Five Steps to Get Beyond Sacred Cows in the Church

Many years ago I was serving as pastor of a church where I was an avid supporter of door-to-door outreach. But I struggled with leading people to be involved in the ministry. We kept decent records, so I got the old “outreach cards” for the previous year. My brief research shocked me.

I estimated that we had invested nearly 1,500 hours of our members’ time in this ministry during the past year. The apparent result of our ministry had resulted in, at best, two Christian families joining our church. If you assume a workday of eight hours, our members had worked 187 full days with no evangelistic fruit.

The Encounter

When I presented my research to a leader in the church and suggested we look at other alternatives, he raised his voice almost to a scream: “But we have always done it that way. And ten years ago we saw dozens of people become Christians through this ministry every year. We’re not about to change!” When I asked what we should do about the 1,500 hours of apparently fruitless ministry, he said we should try to increase the number to 3,000 hours.

The Memory

Don’t get me wrong. Your church may have great success in door-to-door outreach. My purpose in writing this article is not to pass judgment on a methodology. My purpose is to ask the question: Are organizational memories, commonly known as sacred cows, hindering our effectiveness for the gospel?

In my church there were great memories of this method of outreach. The thought of looking to other more effective alternatives almost seemed to violate some sacred principle. Interestingly, some of the most vociferous opponents of change were those who no longer participated in the ministry.

The Honesty

Fortunately, we were able to get beyond the emotions to have an honest and frank discussion about the ministry. I brought together leaders from both sides of the issue. We discovered two main reasons our ministry was running into roadblocks that it did not have ten years earlier. First, many of the neighborhoods had transitioned from Deep South transplants to Northern transplants. The latter group was not culturally acclimated to people “just dropping by.” Second, about one-third of the residents were in gated communities, a significant increase from ten years earlier.

We came away from that meeting with a few changes that kept us outwardly focused without the frustration of the old methodology. The critics did not disappear immediately, but we were able to deal with them without major disruption.

The Principles

Organizational memory in our church had the potential of hindering our gospel effectiveness. The initial frustrated response to the problem was to double our ineffective efforts from 1,500 hours a year to 3,000 hours. But we did move beyond this issue. The changes were not without pain though. Here are the five steps we took to move beyond organizational memory.

  1. We involved key leaders on both sides of the issue. Several people had emotional ties to our ministry. It was good for those on each side of this issue to hear the other perspective.
  2. We asked if we could accomplish our goals with more effective means. Even some of the greatest detractors recognized that the means had become an end. We concluded that our true goal was not to maintain a program, but to share the gospel and our church with our neighbors.
  3. We paired leaders from opposite sides for an hour to present possible alternatives. This exercise was immensely valuable. It got all of us thinking about the true goal rather than the preservation of an ineffective program.
  4. We left with an intentional decision to move forward with two pilot ministries. We declared neither new ministry to be sacrosanct, but decided to test them for a predetermined period of six months. We also agreed to return as a group in six months to evaluate our progress or lack of progress.
  5. We recognized as a group that we would still have critics for eliminating the old ministry. Our goal was not to eliminate criticism, but to minimize it and to deal with the critics in a Christ-like manner.

On the one hand, I would evaluate our process as a success. We were able to deal effectively with the sacred cow that was hindering our progress. On the other hand, our replacement ministries were only slightly more effective than their predecessor ministry. At the end of six months, some were wondering if we made a mistake by doing away with the old ministry.

Leading a church to change is rarely a smooth road. It is often three steps forward and two steps backward. But the process we took became very helpful in my leadership in future churches and other organizations.

How do you deal with sacred cows in your church? What have been some of your victories? What have been some of your struggles?

Pastor to Pastor is the Saturday blog series at Pastors and staff, if we can help in any way, contact Steve Drake, our director of pastoral relations, at We also welcome contacts from laypersons in churches asking questions about pastors, churches, or the pastor search process.


  1. Steve Drake says

    Thom, the great thing about the sacred cow you discuss above is that moving to a new model had the hope of directly increasing conversions. The cow I have struggled with in recent years has been the traditional vs contemporary worship models. Critics in those struggles allege the pastor is capitulating to modern secular lifestyles and do not readily see the Kingdom goal of attempting to reach a target audience for Christ. That struggle seems to be abating somewhat now, but I think it remains in many ministries.

  2. says

    A simple perspective is that sacred cows are a part of the culture of the church, which means engaging in a process of defining values relative to why people value cows that are dated and ineffective. Therefore, one approach to changing strongly held values is to engage people in a process of understanding what is valued and why. Facts count very little when dealing with how people feel about the cow. As a result, person centered approaches to sacred cows can be effective when those engaged in a discussion are valued as individuals who may have strong feeling and beliefs about their cows, even if they are not valid. Further, changing cows requires understanding that culture change is a process. Obviously, the benefit of doing something differently must be owned by the guardians of the cows to create change. As a result, when people can be led through a successful experience with a visible, measurable outcome– seeing the results, beliefs passion occurs, values shift, and organizational culture can experience change. From this perspective there needs to be a shift away from diagnosing problems to engaging people in a process to create the possibility for a potential shift in what is valued in the organizational culture of the church. This my experience and offered for consideration.

  3. Don Matthews says

    The keys to dealing with sacred cows are timing, communications, vision and diplomacy. I learned this from doing it the wrong way. Experience is a wise teacher. The problem with sacred cows is that most of the time the cows are people. That is to say often times it becomes personal. The key is to recognize the contribution of the old cow. There has to be a demonstration of the new cow. Finally there must be an application of the process. The new cows will become a sacred cows unless there is a constant application of evaluation and assessment in terms of the vision of the church.

  4. says

    Great Post, Dr. Rainer.

    Would you mind sharing what method you used to replace that ministry? I pastor a church in Florida and am currently struggling with the current state of our door-to-door ministry.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Tom –

      We moved to a highly intentional model of inviting. Each adult Sunday school class and small group committed to speak in person or by phone to a certain number of persons each week. We tracked the invitations for both accountability and effectiveness. We then focused on a more blitz-like invitation at specific seasons like Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July.

      We did see improved results of about 15% more guests and conversions in six months. While that number is not bad, we were praying for a 50% increase in both categories.

  5. jonathon says

    >If you assume a workday of eight hours, our members had worked 187 full days with no evangelistic fruit.

    In your research, did you look at the data provided by _The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, _The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society_, and _Seventh Day Adventist Church_ on the hours, and types of their outreach methods?

      • jonathon says

        >Just looked at my own church.

        The other datapoint to look at, is how many converts are active members of the congregation five years down the line, and ten years down the line.

        All three organisations I listed, consider retention to be a bigger issue than outreach/conversion.

        The group with the highest number of converts also loses the most converts, and the most people doing outreach. Something to consider when designing outreach programs.

  6. Phillip D. Wilson says


    I’ve actually preached about these sacred cows. Like the ones in India, the church’s sacred cows:
    – impede the flow of traffic,
    – eat up resources,
    – leave a mess for others to clean up .
    It it hard to break the cycle, and there are spiritual as well as emotional forces at work to leave these distractions in place. But if they take the focus away from Christ, they are hamburger.

  7. says

    Great points and totally understand, too, the cultural difference. Up north, the only way to effectively knock on doors and engage in real conversations is to sell girl scout cookies!

  8. Ron says

    Is LeaderCare defunct? What do we have as a convention to help and minister to the wounded and suffering pastors WHO TRIED with all their might, relying on God, to address sacred cows… and were wounded or terminated for their efforts? These guys now have a scarlet “T” on thier forehead. I believe Is 58:6-11 applies, as does Mt 25:34-40 and most of all Pr 24:11-2. Could/would God honor Is 58:8-11 for the SBC?

    The SBC is GREAT at missions, publishing, and many other things. So I can’t help but believe there are people of wisdom, experience, power, passion, and yes… money who can do ministry for the under-shepherds that are suffering in silence. Those who are hurting because of mistakes and/or who found themselves in a meat grinder that are being forgotten…

    Just wondering… and praying…

  9. says

    A sacred cow I need to kill in our ministry is the ‘bus ministry.’ Bus routes in our area no longer seem to be viable means of discipleship. When I asked if anyone could think of a single bus rider that became an adult member of the church–many did not understand the point of the question? Real IFB have always run bus routes. You can be a IFB church and not run a bus route can you? How many sacred cows are there? O’ how we will have to account for these cows that we will not slain!


    • Sueli Zuppann says

      Love these subject. Observing the bus ministry from a Baptist church here in Florida. On Saturday morning they drive the bus from hotel to hotel were dislocated families are living for a short term. And gather all the children from these hotels and take them to church and have the KIDS CHURCH service. I happen to be driving by the root on Saturdays because it is my route to go to work. I’ve seen the children excited, running around the street corners to see if the KID’S CHURCH BUS is arriving or not. What a great idea and what a great use of this church transportation. By reaching out to those children that are at risk and that are homeless. The KIDS CHURCH BUS is one of the best and out of box models for ministry lately. I guess they got the cowls out of the bus and changed routes. Pr. Sueli Zuppann

    • Bob says

      Sean, I’m a IFB as well. I know what you are talking about, we have had a bus ministry continuously for 50 years in our community, most all the other churches have not run buses for years, however, there is a come back now everyone is buying and driving vans all over the community. This is a ministry I believe just needs to be restructured, by getting rid of traditional buses and running vans, because you don’t have to stress out trying to have CDL drivers if you have less than a 15 passenger van.

  10. says

    I absolutely agree with this article. We continue to do door-to-door outreach, but I am learning that getting a chance to have a conversation with someone is a rarity. I have also learned that over the past five years we have not seen much fruit from door-to-door outreach. My purpose for door-to-door has changed over the past few years. I sole motive behind our door-to-door outreach is to place the Gospel within every home in our community. We are currently working on a CD and DVD that we can place in door hangers that can effectively present the Gospel as well as present the ministry of our Church. I desire to see our Church grow and I will say that when we obey the Great Commission we have seen God honor our obedience. I have found the involvement for our outreach days increase because people don’t have to knock on a door they just have to hang something on the door. Would you mind elaborating on the two “pilot” ministries that your Church implemented? Would you mind offering some insight or suggestions to other means of outreach that you have seen to be inexpensive as well as effective in taking people from the community to the core? Thank you for all you do!

  11. says

    The way I was led to deal with the sacred cow, which was a former pastor and his family controlling every leadership position in the church, was to bring light to it during a Sunday morning service. No one could say I was doing something behind their back because I talked about it in the open. When light was shed upon darkness, in this instance, darkness fled. We are now carefully and prayerfully going about restructuring our leadership team.

  12. Dale Porter says

    With the blog on “Sacred Cows” I would lke as Dan did the answer to the 2 pilot ministries that were used. I didn’ see a response to that question!!!!

  13. Thom Rainer says

    Dan and Mark –

    I did expand upon the two trial ministries in my response to Tom Estes. Thanks.

  14. Rick Lane says

    In South ga. where I live the “Sacred Cow” mind set has all but destroyed most of the SB Churches.However the thing that bothers me most, is that out of fifteen SB Churches there are not five soul winners in the entire county.Other than a few Pastors I don’t know “any” real soul winners and that is why souls are not being saved and churches are dying.

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