5 ways to know it’s time to kill the sacred cow

Every ministry has at least one sacred cow.

It’s the event on the calendar that is anchored to it’s date into the very fabric of time, impossibly rooted, invulnerable to the winds of change. It simply will not go away. And unless you started the event, you probably hate it. Even if it happens to be a genuinely valuable ministry effort that does great good in your community. If you didn’t start it, your involvement in it generally resonates with your failure to do it as well as all those that came before. The good days of youth ministry, before you were here. Oh well. At least we still have this event.

Not every sacred cow needs to be ground up into change-burgers. But many do. So here’s five ways to know that it’s time.

1. Everyone knows when the event is and what needs to be done, but no one is signed up to help.

Classic sign that the cow is beginning to totter. At some point in the life of any event, those that cared the most have moved on. Or passed on, if the event is old enough. What’s left is a general sense of expectation, which is very different than execution. Everybody wants it to happen, nobody wants to help make it happen. This is actually a wonderful condition for a sacred cow event to be in; reality will eventually set in. It may take one last horrific and miserable attempt at doing it, but enough people being forced into doing a thing they don’t really believe in really greases the wheels for getting it off of the calendar next year.

2. More than a third of participants in the event attend only that event.

This is also known as Godisonlyatcamp syndrome. A raging belief among participants that this event is the place where they’ll meet God each year, and only this place. But we’re Methodists; we’re journey people, not event people. These kids are often the really busy ones. You won’t see them at church. Ever. Their names are hard to remember. Eventually mom (she doesn’t come to church either) will email to remind you that little George is so excited about Event X and how his sister always loved it too before him.

When this event hits more than a third of this kind of kid, you’re at a weird tipping point. You’re likely injecting a substantial percentage of budget into the event. At what point are you losing return on that investment? Don’t make that decision alone, but make it. A cow in this condition is very, very difficult to kill because so many of the families involved base their entire evaluation of your ministry on this single event. Taking it away (in their eyes) is like completely erasing the youth ministry of the church. Not fair, of course. But you can bet these are opinionated people too.

3. No one involved in the planning/execution of this year’s reenactment can remember when/why it started.

“But we’ve always made pancakes the night before the 5th Sunday in ordinary time.” It’s hard to remember in the face of tradition, but “we’ve always” is second only to “I guess if it’s between that and a frontal lobotomy” on the list of miserable reasons to do a thing. Tradition shouldn’t exist for the sake of tradition. Every event on your calendar should come under critical review from time to time. Why are we doing this event? Is it still viable, effective ministry? What are your bench marks for ministerial success in an event? If you don’t know them, you and your leadership are cruising for a pasture full of sacred cows. Best get busy making hay.

4. There’s more conversation about how good previous versions of this event were than how good this year’s is.

I’m not poo-pooing the idea of reminiscing; those were good times you’re remembering. I’m just against eventuality of your most recent good-time memory being more than two or three years ago. I sat with another youth leader in my conference a few weeks ago and we got talking about an event that we attended a couple of times a few years ago. (I’d name it, but it may or may not have been a conference event.) Her group had attended it for years before we went. Our group went one year and was largely responsible for the content of the event. We returned the next year and our leadership came away nonplussed. So it came off the calendar. My friend’s group still attends, but in our conversation it became clear that the last “good year” of the event had been four years ago. So why were they still going? Because we always go to that. I’m a loyalist, a devoted returning customer, a big believer in relationships, particularly in the arena of ministry and ministry events. But seriously. Sometimes you need to introduce your group to new cows.

5. The event is firmly attached to something else that you have a strong philosophical disagreement with.

That’s not a soapbox statement. It could be that you have a real theological issue with an event. That’s happened to me at least 3 times in ministry. Sometimes there’s an easy way out of those, and sometimes it’s a struggle. Especially in my southeastern context, our “open minds” can make it difficult to stick to Wesleyan principles. There’s a solid percentage of southern Methodist that are Baptists that are cool with women in leadership. Or that wanted to drink beer while they fish. Beyond theological challenges, it’s OK if you have a strong philosophical disagreement with, say, Gatlinburg, TN. (It’s a tourist trap hell-hole that is an affront to the national forest against which it sits.) Or maybe you have a problem with a continual argument about what an appropriate bathing suit is. Or maybe you don’t think your youth should snow ski in their underwear. There are valid arguments to be made at times for bagging perfectly legitimate events because their context sucks.


None of that, of course, tells you how to kill the sacred cow. But hopefully this gives you 5 entry points into conversation with your leadership about your event(s). Because you sure don’t want to get all in a boil and go off and try to kill the sacred cow on your own. The villagers will amass. They will defend the cow, and you will lose. Play smarter, not harder.


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