As a Priest, I Feel Guilty When I Say No
How to move beyond being a people pleaser
As I sat across from the young priest who recently became a pastor, I could feel the stress he was experiencing. He shared: “I dread conflict. It just seems easier to say yes and hope the problem goes away.” We both laughed when I jokingly asked, “And how is that working out for you?
It was a pattern he felt he developed in his previous assignment as an associate because he could always lean on, or retreat to, his pastor for support when it did not work. Now that he was the pastor, his previous pattern was failing. Parishioners were often confused and sometimes angry as he seemed to contradict himself often in an attempt to please everyone.
A web posting entitled “People-Pleasers in Conflict,” by Cinnie Noble (January 2016, cinergycoaching.com), stated this: “Some of us have a pattern known as people-pleasing. When it comes to conflict this may refer to a tendency to avoid expressing ideas, thoughts and feelings when they differ from another’s for fear of offending them. Afraid to say no, or to defend ourselves, or tending to comply rather than assert a different idea or suggestion, are other examples of behaviors that reflect people-pleasing.”
Am I a People Pleaser?
As priests and leaders, we seek to collaborate to reach consensus and avoid conflict. That is not necessarily easy, and there is a good chance that how you are achieving consensus may not be the best approach.
Charles Stone mentions two very important surveys he conducted in an article entitled “What’s Wrong with People Pleasing” (Christianity Today, January 2014). The two surveys included close to 2,300 clergy members. In one survey, 79% of those interviewed were identified as “people pleasers,” and in the second survey the number was even higher (91%). Assuming we can generalize from these results, there is a good chance that you are a people pleaser. In that same article, Pastor Stone includes a 20-question self-assessment to help you determine if you are a people pleaser. I would encourage you to take that quiz.
OK, so the quiz confirmed what you suspected all along. Priests are in a very unique and difficult position. It seems natural to want to help and serve others — quite often this may be one of the reasons for a vocation. You are constantly being asked to help, and it is often difficult to say no. Those you serve may not expect to hear “no” from you. It is usually more convenient to be agreeable and nonassertive as this makes it easier, doesn’t it? Well, yes, and no. But in the long run, the “yes” may come with a steep price.
Always remember you are here to accompany people, but more importantly to serve God. Your desire to please others must be in accord with your mission and vision for the parish. You may get more head nods and smiles when you acquiesce, but in the long run it can lead to frustration and confusion for many. People-pleasing leaders are guided by external validation rather than internal values and vision.
People pleasing over the long run, at the expense of your internal convictions, can impact the joy you experience from your vocation and leading, as well as your ability to be an effective leader. It is not easy to change, especially if this has been your custom for a while and it is seen as normal. There is no quick fix, but ignoring this problem will not correct it.
Becoming a people pleaser is not something that just happens overnight. It is a learned behavior that often begins in childhood. Like many other learned behaviors, you were likely rewarded or praised for your “good behavior.” Over time, this can easily become your go-to action because it feels good to be praised repeatedly. Few people, if any, would discourage this type of behavior. Therefore, it will be difficult, but you must try to reform yourself.
Some great guidance is provided by Dr. Abigail Brenner, M.D., in a piece entitled “10 Things to Help You Stop Being a People Pleaser” (Psychology Today, October 2017).
It is easy for our self-esteem to get wrapped up in the impressions of others. Naturally, we do not want to disappoint them. This can mean our efforts at people pleasing become expected rather than appreciated.
To better understand if this is the case, examine your emotions around your actions. When helping someone do you feel — angry, drained, unappreciated, etc.? If so, there may be a problem and balance has to be restored. You are likely giving, or helping, for the wrong reasons.
Reacting vs. Responding
Often, with this type of behavior, we learn to react rather than respond. The default reaction is an external response of “yes, of course” versus the internal emotion of “no, not really.” One of the first things you can do is to avoid the immediate reactive response. Something like, “Thanks for asking me; my schedule is a bit hectic right now; let me check and I’ll get back to you.” Often, simply buying time can be a way to give yourself an opportunity to think about the request objectively.
With that bit of space, reflect. You are not obligated to say yes. Think about what matters — how important is this request to your needs or those of the parish? Can this be done more efficiently and effectively by someone else? Perhaps a staff member or a volunteer may have more interest and enthusiasm for the project.
In a related manner, not responding, and/or avoiding, though slightly different, is still problematic. This can be assumed to be a default “yes” and may actually lead to greater problems from misinterpretation. Your authentic “no” after timely, but thoughtful, consideration, although difficult at first, will come to be appreciated and respected.
That does bring us back to the important concept of balance. Not every action will make you feel good, whether you are saying yes or no. What is most important is that you must learn to help others in a way that respects and honors you both. As instructed on a plane, you can’t help others unless you help yourself first — put on your oxygen mask. “Sorry, I can’t” is a permissible response for your own sake.
Let’s just take a second to clarify something. It is not bad or flawed if you enjoy helping others. Quite often this is actually one of the rewards of the priesthood. As we mentioned earlier, it is important to understand the motivation and intention behind your actions.
If you routinely say yes because you desire that everyone likes you, and this is how you remain popular, your actions may be misguided. This is also true if your intentions are to avoid conflict. It is often difficult to admit this to yourself. Understanding this is a critical first step.
This is often the case when one is moving to a new church or becoming a pastor for the first time. As a new pastor, you need to build a supportive team, and we often feel that minimizing changes and/or conflict is critical to success. Having others validate you can be very important if you have low self-esteem. We do need to remember, though, that no matter how hard you try not everyone is going to like you. Some will love everything you do; others will hate everything you do; and most will move between those extremes. This is only natural.
Respect Yourself and Others
Start treating yourself as you treat others. You should not be helping others at a deep price to yourself. It is just as important that you respect yourself as much as you respect others. People will learn to treat you the same way you treat yourself. The first few times you say no you will definitely feel guilty. You will call yourself selfish and beat yourself up. The good news is that the feelings of guilt will pass and, as you do this, it will become easier each time. You should expect some backsliding, but that is not failure. Keep trying no matter how difficult it seems.
How you say no is even more important. You cannot say no and then provide a weak excuse. This opens the door to negotiations and, based on history, you will eventually give in and say yes. This leaves you feeling frustrated, angry and drained. Your no should be firm and backed up with an honest reason: “No, my schedule is too full now.” “No, person X would be better suited for that.” “No, I really don’t like that type of project.” In spite of this, some people do not understand boundaries. You may need to let a relationship go, or at least increase the emotional distance between you and that person.
It is always nice to be liked, but your role as an effective leader is to provide the direction and the resources that your congregation needs. It will likely be quite difficult to change the way you deal with this. However, as you do so, your self-confidence will continue to improve, and you will begin to feel better about it.
You can expect to backslide occasionally, but overall, with time and practice, this skill will be strengthened and become easier to implement. This will make you a more effective and respected leader. The New Testament provides some guidance: “Am I now currying favor with human beings or God? Or am I seeking to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ” (Gal 1:10).
Guilt fades, effective leaders don’t. For everyone’s sake, just say no!
DEACON WILLIAM DEVIZIO is a permanent deacon at St. Lawrence the Martyr Church in Chester, New Jersey
Resource: Take the self-assessment
Deacon DeVizio references an article in Christianity Today titled “What’s Wrong with People Pleasing?” and a self-assessment quiz asking if you are a people pleaser. The article and quiz can be found at https://bit.ly/3PaHD8z.