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Learning to Say “No”


I was the type of pastor who could never say no. Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, numerous pastors extended invitations to me to preach at their churches. I never said no, even when doing so would cause economic hardship. Church members knew that they could always count on me to say yes to whatever they needed me to do, even if it was an inconvenience for me or my family. If someone needed a loan, I always gave it to them, even when I knew it was unlikely they would pay me back. Need someone to watch your six kids? Just ask Pastor Bruce and Polly– they will do it. Need transportation to the doctor’s office, work, or the hospital? The Pastor Bruce Taxi Company provided a ride, free of charge. Need tools to fix your car or do a home repair? Borrow Pastor Bruce’s tools, and then fail to return them. The stories are endless. I recognize by telling these stories that a few readers might think that I am trying to paint myself as some sort of super saint, but I think anyone who knows me well would testify to the fact that I have always had a hard time saying no. Several years ago, my mother-in-law chided me for being so willing to give things to others. Quickly realizing how her comment might be interpreted, she said, “I suppose there are worst habits to have.” Why is it that I have such a hard time saying no?

My mother taught me always to be polite and respectful. My father was a salesman and business owner, so he taught me to always give the customers what they wanted. Generally, politeness and respectfulness are good things. Polly and I both taught our children to never be cross or disrespectful towards others. Doing so has served them well as adults. There are times, though, when I wonder if being taught always to be polite and respectful keeps us from properly responding to people who are assholes. Assholes tend to be narcissistic bullies who love to attack people who go through life trying to be decent and kind. I have learned — rather late in life — that sometimes it is okay to be impolite or disrespectful. Some people do not deserve politeness or respect. Over the years, I allowed countless church members to bully and berate me. I could spend the next hour writing about members who stormed in my office to give me a piece of their mind — what little of it they had. They would rant and rave, attacking my preaching, leadership, family, and even how I dressed. One church member was upset over the way Polly crinkled up her nose at him (I kid you not). Most often, I would try to appease them, not wanting to lose church members. Looking back on it now, I wish I had been more willing to tell them to get the hell out of my office and out of the church. These kinds of members rarely stayed in the church for the long term. Sooner or later I did something that so offended them that they picked up their toys and moved on to a new religious playground. Through the grapevine, I would hear that they blamed me for them having to leave the church. Rarely do such people accept responsibility for their own behavior.

I think my view of Jesus also impeded my ability to say no. I saw Jesus as a kind, compassionate, lover of people. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and compassionately helping those who crossed his path, Jesus seemed to have had a hard time with saying no too. Like Jesus, I was driven by the fact that there was a deadline that awaited me — death. Knowing that after death I would be judged by God for what I had done in this life, I feared that by saying no I might miss doing something that God wanted me to do. So, I never said no. Well, I never said no to anyone but Polly and our children. They heard the word no all the time. Church members and the demands of the ministry got the best of their husband and father, so when it came time for him to spend time with them or help them with their needs, he far too often said no. I will always regret not putting the needs of my family first. Perhaps this is why I rarely tell my grandchildren no. They have become my do-over of sorts, and they know it. Nana is harder to manipulate than I am, so when the grandkids really want something they come running to Grandpa.

I suspect that my inability to say no will always be with me. Having watched Polly suffer through decades-long economic deprivation, I am determined to make the rest of her life one of comfort. If she wants something, I do everything I can to make sure she gets it. Fortunately, Polly does not abuse my willingness to give her what she wants/needs/desires. I know that life is short and there is no eternal reward beyond the grave, so why not enjoy the fruits of our labor? I know that I will be dead sooner than later. Ecclesiastes says we should enjoy life and the fruits of our labor. Why? Because tomorrow we die. Certainly, we must live life within the parameters of our financial and physical abilities, but there is no award for waiting to live life until you are too old or too sick to enjoy it. I know there is coming a day when physically, I will likely be unable to walk or ride in a car. Knowing this motivates me to walk and ride while I can. I am grateful that I have a partner who is willing to drive me where I want to go and walk with me, even if it means pushing my big ass in a wheelchair.

I am slowly beginning to recognize that it is in my best interest — psychologically and physically — to say no. I now have five grandchildren who are playing competitive sports. I have no doubt that someday eight or nine of them could easily be involved in school activities that I would like to attend. If I had my way, I would attend every one of their games. I thoroughly enjoy watching them play. But, I know that I cannot attend each and every game, especially in the COVID era. If I did so, I would be so physically worn out that I would not be able to do anything else. So, I have to say no when my heart says yes. It is the same with birthday parties and other family gatherings. I ALWAYS want to spend time with my family. We are very close and I want to spend as much time as possible with them, knowing that there is coming a day when all I will be is a memory in their minds and a photograph hanging on the wall. But, I also know that I cannot do everything, and there are times for the sake of my health that I have to say no. Polly’s mom is in declining health. While we have made several trips to Newark — a seven-hour round-trip — I feel guilty over not going to visit her more often. These trips are physically excruciating, and by the time we get home I often feel like I met Mike Tyson in an alley fight and lost. As much as I want to visit Mom every weekend, as we did years ago, I know I can’t. This is perhaps the best example of my physical limitations forcing me to say no.

Bit by bit I am learning that is okay to tell people no. It is not narcissistic to put self first. I am the only one who knows what it feels like to walk in my skin. Outwardly, I look like a typical overweight old man, one who certainly should not need to park in handicapped spaces. But inwardly, virtually every joint and muscle in my body hurts. Some days the pain medications work well, other days they don’t. These days no usually means I can’t. To quote the Bible, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Do you have a hard time saying no? Are you a people pleaser? Please share your experiences in the comments section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I think everyone with empathy has some trouble saying “no”. There’s a natural tension there between taking care of oneself and taking care of others, when you care about them and can put yourself in their shoes. But ultimately, if you don’t take care of you, you won’t be there to take care of others.

    This is obvious. This is also hard to think about when someone comes with a request. This is not where an empathic person’s brain goes.

    An incident came up not all that long ago, where I said “yes” to a pretty substantial request… without thinking it through. And after I’d thought it through (the issue was my time, more than anything) I had to talk to the requester again, apologize, and admit that I just couldn’t do it. Fortunately, he is an empathic person and graciously let me off the hook.

    But I’m convinced that saying “no” is a skill that honorable people are continuously learning.

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    I can relate, it’s not easy either wanting to say no or having to disappoint loved ones. As a mom, putting your needs first is nowhere near natural. Especially when they’re young, it can be so hard to take even a few moments for yourself. Setting the guilt aside, it has to be done. You deserve it.

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    The saying no is a lesson I had to learn and reinforce after leaving my old faith community. I just got worn out and now with the immune system stuff and the severe asthma life is all about learning what I can manage.

    Do what you need to do for yourself, my friend.

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    Becky Wiren

    I hear you Bruce. You can only do what you can do. And if you pick and choose what you can do, you can be there for your loved ones better when you are there.

    I think you have a greater desire to do stuff than I do. I’ve been in this phase of fibro for nearly 20 years, and it’s wearing on me. I don’t think I have the bad pain you do, but my deep-seated exhaustion is pretty chronic.

    Take care of yourself, I’m glad you have Polly. She’s a really nice person. You too.

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    Does Polly have trouble saying “no”? You can make a habit of responding, “let me check with the boss” when someone asks you something, and then leave it to her discretion if it is something that is in your best interest and doable.

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    This was a big deal for me early in my Christian life. I’d been an atheist until I was 32 so I felt like I needed to make up for all of those years not serving God. I said “yes” to everything. I found myself juggling teaching a youth Sunday School Class, being a men’s ministry leader, being a Gideon, being the church librarian, being a deacon, driving a church bus and working as a volunteer in jail ministry. I rarely said “no” to anything church related, and tried to be there every time the doors were open. It was a real formula for burn out. It was actually a friend of mine in jail ministry that told me, “Randy, I’m worried about you. You don’t have to do all this stuff to please God or other people.”

    It was difficult to step away from all of those things at my church because you were looked down on for shirking your “responsibilities” and your call. I did good for awhile after that but then I became the pastor of a little church and slowly slipped back into some of the same traps. That was on top of being constantly criticized and having my family being attacked as well from the people I was trying to minister to. The more I tried to please them, the harder they became to please. Finally I said, “Enough!” and resigned. I was done with church then, but my family wanted to find another church home.

    Somehow I allowed myself to get sucked into leadership again in that church – that inability to say “no”. I served as a volunteer pastor for a year but with a great deal more caution. Finally this February I totally stepped away from church leadership. It was the same old thing happening all over again and I’m just done with it. I decided I would allow nothing to step between me and my family. I was tired of nursing others over their personal drama while neglecting the real needs of my family. It’s been the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. I finally feel free and have a much more realistic life of faith. My only two areas of ministry are a small group I lead and volunteering with the local jail ministry. I’ve worked over the last year learning to say “no” much more often. Especially when it comes to church. I’ve also worked on saying “yes” more to my wife and kids, because they have suffered the most for my decisions over the last few years. I’ve picked up old hobbies I neglected while wearing myself out at church. I actually have fun now! Learning to say “no” has been the best thing to happen to me.

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      Indeed, people-pleasers… I learned very very young that the very safest place to hide was in good deeds, serving Gawd by looking after others. Oddly or not, I later allowed myself to realize that the good feeling I have in helping is coming naturally from my own heart and is not because Mel Gibson lacerated the Christ at Golgotha or because Superman had to forgo insanely magnificent sex with Lois to go fight evil.
      Helping out is receiving help too, a kind of evolutionary model of give-and-take…sacrificial love is wholly human.

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    Setting boundaries is part of healthy self-care. It’s not something about which to feel guilty – it’s making sure that you’re able to give your best when you say yes. That’s a win for both parties.

  9. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I love this subject being discussed, because when I attended church, I heard sermons about how protecting oneself from abuse- self- defense- was sinful. Boundaries too, because if you had boundaries,you were asserting your RIGHTS. We have NO rights. Anyone remember hearing this theme ?? I sure do! I look back with relief, amazed at the brain washing going on, including books,TV and radio. How we sat in the pews and took it. I started to wise up, when I noticed that our leaders weren’t willing to do what they told us we HAVE to do. They wouldn’t stoop to get their hands dirty, assisting the common man in his distress, risking their lives bringing someone from the street to live with you. You are very unusual,Bruce, in your pastoring style then. Virtually any pastor or minister I ever saw ,interacted with, or heard on radio or TV, is a narcissist. They want to be served. In California,they make fantastic salaries. All sorts of “perks”that are enticing. If pastors lived as you did at the time, Christianity would have a better reputation,one that drew people, providing there was no desire to harm and control people on leaders’ radar.
    Boundaries will save one’s life.

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Bruce Gerencser