How often do you hear requests like this:

  • Can you help us?
  • You would be perfect to lead this.
  • It won’t take long.
  • We need you!

As leaders, these tempt us to say “yes” to projects beyond our regular responsibilities. Since many extracurricular opportunities in ministry (and beyond—like volunteering at school, being a team mom, leading a food drive, etc.) are worthwhile, we sometimes cram them onto our already full plates without much thought. We mistakenly believe we can do more—or we should do more. Sometimes we sacrifice our personal wellbeing at the altar of achievement, which leads to stress, exhaustion, and resentment. As leadership expert John Maxwell encourages, we need to “learn to say ‘no’ to the good so that you can say ‘yes’ to the best.”

Whether you lead from a staff position or as a volunteer, we all have a defined role with responsibilities that are our primary focus. I serve as the pastor of small groups in our church, but like many of you, I am usually involved in a few ministry projects not directly related to my role. How can we decide whether something is “good” or “best?” It’s not as simple as saying “no” to all extra obligations because some projects are indeed for us to do; they are growth-producing, life-giving, or joy-filling.

Instead, we need to have a clear filter to help make intentional choices about what we add to our plate. We need a process to recognize when a prospective project is something God may be calling us into because it taps into our giftedness, passion, skills, or next steps of growth. And, in the converse, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize when the opportunity is appealing to our ego, pumping up our self-importance, feeding into our insecurities, or an unhealthy need for approval.

In the past decade as I have grown in leadership experience and influence, I have been privileged to be invited to do more, both inside and outside our church. Because I am also a mother, wife, and household manager, however, I weigh each extracurricular opportunity carefully knowing it will impact my time, energy, and availability. I have developed five self-reflective questions for deciding which extracurricular activities to pursue and which to skip. I pray through these questions and consult with family and trusted friends to make decisions.

1. Am I uniquely qualified, skilled, or spiritually gifted to do this work?

Another way to ask this question is: Would I add value to this project that is different from what is already there? Sometimes we’re invited to join a committee, be a voice for people who typically would not be heard, or lead a specific project that is within your “sweet spot.” For example, I recently joined the leadership team for a women’s conference at our church, something that is outside of my ministry role. I occupy a unique position as the only woman on our church’s executive team. This gave me a voice to speak on behalf of our senior leadership about how much we value and want to empower women leaders. It also gave me a chance to hear from women engaged in ministry at our church and convey their perspectives back to senior leadership. In this way, I clearly provided something that would otherwise have been missing from the team.

2. How important is it to me and the organization that this project gets done?

If your church is anything like mine, there is always more work to be done than the hours in a day—and the list just keeps growing. In evaluating a side project that benefits the whole organization, there are two parts to consider: 1) How critical is this project to the mission of your organization? and 2) How convicted are you personally about the need for this to be done? For example, are you bothered every time it comes up and feel a tug to take care of it?

Our church website is a work in progress with constant need for updating. One of the issues was a lack of information about staff leaders beyond basic job titles. I wanted people visiting the website to know what an exceptional and diverse team we have so they might come to our church and feel more relationally connected to our leaders. So, during a lighter time in my workload, I solicited, interviewed, and wrote the staff biographies. Since then, that web page has received thousands of hits and has helped people feel more comfortable with our leadership team.

3. Does the timing of the project work with my schedule?

There are three key things you need to consider: the time it will take to complete, whether it’s a short-term or long-term commitment, and whether the deadline realistically fits in with your regular workload. Like Jesus’ parable of the talents, we each have different capacities (e.g., priorities, time, attention, energy) that may change over various seasons of our lives. It’s critical to know your limitations, maintain some margin, and figure out how a project may or may not fit into your life at the moment.

Perhaps a short-term project requiring a lot of hours in a brief span of time may be more doable for your schedule than something requiring a few hours a week on an ongoing, long-term basis. Since we tend to underestimate how long something will take, be sure to build some flexibility into your calculation. No matter how much you want to do something, if you don’t have time for it, it will likely have a negative impact on your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

Several years ago, I fulfilled a long-term dream of attending seminary, and started working toward a master’s degree in theology. With support from my church and family, I chose to take one class each semester to minimize disruptions to my schedule. Though I loved learning, I felt the constant strain of trying to juggle the classwork while maintaining my other responsibilities, especially during busy work seasons. Despite my best intentions, I found myself distracted during family outings, cranky while trying to squeeze in all the reading, tired from staying up late to finish papers, and stressed out from juggling it all. After six semesters, I made the difficult decision to say, “not now,” and put my education on hold. Timing, pace, and capacity are critical issues to pay attention to if you want to uphold your priorities and be fully present in all you’re currently doing. “Not now” is a perfectly valid and wise response to opportunities that would be better fulfilled in the future.

4. Does the thought of working on this excite me?

Never underestimate the power of fun! If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, the burden feels light and the work is fulfilling, especially if you enjoy the people you are working with. This question is more of an instinctual gut check. When you think about a new project, do your heart and mind race with excitement and ideas, or do you feel a heavy weight and a sense of obligation? If the project is not mandatory to your role, you have the luxury of choosing those items that are life-giving and soul-filling. You should get excited about the work you’d be accomplishing and the team you’d be working with.

I am actively involved in a ministry peer group, the Small Group Network, which connects and resources small-group ministry leaders all over the world. I joined at its inception because I respected and enjoyed hanging out with the founding leaders. A couple of years ago, I was asked to host a monthly podcastfor the Small Group Network and interview experts in my ministry field. Though I had no experience in podcasting and was quite nervous about it, my heart jumped at the concept. I couldn’t sleep that night because my mind was racing with ideas and strategies. I love asking people questions, reading ministry material, and learning from others. It has been a joy to research topics, build new relationships with experts in the field, and encourage others in the ministry trenches. Plus, it has equipped me to become a stronger leader in my own ministry. Though this activity doesn’t take much time, it feeds my mind and soul in ways that energize and inspire me.

5. Will it cause me to stretch and grow?

Spiritual growth often happens in places of fear and discomfort. As a mentor once told me, “If you want to grow, follow your resistance.” This may seem to contradict the earlier point about doing what brings you joy. In the maturing process described in James 1:2–4, however, hardships and challenges are opportunities for joy as we grow to become more like Jesus. It is precisely when we follow Jesus beyond our comfort zones that we know him more deeply, and we’re empowered to serve others in new ways.

When I hear about an opportunity that seems challenging, my first instinct is to say “no.” Just like Moses and other reluctant leaders in the Bible, I list all the reasons why I’m not the person for the job. Yet, when I take time to pray and open it up to the Lord to direct me, these tough assignments are often the most impactful. They expose my sins and weaknesses while providing a space for God to change me. Some activities that fall into this category might be a mission trip, mentoring someone radically different than you, leading a challenging small group, humbly doing something you’ve never done before, speaking publically, sharing your faith with parents at your child’s school, or ministering to the marginalized. If the activity is likely to put you into a space where you will grow in dependence on God, it might be just what you need. Constantly being stretched beyond your comfort zone may not be sustainable, but never saying “yes” to these opportunities for growth may cause you to miss out on what God has next for you.

God knows each of our capacities, skills, passions, and next steps for growth. Sometimes we are reluctant to say “no” or “not now” because we’re afraid the opportunity will not come again. But God’s timing is perfect. He invites us into a life of abundance where we can thrive and be fully present in all the activities on our plate. When we choose to follow Jesus into what he calls us to do rather than tasks that feed our ego or appease other people, the burden is light, and we will find rest for our souls. When we prayerfully put each opportunity through the filter of these five questions and the answers point to a green light, we can joyfully and confidently say “yes!”

Carolyn Taketa is the pastor of small groups at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California. She is a former attorney and the current host of Group Talk, a monthly podcast for the Small Group Network.