Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Benefits and Barriers
distributed 8/9/13 - ©2013

In her short story, "Pair a Spurs", Annie Proulx describes the difficulties of getting from one Wyoming ranch to the neighboring spread.

Three routes connected the Coffeepot and the Hammerhandle: a plank bridge over Bad Girl Creek ... but that way involved opening and closing fourteen gates; a water crossing useable only in early spring and late summer; and the five-mile highway trip, one that Scrope avoided because of bad memories as it was at the highway bridge he had nearly killed his wife and broken so many of his own bones that he was now held together with dozens of steel pins, metal plates and lag screws.

No matter how much Scrope wants to visit the neighbors, it will be a hard trip because of physical and emotional barriers. The same can be true of the journey toward a just and sustainable society. The goal may be compelling, but barriers make it hard for us to get there.

There's a marvelous and highly-respected little book that describes effective strategies for getting people to change very specific environmental behaviors, such as recycling and reducing water use while showering. Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing looks at the positive details of information, incentive, commitment and community that can entice folk to do the right thing. It is filled with amazing stories about the sort of messages and settings that really work.

But the book also dwells on barriers to behavior, because the roadblocks are just as important as the positive goals. The authors write, "if the behavior is inconvenient, unpleasant, costly or time consuming" then efforts to change the behavior will probably be ineffective. "Sustainable activities that are inconvenient usually have low participation rates." The book insists that efforts to "market" behavior change have to deal with both perceived benefits and perceived barriers.

It is a lot more fun to think about the positives, to imagine the wonderful world that we might live in if we all change our behaviors a bit. But unless the barriers are addressed, unless those roadblocks are removed (or even bigger roadblocks created to hinder the old way of doing things!), then good intentions and big plans won't take us very far.

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A week ago, Eco-Justice Ministries held an evening workshop for church leaders in Fort Collins, Colorado. Our summer intern, Callie Mabrie, guided 20 people from eight congregations through a discussion, "Sharing Successes & Overcoming Obstacles". (We'll be offering similar workshops in other Colorado locations this fall.) There were wonderful stories about exciting church programs -- dramatic steps toward energy efficiency, mission trips, religious educational programs, planting trees in burned-out forests, and community outreach projects. It was great to hear about these successes.

But these committed folk also brainstormed a long list of obstacles that get in the way of greater success. Money topped the list, because things like solar panels are expensive. (We pointed out that turning off the lights, holding classes, including Earth concerns in worship, and writing legislators don't have big price tags! But the money barrier is still very real.) Other obstacles were the difficulty of dealing with old buildings, a lack of engagement by most members of the congregation, the "Walmart-ization" of our society, and the difficulty of communicating with a diverse congregation.

As members of local churches seek to develop eco-justice programs in their congregations, it is important to be attentive to both sides of the equation -- to work toward the benefits of change, and to tackle the barriers that get in the way of those changes. That is not "being negative" (at least not if it is done with a sense of overcoming the barriers!). Recognizing the roadblocks is being realistic.

The hard working members of church "green teams" are well aware of some of the most pervasive barriers, and I'm grateful for resources like Fostering Sustainable Behavior and creative new financing plans for solar panels that can help overcome those obstacles. But there are other barriers to deepening the creation care ministries of churches that are less obvious.

Dieter Hessel points to one important barrier to the development of frequent, compelling, Earth-honoring worship in Christian churches:

Denominational hymnals do convey nature appreciation, as well as concern for human reconciliation and well-being in the city, the nation, and internationally. But they include little emphasis on Christian responsibility to care for natural places and other species, and show a striking lack of focus on environmental ministry.

If there are not great and beloved songs that reinforce the message of creation care and eco-justice, then it is really hard for worship planners to develop those themes. When the preacher doesn't know of any hymns that will drive home the point of an environmental sermon, then there's a tendency to shift to a message that is confirmed in familiar hymns.

Eco-Justice Ministries is aware of another potential barrier to worship that is faithful and relevant in this time of ecological crisis. Our research indicates that the Revised Common Lectionary -- the three-year cycle of scripture readings that are used in countless churches -- leaves out or devalues many of the Bible texts that speak of creation care, environmental justice and the integrity of creation. (Twice in the last month -- 7/12 and 7/19 -- Eco-Justice Notes pointed out important texts that are not included in the lectionary.)

On Wednesday, you received a special invitation from us, looking for pastors to complete a short survey about scripture and worship. We're trying to gather solid information about how scripture shapes sermons and worship themes, and about how closely clergy follow the lectionary readings. We're trying to learn much more about how much of a barrier the lectionary might be, and how that barrier can be minimized. (There is a new resource on our website, "10 Options for Scripture and Lectionary Use", that has some of our preliminary recommendations of overcoming that barrier.)

If you are a minister who preaches on a regular basis, please take the 10 minutes or so to fill out our survey. And we're asking all our friends to forward the survey invitation widely, so that we can hear diverse perspectives from lots of clergy. Your help in spreading this invitation will dramatically increase the value of our research!

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To make progress toward sustainable behaviors and Earth-honoring ministries, we need to have a vivid sense of the benefits that we'll find by making changes. But we also need to be attentive to the barriers that get in the way of making those hopeful changes.

In your congregation's planning for creation care, be sure to look carefully at both benefits and barriers to new initiatives. And be sure to ask Eco-Justice Ministries for help as you look for ways to overcome the barriers.


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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