Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Bright Ideas
distributed 1/25/08 - ©2008

When I'm meeting with church groups about how to make good and faithful environmental choices, I'll often use a teaching strategy that catches folk off guard.

The typical setting is a church classroom or fellowship hall on a Sunday morning. Ten or twenty people are gathered together to talk about ways of living more gently on Earth. We're talking about the practical steps of installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, turning down the thermostat, and other basic strategies for saving energy. Our discussion covers things that can be done both at home and around the church.

Eventually, somebody will ask a question along the lines of, "We've already done most of those things here. What else can we do?" That's when I smile, and say "What about this?" I walk to the door, and turn off the banks of fluorescent lights illuminating the room.

Click! Click! Click! Three light switches turned off, and the room is ... still fairly bright.

It is a startling moment for many people in the class when they realize that the sunlight coming through windows is providing plenty of light to let us do what we need to do. The mid-day light is quite adequate for having a discussion and reading class handouts.

A quilting group might need to use the lights, even when sun is streaming in the windows. At night, of course, some of the lights need to be used. (It really isn't charitable to talk about committees that are "in the dark" for all their meetings.) But on a bright morning, turning off the lights leads into some interesting discussions about what we've come to expect, and what we really need.

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Life would be so much easier if there was just one rule to follow -- "save energy whenever and however you can." Saving energy is an important virtue, but it is not the only consideration in our decisions -- at least, not yet.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a policy that I use to try to discern when long-distance travel is worthwhile in my ministry. There are times when I decide that it is legitimate to burn fuel to go to a meeting, because something important will happen at that gathering. There are other times when I decide that such a journey is a waste of gas. As several readers pointed out, the decision does not have to be a binary "do I go, or not" choice. Taking the bus or the train instead of flying or driving provides other options to use in juggling the costs and benefits of travel.

Similarly, we need to be able to think about our standards for when it is worthwhile or necessary to use electric lights. Turning on all the lights, all the time, is a common church practice that needs to be strongly critiqued. But on the other side, it is probably not realistic in church settings to say that we're only going to turn on the lights when it is too dim to read essential documents, or when people will fall down the stairs in the dark.

I don't have a tidy policy to propose this week, but I will name a few considerations that might be helpful for churches that want to deal with this level of witness.

  1. We need to make it OK to even talk about lighting. Affirming this question as valid and polite lets us start the process of changing behaviors and policies. Giving voice to our needs, values and opinions is a first step toward getting a congregation to make changes.

    It needs to be considered acceptable for people to speak up with needs on either side. Finding polite and assertive ways of making those comments will help. "I'm having a hard time seeing the budget papers. Can we turn on the lights for a while?" is more appropriate than "Why is it always so dark in this place?" Similarly, "It is a nice, sunny day today. Would anybody mind if I turned the lights off to save energy?" allows the environmentally conscious people to give voice to their ethical needs.

    Church leaders -- clergy or lay -- can be intentional in modeling these new behaviors. Meetings and classes can start with the convener explaining the day's choice about "off or on", and getting consensus. A moral point is made when energy use is an explicit item on the meeting agenda.

    There's a good fringe benefit to this discussion. Training a congregation in these behaviors fits well with a broader goal of having healthy and honest communication in a church. (From my experience, that's a real need, too!) A sermon or class on good communication could be illustrated with examples of how to discuss energy conservation.

  2. There's a close association between lighting and hospitality. One motel chain has advertised, "We'll leave the light on for you" because they know that when you arrive in the dark, you want to know that you're welcome.

    On an unconscious level, a room with the lights turned off may not feel as welcoming as one that's brightly lighted. A building where the entry hall is dim may suggest "go away" to some folk, especially visitors. These considerations of fellowship are legitimate, but not overwhelming, as a church thinks about its lights.

  3. As we begin to have these conversations in church, it will become more clear that we need to make structural changes that increase our options. Interior hallways need a lighting choice between pitch dark and blinding. Window shades need to allow light to come in, without producing glare that cripples those who are facing the windows.

    We will find it easier to be mindful of our energy use, and to encourage others toward that sort of awareness, when we are able to pick between a range of options. A floor lamp in the hallway with a single energy-efficient bulb can allow us to leave lots of ceiling lights off. Rewiring switches so that it is possible to use just a few lamps helps us find acceptable ground between those with differing needs.

When I turn off the lights in the middle of a class session, people are astounded. They are not even aware that there are choices to be made. We'll be making progress in our congregations -- and from there, into our homes and communities -- when we increase awareness that these choices are possible. We'll be working for social change when we help people communicate their values, and when we model how simple changes can provide new options.

Sometime soon, turn off the lights in the middle of a meeting, and see where the conversation goes.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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