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.