The Actual Meaning of “Sorry, I’m Busy”

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If you spend a lot of time inviting people to things, then you’d better be prepared for rejection.

As a church planter, I would know.  I’m basically a professional at being turned down.

But of course, I’m not alone.  Talk with anyone in sales, donor development, marketing, start-ups, or any other line of work that requires a lot of invitations, and they’ll assure you, the only thing certain is that rejection will come, often in large, unrelenting quantities.

Through the hundreds of rejections I’ve received in the last few months, I’ve noticed a pattern.  The most common way of being told, “no”, comes in the form of, “I’m sorry, I’m just really busy”.

I want to help us understand the dynamic occurring when someone declines your invitation in this way. Because, I think, we’re confused. We’re missing the truth of what’s being communicated in that interaction.  At first, I was, too.  But now, being the seasoned vet of rejection I am, I see things more clearly.

Think about your own invitations a moment.  Has someone turned you down under the banner of, “Sorry, I’m just really swamped lately”? I’m guessing they have.

In the church world, meaning pastors and church staff, we do a lot of hand-ringing about this busy stuff. It really seems to be taking over. People just have so much going on. They fill their schedules to the brim, we say.  With all those commitments, there just isn’t any time left for us.

But wait.  Did you catch those last two sentences?

They fill their schedules to the brim.  And there isn’t any time left for us. 

You’ll notice, we’re playing the victim here.  People are free agents. They can do what they want with the time they have.  We can’t blame them for that.

So let’s make a couple observations to help us understand, and respond to, the “Sorry I’m busy” dynamic.

First, let’s be clear. If someone turns you down, it’s because they don’t want to come to your thing.  

Yep.  I said it.  The problem isn’t them.  It’s you.

People find time for things they care about.  They make time.  You do the same.  In fact, could it be true that you’ve recently turned down an invitation because you were “too busy”?  I bet you have.

We live in a time where people have unprecedented levels of choice.  If you want to sign your kid up for a youth sport, you will have dozens, if not hundreds, of options.  Beyond sports, people go to trivia nights; they stay home and watch Netflix, or Hulu, or Redbox, or YouTube; they play the latest version of Xbox (is that even a thing anymore?); they SnapChat their friends; they attend a sporting event; they work from home; they take an evening Grad School class.  The list goes on.

The point is: people use their time to pursue what they care about most at the time.

Apparently, at the time of your rejection, you aren’t on their priority list.


Now, before you start to feel all insecure and begin to question the fabric of the universe, let’s go on to another important point.

Replying, “Sorry, I’m busy”, has become the polite, socially acceptable, face-saving way of declining an invitation.  This should make you feel a little better about your failed book club.  The rejection you experienced wasn’t personal. When people told you they were busy, they were just being polite.  After all, saying, “Um, no thanks, I’d rather watch a puddle evaporate on a cloudy, humid day” sounds a little harsh.

Cultures around the world utilize clichés like this to navigate relationships.  In any social situation, it will be necessary to decline some invitations.  This makes sense, since we can’t attend every gathering in every social group we’re connected with.  The question then becomes, how will we communicate our negative answer without sounding like a jerk?  Our culture’s answer to this question is: hide behind the guise of business.

So, if we were to translate, “Sorry, I’m too busy”, into more direct terms, it would probably sound something like:  “Thank you for the invitation. But this week, I have other priorities I’m choosing to pursue instead”.

If this is the dynamic taking place, then what should we do if we’re receiving an unsatisfactory number of rejections?   What if we’re frustrated by people’s apparent busy-ness?

There are at least a couple viable options.

1) Reevaluate, take responsibility, and change what you’re inviting people to.  This one is especially necessary for people in church work to consider.  We spend too much time blaming others for our failed events. On a purely pragmatic level, blaming others is totally unproductive.  In addition, the cultural reality is, if you want people to attend something, it has to be worth their while.  They must want to be there badly enough to forfeit attending lots of other events.  In other words, your gathering must overcome their FOMO.

In response, some church leaders might be tempted to say, “Shoot, he’s right, our worship gatherings aren’t engaging enough; our programs aren’t good enough; improve, improve, improve”.

However, I would challenge this response.  Even the most engaging megachurches only have families showing up, on average, once or twice per month.  The problem here isn’t marketing or content, it’s the model.

A better response to the frantic pace of culture is not to try competing with all the other noise, but instead, to blow up our current assumptions about the structure of church and consider how to go about things differently.

To put it simply: if your church is depending on a weekly large group gathering to connect and mature people spiritually, but they only come to that gathering once or twice per month, then you are failing.  Why?  Because developing people takes time and relationship, and if you only see them two hours per month, you don’t have either.

Note, I’m not saying a weekly large group gathering is bad or wrong.  (In fact, if you can get people to attend very consistently, it may be exactly right.)  I am saying that if you are depending exclusively on that model for developing your people, then you’ve got a problem.

Church functions or otherwise, the solution here is to do some soul-searching.  Consider the reasons you want to gather, the desires you have for people and relationships, and other potential ways of achieving those same goals.  You may decide to have fewer gatherings, or different gatherings, or more smaller, flexible gatherings.  Wherever you land, you can’t see yourself as a victim.  You’re a leader.  If people aren’t coming to your stuff, it’s because your stuff isn’t their priority. It’s up to you to change the status quo.

2) Extend fewer invitations, accept more. 

Here is another great approach: stop inviting people to your stuff so much, and instead start accepting invitations to theirs.  Maybe the route to connection, friendship, pursuit of a hobby, or whatever other reasons you had for extending an invite, would be sufficiently achieved by going to someone else’s group.  No need to reinvent the wheel.

When it comes to forging connections, many of us overlook the simple value of just showing up.  We worry about the fine details of a gathering, trying so hard to make it a compelling time, when in fact, the real route to connection is consistent, meaningful gatherings held over time. The décor of the room fades to the background when rich relationships are being established.

So maybe for you the next step is not to invite, but to show up.

The next time you extend an invite and hear, “Sorry, I’m just sooooo busy!!!!” I hope you’ll be able to see past the façade.  Consider the communication truly taking place, and adjust accordingly.

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