At first blush, it sounded like good news: A preacher in the town of Brooks was apologizing for a COVID-19 outbreak that began at his church in early October and quickly spread throughout central Maine’s Waldo County.

But then Matthew Shaw, pastor of the Brooks Pentecostal Church, began to speak. And from there, things went straight downhill.

Shaw posted his act of pseudo-contrition Sunday on the church’s Facebook page. After weeks of criticism aimed at him and his congregation for ignoring Maine’s pandemic safety precautions and spreading the coronavirus to 60 people and counting, it appeared at first to be a good-faith effort to confess his wrongdoing and ask for the community’s absolution.

But in the end, we got what we get all too often in this age of deflected responsibility – an “apology” that dances around the actual transgression without ever really embracing it. Also known as the “fauxpology.”

Let’s go to the tape.

Addressing his comments to “the community of Brooks, Monroe, Jackson, the county of Waldo, as far as the effects of the virus may have spread,” Shaw began his remarks with the simple statement, “We regret what has happened and we ask your forgiveness.”

So far, so good.

Then he continued, “We apologize that the sickness came to our church and we apologize for the consequences that maybe the community is feeling, the fear that is settling into the hearts of men and women, those of you that might have been inconvenienced by the limitations that are put in place after a virus breaks out and certainly those today that even might have physically been affected by the virus.”

Pause for a second. By apologizing “that the sickness came into our church,” Shaw sidestepped the real sin here – that he opened the church to 100-plus people, many if not all of them unmasked, to hear a visiting preacher from Oklahoma in the middle of a pandemic.

Also, by expressing contrition for the “consequences that maybe the community is feeling,” he performed another artful dodge. “Maybe” people are fearful and upset? How about people are understandably ticked off – no maybes about it?

Then came the real corker. Lest anyone get the impression he was speaking to the public at-large, Shaw drew a firm line between the church’s friends and its perceived foes.

“When I say the community, I don’t refer to every person that has taken this opportunity to further your cause and your agenda … (and) used this opportunity to voice your opposition against the church,” he said.

Got it. So, just to be clear, if you happen to think the church royally messed up here and that putting all your faith in God and none in science is a recipe for disaster, no apology for you!

Rather, Shaw continued, he was speaking to those “that we have stood with and stood by on Sundays after church services as we stood in lines at the local grocery store, waiting on a pizza or a deli sandwich, and we smiled and talked and conversed as neighbors grabbing our groceries for the upcoming week; those of you that we stood with as your homes burned and your memories were lost and you started over because of the destruction of a structure fire; those of you that we stood with and beside as your family members were taken from injured car accidents and were receiving medical help.”

He went on to include the people his church has consoled at the burials of loved ones and the veterans with whom he’s marched in the local July 4th parade, but the sudden shift here is crystal clear: Rather than talk about what he and his flock did wrong in October of 2020, the pastor deftly pivoted to a laundry list of all the things they’ve done right for the past 25 years.

Translation: We care deeply – and only – about our friends. As for the rest of you, meh!

Now, I’m not suggesting here that Pastor Shaw is a bad guy. I’ve never met the man, but given his line of work, I’ll assume he’s trying to make the world a better place.

Still, before making a public mea culpa for actions that have thrust him and his church into the headlines, you’d think he might have spent some time, maybe even done a little research, on the art of the apology.

My own Google search quickly led me to a slew of advice that can be distilled down to a few basic pointers.

First, describe exactly what you did wrong. The “sickness” didn’t just come to the Brooks Pentecostal Church; its pastor threw open the doors and all but invited it in. And once there, by ignoring all the unmasked faces, he greatly enhanced its chances of spreading.

Second, acknowledge why it was wrong. We all know by now how quickly and indiscriminately COVID-19 spreads. Denying it, eschewing masks and simply leaving it in God’s hands may get you a chorus of amens, but it simultaneously puts countless fellow humans at risk.

Third, own it. The outbreak wasn’t something that happened to the church, it was caused by the church. The fact that Shaw and his congregation haven’t gathered since the outbreak is a tacit admission of what Shaw never stated outright: Our church did this. This was our fault. We are to blame.

Finally, say you’re sorry and ask for forgiveness. Not just from those you trust will forgive you, but from everyone you’ve harmed regardless of where they may or may not be relative to your comfort zone.

On Wednesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced 87 new cases of COVID-19, rivaling totals Maine hasn’t seen since May. At the same time, the seven-day average of new cases now stands at 54.1 – the highest since the pandemic began.

Meaning, we’re once again moving in the wrong direction.

There’s a message in those numbers for faith leaders like Shaw: Now more than ever, as we head into the long, dark winter, Maine needs your leadership.

Not your fauxpologies.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.