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?

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