How to Kill a Sacred Cow at your Church

How to Kill a Sacred Cow at your Church

Aaron Buer

Digital giving apps and tools

We have this term in church world: Sacred Cows.

When I say sacred cow, I’m talking about something in your church that you’d have to be crazy to change.

I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about. There are probably two or three programs or events that popped into your mind right now.

But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to kill a sacred cow.

It’s the only way to create the change that needs to happen. It’s the only way to take a church to the next level or pull it out of a season of ineffectiveness or apathy.

But, how exactly do you kill a sacred cow? How exactly do you end a program or ministry that everyone is telling you:

“Oh, if you change that…everyone will leave.”

I distinctly remember a conversation that took place as I interviewed for my first student ministry job.

I asked a group of parents why the previous student pastor had lost his job and someone told me, “He ended Sunday School.” Oh. Sacred Cow. Gotcha.

So, can you kill a sacred cow without major conflict? Can you kill a sacred cow without losing your job or half your people leaving for the church down the street?

Well, I killed a sacred cow last year.

Nobody cried, died or got fired. At least not yet.

So, how did we navigate the change? Well, looking back, there were 10 tactics that enabled us to navigate this complex change effectively. This week I'd like to share the first 5.

Tactic 1: Vision

I know what you’re thinking: “Duh.”

Well, hold on.

It is surprising how often we overlook the power of vision when attempting to implement change. Here’s the thing: People typically resist change but are motivated by vision.

Here’s what I mean: Often, an attempt at replacing a sacred cow starts with this argument:

That thing is broken so we need to get rid of it.

People who love that sacred cow are now on the defensive. They’re digging in for a fight to the death. They’ve got sand bags, pillboxes, barbed wire and landmines all waiting for you.

A better way to approach this conversation looks like this:

Imagine if we became a church who…

That’s vision. All those nasty defenses just disappeared.

Instead of starting with the problem, start with a picture of a preferred future. Get shoulder to shoulder with your people, point to the future and say:

Look over there. We could be there. Doesn’t there look nice. We should totally go over there don’t you think?

Vision is captivating. People can get behind vision. And once they are captivated by the vision, they will be more receptive to the difficult truth that the captivating vision will require a sacred cow to be removed.

Tactic 2: Data

Now, vision is powerful but it isn’t enough. Especially after you mention that your vision will require the dismantling of a sacred cow.

The way to address the skepticism and resistance is data. You can argue with vision but you can’t argue with data.

This fall we killed a sacred cow. It was a ministry model in which we rotated between meeting as a full ministry and meeting in homes. It might not sound like a sacred cow to you but we had been operating this way for over fifteen years and many of our people loved it.

When it came to conversations with people who were resistant, we kept coming back to one piece of data. In this case it was attendance numbers. We knew from careful tracking that our attendance had been down between 15-20% on the nights we met in homes.

And, this data wasn’t a one year anomaly.

We had tracked this phenomenon for three years straight.

No one can argue with data. It doesn’t have an opinion or an angle. It just is.

So, if you believe that a sacred cow needs to be removed or change, start collecting data. In some cases, this may take months or even years. But, it’s essential.

Right about now you might be thinking "it sounds like you took three years to process if, how and when to kill this sacred cow".

Bingo. Speed is not your friend when killing sacred cows. Careful planning is. And good data is always a part of careful planning.

Tactic 3: Stories

I’ve found that one or two real stories that capture the issues at the heart of why you want to kill a sacred cow can be very helpful when communicating why you want to make changes.

Now, we need to be careful here that these stories are truly reflective of the data. One of my favorite sayings is:

The plural of anecdote is not evidence

In other words, just because Billy and Timmy don’t like Sunday school, it doesn’t mean that your entire church doesn’t like it. However, if Billy and Timmy’s stories reflect the data that you’ve collected, you might just have a compelling story that is worth sharing.

In our situation, there was a conversation that kept repeating itself and this conversation supported why we needed to change our ministry model — the one where we rotated between meeting all together and meeting in homes.

The conversation kept happening after our weekend services. A parent new to our church would come up to me after a service a say:

I’d like to get my son plugged into your student ministry

And I’d respond with:

Fantastic! Except, maybe not tonight because we are meeting in homes and I’d have to draw you a map, you don’t know the people but I assure you that they are safe... oh and it might be a little awkward for your kid to be at someone’s house they don’t know for a first experience. How about next week instead?

I hated this conversation and it kept revealing to me that our ministry model was a terrible front door for new families. This reoccurring conversation became a story I would tell skeptics to help them understand why we needed to kill this sacred cow.

Sometimes a few stories that reflect the data can help create momentum for your argument.

Tactic 4: SWOT

Here’s something I’ve learned as we’ve navigated change over the last few years:

Big changes usually come with unpredictable implications.

Maybe you’re smarter than me but I am always surprised by implications that I didn’t see coming. I’ve learned to mitigate these implications with a planning tool called SWOT.

We use this framework whenever we are contemplating a significant change in our ministry. Here’s what it is:

The first two, strengths and weaknesses are pretty obvious. If you’re considering killing a sacred cow, you probably already know most of the strengths and weaknesses of your idea.

In my opinion, it’s the last two that yield the most fruit.

By making this move, we will create certain opportunities, what are they?

And, as we make this move, certain threats will arise.

Here are a few typical threats:

  • People will feel that their desires were ignored
  • Some people will threaten to leave
  • If people leave then giving will drop
  • Tom Curmudgeon will probably call the board
  • Some people will be confused by the change

These are fairly drastic but I think you understand my point. It’s a great idea to pull a team together and do SWOT to gain a fuller picture of what could happen if you kill this sacred cow.

Tactic 5: Focus Groups

Pulling together a SWOT is a great idea. It will reveal most of the unforeseen implications of the change you are contemplating.

However, it will not reveal all of them.


Because a SWOT is usually made up of people from your team or your staff who share your vision.

I’ve found it helpful to add to the SWOT data by gathering a few focus groups. When you do this, gather people who will be directly affected by the change you are considering. Those who will experience the changes firsthand offer an important perspective.

A few years ago, I wanted to kill a sacred cow called Wednesday night. Are you familiar with this one?

I wanted to move our middle school ministry, which meets on Wednesday nights, to Sunday nights and run that program back-to-back with our high school program. I believed this would be a better model because of the myriad scheduling conflicts we were running into for students on Wednesday nights.

(Who are these Philistines scheduling robotics team meetings on Wednesday night?!?)

Our team ran a SWOT and we felt like we had a solid handle on what would happen and how people would react to the change.

Then, we pulled together three different focus groups: students, parents and volunteers.

In each focus group we pitched the idea and let them talk about it. In some cases we did this in person and in others we did it through email.

The more well-rounded data that we collected from the focus groups helped us to see that this sacred cow needed to stay put. We discovered implications that were not originally on our radar that we couldn’t solve. In this case, focus groups helped us make a wise decision and it wasn’t the decision I really wanted but sometimes there is wisdom in waiting or even surrendering to reality.

Wrap Up

You may have noticed that we are five tactics in and we haven’t changed anything.

Yes! You are correct.

Perspective is critical in making good and responsible decisions. Killing sacred cows is a tricky business.

The first five tactics are all about perspective and vision and the last five tactics are all about implementing the change.

Let’s be real, our brains are full. Let’s save the last five tactics for next time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on killing sacred cows. Maybe you have a great story...good or bad. We’d love to hear your stories and also your thoughts on these ideas. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Update 2/23/2018: You can find the second part of this post here: How to Kill a Sacred Cow at your Church (Part 2)

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