Pastors' Forum


Learning to Say “No”

By nature, I’m a people-pleaser. I want to accommodate people, but I find that I often say “yes” to some requests on the spur of the moment, only to regret it later. I find myself getting over-committed and wishing I wasn’t so impulsive to agree to things that seem good at the moment, but really aren’t beneficial in my overall schedule (or in the church’s overall ministry). Can other pastors help me learn how to say “no” without offending people? How can I be more strategic in what I say “yes” to, and how can I keep better control of my life, my commitments, and my schedule?


Pastor Al Jennings—Fort Wayne, IN
I heard a comment, “by saying yes to something, what are you saying no to?” In other words, by saying ‘yes’ to spending time with a church member, are you saying ‘no’ to spending time with your wife and children? Not that there’s anything wrong with spending time with a church member, of course, but the point is you have to prioritize. And as a Pastor, you have a Pastor’s heart, so I understand where you’re coming from. But you will have to make some tough decisions if you’re going to maximize your effectiveness.

One thing you can do is educate people and let them know that by doing too much, you can bring stress into your life and wear yourself out to the point where you are no good to anybody (including them). If that happens, you’re not being your best. Help them to understand that they are better served if you’re not trying to please everybody. I think you’ll find that once people understand this, most will not be offended when you turn down a request.

Do what’s best for you. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, produced many innovative products. One of my favorite quotes by Jobs is, “People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things” (Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference, 1997).

The reason he said this is because if he said ‘yes’ to certain things, he wouldn’t have the resources for the high-priority things. In other words, if he would have used his people resources to produce products that others wanted him to develop, he wouldn’t have had the people resources to devote to the iPhone.

So it’s helpful when trying to decide what to prioritize, to ask yourself, by saying ‘yes’ to this, what am I saying ‘no’ to?

Pastor Jim Graff—Victoria, TX
Tommy Barnett made an insightful comment that is so helpful. He said ‘I have a wonderful boss—my schedule.’ We are servants of Christ. A servant can’t do what they want. We are responsible to follow the schedule He sets out for us. And I’ve learned that I can’t do what He wants done and something else at the same time.

Pastor Jim Blanchard—Virginia Beach, VA
Pastors are typically by nature ‘yes men’ and ‘yes women,’ in that we want to say ‘yes’ to every request and not to disappoint anyone.  It becomes quite evident in ministry that if we say ‘yes’ to some in the congregation and ‘no’ to others, there can be hurt feelings and even a perception of favoritism amongst the people.  I believe the following guidelines may prove helpful:

1. “Is it a good thing or is it a God thing“? (Tim Storey) Am I being led to do this or just trying to be a people pleaser?

2. Establish a basic ministry calendar: what needs to be done on Mondays, Tuesdays, etc. Add specific dates as led and don’t overbook! Someone said it is better to under-promise and over-deliver, than to over-promise and under-deliver.

3. It is a good idea to have someone who is gifted administratively and organizationally to handle the pastor’s ministry calendar: don’t forget to schedule family time, personal time and days off!

4. An outlook calendar or a calendar on your phone may be of great assistance to remind you of appointments.

5. If you genuinely love God and love the people, they will understand that you cannot meet every expectation of being at every event, birthday, anniversary, promotion party, social gathering, etc.

6. If you have difficulty saying ‘no,’ you may need someone on staff who has no problem saying ‘no’ for the pastor in a tactful manner. If they get mad at them they will probably still attend the church; unfortunately, if they get offended at the pastor they may leave offended.

May God grant you wisdom!

Pastor Mike Schaefer—Albuquerque, NM
I know this will seem a very canned response to a critical question, but you need to be clear in what your primary and secondary, etc., priorities are. Then, you will be clearer in your response to people. Quite often you will find if you clarify your purpose, and you’re confident in the grace of God, you will respond gracefully. But if someone is set to be offended, your actions will not prevent that from happening. The important thing is you keep a clear conscience before God and keep His priorities first. It then helps us not to be so much of a people pleaser. We are all growing in the grace and Knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ…blessings

Pastor Walker Schurz—Lusaka, Zambia
On a practical side, you can use tools like calendar in Microsoft Office, apps on a smartphone or something similar. I tended to double-book quite a bit as I cannot remember my schedule without these tools. You can also have all appointments go through a personal assistant who is in charge of your schedule. This has also helped me greatly.

Your question about “how to say ‘no’ to people without offending them,” goes deeper than practical skills and techniques. It speaks to wanting people to be happy and not upset with you. Perhaps that is an area of your life you need to explore with the help of God’s word, the Holy Spirit and a good friend or counselor.

Many times our dysfunctions can mask themselves as a positive or even godly quality. “Pastor is so nice.” “Everything he says is encouraging.” “He always says yes.” Jesus and Paul certainly were not accused of these things. While they lived in God’s purpose and for the benefit of others, their focus caused them to say “no” to things that were not in God’s plan. It caused them to steer clear of hurtful people who sought to do them harm. They followed the Holy Spirit and the Father’s will and this put them at odds with friends and even family at times.

Do you have a belief that everyone must be happy with you? Do you believe it is your job and responsibility not to offend others?

Perhaps in looking to get control of your life and commitments, begin by realizing that you are absolutely in control of your decisions and no one else is. Invest in areas of study that will cause your identity and self-worth to be rooted in God’s opinion of you and not found in opinion of others. We lose the ability to lead people when we need their approval.

Hope some of this helps—from a recovering approval addict.

Pastor Virgil Stokes—Tucson, AZ
By nature, I’m a people-pleaser. I want to accommodate people, but I find that I often say “yes” to some requests on the spur of the moment, only to regret it later. I find myself getting over-committed and wishing I wasn’t so impulsive to agree to things that seem good at the moment, but really aren’t beneficial in my overall schedule (or in the church’s overall ministry). Can other pastors help me learn how to say “no” without offending people? How can I be more strategic in what I say “yes” to, and how can I keep better control of my life, my commitments, and my schedule?

One of the dangers of having a pastoral call is the desire to help everybody all the time. It is sort of built-in to the system. Fairly early on, I began to feel as if I were being pulled apart by the demands of ministry and family. The reality of ministry is that there are always more needs than I can possibly meet, and people come to church with a panorama of expectations concerning what a Pastor should be. Each of us must settle the question of what he thinks a Pastor should be and arrange himself to conform to that image.

The first step I took in gaining some control of my life was to enroll in some secular training seminars on time management (I used Fred Pryor Seminars). It was well worth the investment. It started me thinking about what my actual value to the organization is, and what my priorities are in maximizing that value. I am responsible for providing vision, management, and teaching to the flock of God. I may find it necessary to do some other things, but anything that pulls me away from those things is eventually going to detract from my effectiveness in my primary mission. Time must be apportioned to reflect my values.

One early step that grew out of this was to find someone else to keep my schedule. I sat down with a calendar and considered what time I would need to spend with my wife, what would be necessary for prayer and preparation, and what time I needed to spend with my staff for their development. Any time left was then open for other things. Having set those parameters, I had to let someone else keep the calendar lest my soft heart cause me to waver. Reality is that, left to my own devices, I will make decisions in the short term that will in the longer term negatively impact my home and ministry. If someone approaches me before or after service or calls me at home, I simply refer them to the receptionist who keeps my calendar.

In the last few years, I have discovered another tool that has helped me immensely: I hired a coach. A professional coach is one who comes alongside of me to help me clarify vision, formulate actions, and be held accountable for follow through. In addition to helping me, the process has helped our entire leadership team as we have applied the principles in our team meetings. There are Christian organizations that specialize in ministry coaching, and several good books to help along the way. I would highly recommend making the investment.

Pastor Ray Almaguer—Covina, CA
You cannot say “no” to things without offending somebody. As a Pastor, you have to come to terms with this. Obviously we would rather have people like us than be offended at us, but as a Pastor it is not my job to make everyone happy. If I wanted to do that I would have been a clown. I had to learn early on to say “no” to things. It wasn’t easy. I needed to strengthen my “no muscle.” The problem we face in the church is that everybody doesn’t expect us to be involved with everything; just their thing.

It sounds to me like you have a couple of challenges going here. 1) You’re trying to please and accommodate everybody. 2) You’re not prioritizing your time. Therefore you say “yes” to things you later regret. Remember, if you feel bad saying “no” to something right now, you may feel worse later on after having said “yes.”

In Acts 6:1-7 the apostles faced a similar dilemma. They were trying to do everything, they were trying to accommodate everybody, and they just couldn’t keep up. What they did was DETERMINE THEIR PRIORITIES. They determined it was more important for them to spend their time in prayer and the ministry of the Word than it was to serve tables. They had to say “no” to the daily serving of the widows! It couldn’t have been easy, but it was necessary.

I would recommend that you teach your leaders about priorities. Explain to them why you have to say “no” to some things so you can say “yes” to more important things that will benefit the overall church. It’s either that or burn out, but burning out is not an option. You have to take control of your calendar and schedule. If you don’t, something or someone else will. Be honest with your leaders. If you make excuses for why you need to say “no,” you will lose credibility with them. No Pastor can afford that. But if you teach them the importance of prioritizing your time and ministry, they will respect you and support you.

Pastor Thom Fields—Kennewick, WA
I’ve learned over the years that I just don’t have what it takes to please everybody. Saying “Yes” or saying “No”…it sounds so simple, yet can be such a difficult decision. I think the best thing to remember is just that, though. You’re being asked to make a “decision.” It’s interesting to note that the word “decision” comes from the same root word that we get our word “incision.” It literally means “to cut”. When we stand at the counter of our favorite fast food store or sit in a fine dining establishment looking over the menu in consideration of our next meal, we’re preparing to make a “decision” …or an “incision,” if you will. We’re not simply selecting ONE menu item. We are “cutting off” all of the others. We are, in essence, removing the other items on the menu from our plate.

That’s how I look at the decision between a YES and a NO. Either way, I am making a decision, which is in reality, an INCISION. It is important for me to understand what my real objectives are and the time frame that I have to accomplish those objectives. I need to make certain that the incision that I’m preparing to make isn’t “cutting away” the very things that I need to accomplish. I need to be very aware of my greatest desires.

Desires lead to a thing. Decisions lead to a place. The decisions I make need to lead me to the place where the thing that I desire is located. With that said, I try to discipline myself by never answering questions that will impact scheduling without taking time to consider exactly what is going to be “cut away.” I explain to a person who is asking the question that it’s a personal discipline that I’m trying to strengthen in my life and usually try to remember to tell them how much I appreciate their affording me the time necessary to make the right decision. I have to remember that not all requests are going to “make the cut!”

By communicating how much their willingness to support me as I develop this strength in my life, I’ve found that people are very rarely offended or put-off at all. They usually respond in a very positive fashion and wind up thanking me for allowing them to participate in my personal growth. Of course there will always be “those individuals” who just don’t get it. I just have to make myself make yet another incision. I decide to NOT ALLOW that to create an issue in my mind. I don’t have what it takes to please everybody. I live to cheerfully please God!

Pastor Brad Allen—San Mateo, CA
Most pastors first learn to say “no” when they have failures because of excessive commitments.

These failures can crop up at home as a small crisis because pastor is overcommitted elsewhere or in the pulpit because there was not enough time left to prepare.

To succeed one has to learn to say “no” to some things.

The best reason to say “no” is because you have clear, God given, goals.

When you know what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s very easy and comfortable to say “no” to very good things – things that are not part of God’s plan (for you).

Once you know what God has called you to, you also know what God has NOT called you to. Saying “no” to those things is easy and easy to explain to people so they understand and stop trying to pressure you.

Brother Hagin said that people told him over and over again to buy a big meeting tent. He was very comfortable in saying “no” because God had told him to hold meetings first in churches and later in meeting halls. When you know what you’re called to, stay there! That’s where the blessing is!

Last point: be careful of people who use their influence or money to pressure you. Such people won’t last in leadership and shouldn’t be accommodated in decision making. They’ll probably leave the church sooner than later, so don’t bend now. Smile and keep on with what God has given you to do.

Pastor Duane Hanson—Saint Paul, MN
The question being asked above indicates they have concerns about being over-committed and impulsive when answering people who have made demands on their time. It also asks about being “strategic” and taking control of their life and commitments to a greater degree. My first reaction to this question was, “What’s the right perspective on this issue?

Those who have stepped into any position of leadership in the church should strive to live up to the guidelines Paul gave Timothy concerning elders and deacons. Most translations of 1 Timothy 3:8 define one of the qualifications for those in Leadership as “not being double-tongued!” The Amplified Bible goes a step further and says they “…must be worthy of respect, not shifty and double-talkers, but sincere in what they say…” (Other translations add even more to this thought!)

This question reminded me of the parable in Matthew 21:28-31 where Jesus told His disciples about the two sons who were both asked to do the same thing, and both gave answers that contradicted their eventual actions. One said “Yes” to his father’s request, but didn’t really mean it, while the other said “No” but eventually did respond. Both Matthew 5:37 and James 5:12 give us clear instructions: “…let your Yes be Yes, and your No, No ~ avoiding both sin and condemnation…”

For those in positions of leadership and influence, this becomes a matter of integrity. When we say “yes” to someone, and then not follow through with it, we do them a disservice and breach the trust relationship we have been building with that person. Why would we knowingly say one thing, when we really never intend to respond? To me, that implies a level of deception that is very self-serving. It also seems similar to the warning given in Isaiah 5:20 about calling “evil good, and good evil!” Let’s commit to saying “Yes or No” only when we really mean it! I might be tempted to be offended if someone said “Yes” to my invitation to dinner, and then I found out later that they never intended to show up and really meant “No” all along because they already had other plans! Any trust relationship they may have developed with me up to that point runs the risk of being seriously damaged.

I finally learned to say “No” when I realized that I couldn’t realistically “be all things to all men,” which occurred when I recognized my personal limitations. But up until that time, I was under the false impression that I had to follow Paul’s advice and make myself available to anyone who asked of me! This was a distorted concept of “walking in love” and “laying down my life” for others. I used to think that I’d be acting in a selfish way if I said “No” to someone who needed my help, my advice, and especially my God-given Gifts to the Body of Christ! (Thoughts like that should be a Pride Alert!)

As ministers, many of us were taught that we are “on call 24/7” and must respond to anyone in need. I would agree with that mentality when it involves a legitimate emergency. However, another phone call at 3:00 am from a frantic person who is suffering from insomnia brought on by fearful thoughts, may not qualify as a priority when it’s the fifteenth time in a month!

To start with, it is much easier to say “No” to everyday demands of the ministry when you’ve already said “Yes” to certain obligations on your schedule and priorities in your life. If predetermined boundaries have been established, it makes it much easier to respond with an honest answer of “Yes or No” because of those set limitations. We then have a legitimate reason for our answer, and avoid being put on the spot while trying to come up with some flimsy excuse that most people will see through. For example: It’s much easier to say “No” to The Fear of Man when we’ve already said “Yes” to The Fear of God!

Over the years I’ve learned to say “No” without feeling guilty or selfish, especially when I recognize that it involves an unreasonable demand upon my life and abilities. Simply ask yourself certain key questions before you respond…

  1. What are the limits of my responsibility as a minister, and do I actually have any jurisdiction in this matter?
  2. What are the specific job descriptions and requirements for the ministerial office I stand in?
  3. Have I confirmed the legitimacy of the need or request, or is it an unreasonable demand? Can this be delegated?
  4. Have I pre-determined when I’ll take personal time off each week for rest, recreation & to replenish?
  5. Honestly… I’m very thankful for the ‘Caller ID’ function on our phones! It helps determine my “Yes & No!”

As a leader, we must realize that not every cry for help is a legitimate one, and many others that are valid can and should be delegated to others. Learning to discern which needs are truly genuine, and which should draw our attention, is a real growth process for most ministers. Let’s purpose to be worthy of respect, sincere and not double-tongued, saying what we mean!” This will alleviate the temptation to be a “people pleaser” while preserving our trust relationships with integrity.

Pastor Tim Kutz—Bartlesville, OK
First and foremost, our lives should be lived by priority. If God is first and being led by the Spirit of God is something that you understand, than every decision must be run through the filter of the leading of the Lord!

Unless you want to experience a lifelong relationship with disappointment and discouragement, you need to make an early-in-life decision to make decisions by the leading of the Lord, not based on what people think that you should do.

A sad, but unavoidable fact that any minister must come to grips with is: not everyone is going to like you. Equally sad, but much more prevalent is the plain fact that MANY people will disagree with you decisions, and out of that group, some will change their relationship with you based on that disagreement. Far too many people in the Body of Christ think that decisions should be made by majority vote, and in many circles that is true. But if you are going to be a strong, sustained leader that accomplishes things as a minister, you must be prepared to make decisions.

This certainly DOES NOT rule out wise counsel, but eventually, you will have to make a decision that many disagree with. Just remember, the Holy Spirit has your best interests at heart (as well of all those you oversee). He knows what the future holds, and if you will learn to hear and understand His leadings, you will make good decisions. Ultimately you will stand before Jesus and give account for that leading. That knowledge alone should help you choose without the regard of possibly offending someone!

We aren’t desiring to offend anyone, but offense will come to some no matter how much you strive to walk in love and speak with graciousness! A constant meditation on “A soft answer turns away wrath,” and what that means in so many various situations will help you in life. Be quick to hear and slow to speak, LOVE people and you will be successful!

Also, it is a general characteristic of most people to make decisions without careful deliberation of how that decision affects their schedule. I would encourage you as a pastor to teach concerning this every so often. This will not only help you…but it will help them in life also. As more people around you understand thoughtful and prayerful considerations of decisions, they will tend to understand your thoughtful and prayerful consideration of decisions as well. Practice preventative maintenance in this area!

Lastly, the premise of the question was from the platform of a people-pleaser. Since your question is submitted anonymously, I trust that I can say to you that if it is your true nature, this is a character defect that you must change! Strive to live your life as a person who interacts with life based on priority and core values, not on the persons that you are standing in front of! A list of both of those should be something you review often!

Pastor Doug Foutty—Parkersburg, WV
I believe that this is very common among pastors and also the church staff. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that we have to serve others 24 hours a day. This isn’t humanly possible.

God is not requiring you to say “yes” to every request. He expects you to keep yourself in the spiritual condition to where you are hearing His leading very clearly. He wants you to be led by Him and not by His creation (people). People will ask you to do all kinds of things that God would never ask you to do. You should be able to politely decline the requests where you have no leading and still have the person go away feeling loved and respected. You have a gift to do what God has called you to do. If you are tired and rundown from doing what people want you to do, sometimes there is nothing left to give when God asks you to do something. It should not offend someone for you to say that you would like to pray about the situation before answering them. If they do get offended, then their request was probably of the selfish nature anyway. Walk in love, be led of the Spirit, and be a God-pleaser, not a man-pleaser.

Pastor Terry Roberts—Warrenton, MO
The key to saying “no” to what is a distraction is to first say “yes” to what you should be doing. Jesus was asked to see the Greeks when coming from a time of prayer and he replied that he was called to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. His “yes” to the Father in prayer determined what he said “no” to. In order to live guilt-free you must proactively put the most important things on your calendar first. Make appointments with God, your spouse, children, your day off and vacation before you leave your schedule open for others to fill in. Whenever Jesus said “no” to a request, it was the result of prayer and staying true to his purpose and calling. If someone needs to see you at an already scheduled time just simply tell them you have a previous appointment at that time.

The choices you make as a leader are usually no longer between “good” and “bad” but between “good” and “best.” It takes prayer and courage to have a schedule that honors God. As a pastor I have times when I am available at church to talk briefly after service or at fellowships. Some issues still need my personal attention, but not most things. If you need to be completely unavailable all the time you may not be called to be a pastor but rather a traveling teacher. Being a shepherd to people means you must be around them sometimes.

It may be necessary to study at home or off campus if you face too many interruptions. As the church grows someone else may need to be accessible for walk-in issues and emergency responses.

You will always have to fight the guilt and false expectations others unknowingly place on you. Get your agenda from God. He teaches you to order your days aright so you can gain a heart of wisdom. Wisdom is knowing and doing the most important things.

Pastor Monte Knudsen—Mount Pleasant, IA
“Yes” and “no” answers should be based upon your priorities. Example: if I have a priority to have a date night with my wife once a week, it is easy to say, “I am sorry, and I won’t be able to come. But thank you for asking.” When I do not schedule my priorities, other people will schedule me for their priorities. It is impossible to meet everyone else’s needs and still take care of the responsibilities I am in charge of. I will simply get overwhelmed, over-worked and over-loaded. Usually that leads to a lot of complaining and finally burn-out. In the example of a date night, I may have good intentions, I really want to go out with my wife, but it simply never happens. In time, it will undermine the most important relationship I have, next to Christ. My complaining that I never have time for my wife will not change my dilemma of never having time. It must be my priority.

So it is with pastoring. What are my priorities? What are the most important relationships I have in this leadership role? What are the things only I can do? When I can define that, I must write it down. Then I can communicate it in my church and to the people around me. By doing this, I have actually said “no” to many things without ever having to say “no.” My priorities have defined what I will do and what I don’t do.

In the early years of my pastorate, I tried to make time for everyone who needed to see me. But I got nothing else done. I finally had to communicate to the congregation that Tuesdays and Thursdays would be the days I could see people. This was because of necessary priorities. At first I heard a few complaints, but people quickly adapted knowing my priorities to pastor them would limit my counseling time. Other staff was used to fill the needs that existed. Of course, many thought only the senior pastor could meet this need. But my priority said “no.”

This is what helped the disciples make yes/no decisions in Acts 6:2-3. “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them and said, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, look you out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” “It was important business, but it wasn’t their priority. This helped them say “no,” and delegate it to others.

According to 1 Peter 5:2, pastors should have two key priorities: feed the flock of God which is among you and take the oversight thereof.

We must lead and feed. How do we go about those two important responsibilities? Each pastor, based upon his/her gifting, will approach these two things a bit differently, but the result should be the same. People should be growing spiritually and vision is thoughtfully organized and communicated to solve big problems.

Ask the Holy Spirit to help you know your priorities. Once defined, they will help you spend the necessary time in the right places and say “no” to areas that steal your time from you.