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

The Spiritual Practice of Saying “No”. (sisters, take note) March 21, 2012

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.


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


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,


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)

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  • Lisa Eckman Setty

    I love, love, love this! I have a friend who says ‘NO” for me to certain requests before they even get to me. I love that about her. By her protecting me, I’ve also learned to protect myself.

  • Steve

    I read this book five years ago and it helped me say a stronger and relationship building “no.” Can’t help but think that this goes right along with this great article.

  • lori

    I never say no. now I am working two jobs, getting by on 4 hours of sleep and yesterday I said no and I still feel mildly guilty. but I did say no and that’s progress.

  • jhelenadams

    I experienced burnout a few years ago while pregnant as I was a nonstipendiary pastor who had to do lots of other jobs to make ends meet and support my husband during his PhD, but also because I took on too many other tasks on a voluntary basis in the church. Some I wanted to do, others I was not as keen on but I felt I had to as a priest. Now I am almost 40 and am learning how not to be trapped in the role of the Good Girl. I am working on letting go and saying no when projects and requests, paid or volunteer, do not correspond to my core priorities and Gospel-values right now (which include my family, my own PhD now, a PT job as instructor at the university). Learning to say no is so important, even or sometimes especially to the church where there is the most pressure, subtle or direct, to always say yes. I have to trust there is a time and a place and that my ministry calls on me to be authentic, creative and compassionate and not worn out, tired or resentful all the time. Saying no is hard but gets better with practice…

  • Derrick Rogers Clark

    Rev Nadia- I appreciate this and I appreciate you. I am a CoC expatriate-tentatively in the Episcopalian church. I visited my family’s church this summer in west Texas which was even more conservative than the one which we attended during 80’s and 90’s. Afterwards while driving to Iowa I listened to Pastrix which sorta helped with the post traumatic symptoms of the incident. It also helped me consider that God works in all situations, that God is infinite, I am finite and some things I have no control over- or am I responsible for. So thank you and keep on saying no.

  • Mom

    This confuses me. Why on earth would you maintain a public blog? If you only care about your family and parish, then the blog should be closed to anyone but them. What is the point of making your ideas available to the thousands you couldn’t care less about? Makes no sense to me…

    • TR

      Do you seriously think it’s reasonable to expect people to be available on demand to you because you found out about them in some way? That would be like saying, I read a book by Stephen King, so he should return my calls. If not, why’d he publish the book?

      • Mom

        1. I made no demands.
        2. Fantasy novels and self-help blogs have no correlation whatsoever.

  • Anna

    I agree absolutely with your approach to this issue, and this is a lesson I myself am still struggling to learn.

    But, if you believe that no apology is necessary when you say no, why does your standard e-mail response include the line “have been advised by the leadership team at my church to send this standard reply”? That just transfers the responsibility for saying no onto anonymous others who, you imply, have some authority over you.

    There’s no need for that line in your response. Own your “no”!

  • Miles O’Neal

    May I tell you that you rock?
    You rock.
    And don’t bother saying “no” to this one.
    -Miles (Lutheran by birth, Texan by the grace of God)
    ^^whatever that means

  • Nik

    Nadia, I think this was an awesome piece.
    I’m just about to begin ministering in my first charge – so a great reminder re. boundaries as self-care.

    Only one wee niggle: ‘sound like a girl’… one day I hope we can all find a more helpful analogy than one that has an implicit negativity regarding the voices of girls/ women. While there’s centuries of rubbish conditioning that can lead to a potential ‘default’ position of apologising [what – for our existence, our right to express an opinion?] it’s that as a system that needs challenged.

    What is it to ‘sound like a girl’? This:
    ‘I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.’
    ‘Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.’
    “Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” not forgive us and smite those bastards who hurt us.”

    I rejoice and give thanks for powerful voices like the new Nobel Peace Prize winner – the wonderful Malala… and in the church, strong no-nonsense/ take no bs voices like yourself.