How to Deliver the Answer No One Wants to Hear

Say yes whenever you can, but learn to say no.
Say yes whenever you can, but learn to say no--in a loving way. (Lightstock)

It's not fun to tell someone no, even when you know it's best.

If you are like most of us in ministry, you love people. You want to help and empower, but leadership requires a lot of unpopular answers. In fact, much of leadership is learning and practicing the art of saying no in a way that encourages and inspires.

Requests come in weekly such as:

  • Can I start this new ministry?
  • Can I get personal financial assistance?
  • Will you promote my cause on stage?
  • Will you make this change in the worship services?
  • Would you endorse this political candidate?
  • Would you financially support this ministry I care about?

I have often responded in these conversations by saying: "If we said yes to all the requests we receive, we'd no longer be the church you love to come to."

It is not only possible, but it's our responsibility to learn how to deliver the undesired response, and still leave the person encouraged and hopefully inspired.

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Here are a few practical suggestions on how to do that.

It's important to know why you want to say yes:

  • What is your motive to say yes?
  • Do you want to avoid disappointing someone?
  • Are you out of time and this is how you move on?
  • Is this the rare situation that needs an exception?

It's important to know when the request is not up for negotiation and when it's open for consideration. If you don't know where you stand, what you believe and what would best reflect the church's culture, you can't lead. When you can't lead, you will be led. That causes insecurity in you and you try to feel better by saying yes. That never works well in the long run, especially if your yes is misaligned with the church as a whole.

You must believe your answer is in the best interest of the person and the organization. You can't make the right decision every time. No leader can. But you can believe the answer is in the best interest of the person and the church. This requires thoughtful preparation and prayer.

Never merely say no. It's important to listen. It's essential that you genuinely engage in the conversation. Don't get defensive. Relax, this is not a battle; it's a conversation. If you lead it that way, that's how it will go. Seek to understand the person's point of view, not convince them you are right. Then be honest and direct. Explain why you think the way you do. The answer no one wants to hear is "no," but you have honored the person, communicated respect and likely strengthened a relationship.

Don't apologize for the no. If you say, "I'm sorry I have to say no," that sends a confusing message. It's better to say something like: "I'm sorry this disappoints you, but it's the right thing for now." Don't confuse compassion for good leadership. Do, however, be a compassionate leader. Care enough to deliver the right decision in a loving way.

Say yes as often as you can. It's always great to say yes when you can. For example, many times someone has approached me about the church starting a ministry. We can't take ownership of every ministry people want to start. But I say, YES, YOU can start the ministry. You can do it. You are very capable and if God has put this on your heart, don't hand it off to the church to do; you go for it. I usually offer to meet with them to brainstorm and get them started, but they own it, not the church.

It's never easy to say no, but as leaders it is often our responsibility to be courageous, direct and deliver the answer no one wants to hear.

Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY.

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