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How I Learned To Say “No” And Feel Great About It!

Saying “no” is never easy but it is an essential part of growing as a leader.

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Like most everyone, I hate letting people down.  I don’t like it when someone is upset with me, wishes I would do something different or views a decision I made as a disappointment.  Unless you just have a heart of stone, all of us have a little bit on the inside of us.  We want to please people and be liked by them.  So what do you do when you need to say “no” but are afraid of letting people down?

This was and continues to be a major struggle for me in ministry.  When we first started Element Church almost 10 years ago, I knew everyone and was a part of everything.  If we had an event, not only was I serving at the event, but I was a part of planning it and pulling it off.  While we did have more than one pastor when we started, I was involved in most every counseling need, appointment, wedding or anything that arose.  As the church began to grow though, this had to change, and that was very, very hard for me.

For the longest time, because I didn’t want to make people upset, when they asked me in the lobby if they could meet with me I would just say “yes”.  Yes became my default answer simply to avoid the fear of saying no.  Well, too many times saying “yes” and pretty soon you have no room left in your work week for anything else.  I truly do believe that this is one of the reasons some churches don’t grow past a certain level.  Either the pastor can’t let go of being involved in everything and with everyone or the church won’t let them.

So how did I break out of this trap?  What do I do when someone asks me for an appointment, wants me to do their wedding or offers up a great ministry idea.  Please understand, I still do some appointments just not all of them.  I do some weddings and some funerals, just not all of them.  I do take some ministry suggestions but not all of them.  So here are 4 things I started to say that helped me learn to say “no” and feel great about it.

1. “It may not be with me, but one of our pastors will meet with you.”  — If you are a solo pastor at a church, maybe there is an elder or deacon who would be willing to assist you in meeting with people.  If not, you might need new elders or deacons (It’s kind of Biblical for them to do that).  For a long time, if someone came to me in the lobby and asked if they could meet with me I would just say “yes” out of fear.  I didn’t want them to be angry at me, disappointed in me or upset with the church.  I quickly learned that saying “yes” to everyone meant I didn’t trust my team to meet with anyone.  OUCH!  Why have a team of excellent leaders who can assist me in ministry if I’m not willing to lean on them for help?  Now, I still feel bad that I can’t meet with everyone.  I know that people want to meet with “the” pastor of the church.  But the reality is, that’s not physically possible or even healthy for me to do.  So now when someone asks me, “Hey, could I schedule an appointment to meet with you.”  I always say, “I’ll tell you up front that it may not be me, but one of our pastors will meet with you.”  And I direct them to contact the church office.  As I said, I do still meet with some people, I just can’t meet with all the people. The good news is, we have a system where everyone can still be met with, it just may not be me.

2.  “That’s a great idea but it may not be God’s idea for us.”  — I struggled so much in ministry telling people that we weren’t going to do the ministry idea they had.  It may have been a great idea, but we can’t do everyone’s great idea.  I got myself into a lot of trouble by not saying “no” in a helpful way to people who had ideas for the church.  On any given Sunday here at Element there are around 1,400 people in church.  Guess how many opinions there are about what the church should do, how the music should sound, what times Christmas Eve services should be, etc.?    About 1,400.  We’ve always had a ministry philosophy here at Element that we will say “Yes” to a few things and say “No” to everything else.  We want to do a few things with excellence instead of lots of things very average.  The dangerous pull on every church is to over program.  We instinctively want to offer something for everyone but the end result is you burn the people out with activity.  I always want to help people see that their passion doesn’t have to be a program in the church.  Like opinions, there are 1,400 passions in our church as well and we can’t pursue them all.  Sometimes people are looking for the church to do what God has clearly called them to do!  Saying “no” to their idea might be the best thing for them to hear so that they go and do it on their own!  The church will support you, pray for you, and stand with you, we just may not offer it on our list of activities.

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3.  “I’m honored that you want me to be a part of your wedding, you’ll need to start with filling out our marriage packet though.”

In the words of the Princess Bride, “Mawage. Dat Bwessed awangement.”  Someone’s wedding day, or their child’s wedding day is a massive occasion.  Outside of your birth and high school graduation, this is probably the biggest event in someone’s life.  By far it requires the most planning and probably costs the most money.  I hate saying “no” to people’s weddings, but again, the reality is, I can’t do them all.  Here at Element Church, before anyone gets put not the calendar to be married by one of our staff members they have to fill out our marriage packet.  The marriage packet gives some moral standards that we ask couples to agree to.  It asks for things like the preferred wedding date, time, venue, etc.  Having this process not only allows the church not to double book people or events, but it also gives some time to place the couple with an available or best suited pastor.  If you have the right systems in place it can answer the questions for you.  That relates to every area of leadership and the church, not just saying “no” to weddings.

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4.  “You can contact my assistant about that and she’ll make sure it gets answered.”   There are many times people want to email me a question they have about something.  That’s great, and I answer lots of questions via email, but when I learned to have people email my assistant first, I was amazed at how many questions she could answer on my behalf or how many questions should have been directed to someone else anyway.  I’ve had people act as if they had the most pressing question in the world so I would give them my email, only to find out they wanted to know something like when the youth camp money is due, or when a certain small group meets.  To answer questions like that I’m going to go myself to the youth pastor or our community groups pastor anyway so why not get the person to the right source to begin with?

I know not everyone has the luxury of having an assistant, but I thought I’d share where we found mine.  My assistant works for a phenomenal company called EA Help.  (EA Help will become part of a larger company called Belay Solutions on January 3rd, 2017. If you are a pastor or church leader, I highly recommend you look into them for your Executive Assistant, book keeping or web design needs.  We use all three of them here at Element Church)  If you can’t afford to pay an assistant, you could probably find a trusted volunteer in your church who would simply help manage and answer email for you throughout the week.  Simply delegating some contacts through email to my assistant has saved me 100’s of hours in my leadership.

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I don’t think saying “no” will ever be easy, and I still lean towards over committing myself, but in learning to say no and feel great about it, I have freed myself up to be a better husband, father, pastor and leader.