Finding Your Sacred Cow

This week I suggested that your church may have a ‘sacred cow‘ or two that you’ve been holding onto. I haven’t been entirely fair in my blunt and vague references to the ‘cow’. Today, I will attempt to be more clear and practical.



  • Wikipedia defines a ‘sacred cow’ as something considered (perhaps unreasonably) immune from question or criticism. 
  • proclaims it as an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning. 
  • Miriam Webster’s Learners Dictionary says it best from my perspective though: someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question.
A Real Example:
Several years ago I was leading a Strategic Meeting at Elim Gospel Church. We were discussing the number of programs, events, and activities that were potentially sideways energy and not centered around our primary mission as a church. The reality was that some of these activities were stealing our best people and resources – and they weren’t strategically helping our church and it’s people grow. We had just read Andy Stanley’s book, Seven Practices for Effective Ministry (required reading at our church) and decided we needed to “Narrow the Focus”.
So far, so good. We all acknowledged that we needed to streamline our church programs to maximize effectiveness and make room for focused growth. Our next step was when the sacred cows stepped into the room (Note: cows don’t mix with elephants very well!). We wrote down on a white board all of the church related activities that could be counted as something that should be evaluated. Once we built our list we systematically began discussing each activity to decide what to do with them. At the end of the meeting we had decided to cut exactly ZERO things.
Here’s what the conversation sort of sounded like, 

Wayne: “So how about VBS? Is that something we should consider ending?”

Team Member: “No. We can’t lose that. We have hundreds of children attend that each year and it’s attracting a lot of families from the community.”

Wayne: “OK. Well, let’s consider the ‘Women’s Community Bible Study’.”

Team Member: “No, no. I feel we would really be making a big mistake there. A lot of women from the other churches attend that event. It’s a great way to serve those other churches and it’s very well attended.”

Wayne: “Umm. Our Easter Production?”

Team Member: “Wow. You really think we should consider doing a normal service? Besides Christmas Eve services that Sunday service is our highest attending service of the year!”

Suffice it to say, that was not one of our funnest meetings. I left that meeting feeling deflated and as if we had wasted several hours of everybody’s time. What we realized was that although we wanted to do the right thing and cut back, none of us were committed to really questioning these and other events. They had become sacred cows for us. (Note: I specifically used those three examples from our discussion for a reason. We have since successfully ‘killed the cow’ in each of those cases. If you’re interested in how we did it, shoot me an email or post a comment.)
Three Disclaimers:
  1. Before you look at the final section below, please be reminded that IF one of these have become a ‘sacred cow’ it’s possible you either don’t know it or aren’t willing to admit it. I talk about that in my post entitled, “The Smelly Cow“.
  2. I am NOT trying to say that the below examples shouldn’t be happening in your church. It’s quite probable that many of them should. However, what may be very appropriate, strategic, and anointed by God in one church may in fact become the opposite in another.
  3. If you look closely at the above definitions you will note that a sacred cow is NOT NECESSARILY something that you shouldn’t be doing. It can also include something that you should be doing, but that you ARE NOT willing to question. So here it is, “Are you willing to question any or all of the below examples in your church ministry?”
Sacred Cow Examples:
Following are a few examples of activities, events, etc. that COULD end up becoming ‘sacred cows’ for your church. I’d love to listen to your internal dialog as you read them. Hopefully, they won’t sound that meeting we had many years ago!
  • A Program or Ministry.
    It is possible your church supports a ministry that happens every week or month that isn’t really an integral part of your church’s mission. This may include a men’s or women’s program, a children’s program, a class, perhaps even your mid-week service {gasp}
  • An Event.
    Of course, there may be many events that you host occasionally or even annually that really need to be questioned and evaluated. Understand, you shouldn’t really be checking to see if the event is successful based on how many people attend or even how effective the event is. Rather, you want to know, “Is it strategic and fulfilling our mission as a church?” An event may include a special service like an Easter or Christmas service, a youth overnight retreat, a seminar or conference that you host, maybe even your Vacation Bible School.
  • A Service Element.
    A service element may include ANYTHING you do immediately before, during, or after a Sunday service. Often, churches get so used to doing the same things every week that they become sacred and untouchable. This is how church services can become ineffective and irrelevant in reaching their communities. Your members who have been around for years don’t even question what happens each week, but your guests sure do! Examples of service elements include your style of worship, how you receive the offering, the volume of the service, the temperature in the room, how you give the announcements, how you host communion, whether Aunt Edith should play the piano and possibly even how you preach every single week! Ouch.
  • Your Language.
    Sometimes the words you use every week are inappropriate and unhelpful to your listeners – and in particular to your guests. This will include the obvious words like “sanctification”, “justification” and what-not. However, it may also include words like “visitor”, “heathens”, and “secular”. (Example: We no longer refer to new people each Sunday as ‘visitors’ – it sounds like they won’t be staying long. We now call them our guests.) Finally, your language will also include the many assumptions you may make from the pulpit about your listeners, like ‘everyone here already knows all the stories/people in the Bible’ and ‘everyone here understands our church’s history and culture’.
  • Your Things.
    What would happen if you walked down the hall and removed that picture of the founding pastor from 50 years ago? What things does your church possess and most often display that have become sacred cows? How about the seats in the sanctuary? The offering baskets? The stained glass windows? I’m not suggesting you clean house this Saturday – if you do so, you may end up with a church split. I AM suggesting that you may have some sacred cow ‘things’ kicking around that should be identified. What to do with them is another topic entirely.
  • Your Building.
    Every pastor and leader understands intellectually that the ‘church’ is the people, not the building. However, we can often be guilty of giving our building more ‘sacred value’ than our people. Nowhere in your mission statement is there a reference to your building (I hope). How have you preferred your building over your people? Additionally, parts of the building can become sacred cows – like the color of the carpet or walls or the wall that divides two rooms which could really serve your church better as one big room.
  • Your People.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling your people cows. However, sometimes we can have people in positions of influence or ministry in the church and nobody is willing to question whether they are really serving the church well in that role. Just because someone has been on the worship team, an elder, or a greeter for the last 20 years does not mean they should be today and tomorrow.
  • Your Systems.
    You may not realize it, but you have systems. They are the procedures that you either officially or unofficially utilize to get things done. Here’s the deal with systems: rarely do the same systems serve the church forever. In fact, just like the parts of your car, systems can get old and wear-out. A growing church will always be evaluating how decisions are made, how the bulletins are produced, how guests are followed up on, etc. to ensure those systems are still serving the ministry of the church as best as possible. If you ever hear someone respond to the question, ‘Why do you do it this way?’ with ‘Because that’s how we’ve always done it.’ then I submit that you may have a system that has run it’s course.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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  • Pastor DuWayje C Pass July 22, 2014  

    I need help…..much of what I read sounds like my church and I know it was God that led me to this post….I want to talk to someone yesterday. We are a church in need of

  • Pingback: Wayne Hedlund – The Sacred Cow October 14, 2014