The “No” That Says “Yes”

no means yes

 Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD

As mystic and social activist Howard Thurman guides, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Ministers are among the few remaining professional generalists. Regardless of our interests, gifts, or desires, we must balance a wide variety of responsibilities: preacher and teacher, administrator and budgeter, office supervisor, public relations officer, volunteer coordinator, pastoral care giver, mediator, denominational cheerleader and committee member, and even, at times, janitor, chauffeur, youth group leader, mechanic, and more. Given the realities of ministerial life, most pastors must “pay the rent,” doing the domestic necessities of ministry along with the activities that initially called them to ministry. While every activity, as Brother Lawrence reminds us, can be an opportunity to “practice the presence of God,” retirement provides an opportunity to emphasize our gifts and passions. To follow our bliss, as Joseph Campbell counseled spiritual seekers.

One of the challenges I have found in retirement is choosing to say “no” to activities that no longer interest me. When I retired from full-time ministry and academic life, I vowed that, unless a colleague is dealing with an emergency, I would say “yes” only to activities about which I was passionate or committed. This was not a matter of self-centeredness, but a shepherding of my time and energy to do what was most meaningful to me in personal life and social concern.

While each retired church leader has a different set of passions, I realized that after years as a university chaplain and seminary administrator as well as congregational pastor whose work involved administration and leadership in capital campaigns, I would gently say “no” to any invitation involving church, association, and conference boards or financial committees. I let our conference and association ministers know that I was available for activities involving faith formation, spirituality, and theology and would be open to sabbatical supply preaching and occasional Sunday preaching, provided I didn’t have to travel more than 25 miles. I haven’t been inflexible about distance, but I put a limit on travel so that I could be available Sunday afternoons for time with my grandchildren and get-togethers with friends.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that the meaning of the word “decision” is to “cut off,” in particular, possible future choices. I have realized that every “yes” involves an implicit “no,” and every “no” involves an equally implicit (and sometimes, explicit) “yes.” This is a reality that every retiree needs to take seriously.

I must confess that my decisions come from a place of economic privilege. While my wife Kate and I are not well-off, we entered retirement with generous pensions from the UCC Pension Fund and TIAA. I am grateful to the stewardship of the UCC and TIAA. I don’t need to take on teaching or preaching responsibilities, or do a series of interims, to make ends meet. I may, if the situation is right and I feel a sense of call, take on an interim ministry. I regularly teach at Wesley Theological Seminary not for the “largesse” of an adjunct professor’s salary but for the joy of it, and to contribute to the intellectual and spiritual lives of future ministers and participants in the D.Min. program. I teach a course weekly on Zoom, sponsored by Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ, because I love lay faith formation, and enjoy getting to know participants from church and across the country. I am considering getting involved in Bill McKibben’s Third Act program for retirees, utilizing my teaching skills and religious experience to respond to global climate change. These all are places where my gifts and passions meet the needs of others.

Frederick Buechner noted that “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” That is the question, isn’t it? Looking forward in retirement, what gives you joy and how might it touch others? What are the gifts about which you are most passionate and how do those relate to the needs of those around you? This is a matter of meaning, purpose, and being a good ancestor to future generations as well as a contributor to the well-being of persons and the planet now.

The “no” that says “yes”—“yes” to adventure, creativity, intimacy, rest, good health, friendship. The “yes” that takes you from self-interest to service and world loyalty.

Finding your “yeses” is a spiritual issue. If you are searching for your “yes,” and this is not narcissism or selfishness, I suggest that you take time to ask for divine guidance, whether on your own or prompted by an ongoing relationship with a spiritual director. As mystic and social activist Howard Thurman guides, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Some questions that have been helpful to me are:

  • What gives me joy?
  • Where are my passions?
  • What are the needs of those around me that match my joys and gifts?
  • Where are my passions aligned with the challenges of your community, congregation, nation, or the planet?
  • Where do I feel God’s call at this time of life?


When we say “yes” to our passions, and our gifts, the future opens, a way is made, and each day becomes a holy adventure.

Bruce Epperly is a "retired" UCC and Disciples of Christ pastor, seminary professor and administrator, and author of over sixty books in theology, spirituality, health and healing, scripture, and ministerial spirituality and wellbeing, including The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement; 101 Soul Seeds for Grandparents Working for a Better World; and 101 Soul Seeds for a Joyful Retirement. His most recent books are The Elephant is Running: Process and Relational Theologies and Religious Pluralism and Restless Spirit: The Holy Spirit from a Process Perspective. Retired in 2021 as Senior Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA on Cape Cod, Bruce and his wife Kate now live in Potomac, MD, where he spends his days writing, teaching, walking, and taking care of his elementary school grandchildren. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..