“Can you find babysitters for the women’s event on Saturday?”
“Will you organize the Wednesday night meal in two weeks?”
“Are you open to teaching pre-school Sunday school next fall?”
“Will you head up our trip to Minneapolis for the next National Youth Gathering?”
Life in the church is filled with requests like the ones listed above. Whether you are working in a congregation or volunteering in your local parish, not a week goes by without inquiries from staff, congregational members, and people in the community. Some of those requests sound very appealing and inspire you to a quick response of yes. Some, however, are requests you feel less inclined to accept.
For some reason, no matter how much you believe you should say no, you still say yes. And here’s the thing: sooner or later, all the “yes” answers you give to people add up. You still have 24 hours in a day, and seven days in a week. But as your commitments grow, you are stretched thinner and thinner. Over time, you gain a reputation as someone who will say yes, no matter the request, so the number of things people ask of you begins to increase. Your work starts to suffer because you can’t do it all, but you have an investment in each project now. Even if you wanted to get out of certain tasks and projects, you can’t—because you already said yes. You wish you’d have said no from day one, but for some reason you didn’t.
Ministry is not about saying yes to every request someone lays before you. In fact, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was simple: sometimes we need to say no to things that are good, so we can say yes to things that are better. Think about that for a moment: just because you say no to something does not mean it was bad, or that it was not a good opportunity. It means that, in some cases, you say no to one thing so you have the time, energy, and resources to say yes to something else.
The ability to say no is vital. It helps us remain focused on the things that are most important. It helps us set appropriate boundaries that enable us to serve people with greater energy, enthusiasm, and care. Saying no allows us to serve in ways that are better aligned with our gifts, talents, and passions.
But learning to say no is difficult. Often times, we feel guilty for telling someone no. Maybe it is that we are overconfident, thinking we can handle it all on our own, so we continue taking on more and more responsibility. Many of us don’t realize how much is actually on our calendars until things begin to drop. From fear, to obligation, to people-pleasing, the list of reasons we don’t like to say no is extensive. But saying no is a vital skill for ministry, and cultivating that skill matters. How do you know when to say no, and then do it effectively, when the time is right?
First, know yourself. Take stock of your gifts. You aren’t gifted to do it all (see Romans 12:4-8, for example). Additionally, make it a habit to keep track of the commitments that are already “on your plate”. By understanding the gifts God has given you, and exploring where you are already committed, you can better check if you are the right person at the right time for a request that has been made. With any major request, give yourself a 24-hour window to pray about and consider the request. When we feel pressured to make a decision, we will often say yes—even if we don’t think it the right option at the time. By taking a step back to pray about and consider the request that has been laid before you, it is possible to view the request within the bigger picture of your life and ministry.
Sometimes, we get so excited about the potential of an idea that we can’t contain our ‘yes’—even if we do not have the capability to follow through at the time. A helpful tip in the consideration process is to give someone “veto power” over any major decision: a person who has the influence in your life to help you say no to things when they are not the right fit for you, or when you just don’t have the time. In my life, this is a role my wife plays. For you, it may be a spouse, a trusted friend or mentor, a sibling, or someone else. Find someone who knows you well, understands your priorities and commitments, and can help you see the bigger picture of your life and service.
Additionally, pay attention to your mentality: are you saying yes because you have or need to? Or is it because you want or get to? Yes, there are things in ministry that are a necessary part of the job and have to be done. But if you find you are regularly taking on tasks that make ministry feel like more of an obligation than a joy, it may be time to reconsider the requests that are leading you to say yes. When we begin feeling like ministry is an obligation, our ability to serve our people well diminishes, and we can find ourselves on a fast track to burnout.
Finally, learn to disappoint others—but help them understand the reasons you said no. This may sound a bit harsh, but the reality is simple: regardless of what you do, you cannot please everyone. Understand that almost every decision you make will likely disappoint someone involved. To help with this fact, work to build understanding of the reason behind your response with those involved. Make your decision, and when you have to say no, continue to build bridges and help others understand your perspective. This little step will go a long way toward building relationships and helping others see beyond this one decision.
Saying no is a sometimes difficult thing to do. But guarding your time and gifts by saying no to some things will help you set boundaries that allow your service to grow. You always have a choice, even when it is hard, and sometimes saying no (even to things that are good!) is the right and necessary option.