The Word We Should Never Say in Church

Sometimes, for the protection of the body of Christ and maintaining the purity of its mission, it is essential that spiritual leadership articulate the one word that should never be said in church, no.

by Cal LeMon

As a preacher’s kid, I grew up with an ever-expanding list of words I should never say. With every new school I attended or every new friend I made, my parents regularly monitored my language with vigilance akin to the KGB. The ubiquitous bar of Ivory soap was always handy to guarantee those syllables never crossed my lips again.

And for people who work and worship in faith communities, you undoubtedly will agree there is a word that makes profanity’s Top Ten. This word is no.

The church has always struggled using no because we believe the word does not match our theology. The good news, we biblically assume, is a divine shout-out of yes to humanity and creation. We have been taught the nature of the Triune God is positive, affirming, exemplary, just, valid, excellent … and the list goes on.

Tucked discretely into the grandeur of our faith is also our silent confession that the church is often a spiritual community of unspiritual citizens. These denizens of divinity can be mistaken, selfish, predatory, negative, and occasionally they publically drag out the carrion of their fallen nature for the entire world and the church to see.

Sometimes, for the protection of the body of Christ and maintaining the purity of its mission, it is essential that spiritual leadership articulate the one word that should never be said in church — no.

Setting the Saints Free With … Limits

Your staff wants to spend an inordinate amount of money on an event that will have, in your opinion, minimal benefit. A member of your educational staff has asked to attend a continuing education program in Iceland. A board member is promoting an austerity budget for next year that will reduce the Christian education program by 50 percent. And, the youth pastor has put plans on your desk to transport 67 teenagers 300 miles to a remote location for a sunrise service.

One of the roles of leadership is to set limits, and limits can be liberating.

When leaders spend time proactively informing adherents and staff how, when, and why you will make decisions, the community of faith will spend less time doing battle over the no and more time adapting to change.

Crafting a modus operandi for limits within a faith community is an effective method for a leader to move followers quickly past the rationale for decisions to implementation.

A Progressive Paradigm for Communicating the No

There is nothing efficacious about looking at someone who receives your leadership and slowly intone, “What about the word no do you not understand?” If you are feeling insecure or have watched too many reruns of Terminator movies, these words may be appealing. The problem is this: Any parental approach that mixes insult and threat is ineffective in changing attitudes or behaviors.

When you try intimidation, the receiver normally begins to write a detailed planning guide for a covert counterattack. The adage, “Watch your back,” comes to mind.

What follows is a five-stage strategy for saying no without ramping up the emotional wars between you and someone in your ministry.

Stage One: When you hear information that gives you pause, immediately ask, “What I hear you saying is. … Did I understand your position/request correctly?”

In this first stage you genuinely want to make sure you have all the information. By repeating back what you just heard, you are both giving the person respect as the speaker and leaving the door open for clarification.

Stage Two: If you have heard the intent of the other person correctly, it may be time to move past the presenting problem to the real issue. Sometimes, especially when your answer may be no, the person who needs your approval will float a trial balloon.

If you think there could be some obscuring or embellishing of the truth between the two of you, you may want to ask, “Help me understand what is the final result you are looking for as a result of our conversation?”

The answer is essential for you to craft a yes or no response. Do not spend your time dancing with this person. It is time for the music to stop; it is time for a definitive question and answer.

Stage Three: Sometimes a no is nonnegotiable because the circumstances have already made the decision. In this stage you would ask, “What can either of us do about my no response?” If both of you recognize budget, clear biblical mandates, deadlines, policy, and a host of other givens, the conversation is over.

Stage Four: What follows the reality testing of Stage Three merges into this response in Stage Four, “This is what I can and cannot do in this situation.” Notice there is no prelude like, “I am sorry. …” Or “I apologize because I cannot. …” You are the leader and you will be kind and professional when you state, “This is what I cannot do. …”

Stage Five: Choose to be the assertive adult. After you have asked the right questions, listened, empathized, and emotionally communicated you genuinely care about the person seated across from you, here is a legitimate statement for a Christian leader, “I understand what you have said and all the reasons for your request and my answer is no. I will be happy to provide more information behind my decision.”

The five stages to this approach will give you a roadmap for words and emotions when you know people will reject your no or it will be emotionally distressing to them.

Making and Serving the No Sandwich

William Ury, the coauthor of Getting to Yes, the best-selling book on interpersonal negotiation, has written a captivating new work entitled The Power of a Positive No (How To Say No and Still Get to Yes). This book will accent the skills you have just learned.

The premise of Ury’s approach is that the word no is an essential word for the work of leaders and is best sandwiched between two yes statements. It works like this.

You have a staff person who is disappointed and angry because the board reduced his/her budget by 15 percent during your next fiscal year. What makes this especially egregious for this ministry professional is other staff members do not have to work with this same percentage reduction.

It is your opinion, as this staff person’s positional leader, that the 15 percent figure is warranted and fair.

Instead of looking at this disenfranchised staff member and seething out, “You should be happy it is only 15 percent,” try the sandwich approach.

Begin the conversation with a yes. Your statement may sound like this: “You are right. A 15 percent reduction in your budget does appear to be extreme and unfair. I understand your reasoning and position.”

You are not placating with those words; you are genuinely working at offering empathy. Well-known psychotherapist Carl Rogers best describes your intent: “If I can listen to what he tells me, if I can understand how it seems to him … then I will be releasing potent forces of change within him.”1 If you refuse to empathize, you will tear down any emotional, or spiritual, bridge between the two of you.

In the middle of this sandwich, you still need the no. The syntax for this statement may be, “I understand this will be difficult, and I will be here to listen, strategize, and coach as you make these cuts.”

Notice, you did not equivocate on the percentage of the cuts.

It is now time for the final slice on top of this conversation with a resounding yes.

“As you begin the process of making these cuts, how about if we meet every 90 days this year to review the income in our ministry. If these sources have been consistently trending upward, I will restore part or all of the resources you have lost for your programs this year.”

Sandwich complete.

A Little No Name-Dropping

God said no to the first couple when they were pleading, “Hey, let bygones be bygones,” with an apple core in their sticky hands. Yahweh said no to Moses when he thought he should be the first to step over into the Promised Land. Christ said no to the rich young ruler who thought a little cash would be enough to grease the palm of the Master. And, the apostle Paul said no to his spiritual colleague, the apostle Peter, when Peter came to Antioch and refused to eat with the Gentiles.

The gospel has always been a screaming yes to God through Jesus Christ. Within your covenant community of grace, there sometimes has to be a no to accurately hear and successfully communicate the next divine yes.


1. This quote originally appeared in Carl Rogers and F.J. Roethlisberger, “Barriers and Gateways to Communication” in Harvard Business Review (July-August 1952). This excerpt was taken from Harvard Business Review XXX, no. 4, (1991) Accessed August 25,2011.