For some reason, the hardest two words for a leader to say are often, “I’m sorry.” This is especially difficult for young leaders, especially young pastors. But here’s the thing, an apology may be your best leadership tool. This I know because as a young, green, inexperienced pastor, I’ve had to do my share of apologizing.
So here are five reasons why pastors should have a quick trigger with their “I’m sorry.”
1) It builds respect — A young pastor often thinks he has to assert his authority to let everyone know that he’s the boss and it’s “his way or the highway.” This, he thinks, gives him more respect and authority. Aside from being unbiblical (Matthew 20:25-26, Titus 3:2 and 1 Timothy 3:3), what a young pastor doesn’t realize is that admitting when he is wrong or hasn’t fully weighed a matter, actually builds respect. People begin to think, “Okay, he’s young, but he’s mature about this.” On the flipside, there is no bigger sign of leadership immaturity than a leader who insists he’s right all the time.
2) It’s humanizing — Pastors are put on a pedestal whether we want to be there or not. We’re tasked by God to deliver His Word. We’re the spiritual leaders and some can be intimidated by this. When we have the courage to say, “I messed this up”, “I could have done this a different way” or “I should have listened to your concerns more”, we invite people into our own struggle and spiritual growth process. They realize: Hey this pastor is just a human, he’s growing, he’s learning, he can do this.
3) We model biblical relationship — No relationship can thrive without the wash cycle of repentance and forgiveness. It’s essential for us, as sinners, to constantly forgive and ask forgiveness. By apologizing to people we may have wronged we model true, biblical community. We’re showing the wife how to apologize to her husband, we’re showing the dad how to say “sorry” to his daughter, we’re showing the employer how to seek forgiveness from his employee. If the pastor is big enough to admit when he is wrong, then it empowers others to live with similar authenticity.
4) We disarm potential adversaries — It is true that often a pastor has to firmly stand against someone else in his church. Indeed, there are troublemakers in every church. However, I wonder how many church conflicts and splits could be avoided if somebody in leadership simply demonstrated biblical maturity and admitted their mistakes. Or actually listened to genuine concerns. When a pastor says something like, “I’m so sorry”, “I didn’t know you felt this way” or “I should have considered what you were saying”, it has a powerful way of diffusing a conflict and paving the way for peace. Romans 12:18 says, “As much as lies in you, live at peace with all men.” Sometimes there isn’t a way to find peace. Sometimes there are issues that can’t be resolved. Sometimes there are nasty people who can’t be assuaged and whose presence hurts the church. More often than not however, it’s simply a matter of spiritual maturity. Pastors should lead the way in this.
5) Sometimes you’re just flat wrong — Simply because you hold the office of pastor doesn’t mean that you are always right. Sometimes you’re wrong. An insecure pastor hides behind his biblical authority with all kinds of defensiveness. But a godly, mature pastor has the humility to admit when he is wrong. I’m grateful for my wife and the men on my Board who are willing to challenge me and ask “Why?” Because the worst thing for an organization is a leader with total, unchecked power. Men, especially young men, must admit when we are wrong. We must not be defensive. We must not be brawlers. When we do this we divide Christ’s body, we model worldly leadership and we harm the very sheep we’re called to serve.
Please note: This is not a prescription for doormat leadership. Pastors at times need to be tough, thick skinned and make hard choices. But there is no need for brawling, unapologetic tyrants or being a “wimpy” pastor. It’s called being a servant leader and those who are, have the courage to say “I’m sorry.”