The Spiritual Practice of Saying “No”. (sisters, take note)

I’ve had the weirdest thing happen recently.  People have thanked me for saying no to them.

Let me explain:

A couple years ago I returned every email and FB message from strangers and seminary students and desperate pastors.  All of them. I wanted to be like my friend Phyllis Tickle: gracious and accessible. But I’m not Phyllis Tickle and when I was really able to be honest with myself (which is rare and generally feels like torture), well, when I was able to be honest about it, I saw that I wasn’t answering the emails because I actually cared about the people. I don’t care. That may sound harsh, but I care deeply about my friends and family and parishioners — they are mine to care about.  It’s not possible to spread that to thousands of unknown people on the Internet.  I wasn’t returning all the emails from strangers because I cared about them.  I was doing it to try and manage how they thought of me.  I didn’t want people to start saying “Oh, Nadia?  Yeah…I emailed her once but apparently she thinks she’s too good to return my email.” And that was about it.

But:

1. I can’t manage what people think of me

and

2. it’s a waste of time and energy to even try.

So now about 85% of the time I send a standard reply:

Thank you for contacting me.  I’m sorry to say that I receive more emails from outside my parish than I can answer and have been advised by the leadership team at my church to send this standard reply and hope for people’s understanding that I am simply unable to respond to requests for my time or correspondence outside my parish responsibilities and home life.

Peace to you,

Nadia

I was afraid that if I sent a standard reply like this that these people I don’t even know would, what?…not invite me to their birthday party?  I mean, seriously. But what has been surprising is how I now get replies back like: “Thanks for modeling how to say no.  Good for you. I should try doing that more”

I do say yes, but my yes is reserved for my family and my parish and for some public events that benefit the broader church.

So I’ve developed a list of different kinds of no:

There’s saying no because I’m too busy.

There’s saying no because I am protecting my schedule from becoming too busy.

There’s saying no to requests to co-sign on someone else’s bullshit.

There’s saying no because the request has more to do with a projection than a reality.

There’s saying no because I want to protect them from their own request being granted (example: no, really, I’m the LAST person you want leading a women’s retreat.  Trust me on that.)

There’s saying no when I really could say yes because I want to be able to be at home doing nothing with my kids.

There’s saying no because what is being asked of me is simply not mine to do.

There’s saying no because it will be good to show the other person how to say no.

There’s saying no so that I can say yes to the next request that might really be mine to do.

Women especially get the message that they are not allowed to say no and if they do say no they should feel really bad about it.  This is a lie.

My friend Sara told me that when I write an email or letter telling someone no, to write it, walk away for 20 minutes, then come back and take out all the apologies because they make me “sound like a girl”.

Now I try and say no graciously and with some humility but without apology.

Certainly we should all say yes to some things that are inconvenient or not on the top of our list of how we’d like to spend our time.  I’m not talking about trying to pawn off narcissism as a virtue.  I’m just suggesting that sometimes we say yes for really stupid reasons and then spend our time or energy on things that rob us from being able to say yes to things that are actually ours to do and care about.

Lastly, if you need to say no, you do NOT need to try and borrow the authority to do so from the person you are saying no to. Would it be ok if I need to say no? Oh I’m so sorry.  I hope that’s ok.  Are you ok with that?

Yikes.  Stop it. (note to self)

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • http://www.quirkyknitgirl.com Stephanie Ivy

    Oh, I am so guilty of this…so very guilty. I actually had a friend call me once (after I melted down on FB) and tell me he was going to insist I start giving out his phone number as my scheduler, and he would tell people no for me.

    I wonder why it is, that this sense of obligation persists so much for women?

    • Barbara Hanst

      Oh, Stephanie, I laughed so hard at your comment! I wish I had a scheduler!! But I think that like in other things, “practice makes perfect” and the more we say “no”, the easier it gets. I admire people who have the self-assurance to say “no” without an apology or excuse!

  • http://www.pilgrimsoftheheart.wordpress.com Chris Johnson

    I’m a hospice chaplain and I get alot of my religion out during the week add to that I have a two year old and time is precious. Well my Church often in the past has asked me to help with this or that and I always say yes because I feel guilty (I’m not a priest just a chaplain) and I end up resenting the situation I’m in, because I just couldn’t say no to begin with.

    • RevLinda

      Chris Johnson,
      You are not JUST anything … You ARE a chaplain, and God bless you and all hospice chaplains. Your parenthetical “not a priest, just a chaplain” diminishes who you are and who God has called you to be.

  • http://www.tracieonthego.com Tracie

    I want to post that list somewhere. Maybe put it in my calendar as a recurring event that pops up every Monday morning. If I took a minute to reflect on the different kinds of ‘no’s (and their inverse pathetic reasons for saying ‘yes’) I might have a more meaningful schedule.

    Beside…I hate sounding like a girl!

    Thanks for the honesty.

  • Melissa

    I’m really glad I read this today!

  • http://www.yourobdtsvt.blogspot.com/ Dave Bühler

    Thanks! I needed that (again).

    dave b.

  • http://www.elca.org Kathryn Lohre

    I love this piece. Will share it and try to practice it widely. I had a good laugh, however, when I noticed that at the top of the post were all the buttons to “connect with Nadia.”

  • Charles Reed

    thanks …

  • Debbie Williams

    For me, it has taken years of being the person everyone else wants me to get to the “NO” place in my life. I had to get to the point of complete depletion of self, a lack of energy and passion, a deep unhappiness, dark depression, but most importantly a total lack of knowing what was important to me as a human being. I found myself being sucked into a black hole fueled by the loss of my mother, the affair and subsequent divorce from my husband and the realization that my child no longer needed me as a full time mother. The day my husband walked out the door I became homeless. I had no income and no one to turn to for any type of emotional or financial support. The only thing I had was a pick up truck, a blanket and a broken heart.
    It has taken me 4 years to find my way out of this empty dark place. It took me 1460+ days to finally figure out I never said no to anyone, I lived my life for everyone else. I never gave a thought about my well being. The selfless life style I lived according to what I was taught in church set me up for personal devastation and a wandering in a desert that lacked even sand.
    Today I live in Hawaii. I am single and self reliant. Today it brings me great joy to say no. I say no to all the people who were used to me saying yes. That includes my sisters and brothers who gasp in horror at my new found freedom. It is amazing to me how everyone becomes speechless and befuddled when they hear my voice say loud and clear that I no longer dance their dance, but I dance my own and I much prefer dancing alone, on my own, creating my own expression of who I really am.
    Thank you for letting me express my journey and the strength I’ve gained from walking this painful but rewarding path.

  • Mary S

    This should be posted in every pastor’s office, and taught in seminary. I’ve lost count of how many pastors I’ve known who have failed to heed this simple call to self-care, and have gone down like a burning space capsule into very dark places.

    It took me a long time to learn how to say no, politely but firmly. We have learned at my parish that churches are the sorts of places where if everyone is not vigilant, the church will devour you and spit you out. So we watch out for each other, and make sure the work is spread evenly. It makes for a really decent place to work and be in community.

  • http://www.lilygeorge.com Lily George

    This was awesome. Especially the part about sounding too girly. Thanks for the gentle reminder that it’s OK to say no.

  • D.E. Bishop

    Yes, I like that I can say “no” with no excuses. There are those who will push me. “Well why not?”
    “Because it’s not something I’m going to do.”
    “Well, why not?”
    “Because it’s not.”
    “But, I mean, why aren’t you going to do it?”
    “Because I’m not.”

    Really drives them crazy. Not that I’m trying to drive them crazy, but I’m also not going to play the game of proving that my reason is good enough for them. It’s good enough for me. That’s enough.

    I used to work in domestic violence shelters. We often asked our clients to list their top 5 priorities in terms of people. It usually went like this:
    1. Children
    2. Husband (the perp)
    3. Parents
    4. Sibs
    5. House/Cousins, nieces, nephews, etc.

    Notice that she is not on the list. She is never on the list. When we pointed that out, most women were shocked. It had not occurred to them that they even belonged on such a list. Some women were angry with us that we had even suggested they belonged there.

    Heartbreaking.

  • Jan

    From experience, I now take fun trips…. not guilt trips.

  • Ameenah

    Thanks for this!! Very timely for me as i blogged on the exact same thing this morning!! Lol.
    I loved ur reasons for saying no i think i will commit these to memory and use them often!!
    Peace and blesssings!!

  • Avon lady@Snippe.ca

    Still need to work on your reply.
    Rewrite it without referring to your church team’s advice-it sounds like you are hiding behind them and giving them the responsibility for your decision.
    Not quite there yet! From someone who walked this anguished road of “no” for many years! Can do it freely now!

    • Beth Walters

      Amen.

  • Manda

    “There’s saying no because the request has more to do with a projection than a reality.”

    I don’t think I understand this one, but I have a feeling it’s important….

    Can you explain more, please?

    • http://www.sarcasticlutheran.com Nadia Bolz Weber

      In my case people make requests of me as a public figure because of some kind of projection they are putting on me: how I can help them, or something I represent etc… these have to do with them and not with me so I try not to get caught up into it.

  • http://www.psalms4thesinner.blogspot.com lawrence

    As the Leader told the followers: “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.”

  • Jennifer Watts

    Very much agree, there’s a reason why the Boundaries book has sold over a million copies (and turned into the new Chicken Soup for the Soul ie Boundaries the calendar, boundaries with your teens, boundaries with your pets…)Yet I also agree with the comment about your auto response, it still models that you need someone else’s ok to say no (the leadership team) rather than just simply because you don’t want to. There is still a nice way to be assertive yet totally coming from you.

    My only question is, what is the discernment process you use just in case that is someone you’re meant to help? Is there any room for God to bring someone outside of the parish? I find some people get so caught up in their boundaries (myself included) that they miss those rare, but special, opportunities to connect with a new person that they need to. For me, sometimes I look for persistence. There is something about that person that just keeps knocking… It’s definitely not the only criteria (they could definitely be a nut) but sometimes it is God opening my schedule/plan for His work…

  • Maggie Mayfield

    Loveitloveitloveit!

  • Elizabeth

    My husband once gave me a sweatshirt that said, “Stress is when your gut says no, and your mouth says, ‘Of course, I’d be glad to.’ ” That was a lot of years ago. I’m still working on it. I find it hardest to say no to my own (grown) children.

  • http://glitteringshards.com Concetta

    Brava. Thank you.

  • http://www.mjarts.com Marty Jones

    Someone once suggested the excuse of “I have golf balls in my sink.” The rationale being that if one has to create an excuse, then this one is as good as any other.
    >”…I don’t care. That may sound harsh, but I care deeply about my friends and family and parishioners — they are mine to care about. It’s not possible to spread that to thousands of unknown people on the Internet…”
    It’s refreshing to read these words. I’m a hermit, I greatly prefer the company of my computers and my music to living bodies. I became a Christian in college under the tutelage of IVCF; I ‘know’ I’m supposed to ‘evangelize’. I don’t. I know that my soul requires contact with other human beings. When I’m among human beings I try to behave in the manner I think Jesus would have me behave; but I really don’t care, in regard to people I don’t know. Especially the annoying ones…

  • Clare

    I appreciate and affirm your no-saying. However, it would be useful to also either remove from your website the ‘contact us’ section if you are committed to not replying to non-parish emails, or allowing someone else within the parish/ community to be the email-answerer/ receiver of emails for outside enquiries. Otherwise it seems a bit contradictory to invite contact.

    • http://www.sarcasticlutheran.com Nadia Bolz Weber

      good point. :)

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  • PBC

    As a pastor, I make a point of giving people permission to say no when I approach them with a request. It’s important to me that they are allowed to turn down a request for any reason. If someone doesn’t want to teach Sunday School/chaperone a youth event/serve on fill-in-the-blank committee, then I don’t see how their presence would be really helpful and they darn well ought to be able to say now.

    I’ve learned that without that permission-giving, many people feel compelled to say yes to almost every request. It’s sad.

    • Robin Kunkel

      I agree PBC. This is how I also work with the volunteers in my ministry. It has been a pleasure to watch the freeing power of “no” wash over them. Some people would think you’d lose your volunteers this way, but they actually are more committed.

  • http://www.valentinelogar.com Valentine Logar

    Thank you so much for this, it was exactly what I needed this lovely Thursday morning. You have put in the exact words I need to learn to speak. I have shared with my dear friend (Red) because she also needed to read these words and embrace them…

    Thank you again.

    • http://mommasmoneymatters.com/ Red Dwyer

      You were so very right. I have been saying no to so much more. I am going to begin with the universal no until I get to a space where I feel there is no pressure. What I have discovered is that the more I say no, the more people appreciate when I do say yes and the more often they are willing to assume a no and simply not ask.

      I am no longer spending my time like water. Others are beginning to see the value of my time as a result.
      Red.

  • http://faithincommunity.blogspot.com Diane Roth

    thank you.

  • http://marybethbutler.typepad.com Mary Beth Butler

    Wonderful, powerful, splendid.

  • Maureen

    You KILL me! Just wonderful, funny, light, acerbic, charming and spot-on. I wish I were you. I will practice!

  • http://www.wanderingspice.com Yasmeen

    My first time visiting here, referred by a friend. Excellent, helpful thoughts. Thank you!

    I will offer one suggestion, however, that you are of course free to say “no” to :) In your standard response, the license you exerted to say “no” is lessened by mentioning that you were advised to do so by your leadership team. I think you could remove that part, put the accountability on you (ie own it) and be just as humble and sincere.

  • cynthia thelen

    In 2009 I had the year of NO. I had said yes to every church requests, PTA project, volunteer need, friend issue and on and on and on. I rea enjoyed doing none of these good things because I was so caught up in the doing I was unable to enjoy the process and actual “thing” i was doing. I felt guilty about the things i was not doing. I ws serving my church and not my God. so, the year of NO came about. I made a list of the things i was doing and circle 2 that i felt were my passion and calling to be part of. Everything else was cut out. I committed not to say yes to any thing else unless I reallt felt God calling me to get involved, which he did not that year. We even cut out a few activities for my kids. That year I gained peace, quiet time for me and with the Lord, insight into myself and my family, I was more relaxed and I am convinced life did not even hiccup without me having said no. other people stepped up in the gaps where I said no. So embrace the year of NO.

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  • http://www.bookmeal.blogspot.com Becky Bonham

    Thanks so much for this great list – it’s posted on my wall! Saying no to show others how to say no has been a helpful one for me. Years ago I met a friend who was kind but strong. Sometimes she would say no and I’d find my feelings hurt, until I got to know her better and realised she wasn’t being unkind – just disciplined. She was the first to teach me about boundaries – about saying no simply but firmly, without any excuses to tempt others to try and talk you out of your initial no. So now, I say to myself, “How would — respond in this situation?” and it’s helped!

  • Theresa Henry

    Good for you! As a church secretary I see burnout every day in the faces, emails and frustration within our church. I advise the NO button to those people! It is OK to say NO! It is HEALTHY to say NO! It allows others to step up and serve. Often we get so caught up in the feelings of “I should” or “what will they think” or “I can do it because I have done it forever so I can do it better”. We don’t allow others to step forward and take the responsibility.

    Woo Hoo – way to use the NO button!

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