Staring at my t-shirt as I walked in—trying to decipher its supposed subliminal message—the employee behind the counter asks: “So what does that sequence of symbols mean?” Ugh, I know where this is gonna lead. Well, he asked, so here goes. Unapologetically, I translate the simple graphics for him: “The water drop is baptism. The book is scripture. The chalice and bread are communion.” A pause of silent uncertainty on what exactly to say next. You could see his face flush with shame. And just as I had called it in my mind: an unsolicited apology followed. With embarrassment in his voice, as if needing to confess a crime, he sheepishly responds: “Yeah, I haven’t been to church in a couple years…I should go back…” Oh, ok. Is he bracing for me to condemn or confront him? What do I do with this? Absolve him of something not really needing forgiveness? Brush it off as no big deal? Probe him on the reasons for his hiatus and psychologize what this all means about his faith, or lack thereof? Frankly, all of these responses leave something to be desired, if not dreaded. Either way—AWKWARD. I wish I could tell you this was a first of its kind, but honestly, it happens more often than one might expect. Why is it that people feel obligated to apologize for being absent from church?
Disclaimer: I’m not looking for nor need an apology from you for your absence—no matter weeks, months, or even decades—from church. That’s just not part of what I consider to be my pastoral duty. Open to a conversation? Sure. An apology? Not necessary. Sorry 😉 You have your reasons for being away, not that recess from congregational life (momentary or extensive) is always intentional. Sometimes it’s as basic as not bearing priority in one’s life or being void of pull towards engagement. That’s not a judgment against anyone. Right or wrong, it’s just the truth of the matter. There’s all kinds of reasons for this—shifting external demands, mounting internal stress, not having an established routine of church involvement, and the list goes on. I had a parishioner in Nebraska who rarely darkened the door of the church, but was one of the most faithful people I knew in the community. Standing in his smoky shop, surrounded by big rigs needing immediate attention, we would talk about who Jesus was for him, where he felt God present in his life, and how his faith informed his daily life. He apologized to me a myriad of times for missing worship—at least half a dozen each time we visited. I came to realize over time that his absence had to do more with an overwhelming guilt regarding past mistakes and an inability to relinquish that so as to enter into loving community with others, and less to do with a disinterest or devaluing of the church. You don’t have to be sorry for demons, we’ve all got them. That’s not to say sleeping-in after an all-nighter changing out a transmission or just a lack of passion for the music of an early morning service weren’t factors one time or another. Regardless, I don’t remember Jesus ever asking for an apology from anyone he met who wasn’t a regular at the synagogue or Temple.
So why is it we feel compelled to apologize for whenever we’ve missed church—whether intentionally, for good reason, or even not? Have, we the church, unknowingly mastered the art of guilt? I know more than a few people (clergy included) who would silently nod in affirmation. Is it something subconscious within our faith formation? Now remember kids, if ever you get caught being away from church you need to feel really really bad about it and look remorseful before being readmitted into the body of Christ! That’s absurd. Still, it’s what’s been heard and internalized by at least a few somewhere along the way. Are we pastors more intimidating than we realize? While some of us might possess a certain air of over-inflated authority (not naming anyone, lest I be added to the list), none should ever wear the clerical so tightly as to mistaken keeping attendance rolls with serving God’s kingdom. Could it be just an innate part of our constant need to not disappoint others? Is it less about the particular community or religious setting, and more of a personal reaction of anxiety? Lord knows we all can say some dumb things when caught off guard or put on the spot. Don’t believe me, listen to the responses well-intending people say to those grieving the loss of a loved one. Comments can range from confusing to downright cringe-worthy. Maybe, when faced with our not meeting others’ expectations—or more appropriately our perceptions of others’ expectations, we assume the most fitting or only acceptable (forgivable) response is to apologize. Might the apology, though spoken aloud, be less for the other person and rather intended for ourselves—meant to remain inside, yet given breath before we can withhold it? You don’t owe the church, much less a pastor, an apology for being absent. We’re not keeping tabs on you; and if we were, that’d be a whole other issue. Next time you or someone you encounter apologizes for being away from the church, I encourage you to question the reason for that response. Why are you apologizing?
– Pastor Andrew