Burying the Sacred Cows
By Rev. Evan Jones
In my first church as a youth minister, I created an event called “Jell-O Olympics.” This was in a downtown congregation, and we didn’t have a big outdoor area to play. I covered the twenty-foot walls in plastic, taped down a thousand square feet of plastic to the floor, and made six hundred pounds of Jell-O —every year for four years. I loved it. The students loved it. We even had custom-made medals for the winners.
Then I left the church, and the next youth minister inherited this sacred cow – for which she had no history or passion. And every year I saw posts on social media about it, I sent her an apology message. She couldn’t stop doing this event, and I still carry around the guilt of that sacred cow. I have inherited sacred cows too . . . and usually, they are nearly impossible to end.
How Do You Know it’s a Sacred Cow?
Usually, you will hear about it in your first week on the job (or worse, in your interview!). It is usually shrouded in “we always do (fill in the blank)” and usually has a loyal following from the adult volunteers. If even thinking about changing it invokes strong reactions, it’s a sacred cow!
Five Steps to Burying It
If your program has a sacred cow that doesn’t align with the vision and direction of your ministry, there are some ways to ease the pain of change . . . proceed with caution. The field of youth ministry has plenty of “former” youth ministers who are now “former” because they tried to rid the ministry of a sacred cow!
First, don’t rush! It will take some time to build trust, install leadership that supports you, and build relationships with culture shapers. This can be called “building relational capital.” Thinking about this like a bank account, you invest time in relationships and build up equity and trust over time. You can then make withdrawals (make hard changes like axing a sacred cow) and not have your relationship-bank account balance go negative. Go fast in any change, and you almost always go alone.
Second, lead with questions, not opinions. Take some time to listen, to understand why it’s important and how it has brought value and meaning. Frame questions in an open-ended way, especially when discussing with those most invested in the sacred cow. Avoid leading questions that might be received as judgmental, if possible.
Third, set some parameters for the vision of the program. Invite some key leaders (adults and students) on a retreat to explore your ministry’s mission, vision, and strategies. Your MISSION is WHY your ministry exists in the first place. Your VISION is what you expect to create/produce. Your STRATEGIES are HOW you will make your vision into reality. Then you can begin to evaluate what you are doing through that lens. Sometimes, it will be clear that the sacred cow no longer fits with the “why” of the program. This allows leaders the opportunity to reach the conclusion on their own and take some “blame” off the youth leader. Alignment among leaders will be your most influential piece.
Fourth, it is important to be transparent in your intentions. Talk about why you don’t think it brings value. There is no reason to be sneaky – hoping no one will notice. Try something like, “We are going to do something else in its place, and here is why . . .” The why can’t be, “because I said so,” either. Take some time to craft a case for a replacement or alternative. Communicate that alternative in ways that match your mission and your vision.
Finally, consider having a funeral . . . gather to talk about the memories that the sacred cow has brought. Offering a place and space to talk about change can be formational in shaping a young person. Change is hard and navigating it with adolescents is a difficult task. Show them there is a way to handle change in a healthy way by talking about it.
The sacred cows that you have inherited (or created?!?) can serve a purpose for a season. Recognizing the time and season of everything is an important step in the life cycle of a youth ministry program.