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When Your Pastor Says No

The word no can be a powerful way to unleash potential in the church.

I used to try to say yes to everyone, until I burned out doing all the wrong things. It took awhile to see that this burnout was a gift from God. Through it, God taught me that I am not responsible to do everything the people in my church want me to do. That’s not the kind of servanthood I am called to as a pastor. I had to learn that in order to say yes to God, I sometimes had to say no to the congregation I loved.

People-pleasing pastors say yes to everything. They want everyone to like them or respect them. Driven by a desire to serve others, they say yes and soon are overwhelmed by all their responsibilities. In a twist of irony, they begin disappointing the very people they are trying to please. Now the pastor lives with guilt and shame, so he continues to say yes. He is hoping that by digging he can get out of the hole he’s created. Burnout, depression, or forced exit are not far off.

Healthy pastors learn to say no, and they say it often. They realize that their limits are a gift from God. Living within those limits makes them more effective in ministry. These pastors also know that they must set boundaries so they can bring their best energy to their most important work.

Why Your Pastor Says No

People can be surprised or disappointed when a pastor says no, even if they have good reasons. If you get upset when your pastor says no, you may have a boundary problem. Trusting your pastor to know when to say no is an important part of following his leadership. Here are a few reasons your pastor might say no.

He understands his calling from God

Many pastors feel a strong sense of call from God. They have a clear idea of how God has formed them for ministry and of what God wants them to do in the church to which they are called. This combination of gifting and location makes each call unique. This calling will provide clarity and direction for the pastor, but it can also create conflict if the church doesn’t understand. Sometimes the pastor will say no because he believes God is leading him in a different direction. Learning how your pastor understands his calling from God will make it easier to understand why he says no at times.

He has clearly defined values and priorities

Sometimes a pastor says no because the request doesn’t match with either his values or priorities. Good leaders have clearly defined values. From these values they determine what is most important. A leader who says yes all the time because he doesn’t have clearly defined values or priorities is hard to follow. A leader who ignores his values and priorities in order to please people is dangerous. When your pastor says no because of these values and priorities, it communicates that he is a man of character and vision. Do you know what values and priorities drive your pastor’s mission? Ask him. I bet he would love to have that conversation.

He has information or insight that you don’t have

As an overseer of the church, your pastor may have a much bigger picture of the church than most. While most see the church through their own eyes, the pastor has conversations that provide multiple perspectives on the church. He has to look at the organizational health, the church’s missional effectiveness, its maturity in Christ, and countless other factors that many Christians never consider.

For example, the pastor may see a pattern of burnout beginning to form among the ministry leaders. These leaders haven’t been trained to see the warning signs. They were taught that busyness is a godly trait, but the pastor sees fatigue, anger, and a lack of love beginning to show in their lives. These are classic signs of overwork and not spending enough time resting in God. So, the pastor says no to a new ministry program so he can teach these leaders about healthy rhythms of ministry. Unfortunately, these leaders are likely to reject rest as lazy or even sinful because they equate busyness with godliness.

He says no so someone else can say yes

A pastor who has a clear sense of his spiritual gifting, personal talents, and call from God will find it easier to say no to things that are outside his area of effectiveness. When he does this, he is trusting that God has provided someone else in the church who is gifted to do the work (even though they may have yet to discover these gifts). The apostles did this in Acts 6:1-7 when they refused to serve tables so that they could focus on prayer and ministry of the word. Others were chosen to serve and the whole church was blessed as a result. A good pastor will say no to things that are outside his calling and gifting so he can focus on what he can do best.

He recognizes that leadership means people will be disappointed

Saying no is hard. People don’t like to hear that word. They become disappointed, hurt, and even angry at times. This is the reality of leadership – you can’t please everyone, which means someone will be disappointed. A good spiritual leader will recognize that he is called to please God and that disappointment can be a way that God inspires growth in others. Their disappointment may be just the thing that is needed to force them to do something new and discover a new ministry or gift in the process.

The Blessing of No

The word no can be a powerful way to unleash potential in the church. It can free the pastor from people-pleasing to focus on the fruit of faithfulness to God. It can create opportunities for others to discover new gifts and opportunities. The word no is necessary for resting in God and observing his Sabbath commands to cease from our work. Saying no isn’t easy, but the power of no is in a stronger yes. Whenever your pastor says no, ask yourself, what is he saying yes to that is more important right now? Maybe he is saying no to you so he can say yes to God.

(M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet, and freelance book editor. Together, they have one son.

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