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.
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.
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.
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.
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?