Enabling Parish Leadership

Letting People Say “No”

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Give parish leaders the freedom to say “No.”  Church work tends to attract people who satisfy their own needs by meeting those of others.  These people are valuable because they believe more in the organization than they do in the clock.  They will help the parish realize its mission, even if it requires extra effort, because it results in more satisfaction for them.  It’s win-win.

Until the parish worker burns out.  Then you’ve got problems.  The problem is not just the person.  The problem is the system.  The parish has taken on more than it can do.

Every parish suffers this temptation.  There is no end to the pastoral care you can give.  A parish of 300 families can keep their leaders so active they won’t get all the work done.  A parish of 3000 families makes even more demands.  It is not possible for a parish to give total pastoral care.  Ultimately that is God’s responsibility.  The parish is there to help – to put hands, heads and hearts to work for the reign of God.  But Jesus is the Messiah.  The parish leadership is not.

Facing this immense task, parish leaders frequently say no without realizing it.  Will you visit every household in the parish every year?  No.  Will you spend quality time praying at every meeting, no matter how large or small?  Well, no.  Will you take every phone call courteously, respond to every email promptly, and happily welcome all the interruptions who walk through your door?  Well, no, not that either.  You can do some of it, but you cannot do it all.  Subconsciously, you go through your day, your week and your year saying no.

Saying no is not a bad thing, but it is hard for parish leaders to do consciously.  To say no consciously seems to violate the desire to help that so motivates parish leaders.  But sometimes it is important to say no.  It is important to set boundaries, so that your primary work receives the attention it deserves.

One of the keys to enabling parish leadership successfully is giving other people the freedom to say no.  Everyone needs to consider carefully the boundaries of their work.  Everyone needs to know the mission of the parish and where they fit.  Whenever their work pulls them away from that mission, it is time to say no.  If the mission is too demanding, it is time to revise the mission.  A parish can only do what its resources allow.  God will not give us more than we can handle, but sometimes we add more than God gave.

When you invite someone to leadership, you affirm their gifts and the overall mission of the parish.  When you give them the freedom to say no, you affirm their sense of their own work and learn from their perception of the parish mission.  It is hard to hear “No”.  It is hard to say “No”.  But not saying no can lead to more problems than it cures.


This article first appeared in ParishWorks: Idea Source for Parish Leaders and Decision Makers 8/1 (March 2005):3.

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