Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Work, Work, Work
distributed 8/20/04 & 2/8/08 - ©2004, 2008

The fact that I saved my physics textbook from high school is a good indicator that I was a genuine science geek. The fact that I'm about to quote from that old textbook to make a point about eco-justice programming in churches must say something significant about my current personality -- but I'm afraid to dig too deeply into those psychological details.

I really did have a great time with science in high school. Those first studies in biology shaped my early ecological understandings and fostered my respect for all forms of life. Along with a few close friends, I did have "phun with physics" -- especially playing with all the fun scientific equipment (expensive toys) in the physics storeroom.

So, yes, I was a well-known geek. The scientific principles that I studied seemed to fit very easily into my mental maps. I still remember the big theories and formulas that I learned 35 years ago -- and I still keep the physics book on my shelves at home.

But there was one idea from the physical sciences that didn't fit comfortably in my brain. It has to do with "work."

At its simplest, the formula to express how much work has been done is "W = F*D" -- work is equal to the amount of force that is applied, multiplied by the distance the object is moved. So far, so good.

But, by that formula, if the object never moves, no work is done -- no matter how much force is applied. Any measure of force, multiplied by zero, will always be zero.

I argued with the teachers. "But if I push as hard as I can on this wall for the next hour, I'm working hard!" The teachers responded that I would be exerting a lot of force, and I would get tired, but (by the technical definition), I would not be doing any work.

The textbook, on pages 301-2, addresses that specific question. A man, it says, "could also become exhausted by pulling on a heavy object that won't budge, but he will not thereby have done any work on it as defined in physical science. It is important not to let our subjective notions of activity, achievement, or fatigue become confused with this very different use of the word 'work.'"

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So what, pray tell, does this arcane and technical definition have to do with churches?

I see lots of churches where dedicated people put forth a great deal of effort in a noble cause, and "nothing moves" -- no "work" is done. Knowing full well that many of you will argue with the specifics (for human relations and church life are much harder to measure than the movement of a block of wood), let me provide two examples.

  • Lots of time and energy are put into the planning and leadership of the annual Earth Day service at Old First Church -- but no new "converts" are ever added to the environmental cause, and no new projects are spawned in the church or community as a result of the service. Lots of effort, but no movement.

  • For 3 years, the Social Action committee at St. Balaam's Cathedral has been talking to the Fellowship Committee about using china cups instead of disposable ones -- and they're still going back and forth with the same claims about "better for the environment" vs. "can't find anybody to wash them." Everybody is tired, but nothing has changed.
Granted, we can't always tell what the subtle and long-term effects of our efforts will be. In some way, in the long term, each of these examples might have accomplished something important. But you get the point that I'm trying to make.

Just like the technical definition in physics tells us, there's a difference between expending a lot of effort and accomplishing something measurable. The fact that we get tired in the doing of all our good and noble eco-justice projects does not mean that any "work" is getting done.

Offering a class, holding a community meeting, providing a worship experience, or debating a proposal are the ecclesiastical equivalent of pushing or pulling on a physical object. Doing those things is essential to any "work" getting done, but putting forth the effort doesn't produce any real "work" until something moves.

In all of our programming -- and I'm thinking about my own work at Eco-Justice Ministries, too -- it is essential that we measure not only the effort that we expend, but also the distance that we get things to move. We need to plan for the measurable results we are trying to achieve. We should evaluate our work by how far things have moved.

It is OK to say, "we pushed and pushed, and found out that the policy on coffee cups won't move" -- and then shift to another project. It is not as helpful to insist that work is being done on the coffee cup problem when no policies are changed and no new tactics are being tried. Lots of effort, with no movement, still doesn't produce any "work."

Finally, two brief technical notes on this already over-extended analogy:

  1. In a church and societal setting, increasing awareness and shifting consciousness are legitimate forms of movement -- if that is what you really mean to be doing. But pointing to awareness when you meant to change policy is fudging the results.

  2. A very small movement of a very heavy object does demonstrate a lot of "work." Getting the elders at St. Inertia to agree to recycling baskets in the narthex for the Sunday bulletin may be a major accomplishment.
May all of your hard and committed efforts, my friends, produce real work.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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