, apologize this way.

How to Apologize (and Mean It)

1. State precisely what happened.

Be very clear about the reason behind your apology. You’re not sorry about “what happened at the retreat.” You’re sorry you allowed the boys to walk to the convenience store at 2 a.m.

If you’re apologizing for some vague thing that happened at some point, it’s like you’re not really apologizing for anything at all. To issue a legitimate apology, acknowledge exactly what you did wrong.

2. Never, ever make qualifications or excuses.

Apologize, then end your sentence with a period. Never apologize with a comma, and never, ever follow that comma with a “but”: I’m really sorry the boys were unsupervised, but …

An apology means accepting blame. When you qualify an apology, you’re shifting blame. It’s impossible to really apologize unless you’re willing to take blame yourself.

3. Explain what will change in the future.

Parents want to know you’ll protect their children better next time. So you’re not merely hoping this doesn’t happen again. You’re working to make sure it doesn’t.

It might be important and beneficial to take an extra hour or two before you apologize. That way, you can figure this out.

4. When you screw up, use this template.

Mrs. Anderson, I’m incredibly sorry the boys were walking unfamiliar streets well past midnight. It was reckless and dangerous. And it shouldn’t have even been possible for students to be unsupervised that way for so long.

I’ve spoken with some ministry friends, and they’ve shared a very simple solution. At future overnight events, I’ll make sure to pull my bed directly in front of the doorway. That way, students can’t sneak out without my knowing.

I really am sorry, and I hate that I allowed this to happen. I’m serious about making sure these kinds of things don’t happen again. And I want to make sure I regain the trust of your family in the future.

How to Apologize: Why It Matters

Here’s why it’s so important to apologize well: You’ve already messed up once. (If you didn’t, then you wouldn’t need to apologize.)

When’s the last time you had to apologize for something? How did that go? What will you change in the future, and what will you tell kids about how to apologize?

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Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations—things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.