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5 Signs It’s Time to Kill the Sacred Cow

5 Signs It’s Time to Kill the Sacred Cow
 

As summer comes to an end, youth pastors everywhere start thinking about the year ahead – recruiting more leaders, paging through small group curriculum, and staring at a blank Google calendar as you map out the big events of the upcoming year.

Chances are there might be a few sacred cows on that calendar – you know what I mean, those events that the youth group has always done and will always do until the second coming. Things that are fondly remembered by former teens and eagerly anticipated by the fifth graders who keep sneaking into the youth room to play foosball. Things that at one time were a great idea, but have recently seemed to become more frustrating than effective.

Maybe it’s…

  • A week-long Christian Woodstock away from parents
  • A short-term construction trip to Mexico that requires a 36 hour van ride just to get there.
  • An antiquated VBS for High Schoolers
Sometimes we inherit the sacred cow, sometimes we unknowingly create them, but eventually it’ll be our job to end them.

Shutting down a Sacred Cow is not an easy task – often causing controversy, conflict, or even outright mutiny, and perhaps that’s why they hang on for so long – we’re afraid of people’s reactions, we don’t want to take away something people love, we don’t want to be unpopular. But in the end, our responsibility is to faithfully lead as God directs us to fulfill His mission – and sometimes that means killing the Sacred Cow.

5 Signs it’s time to kill the Sacred Cow

1. When it doesn’t flow naturally from our Mission and Vision.

Every now and then, there’s something on the calendar that just doesn’t fit. It has nothing to do with your youth group’s mission and vision. It might be a fun activity, a memorable moment, but it doesn’t really do anything to further the mission. It’s a distraction, and worse, it might send the message that there are things that are “fun” and then other things that “God wants us to do.” If it doesn’t naturally flow from your central purpose, it might be a Sacred Cow.

If you haven’t spent much time with your mission or vision statement, break it out and use it as a filter for everything you do – from weekly meetings to special events.

2. When it’s not actually accomplishing what we say it’s accomplishing.

We might say that this Ski retreat is about growing closer to God but are students truly deepening their relationship with Him over that weekend? We might sell our Monday afternoon hangouts as outreach, but are students actually bringing their un-churched friends? I think often times its easier to say why we’re doing something ahead of time than it is to look back and honestly access whether it accomplished what we set out to do.

Side note: Perhaps the worst buzz phrase we use when it comes to Sacred Cows is “building community” as in we’re doing this event to “build community.” We’re going away on this trip to “build community”; we’re doing this all-night video game marathon to “build community”; we’re being pulled over by a cop for doing a Chinese fire drill on the way to Chuck-E-Cheese because we were “building community.”

What does it really mean to “build community?” What does it actually look like to be an embodiment of Christian community? If we can’t articulate that with some detail or if our students can’t explain it for themselves maybe one more “community building” event isn’t what they need.

3. When no one’s sure why we’re doing it.

I don’t know about you, but for me the scariest answer to “why are we doing this?” is “because it’s what we do.” There’s a danger when an event or program becomes disconnected from purpose. Even more dangerous when devoid of purpose, it manages to still carry deep emotional commitment from people. Confusion over the purpose of an event isn’t necessarily a nail in the coffin, but it does at least require some clarification and vision-casting.

It became a tradition for our students to serve the larger church at an annual mission’s dinner. Students would dress up and walk around with hors d’oeuvres for the night. There came a point where we struggled to articulate the larger purpose beyond simply helping out another ministry that needed volunteers. It could have been a moment to stop serving at the event, but instead we were able to step back and re-articulate the purpose – “our students would be a tangible blessing to others as they served along other Christians not directly involved in the youth ministry. They would be exposed to missionaries and their work on a more personal level. Morevoer, students would have greater visibility within the church reminding others of their valuable role within the community.”

If you’re students can’t connect it with a larger purpose,
they’ll struggle to find deeper meaning to their experience.

4. When it’s not effectively reaching these students where they’re at.

A few years ago, the church I was serving at was doing an amazing job reaching local teens through music. A number of our students were incredibly gifted musicians and had formed some fairly successful local bands. Our youth group became a major hub in the city for local bands and a lot of effective outreach took place through a number of coffee house and battle of the bands events. Fast forward a few years and things looked different. Coffee house attendance was dropping. It was harder to find bands to come in and play. We kept it up with less and less success.

The problem was… that wasn’t our scene anymore. The majority of our students were now playing sports, actively involved in school and club teams. They weren’t interested in coming to a chill coffeehouse and listening to hipster bands. They wanted to come together and hang out for a night playing ultimate Frisbee, making s’mores, and worshipping around a campfire. It was time to kill the battle of the bands, not because it was a bad idea, but because it wasn’t reaching this current group of students.

5. When killing it doesn’t seem like an option.

Perhaps the #1 sign it’s time to kill a sacred cow is when it doesn’t feel like an option to end the event or program, when it feels like it’s beyond your control. You’ve been tasked to lead the ministry, given the authority and responsibility to make strategic decisions, but this one thing is a non-negotiable. That should raise a few red flags, and make us stop to ask a few gut-level questions. What has this cow come to symbolize? What’s fueling devotion to it? What do people fear about losing it?

How to Kill the Sacred Cow

1. Plan ahead for a transition.

Don’t just wake up one morning and kill the cow. You’ll end up with more collateral damage than you could have ever imagined. Instead, plan ahead. Major ministry changes require time for transition. You’ll need to let time for people to appropriately grieve their felt-loss, understand your reasoning, and embrace something new.

You’ll want to communicate your plan with senior leadership first and then your core volunteers before sending out a letter to parents or posting it on Facebook. Planning ahead for transition will also let you think about what might be introduced in place of the Sacred Cow.

2. Win over your leaders.

Start by having a frank and honest talk with your leaders. Give them a clear explanation as to why you’ve made this decision and then invite them to share their thoughts. Explain the transition that will unfold and use this as an opportunity to remind them of the mission and vision. If you approach the meeting with a prayerful humility and transparency, you’ll be surprised at how receptive they can be. Remember, good youth volunteers are there because they love Jesus and they love teens, not because they love dodge ball tournaments.

Win them over to the idea and they’ll rally the troops. While you won’t be able to talk one-on-one with each of your students about the decision, they’ll have the opportunity to reach each of theirs. You want to make sure students are hearing the same underlying rationale from everyone.

3. Communicate the Mission.

When you begin communicating your decision with parents, students, church members, etc. always connect the decision with the mission and vision of your youth group and the church. People will always oppose losing something when it feels random, arbitrary, or personally motivated. But most people, when they can see the decision in light of God working in the lives of their students, will be much more receptive.

4. Give them something more.

In the end, killing a sacred cow is going to leave an empty spot. It will free up time and resources to do the work God intends for your community. But it’ll be important to remember, that as you take something away, you need to introduce something more on-point with the mission God’s entrusted to you all. Students will be more receptive to loss when they can see it in the larger context of an exciting work that God is beginning in their midst.

Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.
  1. Ben08-18-12

    Thanks for taking on this “always needed” subject. Sacred Cows can be so difficult to identify. Love is blind… especially the longer you serve in a particular ministry.