By Carmen Joy Imes

A Guide to Saying Yes in an Academic Context

Recently, I was asked to take on a massive writing project — 250,000 words over the next four years. Saying yes to this will mean saying no to a lot of other things — conference papers, committee responsibilities, extra teaching, speaking engagements, and other writing projects. However, this book will utilize my training, help me grow as a scholar, network me with others in my field, and greatly expand the reach of my research.

Learning when to say no and when to say yes is a crucial part of managing a career in academia. Each season presents a steady stream of opportunities and requests — to teach, to speak, to write, to chair, to organize, to attend. Saying yes to everything is impossible. There aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the year. So how do we decide? Here are some considerations I’ve found helpful in making professional decisions.

It’s not as simple as just saying yes to things I want to do and no to things I don’t. That would still leave me with more to do than can humanly be done. While seeking advice can be helpful, we also can’t use our mentors or colleagues as an easy guide. We are not them and they are not us. Each of us needs to pay attention to our own unique capacity for work, what energizes and drains us, and the challenges and opportunities of our particular season of life. Just because so-and-so could manage to do x, y, and z all at once doesn’t mean we can, too. And just because they can’t doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. There’s a glorious freedom in relinquishing the pressure to be like anyone else. But that also puts us right back where we started, wondering how to decide when to agree to take on more responsibility.

A helpful article by Mary Churchill in the Chronicle for Higher Ed advocates a mental flow chart for making decisions. Churchill says, “Strategically and selectively saying yes is really hard work.” This year, she’s leaning in to “just one or two things” that align with her priorities by saying no to almost everything else. Here’s her rubric for decision making:

“I ask myself, does this project or commitment align with my values and does it further my goals. If it does, do I have time for it? If I don’t have time for it, is it such an amazing opportunity that I will regret saying no? If it doesn’t pass the ‘no regrets’ test, then what am I willing to give up?”

These questions offer a practical way to think things through. I especially appreciate the last question — what am I willing to give up? — because it acknowledges my human finitude. Something will inevitably suffer if I overload my schedule. It is best if it can anticipate that on the front end and make a conscious decision to let go of something rather than dropping the ball on what that really matters.

Churchill evaluates her current commitments by asking whether her contribution is both meaningful and necessary. If someone else could step in and do just as well or better, then she feels free to step away. I’ve put into practice some related advice I read in a Chronicle for Higher Ed article by Robin Bernstein about how to say no. Bernstein recommends saying no quickly and suggesting someone else who might appreciate the opportunity. Not only do you release the burden of an unmade decision, but you help with project completion by suggesting someone else. As a woman in leadership, you can use the occasion to help connect other capable women and minorities with the opportunity. Saying yes too often robs others of the chance to contribute and prevents you from doing your best work on projects that matter most to you.

As helpful as all this advice has been for me, I’ve been wondering how we might reconsider Churchill’s decision-making flow chart in light of Christian discipleship.

Step one would be to align my values and goals with Scripture in light of my personal sense of calling. Am I seeking God’s kingdom above all else? Have I surrendered selfish desires? In other words, my values and goals must be bigger than my own career path. I want them to connect with God’s global purposes. Unless the will of God is my highest aim and love is my central commitment, my decisions will be skewed by selfishness.

Step two is to prayerfully consider whether God is asking me to make time for this opportunity. Would it be consistent with my sense of calling and congruent with how God has made me? Do I have the time and energy to carry it to completion, or can I make time by setting aside other activities that do not meet these criteria? This prayerful process may involve input from others who know me and care about my well-being. Recently I was asked to take on an extra teaching responsibility off campus. I processed the decision with my Mom over the phone. Her answer was immediate: “This one’s easy. Say no. You need time to write.” From her vantage point she could see how saying yes would diffuse my focus.

But some decisions are not so clear-cut. Ruth Haley Barton describes a process of discernment developed by Ignatius of Loyola that is especially helpful when we’re feeling torn between two options (Sacred Rhythms, 123-26). She suggests that we choose one alternative and sit with that decision for a time (it could be two hours or two days), noticing whether we experience feelings of consolation or desolation. Does this choice nurture life-giving peace and freedom or do I sense greater distance from God and his purposes for me? When the time is up, we switch to the other decision and sit with that for the same length of time. This method can help us sort through our emotional reaction and discern the course of action that is most congruent with our calling. The decision accompanied by this sense of confirmation is the best decision.

It’s worth noting that sometimes we are asked to do something that we would rather not do but we still ought to say yes. Leaders are often called upon to make decisions they don’t want to make. Some tasks are unpleasant or difficult, calling for grit or even courage. I don’t find faculty meetings exhilarating, but I do think they are important, so I show up and engage. I don’t love mopping the stairs in the women’s dorm, but that’s what my work team has been assigned to do. I believe in our school’s mission and I think service teams contribute to campus unity as well as financial health, so I participate willingly. Frankly, it’s also part of my contract.*

What if a project is not technically required but somebody must do it? If so, then I cannot just consider my own desires. If it contributes to the health of the institution to which I am committed or called, then my willingness to participate is an act of service that aligns with my values, even if it doesn’t align with my personal interest or gifting. Would saying yes be a way of loving others? (I’m thinking here of committee leadership for the impending re-accreditation process at my institution. It’s not an “amazing opportunity” and I doubt anyone wants to do it, but we all need accreditation to be approved so that our school can remain viable. This may be an occasion when grit — and teamwork — is required.) In cases like these, “yes” can be an expression of love for the greater good of our communities.

Some of my mentors were hesitant when they heard about my recent invitation to write because they didn’t want to see me burn out on such a long project. I already have so much on my plate. Others thought it was a no-brainer. When I processed it with my husband, he said, “When you first told me about the invitation I was afraid you’d say no.” That sealed the deal for me. Knowing that we both feel this is a strategic “yes” means I’ll have the support I need to see this through. I was up front with the editor about current responsibilities and we negotiated a reasonable time frame in which I could complete a project of this size.

Should I apply for that job?

Should I agree to chair that committee?

Should I spearhead this new initiative on campus?

Should I respond positively to that invitation to speak or teach or write?

That all depends.

If the answer to all the questions explored above is “yes,” then I can joyfully accept the invitation, confident that the Spirit of God will empower me for the task.

About the Author

Carmen Joy Imes (PhD, Wheaton) is associate professor of Old Testament in the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, she is the author of Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Being God's Image: Why Creation Still Matters, and the editor of Praying the Psalms with Augustine and Friends.

Imes has written for a variety of websites, including Christianity Today, The Well, and the Politics of Scripture blog. She is a fellow of Every Voice, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Imes and her husband, Daniel, have followed God's call around the globe together for over 25 years.

Read Carmen's article on being God's image as a woman in the academy and the church.

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