The Power of No

By Kent E. Fillinger

No is a word more church leaders need to learn. No signifies a necessary ending more churches need to choose. No is a message that needs to be embraced, but understood. But sometimes No means only that “less is less.” Here’s how and when to say the word that transcends every language.

“No.” The crisp, bold black letters that jumped off of the stark, white cover of the 3-by-5-inch booklet in the magazine piqued my curiosity. I opened the booklet and read these simple, but significant, sentences:

Two letters. A word that transcends every language. A word that is simple to enunciate but sometimes hard to say. “No” closes doors. But when used to break convention, it opens many more. No, we will not compromise ideas. No, we will not do it the way everyone else does it. No, we will not give in to mass-market vanillaism. At BMW our independence gives us the ability to say “no” for all the right reasons. And while most companies choose to hide behind “no,” we see it as a way to say “yes”—to ideas that inform not only our cars, but every aspect of who we are. Here is where “no” has taken us.

The rest of the small booklet contained an overview of the history of quality design at BMW, which I did not care about, but I was blown away by the subtle, yet serious way the advertising piece drew me in through the power of its creative message.

No is a word more church leaders need to learn. No signifies a necessary ending more churches need to choose. No is a message that needs to be embraced, but understood. Since many churches have opted for the Simple Church model using the mantra that “less is more,” these leaders have overlooked the fact that sometimes “less is less.” We need to say no to some good things in order to say yes to the best options.

Where can no take you? Where can no take your church?


Say no to everything

As a leader and as a church, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Therefore, you must say no to the illusion that you can possibly do everything, and, instead, focus on your core competencies.


Say no to your fear of endings

“Endings are necessary,” Henry Cloud said, “but the truth is that we often do not do them well.”1

Anne Mulcahy, Xerox’s chairman and former CEO, said, “One of the most important types of decision making is deciding what you are not going to do, what you need to eliminate in order to make room for strategic investments. These are often the hardest decisions to make, and the ones that don’t get nearly enough focus.”2

Henry Cloud says executing three types of necessary endings characterizes people who get results. First, if a ministry initiative is siphoning off resources that could go to something with more promise, it is cut. Second, if a ministry is sick and is not going to get well, it is cut. Finally, if it’s clear that a ministry is already dead, it is cut. “This is the threefold formula for doing well in almost every arena of life.”3


Say no to “satisficing”

Herbert Simon coined the phrase “satisficing” to describe a decision-making process where people settle with a solution to a problem that is “good enough” rather than seeking the “optimal” solution. Satisficing, a play on satisfy and sacrifice, means that you sacrifice the best alternative for one that adequately satisfies your demands at the current time. Satisficing occurs in consensus building when the group looks toward a solution everyone can agree on, even if it may not be the best.

Peter Drucker said, “Adequacy is the enemy of excellence.” Push harder, go farther, and invest more time when your church leadership team is discussing a tough situation; strive for the best solution, rather than the easy out.


Say no to dysfunctional politeness

Trust is necessary when engaging in conflict, and conflict over ideas and issues is good. You need people on your team who don’t hold back. But when trust is absent on a team, and when it combines with a fear of healthy conflict, then dysfunctional politeness surfaces. (We don’t say anything during the meeting but later rip a person or his ideas when we’re alone with someone else.)

We think it is unchristian to disagree. If you have trust, then you know you can have conflict without fear of hurting the other person; then your team can advance the ball.


Say no to too much ministry

“We react to what’s in front of us, whether it truly matters or not,” says Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project. “More than ever, we’re prisoners of the urgent.”4 As a result, our lives become overextended, stressful, and unfocused. To learn to say no, start by identifying why you always say yes.

There typically are three underlying fears driving us to say yes to too much ministry. First, we fear offending the person who is asking for our time. Second, we fear lost opportunity—we don’t want to miss out. We gravitate toward the center of attention; opportunities seduce us with their promises of newness and excitement. Third, we fear damaging our reputation. We like to be known as a reliable leader who can be counted on no matter what.

Susan Newman wrote in The Book of NO, “Most people overestimate the fallout from denying a request and underestimate the consequences of agreeing.”5

Gandhi said, “A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

Learn to prioritize the tasks that add the most value in your ministry, realizing that not everything is equally important or productive. Spend the majority of your time serving in your areas of giftedness and passion. Delegate every other ministry task and responsibility that you possibly can to other people, then teach your staff and congregation to do the same.


Say no to too little ministry

The flip side of doing too much is doing too little. Some ministers take unfair advantage of the congregation’s perception of their level of busyness and use it as a smokescreen for laziness. Some ministers exploit their unusual schedule, by working less than full time.

If a church leader is “choosing to cheat,” then I hope he will repent and remember, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Colossians 3:23, 24).


Say yes to be a navigator

Once you say no, you are free to say yes, and the leaders who do this right live differently from others. Consider this analogy and determine which description best fits the way you live.

On the ocean of life, Drifters define themselves by their circumstances, pushed here and there by the winds and waves of chance. Surfers define themselves by their activities, riding the swells this way and that, dreaming of the perfect wave. Drowners define themselves by their limiting factors; sad and mournful, they are professional victims. Navigators define themselves by their commitments. They know exactly what they’re trying to make happen and they’re willing to pay the price. Do you know what you’re trying to make happen? Are you willing to pay the price?”6



1Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 2010), 9.

2Ibid., 48.

3Ibid., 18.

4Tony Schwartz, “‘No’ is the New ‘Yes’: Four Practices to Reprioritize Your Life,” Harvard Business Review Online, 17 January 2012.

5Hannah Clark, “Getting to No,”, 19 March 2007.

6Gary D. Foster, The Foster Letter, 10 January 2012.


Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and associate director of projects and partnerships with CMF International.

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