By Brian Boyles
As a young pastor, I was eager to take on my new ministry assignment and blaze trails for God’s kingdom. I’ve been in churches where I’ve had autonomy to do that. And there have been others where I’ve felt hindered because it meant opposing beloved traditions.
Now in my 40s, I realize I have (Lord willing) many years of ministry ahead. But that also means I’ve become acquainted with commonplace “sacred cows”—idols that have become so ingrained in the culture of a congregation, many can’t remember why they exist or make the case to continue them.
I can identify and describe a few of these sacred cows. But I can also offer some ways to wisely relocate these “cows”— by either moving them to their proper place or moving them out altogether.
1. Relics and buildings
For some churches, it’s a preferred translation of the Bible. For others, it’s a landmark steeple that has been a mainstay in the town’s skyline for decades. Some might have a long-standing painting in the baptistery—hand-painted by one of the charter members.
For a church where I formerly served, one of them was a chapel space that had barely been used. When some of us realized our campus lacked space for children’s activities, there was a recommendation we convert the unused chapel into a kids’ ministry area.
Many embraced the idea. Others reacted as though we compromised the gospel itself by even suggesting such.
In cases like this, these physical sacred cows have become stumbling blocks instead of the service tools they were intended to be.
In many cases church members will cling to a time they served, learned, worshipped, and ministered under a former pastor—especially if he was the founder of the church.
Other times, there are programs that have long since run their course and something new needs to replace them. Yet they stay, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
Or perhaps an annual event is no longer relevant, but no one is willing—or able—to acknowledge it.
Instead of having a constantly renewed vision to engage the community with the gospel and make disciples, some congregations feed the sacred cow of tradition.
Especially when we’ve poured ourselves into building ministries and legacies, it’s easy to think our way is the best way. Or that our program is the best one. Or that no other church in town can top our worship music.
The sacred cow of elitism makes other churches the competition. This is particularly damaging, because the church—a body made up of everyone who has believed in Jesus for salvation—is the bride of Christ. And when we see our particular congregation as superior to another, it’s an affront to God Himself.
4. The family (or families) who call the shots
Lots of churches have these. Chances are, your church does. A group of people—or even a family of long-time attenders—seems to constantly wrestle for control and authority.
In these situations, pastors and church leaders feel bullied into making decisions that aren’t in line with how they feel God is directing them to lead. They can’t seem to make any decisions until they have the approval of that particular family or group of people.
This is damaging, because it causes division in the church and prevents the pastor and other leaders from listening to God.
How to (wisely) corral the cows
When these sacred cows have been in place at your church longer than you have, it’s tempting to enter a season of ministry with guns blazing, eager to make changes. Some changes need to be made definitively and swiftly. Others require more care.
Here are some ways to wisely corral these sacred cows without ruffling the feathers of those who have come before you. You may even find you don’t need to make a change—you might just need to adjust your mindset after considering these.
Be respectful. I’m quite passionate about this point, because I have gotten this wrong. Some church members have invested decades of their lives into a church. They’ve been around to see different phases of church life many pastors haven’t.
Respect is important—not only because these people might be decades older than the leader but also because they sometimes have reasons for the things they do. Seek to understand those reasons before you make changes.
Understand the history. I recommend focusing on the initial vision and purpose of a church.
Several families in my church, just outside Atlanta, Georgia, are on a historical committee. Some of these families have been here 50 years or more. They chronicle major decisions and keep photos from the past.
But they aren’t looking in the rearview mirror; they’re looking through the windshield, with our church history as a map to where we’re headed. As one member said to me, “If we don’t remember the past and what we went through, we may lose sight of where God is leading us.”
I recently learned about a newspaper article from the late 1800s that described the reason my church was planted more than 130 years ago. It was placed where it is because at the time, the street was peppered with bars and saloons. Many of the local men were going from bar to bar, getting drunk, and bankrupting their families.
There was a vision to plant the church right in the middle of that activity to reach these men for Christ.
As I lead my church, and even make some changes, I want to stay consistent with the original purpose of our church—meeting people where they are, literally and figuratively.
Be patient. In my experience and observation, young pastors make rapid changes, upset the congregation—and sometimes get fired.
Often, they see a pastor with decades of experience under his belt who has made major, positive changes in a church.
And then they try to replicate in 20 weeks what the veteran pastor did over 20 years.
Their heroes of the faith—who have done incredible things, by the way—have been in ministry for decades. They’ve built the relationships with long-time members. They’ve earned the trust of those they lead.
And they gradually effected change.
The younger or newer pastor doesn’t have the history to have built the trust and respect. He hasn’t done dozens of funerals or paid hundreds of hospital visits.
If you are not a seasoned pastor (meaning, you have been with your congregation for fewer than five years), don’t try to push change with guns blazing. I did, and it backfired.
Make small changes, slowly.
Pray for other churches. When we individually and corporately pray for other congregations, we’re not only asking God to move on their behalf—we’re reminding ourselves of the bigger picture, change or no change.
When I started my ministry at my current church, I began praying most Sundays for other churches in the area—from the pulpit. That often means churches of other denominations, theological leanings, or worship styles. And before I preach I’ll pray for their pastor by name.
This has had a tremendous impact on our congregation (and hopefully, those churches and our city). It gives them a more outward view—we’re not the church in the area, but a church.
This practice particularly helps to kill the sacred cow of elitism. It helps our congregation march forward with the bigger picture in mind—seeing other local churches as partners in the Great Commission.
Brian is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga.