I’m sorry but I cannot apologize

by Angela T. Khabeb 



Perhaps you’re familiar with the recent conversations about women and our tendency to apologize more than men. There have been articles and blog posts on the topic, not to mention skits by Amy Schumer and a Pantene commercial.

The commercial depicted women apologizing in various situations. One woman apologized before asking a question in a meeting, “Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?” Another woman apologized to the man who bumped into her.

If these women weren’t at fault, why apologize? Doubtless we do not make more mistakes than men. A quick scan of any history book will affirm that. So, what’s going on here? Perhaps it is simply a case of another overused word—similar to the overuse of hate, love or awesome. I’ve heard “I’m sorry” used in lieu of “pardon me” or “could you repeat that?”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word in the following ways:
“Sorry: 1. Feeling sorrow, regret or penitence; 2. Mournful, sad”

We also use “I’m sorry” to express sympathy or acknowledge pain. Our society could improve on acknowledging our offenses to one another, regardless of gender. In my opinion, some women apologize for their very presence or their feminine identity. But this is not part of the good news that Jesus proclaims to all humanity. Jesus calls us to live abundant lives, not apologetic lives (John 10:10).

I do not advocate being rude or disrespectful. It is appropriate to own our offenses or mistakes. At times, an apology is appropriate to atone for ones broader misdeeds. For example, the ELCA expressed repentance for Luther’s writings that were anti-Semitic. Although the apology was given centuries after the transgression, the recognition of the pain served as a bridge to deeper ecumenical relationships. An act of contrition can be just as powerful even on a much smaller scale.

artone300One of my colleagues from church shared the story of a phone call they had received. The anonymous caller was irate and wanted to know why churches are filled with self-absorbed hypocrites, liars, child molesters and hateful xenophobes.

Reeling from the random tirade, my colleague offered an apology, “I can tell that the church has hurt you deeply and for that, I am sincerely sorry.” The caller’s demeanor softened and ministry blossomed. At that moment, my colleague, who was not at fault, represented the historical church at large and apologized.

Haters gonna hate

Not long ago, the women in my congregation wanted to remodel my office while I was on maternity leave. I loved the idea! My office was dated and dismal. The women wanted something better for their pastor. They repeatedly asked me what color I wanted them to paint my office. Repeatedly, I told them that it really didn’t matter. Finally, the president of the Women of the ELCA unit asked me in person. I acquiesced and chose smoky amethyst.

While on maternity leave, I overheard a phone conversation that my husband was having. He kept repeating the same two sentences. “But our pastor is a woman. We should respect our pastor.” After he hung up the phone, I had to know.

“Benhi, who was that?”

He answered, “You won’t believe it. That was Mr. ‘Smith’ from the church property committee. He’s angry because he thinks the color you chose is ‘too feminine because what if our next pastor is a man?’” Immediately, I left the parsonage and walked over to the church to see this “feminine” color for myself.

Well, the color wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I didn’t think it was that bad. And it was early evening. I decided to return in the morning so I could witness this color in the light of day. The next morning, I went to the church at 8 o’clock. To my surprise, the office had been repainted under the cover of night!

Mr. Smith had recruited the church council president and they repainted my office a “proper masculine” color, gray.

Despite my being a leader of this church, my choices were not respected. Strangely, my office—a mostly private space—became the symbol of an unwanted feminine presence. (Unfortunately, this was not the first time I’d encountered the mindset that equates femininity with irreverence.)

I remember in seminary about the appropriate appearance for clergy during worship: no large earrings, no brightly colored fingernails, and no shoes that make noise on hard surfaces.

I sat in worship class stunned. “Wait a minute. All of these don’ts are directed at women.”

Does this mean I can’t choose how I express my femininity with my appearance? I’ve even been lectured about open-toed shoes and bare legs while ministering at the altar. These lingering archaic notions are a product of our male-dominated profession.

Sadly, these voices, although fainter now, are still in the back of my mind every Sunday before worship. Do I dare wear my peep-toed pumps? Is this shade of lipstick offensive? Will God fall off the throne if I enter worship sans pantyhose? These sorry seeds were planted in my mind long ago, but I no longer tend that garden. I wear my heels that click and colored fingernail polish—not as an act of defiance but rather as celebration. I celebrate my baptismal identity as a child of God, who also serves as a pastor and happens to be a woman . . . unapologetically.

Discussion questions:

1. What are other words or phrases we can use instead of “I’m sorry” when we aren’t apologizing?

2. What, if any, good is an insincere apology? (I force my kids to apologize to each other. They do it. But probably don’t mean it.)

3. Who defines femininity in our culture? What does femininity mean to you?

The Rev. Angela T. Khabeb is the associate pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church in Waukesha, Wis. She has an amazing husband, Benhi, two spectacular sons, Konami and Khenna, and a precious baby girl, Khonni.

Photos by torbakhopper, jdurham and Юлия Савенкова. Used with permission.


Christina says:
Jul 09, 2015

After reading your article I had to pause and see if I could count the number of times I said I’m sorry today. I know I said it when I almost ran into someone coming around the corner, another time when my daughter was telling me she got hurt at soccer today and another when I was running late to a meeting and they had to restart when I arrived. (I am sure I said it more times than that). For all of those situations I do feel a level of regret for the situation I may have caused or for someone to be hurt or inconvenienced by my actions. And if I use it for those situations, does it diminish or lessen the sorrow I feel for the times when I say it for someone who is in true pain/anguish? I would hope that is not the case. I am sorry for those who are in pain, whether it was caused by me or someone else. I pray for them to find a sense of peace, love and comfort away from their pain and end their own sorrow and sadness.
Thank you for writing such inspirational and thoughtful words!

Barbara Miller says:
Jul 10, 2015

excellent!! Reminds me of a parishioner’s comment to me, the pastor’s wife, who was at worship wearing slacks: “Well! I guess if the pastor’s wife is wearing pants to church, I can, too!!”
Keep on keeping on being who you are!!

Jennifer says:
Jul 11, 2015

Thank you for reminding us to celebrate our unique personhood!

Nancy Giddings says:
Jul 23, 2015

thank you so much, these words resonate

Laura Bachman says:
Jul 28, 2015

I think being in touch with one’s child is part of being free in the kingdom. For a season, I walked with women who didn’t cut their hair, wear makeup, jewelry or pants. In doing so, I discovered that I liked having my long, uncolored hair and opted to keep it even as I begin my seventieth year. I still wear less makeup and jewelry, and I love skirts and dresses and rarely wear pants. I don’t judge people who do or do not take my line. As I walk in a confidence of who I am in Christ and seek to see others through His eyes, I mostly find respect.

Cheryl Walenta Gorvie says:
Jul 28, 2015

Sometimes I don’t wear pantyhose while leading worship. Other times I wear fishnet stockings. It never occurred to me that the proclamation of God’s Word might be compromised by my footwear. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news! Thank you, Pastor Angela, for your own beautiful feet bringing good news!

Denise Rector says:
Jul 29, 2015

This is excellent — thank you.

I’m in seminary. I can’t remember the last time I wore pantyhose, and I don’t plan to for the foreseeable future.

I am stunned that they repainted your office — just stunned. I feel sorrow for them. Prayers to you.

Jean Dougherty says:
Aug 10, 2015

Thank you for the reminder we still have a long way to go! I recently met a female pastor who told me she does not wear her collar in public because she is tired of people asking her, “Are you really a pastor?” I propose this is even a greater reason to wear it!

Janelle says:
Sep 17, 2015

Thanks for sharing the ways women are silently told they are not welcome, even in called/elected roles of leadership. Layers and layers of sexism make ministry difficult. Thank you also for emphasizing your choices are not in defiance but simply being yourself. Blessings.

Barbara says:
Mar 03, 2017

Wonderful observation, really got me thinking. However, I would have appreciated hearing how you dealt with the office paint job. We, as women, are told we must learn how to stand up for ourselves, yet are rarely given examples of it. “What do think?” And “how would you have handled it?” don’t help women see how encounters can go……..

Barb Spies says:
Mar 07, 2017

What a wonderful article! I used to be an “I’m sorry” woman. I am very conscious of that now. “Excuse me” is my go-to now. It seems to work for about everything. Awesome writing!

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