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How to Apologize When You Mess Up

How to Apologize When You Mess Up

The details don’t really matter.

Maybe you lost a freshman in the corn maze.

Maybe there was a fight over predestination—like an actual fight.

Or maybe it was more serious.

A volunteer said something inappropriate.

Students acted recklessly when you were responsible for them.

We all mess up and we all say we’re sorry, but we don’t all apologize well.

People are naturally awful at apologies.

We mutter. We 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 our career, the stakes are even higher:

In ministry, a bad apology will make the problem worse. That’s why you need to get it right.

First, try really hard not to screw up.

Then, when that doesn’t work, make sure you apologize this way:

State precisely what happened.

You need to be very clear about the reason behind your apology. You’re not sorry about “what happened at the retreat.” You’re sorry that you allowed the boys to walk to the convenience store at 2:00 in the morning.

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.

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 upon yourself.

Explain what will change in the future.

Parents want to know that their children will be better protected next time. You’re not merely hoping this doesn’t happen again. You’re working to make sure that it doesn’t.

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

When you screw up, use this template.

Mrs. Anderson, I am incredibly sorry that 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 in that way for so long.

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

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

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.)

So tell me, when’s the last time that you had to apologize for something? How did that go?  

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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.