My coaching experiences have taught me that 80% of what ineffective pastors do is a waste of their time and the sad thing is most of the pastors I’ve coached agree with this observation.  The reason- they find it hard to say “No,” so their plate stays cluttered with irrelevant stuff that keeps them from focusing on the 20% that will make most of the difference.

Think about this for a moment- 80% of your life is taken up with stuff! Most of which doesn’t matter to the Kingdom.  Or it could be done by someone else. We only get one shot at life and we can’t afford to lose 80% of it, so we need to start learning how to say “No.”

But most pastors find it hard to say “No.” Why?  I think there are at least four reasons, all of which are less than reasonable or dare I say “un-Christian?”

  • It’s easier to do whatever is asked than it is to say “No” and risk a friendship or job.  Saying “No” to someone can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “No” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. If you hope to work with a person in the future or remain their pastor, you want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “No” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.
  • Many pastors have a high mercy gift which causes them to err on the side of being more concerned about taking care of their flock than transforming the world.
  • Too few pastor’s lives are shaped and driven by a powerful life-goal that keeps them focused on the prize which makes it easier to say “No” to the 80%.
  • Some pastors don’t feel as if they have a choice when a parishioner asks them to do something. After all, they are their pastor.   But you do have a choice. I’ve found three good ways to say “No” without really saying the word.  For example: “I’ll get back to you;” “Let me think about that;” “Maybe later.”

So I started making a list of the things that most pastors need to say “No” to.

Pastors need to say No to…

  • Incompetent or underachieving staff. Instead of firing them many pastors feel the need to “save” them or make them a mission. But staff should never be a mission; they should be on a mission. Saying “your performance isn’t acceptable and it needs to improve to remain on the staff” is one way to say “No!” to incompetent or underachieving staff. It’s been my observations over the years that this is the number one reason pastors find it hard to grow a church over 200 in worship. Allowing an incompetent or underachieving staff person to remain on staff not only harms the church in the area for which the staff person is responsible, it also lowers the morale of the rest of the staff and harms their area of ministry as well. And to make matters worse, competent staff loses faith in a pastor who allows such a situation to exist.
  • Long-running programs that used to work but no longer work. The odds are your church has several long-running programs that are being propped up.  The church keeps throwing money and staff time at the program and begging people to participate in it because no one has the guts to say “No” to the program and cut it. Saying “No” to a long-standing program can also mean saying “No” to the individual who began it or to a cherished tradition. But in times like we are in today where money is tight, propping up an ineffective program is not very smart.
  • Things people want you to do for them that they could do for themselves.  It doesn’t matter what it is, if a person can do it for themselves it is better for them to do it than for you to do it for them.  In the majority of coaching cases when I do a time study more than half of a pastor’s time is taken up doing things that other people want done but have little to no effect on the church’s future.  One of the saddest comments I’ve ever heard came from a 55 year old pastor who said, “I’ve spent my entire life following other people’s wishes and now as I look back over my ministry I realize that I never got to do the things God called me to do because I was too busy doing other people’s bidding.”  If I’ve heard this kind of comment once, I’ve heard it dozens of times.
  • Anything that won’t lead to your life-goal or fit the desired culture of your church. Just because someone has a good idea doesn’t mean you should say “Yes” to it. This failure to say “No” goes much deeper than just not being willing to say “No.”  A pastor without a powerful life-goal isn’t worth following.
  • To pure business. There is no virtue in being busy. I remember coaching a guy who actually told me that if he went to bed at night and wasn’t exhausted he counted the day as a failure. And to him it didn’t matter what he accomplished or didn’t accomplish- the fact that he had been run ragged all day was enough for him to feel fulfilled.  I know some churches that appear to have the same goal in life- keeping people busy with mindless programs that have little or nothing to do with spreading the Gospel.

So here’s an exercise you might try doing this week.  Say “No” to eight things for every time you say “Yes” to something.  Or if you’re really gutsy why not say “No” to eight things before you say “Yes” to anything?

Pastor- you must learn to say “No.” Learning to say “No,” much more often than “Yes,” is one of the keys to growing a great church and a great people.  The larger a church becomes the more the lead pastor has to say “No” to things- in fact to most things.  That’s why I coach pastors to make a list of those things that must be accomplished in their ministry and say “No” to everything else they possibly can.  If you don’t put your goals first, nobody else will.  Taking this position isn’t selfish; it’s strategic.

So listen to these sage words from Steve Jobs: “I’m as proud of the products that we have not done as the ones we have done.” Paste these words on your frige where you can see them every morning and be reminded that it’s not so much what you do as what you chose not to do that’s important.