One of my life’s greatest privileges has been to know Southern Seminary President Al Mohler. I first heard his name on the night of my baptism, in late August of 1995. I was a college student, recently converted to Christ, and that evening he was the guest preacher in my home church, Cottage Hill Baptist, in Mobile, AL. Dr. Mohler was introduced as a young seminary president making waves recovering Southern Baptist’s mother institution.
Some six years later, my wife and I moved to Louisville to attend Southern Seminary. Eventually, I would earn two degrees from there and have the privilege of serving nearly seven years in the President’s Office and as a vice president at Southern Seminary.
Given our past together, the nearly two decades of age difference, and the unique ways God has used Dr. Mohler, I am often asked what are some of the most important leadership lessons I learned from him during our time together. While there are too many lessons learned to recount here, naming the most important one is a simple task: I learned to pronounce the word “no.”
Daily, I saw Dr. Mohler use the word “no” to the betterment of the seminary and the Kingdom.
- Errant theological idea? Land against it on both feet.
- Ill-conceived seminary initiative? Swat it away.
- Poorly thought through proposal? Simply reject it.
For me, pronouncing the word “no” did not come naturally. When pushed, I could spit it out, but I preferred to steer clear of it. I was equipped to say “no” over issues of doctrine, conviction, or morality, but I was much less capable of saying “no” over more subjective, less consequential issues—especially when asked by someone I knew and loved, like church members.
- Can we make this presentation in church? Um, Ok.
- Would you and your family attend our Sunday School party? Sure.
- Do you mind if we start this new ministry initiative? That’s fine.
- Will you counsel our (non-church member) grandson? I guess I can.
- Will you preach at our event? Would love to.
In hindsight, it was not for fear of conflict or reprisal that I tended to go along. I was reticent to disappoint. I was reluctant to let someone down. The result was usually not disaster, but it often brought about some other sort of downside—a dilution of ministerial energies and resources.
Additionally, saying “yes” often curtailed my ability to give time and energy to other more worthy causes, including family and church. The old adage is true, when you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else.
These examples are small ones, but if one does not learn to say no in small things, one will find it difficult to say no in the big things. The higher the stakes are, the greater the pressure to acquiesce will be. That is why, for me, learning to pronounce the word no was both liberating and confidence-instilling.
On a grander, global scale, Winston Churchill once admonished the free world to learn to pronounce the word “no.” Summoning the wisdom of Alexander the Great, Churchill, in the face of Nazi aggression, challenged the free world to muster the courage to tell Hitler “no.” In his famous October 16, 1938, broadcast to the United States and England named, The Defence of Freedom and Peace (The Lights are Going Out), Churchill reflected:
Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word ”No.” Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe.
Regardless if one is leading a nation, a seminary, a church, a family, or any other earthly entity, every proposal simply cannot be greeted with an affirming response. The word “no” may be the most indispensable word in a leader’s lexicon.
Whether it is to decline an unsound proposal, scuttle an ill-advised initiative, or just pass up a good idea in order to pursue a better one, learning to pronounce the word “no” is a lesson every leader must learn. I am grateful I learned it from Al Mohler.topicsAl Mohler, Higher Education, Pastoral Ministry