Learning to say no

When it comes to volunteering for things, I’ve always been “the girl who cain’t say no,” as the song goes.

The world rewards my enthusiasm. I have a lot of friends, many of whom I’ve met through various volunteer projects. I get a lot of praise for my efforts. People tend to respect me, because I back up my words of support with practical action. I am learning, however, that “yes” is not always the right answer.

A friend of mine talks about the difference between “Mary work” and “Martha work.” This is a reference to the biblical story of Martha and Mary. My friend asserts — correctly, I think — that most of us are great at looking busy (“Martha work,” or what Mary Baker Eddy refers to as “rushing around smartly”), but not so great at the kind of prayer and study that make us truly productive (“Mary work”).

I thought of that this weekend as I made a difficult decision.

For two years, I served as an officer in a nonprofit organization I support. It was a responsibility I enjoyed, but a few weeks ago — with my term coming to an end — I began to feel a strong pull to let go of the position and let someone else take over.

I was a little concerned about what would happen if I stepped down. There had been some controversy within the organization, and the outcome of certain decisions could affect a friend who works for the organization. I wasn’t sure how those decisions would shake out without my leadership. I was also concerned about finding someone to replace me. Historically, we’ve had trouble getting people to fill vacancies on our board, and I couldn’t think of anyone to take over my responsibilities.

As I tossed various scenarios back and forth in my mind, two ideas surfaced:

1. “Rushing around smartly” is not necessary. While I have poured thousands of hours into “Martha work” for this organization, my best accomplishments have come as a direct result of “Mary work” I’ve done concerning our cause. In light of that, might my time not be better spent doing prayerful work on behalf of the organization?

2. I am not the source of my friend’s blessings. Did I not understand that God was fully capable of protecting and supporting and blessing her without my help? And was I really helping her by playing politics on her behalf? What if I inadvertently “protected” her from some unseen blessing that neither of us had considered?

By the time I got to the meeting, I was absolutely certain that stepping down was the right decision. I wasn’t sure where that left my friend, and I wasn’t sure where that left the board, but I knew it was time to put the matter in God’s hands and see what would unfold.

As I took my seat at the table, it suddenly came to me that one of our at-large board members would be an ideal choice to fill my position. I nominated her, she accepted (and was unanimously elected), and her advancement opened up another position on the board, which was quickly filled by another longtime supporter of our organization.

I don’t know what will happen concerning my friend. But I know that our new board members are honest, hard-working, enthusiastic, wise, and loving individuals who will strive, as I have, to make good decisions that bless everyone involved. I also know that, as Mrs. Eddy says, “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need,” so I am absolutely certain that wonderful blessings are in store for everyone concerned.

I am grateful to have been able to play a small role in bringing those blessings to fruition, and I am looking forward to finding out what Love will lead me to do next.


10 thoughts on “Learning to say no”

  1. This post came at the very time that I am wrangling with these same thoughts. Timely, but has it answered any questions for me? Only time will tell.

  2. You’re welcome.

    Something interesting: I saw a wave of folks step down from things a few years ago, and I’m seeing signs that another one is happening this year. The first wave worried me a bit, as it seemed motivated by burnout. This second go-’round doesn’t worry me at all; in fact, I’m glad to see it, because it seems much healthier. People are taking stock of their time and efforts, reshuffling their priorities, and dumping those activities that seem to drain their energy and enthusiasm so they have more time to focus on those activities that seem to represent the highest and best use of their time and talents.

    I see big blessings on the horizon for all of us.


  3. Emily,

    I do believe that you are right. It is healthy. I’ve reevaluated and I am looking in a new direction. Well, not exactly a new direction, but a ‘right’ direction. I got sidetracked for a couple of years, but now I’ve found my way.

    Being a safety net for an out of control trapeze artist, was not my life’s ambition. I’m moving on.

    Free, free at last.

    Hugs right back at you,

  4. I think the best thing for me in stepping down from my board position was seeing how it opened up an opportunity for someone better suited to the position to step up. I like that. I think we have vast, untapped resources of talent and energy, but we haven’t yet figured out how to engage them.

    I think for me, it was almost an issue of courage: I was afraid to say no, because I was afraid of what would happen if I did. If anything, my fear was probably holding the organization back.

    I have more to say along these lines, but I think I’ll just turn those thoughts into a whole new topic.

  5. Interesting thoughts, mine do not follow along the same lines, but that doesn’t matter, as I’m interested in where you are going.

    I truly believe that no one person is irreplaceable, except perhaps in our hearts, and that no one person does it all. I believe that those who follow me will do the work in their own way and that they will be judged on their own merits. As I hope that I have been.

    So lead on Emily to new thoughts and let the past speak for itself.

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