Tipping Your Church’s Sacred Cows While Avoiding Cow Pies

Tipping Your Church’s Sacred Cows While Avoiding Cow Pies March 28, 2024

Cow tipping at church can be fun. Here’s how to tip sacred cows while avoiding the messy repercussions of stepping in cow pies. 

Man in cow field, stepping in cow pies
AI Image created by Gregory T. Smith, on mage.space

 Sacred cow” is a fascinating term appropriated from Hindu custom.  If you travel to India, you will find places where cattle roam freely in the streets. Because many Hindus consider cows to be holy, of course, they abstain from eating beef. But in some places, cows wander at will, obstruct traffic, and leave their excrement everywhere.

The Brittanica Dictionary defines a sacred cow as, “someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question.”  And every church has at least one.


My First Sacred Cow

At the first church where I served as pastor, the sacred cow was an antique Communion set. Members said it was the original one belonging to the two-hundred-year-old congregation. The set was beautiful but, never used anymore, and the church kept it in a glass display case. Unfortunately, the church chose to place it in the worst possible location, beside the main door to the side of the chancel that was the most highly traveled passage in the building. I can’t tell you how often I saw that case bumped and abused, and people nearly injured by crashing into its corners. Moreover, that spot would have been the best location for the occasional display to highlight areas of active ministry.

I was a young pastor who had no idea I was stepping on a sacred cow pie. I moved the Communion set to a different, and equally prominent position in the sanctuary. You would have thought I had broken the glass case, desecrated the Communion set, and set the building on fire. My name was Mud for the rest of the time I served at that church.


How to Lasso Sacred Cows

From that experience, I learned four tricks to lassoing a church’s sacred cows.

  1. Accept that every church has at least one.

Your church’s sacred cow might be an object within the church building or on its grounds. It could be a person in the church who is so honored that you can never disagree with them. In my congregations, sacred cows have been the American flag, the church patriarch or matriarch, an immutable annual event, or a dusty room within the church building. But no church that had any age on it is without its sacred cow. Pastor, beware, lest you step in that cow pie and make a huge mess!


  1. Listen to the people who warn you about the sacred cows.

Once, I opposed the installation of a flagpole in front of the sanctuary. This was partially on the grounds of separation of Church and state. But it was also because I thought it better for the flag to preside over the distinguished veteran graves in our church’s cemetery.

A kind church member warned me that, while they agreed with me, this was not a hill to die on. They knew that the flagpole was a sacred cow, and they loved me enough to caution me to avoid tiptoeing through this cow pasture. I took that advice and planned a ceremony dedicating the new flagpole to our service members. Sometimes, you must realize that some cows are too heavy to tip.


  1. Be aware that sometimes people reveal themselves as sacred cows.

Shortly after I moved to one church, a deacon invited me to his home. I sat in his living room as he told me what the last pastor did to get on his bad side. He concluded with the zinger—how he convinced the church to vote that pastor out. He was saying, “I’m the sacred cow. Don’t mess with me.”

I decided the best approach was to neither openly oppose him, nor give in to his emotional tirades, which were frequent in deacon meetings. Soon, his cow patties made so much of a mess that the other deacons grew tired of his antics. Within a year, he removed himself from the board, not because anybody forced him out, but because people stopped giving him power.


  1. Sometimes you must not only tip the sacred cow but identify it as the golden calf that it is.

One church I served had a broken organ that remained in the sanctuary for years, collecting dust and taking up space. Even before I accepted the call to serve that church, members told me the story of that organ. A decade or so before, the church had decided to form a youth band. The band removed the never-used instrument and replaced it with a drum set.

A few prominent and vocal parishioners didn’t like the younger people’s style. So, they complained about how loud the drums were. Eventually, after enough objections, the church disbanded the youth band. Soon, the useless organ returned to its “rightful” place of honor in the sanctuary. (Incidentally, this scenario so upset the young drummer that he left the church, and hasn’t returned to this day.)

Ten years later, the organ remained there, unused. When I came to the church, people warned me not to disturb this sacred cow. However, I determined that some sacred cows you can operate around, but others you must tip over. This organ, now irreparably damaged by mice, became a symbol of the old guard’s staunch refusal to allow younger people to participate in the service. It represented stoicism that squashed young people’s dreams and made them feel unwelcome.

As such, I knew that the organ had to go. Before I left that congregation, I made it my mission to encourage them to do away with the broken instrument that was no more than furniture. This they finally did—with an incredible amount of effort. Still, with a little faith, you can move a mountain, or an organ, or a sacred cow.


Sacred Cow, Golden Calf

Even though the term “sacred cow” comes from Hinduism, it reminds many of the biblical story of the golden calf.  Moses went up to Mount Horeb to receive the Ten Commandments. Fearful that he might not return, some Israelites in the valley fashioned a metal cattle-god for themselves. Upon returning, Moses saw what they had done, and destroyed it—along with those who committed idolatry. It seems obvious to Christian readers that the Israelite apostates were wrong to replace the Creator God with such an idol. Yet, church members frequently do so when they exalt symbols and traditions over the Almighty whom they claim to serve. Or, when they allow their traditions to become obstacles that block people from experiencing the joy and grace of Jesus.


Sacred Cows in Diverse Shapes

Over the years, I’ve seen sacred cows in diverse shapes. Some took the shapes of Bibles, like one giant tome under glass, which no one could move from its place of honor in the sanctuary. Or like when somebody told me that my sermons weren’t “biblical” because I read from an electronic Bible instead of one made of paper and leather. I’ve seen golden calves in the shape of political figures, where folks worshipped a President whose policies and personality flew in the face of the teachings and spirit of Jesus

I’ve seen idols that looked like symbols of patriotism, with such prominence that they became the object of worship. I’ve watched as Christians made gods out of certain rooms in the building, enshrining the past rather than making space for the young, who are the present and future of the Church. Some sacred cows you learn to work around. But others you have to lead out of the pasture. Knowing the difference takes practice, perception, and prayer.


Identifying the Sacred Cows

If you’re a church leader, I pray that you’ll have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For all church members, I hope you’ll help your pastor identify sacred cows in the church. Not as someone who seeks to control, but as an ally who wants to warn where the cow pies might be. You can be a friend who collaborates with your pastor, to help them lasso the sacred cows. Because, while traditions in church can be good, they can also become substitutes for God. And the cow pies they leave in the field can drive away the very people who are there to seek God.



For related reading, check out my other articles:

About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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