You’re a leader of a small church with about seventy regular members. You’re a good preacher, and you’re quite well connected. One day, you’re invited to preach at a much larger church in a city near you. You accept the invitation.
On Sunday, instead of standing up in front of seventy people, you rise to address over three hundred. When you sit back down, you’re buzzing. It feels good to use your gift, and you believe that God has used you in a powerful way.
So they invite you back.
Again and again. It started out so well, but after a while, you feel uncomfortable. Something doesn’t sit right. You believe the time is coming when you need to say no. In fact, when you review your life in ministry, you wonder whether that’s a skill you need to develop more.
The ability to say no.
When considering an invitation, the first thing to be aware of is pride. Does this invitation pander to my pride? In ministry, one of the great enemies is pride, and the antidote is, of course, humility. The problem often arises when we add God or “God’s will,” or “serving God” into the mix. Surely it’s right to preach or teach or lead or . . . fill in the blank. Indeed, but what about this particular invitation? Given that we’re often filled with mixed motives, we can only make good choices by using the methods we normally use.
Prayer (both speaking and listening)
The wisdom of godly friends
Spouse (if you have one)
But there is something else to throw into the equation, and this relates not simply to preaching invitations but every decision to do with the use of our time.
Wise leaders have clear priorities. They understand their gifts, they know what their goals are, and they are not blown off course by their pride. That’s why they often turn down invitations that don’t fit within those priorities. I love the following quote from Nanny McPhee. She is a “fix-it” nanny, who visits a family with out-of-control children. Her wisdom, tough discipline and ultimately her love are focused exclusively on bringing order and reconciliation within the family. She is a salvation figure.
Here’s her motto:
There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go.
This is a person who is laser-focused on her priorities. She has not one ounce of pride. For Nanny McPhee, the good of the family is her singular priority. By the end of the movie, all the children adore her, but she understands that were she to stay, she would be superfluous. That’s not her calling.
As you might imagine, the Lord Jesus was a role model when it came to priorities. That’s why he so often says “It’s not my time.” It’s why he gets up early to pray. It’s why he spends time with his twelve mates when he could be receiving the applause of thousands. It’s why he goes to his death. He knows precisely what the priorities are for the day ahead.
So learn to prioritise.
All leaders must prioritise, which is why all leaders must learn to say no. Because here is the wonderful irony, which I’m sure you can see. It’s by saying no that we are saying yes. To turn down an invitation is to say yes to the things that really matter. They may not be flashiest or garner you the most attention, but if you discipline yourself to walk the path that God has assigned you, you will find fulfilment. For that is your calling.
If you’re unable to say no, it’s quite likely that you’re not fulfilling one of the primary functions of good leadership. Equipping. (See Eph 4.12) This affects people-pleasers more than others. Every invitation is feeding a hidden need to be loved and appreciated. So the answer is always “yes.” Which leads to overwork.
Instead, a good leader is always thinking about the whole body. When an invitation comes in, the response should be, “Who in our community could use their gifts to fulfil this request? Whom have I equipped to do this?” A great leader builds up and equips the community for service.
How are you equipping your home group leaders? How much time do you devote to training others to teach or share their faith? When there is a task to be completed, do you seek to equip others, or mentor them? Even when leaders take centre stage, it’s an opportunity to train others. The youth leader, the associate minister, the curate*, they all need training. A church leader is a teacher-equipper by definition.
Which is why saying no, and offering the opportunity to another is always, always an option.
HOW TO SAY NO
Most leaders are diligent, kind and thoughtful. One of the reasons they struggle to say no is because they don’t want to let someone down. Perhaps the request comes from someone who is in real need. Maybe it’s another minister with a sick relative. “Can you pop over and cover my evening service?” “Of course.” We don’t want to let people down.
Here are some ways, then, to say no in positive ways.
Say no to the request, not the person. Be clear that it’s the invitation you’re turning down, not the person. Do this by showing appreciation, and thanking them for the invitation.
Turn a “no” into a “not right now.” If you want to help, but cannot do so on this occasion, be clear that you would like to help in the future. But ONLY if that’s true!
As suggested above, offer an alternative. But ONLY if you have time to organise it.
Don’t over-explain. It sounds like an excuse.
Don’t lie. Honesty is always best.
If necessary, ask for time. Pride instinctively says yes. Wisdom says “maybe, I’ll get back to you.”
How will you know if you’re making progress in this area? By turning down every invitation? Actually, no. The most important sign that you’re making progress comes not by doing it a lot but by paying attention to how you feel moments after you’ve done it.
You’re not worrying about missing out.
You’re not feeling stressed.
You’ve already moved on to focus on what’s important.
You’re confident that God is with you, he loves you, he’s called you . . . whether you just said “yes” or “no.”
So be encouraged. Saying no isn’t always easy. But it is necessary.
Indeed, it’s only by saying no with wisdom that you’re able to say yes to the things that matter most.
Amen to that.
*Other leadership titles are available.