The Three Parts of an Effective Apology
Christine Carter (2015)
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What is the Science?

Often the catalyst for receiving forgiveness is offering a good apology. Yet, in her article “The Three Parts of an Effective Apology,” Christine Carter suggests that all apologies are not created equal. Drawing from the field of research on apologizing, Carter suggests that effective apologies may be defined by the following criteria:

  1. “Tell them what you feel.” This step includes paring your words of apology with expressed feelings of remorse or regret.
  2. “Admit your mistake and the negative impact it had.” This process includes taking an empathetic posture toward the other person(s), naming painful emotions or consequences that the offended party might be experiencing.
  3. “Make the situation right” by reestablishing trust through concrete actions or reparations.  

When it comes to disrespecting or hurting another person, Carter writes, intention matters considerably less than impact. Offering an intentionally robust apology, however, is a skill that moves the focus past intention and into a space of felt experience in which relationships can be rejuvenated and even restored.

“A good apology is something of an art.”– Christine Carter

What is the Theology?

Scripture often addresses apologies and forgiveness in the context of human reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-24; 6:15; 18:15-22; Luk. 17:4). If the Scriptures teach that forgiveness is to be purposed toward reconciling relationships then it follows that Christians should not only be thoughtful in how they extend forgiveness but also in how they apologize. The skill of offering an effective apology, therefore, may be a faithful Christian practice, positively impacting personal growth, pastoral leadership, and community health.

What to Consider

  • Consider potential differences between confession toward God (Psa. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, Jonah 2; Job 42) and apologies toward one another (Gen. 32-33; Luk. 11:3-5)? Might Carter’s article be informative for Christian confession toward God as well?
  • When has an apology made a difference in your life? What about that apology did you find most helpful? How might that apology be contrasted with other, less effective apologies?
  • What apology are you waiting to receive? What do you believe this apology will do or be for you? How might the hope of this apology impact the way you extend apologies toward others?

How to go Deeper

  • Practice effective apologizing in your daily life. Spend time reflecting on the three parts of effective apologies and consider how you can implement them with your partner, your family, and your congregation.
  • Some of the most channeling and robust reflection on apologizing and amends-making is found in Steps 8 and 9 of 12 Step programs. Spend time reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and consider how these principles may apply to your life and ministry.     
  • Preach a sermon series on forgiveness and apologizing, stressing how the latter is vital for restored relationships.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

Research on the Science of Forgiveness: An Annotated Bibliography”

What an Apology Must do

The New Science of Forgiveness

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About the Author:

Michael Wiltshire serves as an assistant pastor at Rose City Church in Pasadena, CA. He holds an M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016) and a B.S. from Cornerstone University, double majoring in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. While studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, he co-led the Fuller Faith and Science student group and worked in residential community. Michael is passionate about pastoral care, and is dedicated to exploring how preaching, practical theology, and organizational systems can empower churches to care well. A Michigander at heart, Michael enjoys cloudy weather and the NBA.

4 Comments

  1. JarrodCraw April 17, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Ken Sande’s book the Peacemaker also points in this direction. It’s interesting to see science supporting his well-known approach to reconciliation.

  2. matt@ncstudycenter.org May 15, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    Fascinating that apology can be academically researched in this way. This is interesting to think about the potential of both in inter–personal relationships, as well as in peace-building and reconciliation initiatives.

  3. AustinF May 22, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    There are definitely nuances to apologies. An apology is another form of communication, good study in researching it thusly.

  4. Thomas June 28, 2017 at 3:29 am

    Thank you for this very insightful article. Apologies are so multifaceted and can not simply be a get-out-jail-free card. I appreciate this research in what seems to be the lost art of a true apology.

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