The Space Between Yes and No

Romans 12:6-8 New International Version (NIV)

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.


A preacher once asked her eager listeners a thought-provoking question: “What’s the harm in saying yes? In a world that has become so obsessed with self, what might happen if, the next time we were asked to help with the homeless ministry, the usher board, or Sunday School, we simply said yes?”

It is often said that selfishness is the motivating factor behind everything individuals choose to do—or not do. Some might even  suggest that a measure of selfishness is a critical aspect of effective leadership on the personal, interpersonal, team, and organizational levels. And while this makes common sense—It’s impossible to please everyone, right?—such advice, when taken to extremes, inadvertently justifies the narcissism and psychopathy that accompany headstrong leadership.

The preacher’s words got me thinking. What could be the harm in laying aside my personal agenda, and saying ‘yes’ to any worthy task I’m asked to do? So, I gave it a try…

If you’re expecting a story of how I became quickly over-committed and overwhelmed, I have no such tale to share, just one of personal enlightenment.

As it turned out, the practice of saying yes—in the short term—was a powerful exercise in discernment. The more I said yes, the clearer it became where—and to what extent—I was called to serve. Some roles were a poor fit. No surprises there. Others, however, fit in ways that I had not imagined.

This experience has transformed how I manage my time and energy. I’ve gone from a reflexive ‘yes or no’ response to a more critical ‘why and how’. That is to say, I try not to summarily dismiss requests that don’t fit my agenda. Instead, I try to consider why I was asked, as opposed to someone else, and how might I contribute in some meaningful way.

What might this look like in leadership practice? While working as the artistic director for a large publishing company, Jim was asked by his parish rector if he could design the church’s monthly newsletter. After all, Jim had plenty of expertise from his early career. However, that was many, many years ago, and Jim had gone on to bigger things. He had other goals in mind, new gifts to share at work and church, and an unrelenting schedule. Not to mention, the church had a healthy membership. Perhaps someone else would be a better choice. Still, instead replying with a simple no, Jim pondered the ‘why and how’.

Jim was surprised to learn that he was the only parish member with desktop publishing experience. Sure, taking on the newsletter long-term might impinge on his time and energy, but there was no harm in doing the task for a few months while helping to recruit and train a willing replacement. In fact, it provided Jim with an opportunity to enhance his skills as a trainer and coach. And, it reminded him of the importance of mentorship in successful organizations.

Not all situations are as clear-cut as Jim’s. When the ‘whys and hows’ come up short, I’ve still found it best to decline, but—as I’m learning more and more—the Spirit tends to enter in the space between yes and no.


About the Author

Maurice L. Harris has served in various leadership capacities at large corporations and small businesses across several industries, as well as in community organizations dedicated to social change. He is presently the Diocesan Communications Minister for the Episcopal Church in Vermont. Harris earned his Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Mount Saint Joseph University and is currently working on a PhD in Ethical & Creative Leadership at the Union Institute & University. He and his husband reside in Brattleboro, Vermont, and are members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

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