Having labored in New York City for a long time, I remember working with an organization that helps religious groups in poor areas come together to change their neighborhoods for good. I will never forget one of the meetings with the elected officials of our area. Instead of being allowed to talk on and on about whatever they wanted to, politicians were asked if they would support the issue we were working on within a two-minute time limit.
If the speaker said "yes" to the issue we were supporting, thunderous and good-natured applause came from the 500 people we promised beforehand would be there. But if the speaker said "no," we had been trained to sit in total silence. No boos, no movement, just thunderous silence. This silence was one of the most powerful things I had ever experienced in a community meeting. The silence so disconcerted one politician, that after he said "no," he continued to perspire and equivocate on the platform as he saw the silent faces. Within about a minute, he had talked himself around to saying "yes."
Some leaders have forgotten the power of not doing.
The commandment we forgot
Every person has a chance to practice doing nothing each week. It is one of the Ten Commandments, and many leaders totally ignore it. It is the only commandment that talks about remembering, as if we have somehow forgotten, as if we have let something very important drift away. It is the commandment to remember the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8), the day of rest. This is our chance to practice doing nothing and letting God work out his plan in some deep subterranean way that we are not equipped to fathom. It is our reminder that it is sometimes important to just stand there.
I am amazed at how many Christian leaders do not follow this practice—and it is something you have to practice. These leaders are too busy, their work is too important, they have too much to do, though they smile thoughtfully, knowing that the counsel to rest is wise.
On the day of rest, you look back over all you have done in the week. You refuse to do all the productive things that the world tells you must be done. You let go of the emails, the texts, the appointments, and papers. You rest. You reflect on God's goodness. You put all the things that must be done aside. You recite God's Word—"It is vain for you to rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep" (Psalm 127:2). It is delicious.
Refusing to take a rest exposes the heart of the worldly system of leadership. The supposed leader becomes so important to everything that he cannot take even 24 hours of rest once during the week. He is simply too important to all the work. He has set his plans, and he is determined to fulfill them regardless. That's why God can say in Isaiah, "Whoever believes will not be in haste" (Isa. 28:16). A day of rest each week reminds me that I am not to lead, but to follow.
The holy "no"
One practical suggestion I have is never to say "yes" to a request for a commitment immediately. Just make it a rule. Otherwise, our idolatrous desire to please will rise up and say "yes" in the heat of the moment in spite of ourselves. Just say, "Thanks so much for thinking of me—let me check my calendar and get back to you tomorrow." You have just given yourself time to consider the commitment in prayer. Also, if you are like me, it is hard to say "no" to something that is well-intentioned and noble. If I get a sense in prayer that the request is not a task that I am to do, then I have time to rehearse and practice the way I will say "no." Sounds silly, but it has helped me many times. We sometimes say in our ministry here in New York City, "In order to say the holy 'yes,' you must say the holy 'no.'" Without some discerning rest, we tend to say "yes" to everything, and we can simply start going through the motions of work. At worst, if we don't say "no" to activities, we can implode.