5 Guidelines To Help You Deliver The Answer No One Wants To Hear

It’s never fun to tell someone no, even when you know it’s best.

If you are like the vast majority of leaders in ministry, you love people. You want to help and empower others, but more often than we prefer, leadership requires unpopular answers.

In fact, a great deal of leadership is learning and practicing the art of saying no in a way that encourages, earns trust, and even inspires, rather than in a way that may alienate or discourage people.

Set aside (just for a moment) strategy, culture, and what has been discerned in prayer, even the simple practicality of a leader’s schedule reveals that you simply can’t say yes to everyone.

All churches receive weekly requests 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 service? 
  • Would you endorse this political candidate?
  • Would you financially support this ministry I care about?
  • Will you bring in my favorite speaker or evangelist?

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 be part of.

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

5 practical suggestions on how to say no in a positive way:

1) It’s important to know why you want to say yes. 

What motivates you to say yes, when you know the best response is no?

  • Do you want to avoid disappointing someone? 
  • Are you out of time and this is how you move on?
  • Do they have a strong personality and you want to avoid the pain of conflict? 

Perhaps this is a rare situation that needs an exception. It’s important to know when the request is open for consideration, and when it’s not up for negotiation.

If you don’t know where you stand, what you believe, and what would best reflect the church’s culture, you can’t lead. You are merely in an ongoing negotiation.

When you can’t lead, you will be led.That causes insecurity, and you attempt 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.

If you remain aligned with a compelling purpose, healthy culture, clear strategy, and all under the Holy Spirit’s direction, saying no may still not be easy. Still, you can do it with confidence and a humble spirit.

2) 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 must believe your answer is in the best interest of the person and the church. This requires thoughtful preparation and prayer.

To fight for what is in the best interest of the church and for each individual is often the greatest tension a leader must handle.

To alter the direction of the church to serve a particular group or even an individual is often short-sighted. And yet, if we are not willing to consider the individual, we are in danger of missing the heart of a shepherd.

That tension leaves us in a good place of dependence upon the Holy Spirit for wisdom to know the right answer and the strength to own it and deliver it well.

3) Never merely say no. 

It’s important to listen, and it’s essential that you engage in a genuine conversation.

When you must say no, don’t power up or get defensive, and above all, don’t pull spiritual authority and hide behind, “God said.” Pray and get God’s mind, yes, but also own the decision for yourself.

This is not a battle for you to win; it’s a conversation. If you lead it that way, it will likely go well.

Seek to understand the person’s point of view, not convince them you are right. Then, if your position has not changed, 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.

There is always the possibility of an alternate yes. What I mean by that is sometimes you may need to say no to a specific request, but there is another way to accomplish the same thing.

4) Don’t apologize for the need to say 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.”

Keep in mind your answer of “no” comes after a genuine and honoring conversation. And it’s never delivered bluntly. Make it clear, but not with a hammer.

The conversation is usually easier if there is an established relationship of trust, and you have a solid track record of leadership.

But even if the relationship is relatively new, trust can be established relatively quickly by taking time to connect, communicate appreciation for who they are, and understand the why behind their request.

Don’t mistake saying yes as automatically a good way to empower a leader. Sometimes saying yes can hurt a leader or the church.

The best decisions that must include no for an answer helps develop the leader and strengthen the church.

5) Say yes as often as you can.

Empowerment, not control, is the better choice whenever possible. Therefore, always say yes when you can.

For example, there have been many times when someone has approached me about wanting the church to start a ministry.

We obviously can’t take ownership of every ministry someone wants to start. But I can often say, “Yes, and you can start the ministry.” You can do it personally and start as soon as you would like.

(Generally, it’s not a ministry inside the church, but one outside in the community. Starting more and more ministries within the church is rarely a good idea.)

On that topic of “a lean ministry” I’ve written a post you can read here

I might continue the conversation with something like, you are very capable, and if God has placed this idea or vision within you, you don’t need to hand it off to the church to do, you can go for it. And they often do!

You can offer to meet with them to brainstorm and to help 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.

14 thoughts on “5 Guidelines To Help You Deliver The Answer No One Wants To Hear”

  1. Good morning Dan! Several years ago (maybe 11-12) my bride and I approached you with an idea to host a spiritually unresolved/seeker Small Group ministry at Central Campus. You kindly said “no” (we don’t have room to host it at Central) quickly followed by an “alternative yes” (we love your heart for Seekers, run the group out of your home). And while I initially doubted your counsel, God showed up in a large way and major life transformation took place in our humble abode. Your “no” and “alternative yes” resulted in people coming to faith, celebratory baptisms, miraculous physical healing, saved marriages, and launched new leaders in Churches throughout the Southeast. It also and taught us that God was much larger than the “box” we were trying to place Him in. Thank you for the “no!”

    1. Hi Joe!

      Looks like your comment got by me. Even though my response is very late in coming, thank you for your heart and the great encouragement you shared. God has continued to use you in powerful ways. Thanks for accepting my “no” for a bigger and better “yes.” The life change from your leadership and ministry is amazing!!

  2. In my experience this is not the case. Many pastors either prohibit or discourage members from forming ministry outside the church. Fear that they’ll pull people from the church is usually the reason.
    God bless you for encouraging leaders to grow. After all that’s what Jesus did. That healthy “no” truly is a “yes” in Gods Kingdom!!!!
    God bless you!!!!!!!!

  3. Hello Dan,

    Great wisdom!!! I especially love #5. I often respond to questions from people that “the church” should be doing something about a situation or starting a new ministry and celebrate them that they are the church! If the Holy Spirit has put something on your heart then you are called and equipped to meet the need you see. We often say the church gathering’s are the equipping center for the people “the church” to then go out and be a hope carrier into the areas of life where Jesus has planted them. More like, “home depot” you can do it, we can help vs. “burger king” have it your way mentality with church.

    Thanks for the encouragement!


    1. Hey Rob,

      Sorry for such a late response, these got by me.

      Thank you for your comments and love the “Home Depot” idea!


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    1. Thanks Bernard!!

      I have a simple hack that I use to clear my thoughts before writing. It’s the same one I use for prayer. My mind is always spinning with thoughts about things I need to do!

      I simply use 3X5 cards to capture my thoughts. Old school I know, but it works for me. Every time a thought pops to my head, call this person, do that task, even a “worry” about something… I write each one down on a 3X5 card. It’s then captured and waits for me till I have time. When you leave the thoughts swirling in your head, it seems like there’s 75 things. It’s never that many. Usually only maybe 10 things. That’s the cool part. Brings perspective!

      Then reading, thinking and praying clear for take off and ideas come!


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