Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Paying the Dues
distributed 2/5/10 - ©2010

A long time ago, a wise advisor talked to me about vocational discernment. His guidance helped me realize that parish ministry was not the best fit for my gifts and interests.

I keep coming back to Scott's advice as I consider the best ways to engage clergy and congregations in the eco-justice cause of transformation toward sustainability and justice. All too often, I fear, we're going about it all the wrong way, and using the wrong sort of sales pitch.

When I sat down with Scott to voice my pastoral frustrations, he encouraged me to think about "paying the dues" in my career. Every job, he said, has elements that are fun, rewarding and exciting. Those are the things that make us eager to go to work. Every job also has stuff that is not fun, that is draining and boring. We do the routine and icky stuff because that is how we "pay the dues" for being in a job that we basically love.

"If you are paying the dues more than 25% of the time," he told me, "then it is time to think about a change." When I made the columns listing joys and dues -- and did so as an introvert who tends to be more focused on systems than individuals -- I realized that the dues for the parish ministry club were more than I could afford. (Thankfully, I have found another form of ministry with far lower dues!)

That personal experience shapes a persistent strategic question that I pose for my own work, and for the broader faith-based environmental movement. When we make our pitch to clergy and lay leaders, when we call on them to engage their church in caring for all of God's creation, do we tap into the things that they love and treasure about the church, or are we always asking them to pay more dues?

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I encourage you to take a moment, and make a short mental list of the things about church that nurture and sustain you, that keep you coming back. If it is helpful, think about lifetime experiences, and not just your immediate church connections. If you are clergy or church staff, think both professionally and personally. . . . . . Need a bit more time? . . . . . OK - thank you!

Since those who read Eco-Justice Notes are not a representative sample of typical church folk, I'm going to guess that the mental lists that have just been created have some biases toward church activities that develop and express strong commitments. Y'all probably have some leanings toward activism and engagement that are deeper than found in most churches. Bless you for that!

I'm also guessing, though, that your list has much in common with what would be said by a wide sample of church people, clergy and laity alike. We are nurtured and fed by worship and programs of spiritual development. We find joy in the gathered community of the church, and its expressions of fellowship and care. For many, music and the arts are the avenue for communicating beauty, grace and truth. Educational programs make the list when they develop our faith and inform our lives. Pastoral care -- given or received -- is a core part of the religious experience for many. Those are the sorts of things that draw us to church, and keep us involved. Those are the wonderful things that make us willing to pay the sometimes steep dues of church involvement.

When I take the most common messages about greening the church, and compare it with that list of church joys, I don't see much of a match. Instead, a lot of the standard message about environmental work in churches falls into the category of "paying the dues" for both clergy and lay leaders.

To make a sweeping generalization, when churches are called to be environmentally responsible, the emphasis is usually on two primary areas: their buildings, and public policy. That is what I hear from denominations, and from our ecumenical and interfaith partners in the eco-justice cause. It is what I generally see in books and articles about green congregations. It is certainly (and understandably) the message when political advocacy groups or the EPA reach out to congregations. And, yes, the folk who have come to our "Greening Your Church" workshops generally have an expectation that they will learn about energy efficiency and political advocacy.

Don't get me wrong. It is essential for churches to practice responsible stewardship in their buildings, and to be vocal advocates on matters of public policy.

But, remember those lists of things that engage people about church -- the things that bring the members on Sunday morning, and that make ministry fulfilling for clergy. Building maintenance and politics don't show up on those lists for most people. We know that they are important, but they often feel like "paying the dues."

If a pastor's call to ministry is most passionately expressed in preaching and theological education, then weather stripping and boiler efficiency are things that will be delegated to other staff or committees. If a minister loves to do creative liturgy and compassionate pastoral care, then organizing members for a potentially conflictual visit to their US Senator about climate legislation will feel exhausting. And while lots of church members are glad that somebody in the church is working to save money on the energy bills, that is not what excites them, or gets them out of bed on Sunday morning.

It is not very good marketing if we're usually calling on people to "pay more dues" or to concentrate on the things they find draining and distracting. If we hope to engage a broad range of churches in the urgent work of caring for creation, we'll do better if we focus our appeal on the parts of church life that congregational leaders love to address.

Eco-Justice Ministries has always had a distinctive niche in the faith-based environmental movement because of our comprehensive approach to ministry. A question that we often pose is, what does it mean to "be the church" in a world with ecological and social justice crises? That's a question that leads quickly into worship and spirituality, education and pastoral care -- as well as light bulbs and legislation. That's a question that will be appealing to a church leader who does not know a lot about the environment, but who cares deeply about faithful ministry.

Worship, spirituality, pastoral care, education and the arts are places where the church can be engaged in deeply transformative ways. And they are places where a multitude of church leaders find great joy and fulfillment.

As we seek to expand and deepen the eco-justice witness of churches, we don't have to ask people to "pay more dues" in order to participate in the cause. We can invite people to focus on the roles and activities that they love as faithful and effective ways to care for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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