Yes, You Can Say ‘No’ in Ministry

We recently moved to a brand-new city, leaving a rich community after 13 years. We were involved in so many good things there, but I was often completely spent. At one point, I told some friends I was finished serving people—serving people only led to pain and suffering and I wanted nothing more to do with it.

After I said those hardened words, I began soul-searching. I found I’d been treating every need I encountered as an assignment from God. I never paused, questioned, or prayed about any of it; I just did and did and did some more. I felt broken and crushed by the weight of all the needs around me, and I often served out of compulsion, bitterness, or my own waning strength, never believing I could say “no” in ministry and trust God as provider.

As followers of Christ, we will often be “poured out as a drink offering” in our ministries (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6). No doubt there are times when we are called to say “yes” in ministry—even when it’s difficult or inconvenient—to “toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within [us]” (Col. 1:29), remembering that Jesus was poured out for us.

I want to question the driving forces behind our cultural norm of ministry overcommitment.

My aim isn’t to deny that there are times we will be poured out and exhausted in ministry. I simply want to question the driving forces behind our cultural norm of ministry overcommitment.

Reboot

When our family moved, we decided to try doing life in a new way. I’ve attempted to reboot my approach to ministry by being slower to jump back in and by weighing my motivations.

I’ve noticed that when people ask me to do something, and I explain my slowness to commit so I can better love my family in this transition, I’m generally met with one of three responses: the look of judgment, the look of someone drowning, or the look of gracious understanding.

I’ve been both the judging one and the drowning one when someone said “no” to serving with me, and now I want to be the gracious one. The people who have graciously understood, and even encouraged me to decline ministry opportunities, have been teaching me that there really is a time and a place (many, in fact) for saying “no.”

In order to say ‘no,’ we have to believe that our identity lies in whom God says we are, not in whom others might think we are.

Through their encouragement and God’s grace, I’m learning to trust that there’s a whole body of believers to whom God has given beautifully nuanced gifts. We’re not meant to go it alone. We can serve alongside others, and sometimes that means stepping down to let someone else step up. In order to do that, though, we have to believe that our identity lies in whom God says we are, not in whom others might think we are.

My Image Idol

But often I don’t say “no” because I’m afraid of what people will think of me. To say “no,” I must ask God for the grace to set down my idol of image—my inordinate concern about others’ opinions.

I need what I call a truth monument—a list of God’s truths, of who he is and who he says I am. His Word is filled with reminders of how he sees me and loves me in Christ (Zeph. 3:17; Isa. 62; 1 John 3:1). My identity isn’t in my service. My identity isn’t in people thinking I’m supermom or superwife or superhuman. My identity is in being a beloved child of God. Period.

My identity isn’t in my service. My identity isn’t in people thinking I’m supermom or superwife or superhuman. My identity is in being a beloved child of God. Period.

Can I say “no” in ministry? isn’t a question of whether the Lord wants me to do good works. Of course he does. It’s trusting his posture toward me in that call: He knows my name. He loves me far more than I can imagine. He understands my frame. He hasn’t built me to meet all the needs around me; not even Jesus did that when he walked the earth.

Our Ultimate Work

As I struggle with where and how to serve, I must honestly ask myself if I’m seeking to please God or to please people. If I’m seeking to please God, I must read his Word to understand the ultimate work to which he’s called me:

Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28–29)

Above all, God calls us to believe in his Son. To believe. So as we seek to pour out our lives in a way that glorifies him, may we remember that our identity rests not in the work of our hands, but in Jesus and his work on the cross.

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