Slaughtering Sacred Cows

This topic is one of those that I can write much about – and yet in practice, it comes with fear and trepidation.

What is a “sacred cow?”

As you are no doubt aware, literally a “sacred cow” is any cow in Hindu culture. Cows are sacred and to be worshiped. They cannot be harmed, and certainly not eaten. Mistreating a cow is a very serious matter.

In American church culture, sacred cows are those things that no one can touch without mortal fear of death or dismemberment. You can think of some of those right now, can’t you? You don’t even need me to list them out for you. But I will anyway…

Here are some common sacred cows:

  1. The Worship Service.

    Woe to the pastor or leader who dares to mess with this, particularly in an older church!

    When I introduced video screens to the service at my church, there were a couple people who I thought were going to have heart attacks. One of them had threatened to leave if we went ahead with them (she didn’t…).

    Music, special music, technology, Bible version used for preaching, order of service, how and when to take the offering – all of these can be hardened into traditions that are only broken with the greatest peril for those trying to fit new wine into old wineskins, or to bring new wineskins altogether.

  2. Favorite Programs.

    Brother Smith’s adult Sunday School class (using the exact same materials for the last 65 years) or the Wednesday night prayer service or Sunday night hymn-sing are seen as staples of the church life and are off-limits for change or removal for the sake of focusing people and resources on making disciples.

  3. Regular Events.

    Sister Jones always puts together such a nice Christmas program – and her rutabaga squash linguine casserole is the hit of the pot-luck dinner every year! No matter that attendance at the Christmas program is only made up of a fraction of the congregation and the grandparents of whoever is playing Baby Jesus this time. Not to mention the fact that next year you’ll need to find a new Baby Jesus – or go back to using the doll…

    This covers other regular/special events that served a purpose in days past, but no longer serve to help the church in its mission for the Great Commission.

  4. The Physical appearance of property (especially the worship area!).

    It could be that the sanctuary/worship space/lobby/classrooms need to be updated, but there is resistance because of emotional attachments to these areas.

    When we repainted our nursery, one lady was very upset because we’d be covering the handprints her daughter and another girl made when it was originally painted. And I caught some flak for moving the flags to the back of the sanctuary instead of keeping them on the front platform.

    It could also be that you want to rearrange the platform to accommodate a keyboard because the organ or piano is beyond repair. Or add a screen. Whatever.

    If you’ve tried to change anything like that, you know the hassle. Changing something can be dangerous to the tranquility of a congregation. But if the property and the sanctuary scream “1950s!!” something needs to change.

  5. Dress codes (Okay, here we go…).

    Whether it’s for the pastor, the people on the platform, or the congregation members, this can be a touchy subject.

    Many feel that everyone in church should wear their Sunday best, others feel that you should dress in a way that is comfortable and allows guests to not feel out of place.

    Some of this depends on your culture. In some parts of the US, even the poorest families wear suits and nice dresses to church. In Hawaii, it’s aloha shirts and flip-flops (and that’s just the pastor). Up here in the Midwest where I live, it’s often jeans and an untucked checked shirt or football jersey (especially if the Vikings are playing that day…), with some people in suits, but mostly it’s business casual.

    The question you have to answer is this: are dress codes keeping you from reaching people for Jesus and making disciples? Can you articulate a BIBLICAL reason for dressing as you do or expect from others? Even if you can, can you welcome someone who doesn’t meet that, especially if they are new people looking for Jesus and/or a church home? Can they come to your church and not be looked down on for how they dress? I hope so.

  6. Pastoral roles (Yup – gonna go there…). This is a huge one. Oftentimes the job description for a pastor at a given church is not biblical and is many times simply unrealistic given the time restrictions pastors are under to prepare for Sunday worship.

    Sometimes the printed job description doesn’t match the actual expectations. For instance, the pastor is told that his primary responsibilities center on things like preaching, counseling, and administrative issues of leading the congregation. But in reality, he is in charge of visiting all the sick, leading all the Bible studies, making the mowing schedule (and filling in when someone can’t make their turn), scheduling the pot-luck dinners, cleaning the church, leading the services at the nursing home, putting together the worship services – including getting the PowerPoint slides ready and getting the music out for rehearsal, visiting every home in the congregation at least once a year, and chairing every committee.

    These pastors are expected to be available 24/7/365 (366 in Leap Years!) to do the congregation’s bidding without complaint, all while running a stable household with a wife who serves in every other area of church ministry and raising kids who are perfectly obedient in every situation and circumstance (especially if Sister Gertrude is there that day…).

    Can you tell I’m not a big fan of that pastoral model? Maybe because it is NOT what Scripture says a pastor should be doing. (I touch more on this HERE)

    The church I pastored was small, averaging just under 60 people, and this was one of the reasons. I was bi-vocational, and simply didn’t have the time and energy to do everything expected of me. At times that led to frustration, hurt feelings in the congregation, and even conflict.

    You really need to study what the role of a pastor is. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not doing all the work of ministry. Many tasks assigned to pastors have to do with tradition, not Scripture. I think this has a lot do with the fact that on average, 1500 pastors quit the ministry EVERY MONTH in the US.

The sacred cows in your church might not be any of these. But maybe it’s something like the kitchen, the organ, the pulpit, the nursery, the pews, the piano, the curtains in the pastor’s office, or even the lawn mower. Anything that people hold onto at all costs and that will cause trouble to change or remove can be a sacred cow.

If there is something that is hindering your people from obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples, it has to go. You may have to do it slowly and incrementally depending on what it is, but it has to go.

Because the harsh truth is that sacred cows are only good for one thing: slaughtering.

How do we slaughter the sacred cows?

Very carefully and slowly.

I really wish pastors could walk into a meeting with lay leaders and say, “You know what? We need to change this or that, or get rid of that, or move on to this other thing,” and have their leaders say, “You’re absolutely right, Pastor! What are we waiting for? Let’s do this thing!!!”

But you and I both know that more often than not, moving to slaughter sacred cows brings with it the danger of much emotional backlash, which can lead to other issues. So how can you go about this in a way that brings about the needed change and yet is respectful to those affected by it, therefore bringing better chances of acceptance?

First, you really need to bathe it in prayer. Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray. And then pray some more. Pray that God would give you wisdom in identifying sacred cows (including your OWN). Pray that He would give you wisdom in approaching the persons most affected by its leaving. Pray that He would work in the heart of those people to see and understand and be comforted in the fact that God’s work can move on. Pray for the right words to say and the right body language to employ.

Second, be able to articulate a few things:

  • WHY this particular thing needs to go.
  • WHY this was a good thing in the past and the benefit it had for the congregation back then.
  • Why it is a roadblock to obedience to Jesus in the task of making disciples.
  • What would be enabled to happen as a result of its leaving.
  • Your gratitude to them and to God for how God used it in the past.

Third, be as sensitive and diplomatic as possible. You don’t want to communicate glee at something someone has an emotional investment in. You DO want to communicate that you are sensitive to those emotional ties and don’t want to minimize those or the history involved with whatever that is.

Warning: be prepared for backlash. Slaughtering sacred cows can bring some major pushback. As I’ve tried to point out in this post, people are attached to them in various ways that affect their emotional response. Consider that Sister Ewing donated all the plates and arranged the kitchen just how she likes it – even though no one else can find anything in there. Or Brother Donaldson donated that organ with memorial funds given at his sister’s funeral and wants it there until Jesus returns. Or Mr. Brown’s great granddaddy carved that pulpit from granite with his bare hands.

Telling your people your plan and why these sacred cows have to go (“So we can be more obedient to Jesus, maybe?…”) and communicating that you are sensitive to the emotional ties with them will help. But it can still be a rough go. You might even lose people over it. So you don’t want to be a jerk about it. Yet at the end of the day, the sacred cows need to be slaughtered, because obedience to Jesus has to be the driving force of a congregation. If a sacred cow is in the way, it has to go.

For some of you, you look at this list and think, “Forget that – these cows are going to the altar right now for a huge bonfire and steak dinner afterward! I don’t care what the people think – obedience to Jesus is more important than their feelings!”

Theologically, you are absolutely correct. But you do it that way at your own peril. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve heard the stories of other pastors who did this without tact and sensitivity, just expecting people to understand and get on board as we cheerfully did what we thought we should do.

Just a hint: It doesn’t work that way. You’ll end up with even more resistance to your leadership in other areas, and that’s not good either.

Yes – slaughter the sacred cows. But don’t do it in the sanctuary during a worship service. Gently lead the cow out the back door after dark, into the truck, then drive it to the butcher shop and have it made into nice steaks, roasts, and hamburgers that everyone can enjoy on Sister Ewing’s glass plates…

Bring it on, baby!

Have you dealt with sacred cows at your church? Comment below with what they were and how you dealt with them, for better or worse. I’d sure love to hear any other suggestions for getting rid of the sacred cows that inhibit our ability to make disciples. So please feel free to offer suggestions below. This will help me as I help churches develop discipleship cultures in their congregations. Your input might save some poor pastor’s life!!!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *