When You Have to Say No

When my husband and I were first married, if someone in the church we attended asked me to participate in some ministry, I usually said no. I worked in the nursery and sang in the choir. But I felt intimidated and inadequate to do much of anything else.

The ladies’ group in this particular church was highly organized with officers over various areas of responsibility. One fall, the president explained nominees for the next year would be notified soon. She encouraged those nominees not to say an automatic no, but to pray about the opportunity.

I was a nominee for the first time that year. I had been on a committee that changed the main hall bulletin board once a month to focus on a couple of missionaries our church supported. Bulletin boards had been the bane of my college education major, and I wasn’t excited about overseeing the committee for them for a whole year. But I took to heart the admonition to pray about it. I didn’t feel I should say no.

I was elected. I did not have to participate in every bulletin board, but I assembled a committee of ladies to work on them, usually two a month. Another officer made up the list of which missionaries were featured each month. Sometimes I’d come up with the idea for the boards; sometimes the ladies would.

Even though I was a reluctant officer at first, I learned and grew through the year. I came to actually enjoy bulletin boards, and I learned principles that enabled me in other areas of responsibility.

But then I went to the other extreme of feeling like everything that anyone asked me to do in church was of the Lord. I was soon overrun and overburdened.

It doesn’t take long, in church or in life, to learn that you can’t say yes to everything. Yet it’s hard to say no. You don’t want to let people down or let a need go unmet.

But no one can do everything. Here are some truths I learned along the way when trying to decide what to take on or let go. Maybe they’ll be a help to you, too.

Pray for wisdom. Just as my former ladies’ group president advised me not to say no until I prayed over an opportunity, I also should not say yes until doing the same. I shouldn’t use “Let me pray about it first” as a cop-out or stall tactic. But, even if I feel pretty sure one way or the other, I need to take it to the Lord.

Evaluate your season of life. When I had young babies, I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. The outside ministries I was involved in only added pressure, and I wish now I had stepped back from them. I finally learned to do so with my third child. Likewise when we cared for my mother-in-law in our home, my husband and I both had to lay other ministries aside. There just wasn’t time or energy or mental space for anything else.

Remember little things add up. In one church, I had one major responsibility plus a lesser one. Over time, I was asked to take on other small tasks. They didn’t involve a great amount of time, so I said yes. But the small things that weren’t too much on their own added more pressure all together. I had to hand off some of them to others.

Remember my no may be someone else’s yes. Once I felt particularly bad about saying no to an opportunity, even though I felt sure I should. The person who said yes was as reluctant as I was with my first office, but she did a wonderful job. I realized that if I had said yes, I would have been robbing her of that opportunity.

Don’t feel guilty. If this opportunity is of the Lord, He has someone in mind for it. If it’s not you, He’ll help bring the right person to it. Or it may be time to set certain ministries aside or reorganize them. This happened with a homeschool support group we were part of in GA. It had started out small: one mom got together with a few other moms, organized field trips and get-togethers, and began an informal newsletter. But the group grew exponentially. When the woman who started the group had her seventh baby, she had to drop everything involved with the group. For the next year, I think the only thing we did as a group was the monthly renting of the skating rink. But by the end of that year, different moms volunteered for different areas. The year off had shown us how much we wanted and needed the group plus helped us diversify responsibilities so everything wasn’t on one person. And that gave more people opportunity to learn and grow in their areas. In hindsight, it might have been better if the original mom had tried to transition things before having to drop it all. I don’t know if she just didn’t think of it or if she had planned to continue until she realized she couldn’t. She might not have had time to figure it all out. But it all worked out for the best.

And sometimes a lack of available personnel means it’s time for that particular ministry to come to an end. Greg McKeown suggests running a “reverse pilot” in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. This isn’t a Christian book, but it has lots of good common-sense principles. A pilot program is used by companies to help discern whether a certain product or service would be beneficial. A reverse pilot tries to discern what the effect would be of removing a certain product or service. Greg told of a senior executive in a new position who kept up with his predecessor’s detailed visual report for the other executives. This report was time-consuming for both him and his team and didn’t seem to serve any useful purpose. So he just stopped doing it to see what happened. No one seemed to miss it. As organizations, churches, and even our individual lives change over the years, some practices will no longer be needed.

Don’t say yes for the wrong reasons. As much as we don’t want to disappoint people, we can’t always do everything everyone else wants. We also shouldn’t say yes for fear of missing out. We have to guard against pride: sometimes being part of a certain committee or ministry might bring a measure of prestige or feelings of importance.

Consider the trade-offs. What will be the impact of this new responsibility mean to my schedule, my energy, my family, and other ministries and activities I am involved in? Can I handle something new, or will I need to let something go if I take this on? Is it worth the trade?

If you have to say no, be gracious. I’ve asked someone to participate in a particular ministry only to be met with wide eyes and the equivalent of “Are you kidding?” This was someone who, as far as I could tell, seemed to have extra time. But then another lady volunteered who I would never have asked because of everything else I knew she had on her plate. Of course, we don’t really know what people have going on in their lives. And the issue isn’t always one of time. But when you find you do need to say no, don’t make the other person feel bad for asking. Ultimately you both want the right person for the job or ministry or opportunity. When you pray about and feel you’re not that person for this situation, you might also pray about the best way to say no so that the asker isn’t discouraged. Maybe something like, “I’m sorry, I have all I can handle right now. But I’ll be praying God will lead you to the right person.” You might also suggest someone else that you feel would be a good fit (and it’s probably best to ask them first if they’d mind your suggesting their name).

Remember even Jesus said no to some requests. Jesus did not give a sign when people asked for one, because they had plenty of evidence to believe who He was. Once, after a full day of preaching, he went out alone the next morning to pray (Mark 1:38). People found Him and “would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose’” (Luke 4:42-43). Healing was part of His ministry, but not the main purpose. Every person He healed would eventually die. Every person He raised from the dead would face death again. He came to provide hope for life after death and kept that the main focus.

Even aside from ministry opportunities, we have to tell ourselves no sometimes to activities that are harmless in themselves but aren’t our main purpose. We have more activities available than ever before and need God’s wisdom and guidance to know what’s best.

How about you? What helps you decide whether to say yes or no to new opportunities?

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

23 thoughts on “When You Have to Say No

  1. Amen. Sometimes it seems we want to be “busy” in church if for no other reason that to be “busy.” Have learned to let the Spirit lead when asked to engage in church projects. Sometimes, the project is man’s idea, not God’s will. Lots to think about here Ms. Barbara. Thank you ma’am.

    • That’s true. Sometimes all the options are good ones–but we just can’t do it all. Someone said our choices are often not so much between good and bad, but between better and best. I think God reminds us of our limitations sometimes that we might remember He is God and we are not.

  2. this is excellent. I had a VERY difficult time saying NO to certain things in the church where we met and settled from 1990-2004. But around 2002 I had to learn to say NO loud and clear. Sadly, this particular church had NO concept of grace or mercy and I was berated for stepping down from being main keyboard/vocal leader. (I had a busy 7year old at the time and was battling lyme disease along with having a very difficult (in some ways) toddler. I also was a Sunday School teacher along with my husband (two different grades). I finally said No and learned to just ignore the gossip about my no. in 2005 we transitioned to our current church where a No is respected. YEs I pray about which ministries to say Yes or No to. It’s been a lot easier in a church where the people really understand the concept of grace and that not everyone has the same giftings. thanks for this important post.

    • I agree, both giftedness and grace are major factors. The first church we attended was not a mega church, but it was the largest one either of us had gone to. We loved it, especially the preaching. Being a large church, there were many things to do to try to help meet needs. Since then, we’ve attended a couple of very small churches with not much structured ministry. In some ways, I missed some of the opportunities to serve. But in other ways, it was so restful not to have to constantly take care of details. It was nice to just talk with people and minister in whatever ways came up. That’s not to say small churches are better than large ones–they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Some ministries need organization, like taking meals to sick members, so they don’t end up with five casseroles in one day. But sometimes we can get so busy that we overlook ministering to the person sitting next to us. We so need to seek the Lord’s leading and be sensitive to His Holy Spirit.

      • yes our first church was VERY small. 10% of the people did 90% of the work.
        I’m thankful the Lord led us to our much larger more organized church because here we can join one ministry for a while and then as the Lord leads, He might shut the door on that one and free us up to serve elsewhere. I truly believe the art of saying No is vital when one works full time, raises a family and is in ministry. But then again it’s vital for the single person with no children too! There’s a balance for sure.

  3. Saying ‘no’ is a learned concept, I think. Not every opportunity that comes our way is right of us. Taking it to the Lord and going through the steps you’ve outlined is the way to decide our answer.

  4. I love the wisdom you share here. It is hard to say no sometimes, especially if it needs to be done and it seems there’s no-one else. I like the reminder that if God is telling us to know he has some other plan for it, whether that’s someone else doing it or things being done differently.

  5. This is very wise advice. I’ve had to learn how to say No over the years and how to be firm when my answer must be No. One of the most helpful lessons was similar to your tip “Remember my no may be someone else’s yes” – It was so freeing to realize that it wasn’t up to ME to do all the things, and that God would raise up the right person for each job if it was something God wanted done.

  6. Thank you for this advice. Like many, I struggle to say no. One tough thing recently was that the head of a Bible study I’m in asked me (and others) to be group leaders, after saying she had prayed about who to ask. I didn’t really want to do it, for a few reasons, but felt that I should try it since apparently God had told her to ask me??? Hmmmm. We will see. It can be hard to sort out what God is saying to us from what our own self is saying.

    • That’s so true about it being hard to discern God’s voice from our own thoughts. And that’s true for the person who asks us to do things as well–they may be “off” in what they think God is telling them. In college, one guy proposed to a girl saying God told him she was the girl he was supposed to marry. She said, “Well, He didn’t tell me.” 🙂

      Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between my natural reluctance and God’s leading to an answer of “no.” I know some of the opportunities I’ve been most reluctant to say yes to have provided some of my greatest growth.I try to remember to pray for God to help me be willing for whatever He wants me to do and then pray for His guidance.

  7. This couldn’t have come at a more timely moment. I have been praying about how to tell a friend I’m feeling overwhelmed by an activity we participate in. This requires alot of my time during the week to help her. It’s not leaving me with much time with God or my writing for him, at least not as much as I’m used to having.
    Visiting today from IMM #1&2

  8. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:9 have made all the difference in my life – ‘we make it our goal to please Him.’ They’ve cut to the chase, become a steady lifeline and a healthy standard for decision making for this former people pleaser.

    In honoring Him there is freedom and focus and peace … and no burnout.

    Thanks for your wise words on this important subject, Barbara. Bless you, bless your writing.

  9. Excellent post! Learning boundaries is a skill continually developed throughout our lifetime. God teaches to let our no be no, and our yes be yes. So, be very discerning of what we agree to do, or not, is utmost important!

  10. Such good advice, Barbara. It reminds me of a season when I was overwhelmed, struggling with difficult perimenopause, trying to keep up with two little girls (including one who never, ever stopped moving). During that time, my filter was this: “Only do what only I can do.” That phase of life didn’t last forever. But while it did, this phrase helped me focus on what I needed to be doing.

  11. I struggle with this as well. With so many needs and so few workers– and so much FUN to be had in ministry–it’s easy to over commit and run myself ragged. I have stepped back from one of my biggest leadership roles at church and it’s been gratifying to see how others are stepping up to do the work!

  12. Barbara,
    Where was this blog post when I needed it? As a people-pleaser and in my younger years, I was a sitting duck for church leaders looking to fill positions. Some of which I really enjoyed and/or grew exponentially in my reliance on the Lord. Like many, however, I quickly reached burnout. I like to think — in my “older and wiser” years, I’m finally understanding the “disciplined pursuit of less.” Great post as always!
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

  13. Great advice, Barbara! I’m going to tuck this answer away for future use, “I’m sorry, I have all I can handle right now. But I’ll be praying God will lead you to the right person.”

  14. Barbara, we must be on the same wave length – I posted about this today too! (found you on the Grace and Truth Linkup) and you included a bunch of great stuff I didn’t even think to include, so thank you! Your post was great to read to have that perspective of saying no in order to say yes to the best (aka God’s will). Thanks for sharing this, I’m really glad I got to read it.

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