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When Saying “No” is Saying “Yes”

lergy Read Here (Lay leaders skip to Section A:)

It’s the night before worship. You have a sermon to finish. You are hoping to head off a potential conflict between staff members. You promised your child you would watch her soccer game and, then you receive a call that a parishioner has been diagnosed with aggressive cancer. Which way do you turn?

It’s another typical scene in the life of a clergy person. Whether you are a pastor serving a church, a rabbi serving a synagogue or a priest running a parish, clergy face more demands on a regular basis than can possibly be accomplished by one person.

Who gets a “yes”, who gets a “no”, and where are you in the midst of it all?
(Skip to section For All.)

Section A.: Lay-leaders and Other Non-clergy Read Here:

You grab a quick bite to eat at the end of an eight or nine hour workday. You start making phone calls using the Bluetooth device in your car, then finish them up in the parking lot, before entering your synagogue, church, temple or other religious organization for a leadership team meeting.

One person responded to your call with, “No, I will not have time to serve on that committee.” Another didn’t answer and never returned the message you left last week. A third agreed to participate several weeks ago, but never showed up at meetings.

You, as the chair of the committee, say to yourself, “Where am I going to find time to keep looking for someone?” or “How is this project going to get done?” At the same time you are still hoping to get home early enough to spend some time with your spouse before going to bed.

One person’s “No” can lead to another person’s dilemma.

For All: Delivering and living with “Yes’s” and “No’s”.

There are many ways of saying both yes and no.

A “Yes” may be delivered in a variety of ways depending on how I prioritize the task. It could conveyed by saying, “I’ll be right there” or “I can’t come immediately, but I’ll be there soon” or “It will have to wait until tomorrow or next week.” Or “I’m sorry, I know this is important, but I will not be able to get to it. I will send __________.”

Other people might not hear any of these except the first as a “Yes” if they expected you to attend to the task immediately. But each one is a “Yes” presented based on the priority level you have chosen for that expectation.

Another style of responding is to run from one direction to the next, not naming priorities out loud in hopes you will get to it all. In this case there are no clear “Yes’s” or “No’s”. What happens when you don’t get to a priority on the list? Does it count as a “Yes” because you intended to get to it and put every effort forward to make that happen? Or does it count as a “No” because you knew from the start there was no human way to do it all?

On the other hand, just because the word “Yes” comes out of your mouth doesn’t mean you are actually going to follow through. Is saying, “Sure, I’ll be there soon, a “Yes”, if you don’t follow through?

There are many ways of saying “No”. You can so say “No” directly with your words.

You can say “No” by engaging in an activity, but not being fully present to the situation or to the others involved, for example, by texting or taking phone calls while meeting with people, or glazing over and not hearing everything that was said, or by showing up late and leaving early.

Your body can say “No” for you by losing concentration, by falling asleep before you’re ready, or by getting sick.

Mostly importantly, every time you say “No” to one thing, you are saying “Yes” to another. And every “No” you receive from someone else is their “Yes” to someone or something else.

If you say, “Yes, I will respond to all of these demands as best I can, then collapse at the end,” you are saying “No, I will not honor my own human need for rest and food and self-reflection.” You may also be saying, “Yes, I will be physically present, but no I will not be fully emotionally present to any of my commitments.”

If you say, “No, I will not work late every night,” you are saying, “Yes, my family is vitally important to me.” If you say, “No, I can’t take on that project,” you might be saying, “Yes, you deserve someone who can put their full energy into this project and do it well, I’m not able to do that.”

Do your priorities match your deepest values and live up to your commitment to the congregation you serve? Do your “Yes’s” and “No’s” correspond your priorities?

Lynn Acquafondata has spent many years in the role of lay leader in congregations and in the role of clergy in congregations. She has responded in all of the ways listed above at one time or another.

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