Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Rule of Five
distributed 10/18/13 - ©2013

A congregation with one or two passionate eco-advocates will probably have a hard time developing strong environmental programs.

Huh? Having passionate folk is a problem? It can be, as I've seen from personal experience, in stories from many churches, and in wise advice from a rabbi.

Environmental initiatives in religious communities stand a much better chance of taking hold and prospering when the visible leadership is spread around among a diverse group of members. Increasing the size of the team has several benefits -- including a lowered risk of burn-out for the passionate few -- but the most important advantage may be a change in congregational ownership of the cause.

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Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener is the one who told me about "The Rule of Five." Andrea was the director of the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network in Connecticut, and had lots of experience "empowering and inspiring religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the earth."

Her Rule of Five says that, in a mid-sized congregation, there need to be at least five people visibly involved in leading environmental programs before a church will claim it as "something that we do." When the message about caring for creation is voiced by just a few folk, it generally is seen as somebody's personal project. Their passion and commitment may be admired and celebrated, but nobody else takes responsibility, or imagines joining in.

When that threshold of about five individuals is reached, though, there's an important shift. Interest and involvement is spread around the congregation, and "green" perspectives are voiced by a variety of church members. The idea that eco-justice is important starts to take hold as something that is a talked about and acted on within the church. As Andrea points out, the language moves from "they care" to "we care."

Ideally, the five or so leaders are a diverse group, who bring a variety of interests and styles. Picture an older member, who just became a grandparent, and who now has a deep concern for the that little baby will growing up in a damaged world. There might be a person who is passionate about local foods and sustainable agriculture. And somebody who wants the church to cut energy use, both the help the budget and to help the Earth. And a political activist, who will work hard to get people to show up for a rally. It is great if the pastor is part of the diverse leadership, naming creation care as a matter of faith and ethics. The five can include deacons and educators and ordinary people in the pew, as well as activists. When the call to think and act environmentally comes from such a variety of leaders, a church becomes much more likely to internalize the theme.

The five don't have to be official members of a "Green Team" or a committee, although that's OK, too. It definitely is helpful if they look to each other as partners in a shared cause, and if they use some common language about the church and its values. If there is one person with especially strong commitments, their greatest gift can be recruiting and encouraging others to be part of the visible constituency for Earth care.

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I've seen the stumbling block of too small a leadership group in many congregations. It is a problem when one or two people are always in the forefront -- making announcements, organizing classes, passing out action alerts, putting articles in the newsletter. Who else can measure up to that sort of knowledge and commitment? And, to be honest, there may be a quiet groan when The Advocate stands up to speak yet again about what needs to be done. Then, too, if and when The Advocate wears out or moves on, there's nobody else to carry on the cause, and whatever initiatives were in place quickly fade away.

I've wrestled with the problem in my own home church, where environmental commitments are wide-spread and deep-seated, but where I am well known as the guy whose job is doing the church-and-environment thing. A decade ago, when Eco-Justice Ministries was getting started, the pastor affirmed my work by frequently naming environmental action as "what Peter does." It became common, if there was any sort of question about energy efficiency or environmental legislation or changes in Denver's recycling program, for people to say, "ask Peter, he'll know." The good work being done by others in the congregation became invisible, and long-standing community values started to be seen as something that only I could talk about.

It took several conversations with the pastor to change her language in the pulpit and the newsletter so that a larger group was affirmed. And I had to learn how to shut up on occasion, and point to the expertise and involvement of others. Our church is stronger because the leadership is shared. It isn't just Peter. It is Eileen, Bill, Amy, Carol, Luke, Melinda, Todd, Allyson, David, Nancy, Kathryn and more, each pitching in and speaking up and turning out in their own way. It is something that "we do."

In that list, I'm glad to say, I can honestly name all the members of the church staff. I know that is not the case in far too many churches. But the Rule of Five holds no matter how engaged the pastor and staff might be. It doesn't work if the minister is the only voice. And silence from the pastor can be counterbalanced if the five or so are visible and respected for their leadership.

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Several years ago, writing about the power of social change movements, I quoted from Arlo Guthrie's long, rambling ballad, "Alice's Restaurant," which suggested that protesters sing the chorus of the song as an act of resistance to the Viet Nam era military draft. As I looked back at "A Million Voices", I realized that Arlo gives his own version of the Rule of Five (edited down a bit here):

You know, if just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people do it, they won't take either of them. And if three people do it, they may think it's an organization. And can you imagine fifty people a day, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant, they may think it's a movement.

Arlo knew it, and so does Rabbi Andrea. One or two people are just odd. The collective witness of three or five has a different impact. It starts to look like a movement, like something that "we do" together.

In your congregation, cultivate that diverse group of five or so visible, respected advocates. Make sure that the environmental message isn't seen as the turf of just one or two folk. Share the leadership, and affirm a variety of issues and styles. That's the way to build a deep and long-lasting church commitment.

NOTE: I've been referring to the Rule of Five frequently this fall. Eco-Justice Ministries has been facilitating a series of community gatherings in Colorado on "Greening Your Church: Sharing Successes and Overcoming Obstacles", and shared leadership is one of the easiest ways to overcome a common obstacle. The final session in our series will be in Boulder next Thursday evening. If you're in the area, be sure to join us!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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