Greening Your Church:
Leadership & Action
Once a congregation has started to deal with many of the basic steps in getting started, Eco-Justice Ministries sees deeper levels of engagement in what we refer to as leadership and transformational churches. At these points, it is very important for churches to think theologically, and to stress that churches should be doing more than other community groups.
Leadership churches go beyond community standards and make intentional, values-based choices in environmental stewardship, issue advocacy, and moral witness. Environmental awareness and action are affirmed as important, ongoing themes in the life of the church, and are reflected in a wide array of church programs. A leadership church works within social and political structures to express its eco-justice commitments.
In leadership churches, the details of programming will be strongly shaped by the setting and style of the congregation. Some may focus on social action issues, where others may place a strong emphasis on personal or institutional behaviors, or exceptional building projects.
In a church working toward leadership & action|
THE CENTRAL PROBLEM TO ADDRESS: Ecological degradation and social injustice are present because the institutions of our society, including the church, are not living up to their promise. We need to make moral choices that go beyond current expectations and incentives, so that our institutions can function at their best.
THE PRIMARY GOALS: The church will claim a clear theological and ethical perspective, train strong leaders, move beyond community standards for resource efficiency, and engage in advocacy to impact the larger community.
THE PRIMARY STRATEGIES: The church will employ strategies that are familiar to congregations (developing ethical perspectives through worship and education) and to social activists (political advocacy and community organizing).
MOOD: Commitment, decisions, clarity and action can characterize a leadership church.
|Jump to sections on: Congregational leadership | Building issues | Church programs | Strategy | Examples | Resources|
There are lots of bullet points listed below --
You don't have to do them all, or do them all at once!
These are options to be considered and prioritized.
For a church to move beyond the "getting started" stage, it is essential that both clergy and laity be deeply committed and engaged. In a leadership church, there is a strong sense that the congregation as a whole shares these perspectives and commitments.
- Clergy might seek out continuing education or sabbatical opportunities dealing with environmental theology.
- Church members can attend workshops and conferences dealing with all aspects of greening in religious education, the church building, and for political advocacy.
- Green team members should nurture relationships with a wide variety of leaders in the church – both staff and volunteers. Keep them informed about your plans, interpret your work as part of the core ministry of the congregation, and thank them for any help that they give you.
- As you continue to develop programs and commitments, be sure that environmental concerns are recognized as "religious issues" by most people in the congregation. Leaders need to be consistent in highlighting the religious basis for programs dealing with public policy or technology.
Building and administration
Once a congregation has covered many of the basic steps of environmental responsibility, new choices are involved in going beyond community standards. Churches may choose to spend significant money or volunteer effort for the sake of a moral stance, or to advance the spread of technology.
- Push toward more extensive expressions of conservation and efficiency steps – a periodic evaluation of all computer equipment to be sure that energy-savings features are enabled, installing water-saving toilets, energy-efficient lighting in all possible fixtures, providing task lighting instead of using ceiling fixtures in offices, LED lights in exit signs, use of xeriscaping and native plants for water conservation.
- Set, and enforce, expectations for responsible behaviors -- turning off lights, computers and office equipment when not in use; recycling throughout the building (offices, kitchen, fellowship events); use of fans and natural ventilation instead of air conditioning. These expectations can be affirmed through comments from leaders during worship and educational programs, signs prompting behaviors at the point of use, notices in bulletins and newsletters, and through staff supervision.
- Explore major investments in energy conservation and efficiency, even if there is not a short-term financial payback. A comprehensive energy audit by a professional firm will identify areas where changes are prudent and reasonable. Some churches have replaced windows or added storm windows, overhauled or replaced heating and cooling systems, replaced light fixtures and added automated lighting controls, installed extensive insulation, or added solar panels. Visible and high-tech options like solar panels are exciting, but less dramatic options may have more of a practical impact. For a leadership church, the aspect of public witness is an appropriate consideration.
- Once basic forms of recycling are in place, consider offering recycling services for the church and neighborhood that are less common in the community (for batteries, electronic equipment, telephone books, etc.)
- Move toward the goal of "zero waste" with a reduction in any disposable goods, and a commitment to recycling or composting what is discarded. Using coffee mugs instead of disposable cups can be one expression of this commitment. (See the discussion of this topic in the congregational assessment.)
- Explore ways to reduce or eliminate paper use in church communications, such as emailed newsletters. Be sensitive to those in the congregation who may not have email, or who are less adept at those forms of communication.
- If your church is considering building renovation, or a new building, insist in the highest standards of energy efficiency and conservation. Design and orient the new buildings so that new technologies (such as solar panels) can be added easily, if it is not possible to do so in this stage of the project. Think about the environmental and energy realities of the world 40 years from now!
The frequent and substantial inclusion of eco-justice and creation care in worship is essential in building congregational awareness and commitment.
- Worship themes will often touch on some aspect of eco-justice theology and ethics. A careful development of broad spiritual and theological themes will support messages about specific environmental issues. Preaching will include a good mix of all "three layers of environmental preaching." Worship language will be intentional in phrasing such as "all creation" or "humans and the rest of creation", instead of language which accentuates a divide between humans and other-than-human.
- Prayers will reach beyond matters of the local congregation and member families to include global concerns, social and ecological issues, and a recognition that humans are a part of the web of life. Prayers will include confession for our participation in ecological damage and social injustice. Members can be invited to name prayer concerns, not only for "people in special need", but for the well-being of God's creation and for issues of concern.
- Hymns and anthems will highlight themes of God in creation, of stewardship and of justice. Music will be avoided which presents humanity as separate from the rest of creation, or as being granted unlimited dominion over creation.
- The worship space will draw church members into a sense of ecological and global connection, through banners, plants, and artwork.
- Special services will be explicit in making ecological connections: Earth Day, a Blessing of the Animals (include wildlife as well as pets!), Soil & Water Conservation Week, etc.
Educational programs are important ways to build awareness, commitment and action. Programs should address environmental themes from a variety of perspectives, and throughout the year.
- Start to move away from classes that survey a wide variety of theological and ethical positions, and start to cultivate a clear stance on environmental faith and ethics.
- The leadership stance is aware that the institutions of our society are not functioning in ways that lead to ecological or social health. Some classes should be explicit in examining the institutional issues and options -- the way the costs of pollution are not included in what we pay for fossil fuels, the role that "early adopters" play in developing new technologies and their markets, the abuses of creation and the lack of consumer options in corporate agriculture, etc. The church's leadership actions will offer corrections to some of these institutional failures.
- Go beyond one-hour "informational" classes, at least on occasion, and move toward more extensive offerings which will change attitudes and behaviors. Retreat settings and ongoing groups allow for deeper levels of intellectual, spiritual and moral engagement than short classes. A lenten series on an environmental theme reflects the spiritual importance of the topic.
- Take field trips to sites that will help build environmental interest and concern among members of the congregation. Go to see endangered species at the zoo, a community hard-hit by pollution, a restored and vibrant habitat, or a local green business -- and then process the learnings from the trip with an eye toward action.
- Study guides such as "The Low Carbon Diet" or the voluntary simplicity curricula from the Northwest Earth Institute are very effective in helping individuals and families develop environmentally responsible behaviors. These materials combine factual content, detailed action steps, and the reinforcement of a supportive class community.
- Work with local schools or environmental agencies to develop programs of ecological education that can develop scientific understandings of the web of life.
- Study political issues. A setting that fosters dialogue among people with different values and perspectives is a valuable educational – and community-building – tool. A church provides community leadership by highlighting critical issues, even if the church cannot present a unified position on them. A leadership church will also take clear stands for or against some issues.
- Learn about environmental justice issues in your community, with trips to impacted neighborhoods and conversations with community leaders. (Environmental justice addresses the disproportionate impacts of environmental problems on communities of color, and low-income communities.)
- Place informational articles in the church newsletter that highlight the church's environmental commitments and actions. As the church's awareness deepens, move into more substantial theological and scientific content.
The scale of today's environmental crises evokes strong emotional and psychological responses. Anger, fear, grief and hopelessness are pastoral concerns which must be addressed before people can face the demands of issue work.
- Referring to these emotional and spiritual responses during worship and education helps members identify their feelings, and gives permission to raise these issues in pastoral conversations.
- The church can offer prayers or rituals that address grief at the death of a pet, or the destruction of a natural place.
Advocacy and Public Issues
Even if advocacy is not the primary expression of a church's leadership, there should be some visible engagement with the most significant issues in the church's community, and on the national and international scene.
- Be selective in picking which of the many environmental issues to address. Be focused on a few where the congregation can become well informed and active. (Lifting up too many issues as matters of advocacy can lead to confusion and burnout. If leaders in the congregation are pushing to address lots of different issues, it may be time to look at the way a church doing transformational ministry addresses the deeper causes that underlie the many issues.)
- Engage in public witness on a few issues – join in protest events, testify at the legislature, write letters to the editor – and name how religious commitments are at the core of your stands. Public witness can take the form of direct advocacy for legislation, a ballot initiative or other public policy, or it can be a more general expression of concern calling the community to awareness and action on a neglected issue.
- If your church is a strong leader, reach out to other churches in your neighborhood or denomination to encourage them to join you in your environmental efforts. If you are just starting to grow into your leadership role, cooperate with the churches that already are providing leadership in this cause.
The general strategies for eco-justice leadership and action are familiar territory for most churches. They will have been used in many aspects of an effective church's programming: theological and spiritual development, education, building campaigns, and mission or advocacy.
Where a church that is "getting started" in the greening process will explore a range of theological perspectives, a leadership church will start to focus on a particular theological and ethical slant that expresses the church's values and goals. Depending on the church, this might center on responsible stewardship, creation spirituality, liberation theology, process theology, or other approaches. The foundational perspectives, affirmations and language of that approach will start to become familiar within the life of the church -- whether that refers to "a call to tend and keep God's garden" or "seeking justice for all creation."
As a matter of defining the faith stance of the congregation -- perhaps in concert with its denominational identity -- key elements of that theology should be expressed in worship on a regular basis. It will be very difficult for a church to provide leadership among its members and in the community if the theme is not addressed often in worship. Sermons, prayers, litanies, hymns, children's sermons and mission moments are all places where this theological style can be affirmed and nurtured. As the church grows into a leadership stance, it should never be surprising to members when this language is used. Eventually, most church members should be able to give fairly consistent answers if they are asked, "Why do we care about creation in this church?"
Educational programs will reinforce or build on the theological foundations. Some programs might deal with explicit biblical or theological topics. It is also essential that theology and ethics be applied to the study of specific issues, topics or behaviors (climate change, environmental racism, recycling or water issues). In a leadership church, these classes or programs should seek to do more than inform -- the course goals should include elements of commitment and action.
A leadership church can start to stress matters of environmental church policy. Staff and volunteers can be reminded that conservation behaviors are "the way we do things here." Signs at light switches, trash cans and sinks can prompt building users about expected behaviors. Church staff should be expected to follow policies about turning off office equipment, monitoring thermostats and ventilation, and the purchase of recycled or non-toxic products.
A leadership church takes action that goes beyond basic community standards, and that may involve some costs to the congregation -- financially, in volunteer time, or in public visibility. This action can take many forms: political advocacy or public witness, a significant investment in energy conservation (insulation, new furnace, solar panels), or a major educational initiative ("The Low Carbon Diet", studies in local ecology, or a series on issues related to corporate agriculture).
The actions of a leadership church will often draw on some of the insights and core strategies of community organizing.
- The issue being addressed will connect with the strong interests of the congregation -- perhaps having to do with the life of the congregation itself, with an immediate local issue, or connecting with an established mission emphasis.
- The action will address a well-defined problem. For a leadership church, that problem will often relate to some failure of the current economic or social system. "The price we pay for oil does not adequately reflect its environmental costs, so we will lobby for a carbon tax." "Renewable energy needs an expanded manufacturing structure and a trained pool of workers before it can become widespread, so we'll pay a premium price to install solar panels as part of our commitment to clean energy." "Old lead paint is more common in low-income housing, which causes educational problems for those kids, so we'll volunteer for a day of action to scrape and repaint in rental houses." Educational programs can explain the connection between social or economic systems and the particular action being taken.
- The action will be very focused and with clearly defined results. "Cut our church energy use by 30% through insulation, different lights and a new boiler, all funded by a capital campaign" instead of "We'll try to conserve energy next year." "We will call on the City Council to establish curbside recycling for all homes" instead of "We'll urge our neighbors to be more environmentally conscious."
A leadership church will spread the word about its commitments and actions. Church members will know what projects are underway -- for the building, in education, or in advocacy -- and why they are important to the church. Other churches in the community and denomination will know that the church is claiming this environmental commitment. Community leaders and decision-makers may start to be aware of the church's actions.
Programs: "Leadership and action" is the style of many environmental programs and intitiatives in the faith-based environmental movement. Two of our close colleagues in the cause excel in this style of programming.
- Interfaith Power and Light -- as an umbrella organization, and through its many state affiliates -- is tightly focused on the types of initiatives described in this section. As "a religiouis response to climate change", they call on congregtions to implement substantial energy conservation measures in their facilities, and to encourage members to do the same. They provide strong leadership on legislative issues related to climate and energy policy.
- Eco-Justice Program of the National Council of Churches -- Much of the work of the NCC Eco-Justice Program is in the issue-based "leadership and action" style. They have developed worship and study materials -- for Earth Day and for general use -- which provide education and action suggestions on a wide variety of eco-justice issues. They have provided leadership on legislative advocacy on topics ranging from climate change to public lands to environmental health.
Congregations: There are many congregations that can be lifted up as strong examples of churches doing leadership and action. The four listed here are Denver-area churches that Eco-Justice Ministries has recognized with our "Church Leadership Award" at our annual spring celebration in recent years. The descriptions of thier diverse actions are from the program books from those celebration events.
- Wild Rose Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Evergreen, Colorado (2007 award)
Pastor Ann Bolson describes this church as "a congregation that cares about the Earth." That characterization rings true across the range of the church's programming and ministry. Wild Rose has an environmental prominence in Evergreen that far outshines the modest size of its membership. For many years, the church has been a visible actor and leader in environmentally focused activities. They have coordinated a major annual electronics recycling event for four years, and are now working with the fire department on a hazardous waste collection. The church is one of four community organizations which provides staffing for the area recycling center. Members routinely have taken part in volunteer projects to remove invasive weeds and to build trails in open space areas. The church is a familiar presence at Evergreen's annual Earth Fair, selling fair trade coffee and distributing literature. Last fall, Wild Rose played a leading role in arranging a showing of An Inconvenient Truth for an ecumenical audience. Eco-justice is central to the internal programming of the congregation. Environmental issues are joined with a creation spirituality perspective as a continual theme in sermons and worship services. Adult education programs often deal with topics such as socially responsible investing and energy policies. Fair trade coffee and honey are offered for sale every Sunday. The church meets in the town's Senior Center, and affirms their lack of a building as an expression of financial and environmental stewardship. Members of the church speak about the inseparable connection that they feel between their environmental work and their involvement with other issues such as international peace and housing justice. Many members of the congregation carry those interests and commitments into their professional lives and volunteer work in the community.
- Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado (2008 award)
Montview is a congregation with a long history of community leadership around important issues of justice. Within the last few years, Montview has brought eco-justice perspectives into its circles of concern and action. In response to a deepening awareness of global environmental issues, especially global climate change, five different groups emerged within the congregation to address sustainability. Various groups took on energy use in the church building, outreach to members of the congregation about personal action, and educational programming. A large contingent from Montview took part in the 2007 Step It Up event. When the church developed its "2020 Strategic Plan", eco-justice and sustainability were listed among the seven priority areas. $500,000 has been designated in a pending fund drive for sustainability projects in the church building. Montview stands out for the number of people – clergy and lay – who are providing vibrant, dedicated and well-coordinated eco-justice leadership in the church and community.
- Harvey Park Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Denver, Colorado (2009 award)
Having already taken significant steps in the practical measures of "greening" their facilities, Harvey Park Christian Church is dedicating the 2009 calendar year to the theme of environmental stewardship. They have entered into an intentional program that will help members learn how to grow as good stewards of the environment, and they are continuing with sustainable and environmentally-enhancing processes as a church. Their efforts, involving a strong lay committee and the church staff, are reaching into the worship, education and fellowship programs of the congregation, along with attention to the church building and grounds. We celebrate the model that they are developing of programming that reaches into the whole life of the congregation. (Update: As part of their 2009 priority, the congregation was very visible and creative in their moral witness related to the 350.org international day of climate action, including outreach and education in the church neighborhood, ringing the church bells 350 times, and participation in community worship services and rallies.)
- Community United Church of Christ, Boulder, Colorado (2010 award)
CUCC has a long history of faithful attention to environmental issues and perspectives. Their Earth Action Team has worked to develop and express those commitments in educational programs, church action, and action beyond the church. Pastor Pete Terpenning reports that they "did all the initial things" indicated by an environmental audit (CFL lights, programmable thermostats, reusable and compostable tableware), have held educational series on "Simple Living" and "Our Place and Purpose in Creation", dealt with environmental themes in worship, and engaged their members in education and advocacy around many political issues. The church composts kitchen waste, and is working toward "zero waste" goals. In 2006-7, the church installed solar panels that are meeting all of their electrical needs. Peter Sawtell has preached and led adult classes at the church on several occasions; the congregation has participated in – and hosted – our Boulder area cluster meetings; CUCC joined with Eco-Justice Ministries by scheduling a "350 event" last October.
The vast majority of resources that are available for green churches are in the leadership and action style. They push beyond the basics, but don't usually deal with the full depth of transformative ministry.
We recommend the strong religious resources offered by our good colleages of Eco-Justice Program of the National Council of Churches, Interfaith Power and Light and the Web of Creation.
Almost any advocacy group with a focus on an environmental or environmental justice issue will be able to provide resources for information and advocacy on their selected topic.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 *
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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