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The Disciplined Leader: Saying No When Necessary

One afternoon last fall, as I put the clean laundry away, I fell to the floor of my closet, weeping uncontrollably. I had no idea why the tears had come. A moment prior I’d been like a car traveling at top speed, covering well the various grounds of marriage, motherhood, women’s ministry, and work. And then, as I hung up a shirt on a routine day in the middle of a routine week, I felt as if that car crashed into a brick wall. Rising from the wreckage in slow motion, I was unable to even think clearly about why I’d found myself face down on piles of laundry. All I could be sure of was that the wall had stopped me in my tracks, and it seemed that Someone had put the wall there for just that reason.

My husband and I have been in full-time ministry for 16 years now, with the last 8 in church planting. During that span of time, I have learned countless lessons regarding leadership, hospitality, discipleship, evangelism, counseling, and handling setbacks and criticism. But there is one lesson I’ve struggled, if not refused, to learn: how to say no.

I definitely know how to say yes. I’m an out-front leader; I’m not afraid to say yes to responsibility, and I’ve even learned how to say yes in a way that hides my occasional reluctance. I am committed to sticking to and following through with my every yes.

But I often say yes when I should say no. It’s not that I struggle to discern whether an opportunity requires a yes or a no. When I’m faced with a decision, I know almost immediately what the answer should be according to how God is leading me. Of course, in church planting, that hasn’t always been so clear, and for the first few years I had little choice anyway. But now that our church is established, God has written more distinct lines for me according to the ages of my children, my capacity, the needs of our church, and the gifts and passions He’s given me. That’s how I know what the answer should be, because it either fits in the specific calling He’s given me and where He has me in life, or it doesn’t.

The truth is that I could do many, many good things. I even have an interest in and passion for many, many good things. But that doesn’t mean there are holy orders on my life to do all of them. In fact, when I try to do it all, I find myself doing few things well and even keeping other women from developing into leaders alongside me.

So it’s not enough to know what needs a yes or a no. I have to actually say no, and that’s where I’ve often stumbled.

It took me a few months of prayer and asking for wise counsel from others to figure out why I suddenly found myself weeping on my closet floor, but I finally uncovered the reason: I didn’t want to disappoint people. The root sin of wanting to please people had caused me to become an undisciplined leader who very rarely said no. I had, therefore, become dangerously busy, spreading myself out to anyone who asked.

Though my check engine light had been warning for me for some time, I thought I could hurtle at top-speed without consequence. I was wrong. I’d churned joy out of my own life, I hadn’t been giving undivided attention to my greatest, God-given priorities, and I’d become angry and resentful of the very people I’d been called by God to love.

Something had to change.

I went back to the drawing board. I asked the Lord to be clear with me about His calling and His priorities for me. And then I asked Him to help me actually say no when it was required.

I learned that saying no when you’ve been saying yes to most opportunities is extremely uncomfortable. I second-guessed myself constantly. I felt selfish and pretentious. I fretted over what people thought of me after saying no. But what I found is that, over time, my life came more into focus. God clarified and confirmed what my gifts and callings actually are, something I couldn’t see well underneath all the indiscriminate yeses. I also began enjoying relationships again and moving at a healthier pace. I recovered my joy.

When you’ve been saying yes indiscriminately, you don’t think the brick wall will ever come, but it will. God is a jealous God who wants our worship directed at Him rather than people or ourselves.

As women in ministry, we worship Him when we look to please Him with our enthusiastic, Holy Spirit-backed “yes” or our unapologetic, Holy Spirit-backed “no”. We become disciplined leaders, who consistently and prayerfully re-evaluate what our few God-given passions are to be and then line our schedules and decisions up accordingly. We become disciplined leaders that deeply impact the Kingdom.

If you’re like I was last fall, hurtling at full speed toward a brick wall because you can’t say no, you first need to know that you have permission to say no. The Lord may be calling you to difficult, sacrificial work, but He’s not calling you to do everything for everyone. Permission to say no comes from Him, because He is limitless but we are limited. It’s right to live as a limited person; it very much honors Him. Next, spend some praying and thinking about where God is drawing a line for you, with one side of the line being His priorities for you and the other being those good-but-not-essential opportunities. Write those down so you can refer to them again and again. Finally, how will you graciously say no to those opportunities when they’re presented to you. How will you deal with the inevitable discomfort in knowing you may disappoint people with your no?

Instead of focusing on what you’re saying no to, however, you will soon discover your focus turning toward the energizing and unique tasks and relationships God has given you. Not only that, but you will have the high capacity and experience the passionate joy of living to please God alone.

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