Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Praying for Change
distributed 1/22/16 - ©2016

I often hear a lament from people in my far-reaching network of church folk, words of frustration and loneliness.

They write and speak to me, telling of their efforts to get creation care on the agenda of their congregations. They have scheduled classes, written newsletter articles, tried to form a "green team", publicized local events, harangued the building committee, and helped plan Earth Day worship services. And yet, all too often, the agenda does not change, and eco-justice concerns remain on the fringe of church life.

In most cases, there's no big conflict about it. There's no "rape and pillage the earth" faction that blocks environmental programs. There isn't a major donor with oil wealth who threatens to pull their pledge if climate change is ever mentioned. Generally, folk in the church know something about local and global environmental crises, and they are concerned, but it just doesn't take hold in the life and ministry of the congregation.

The environment just doesn't seem to be one of those things that churches see as part of their territory. We're glad that other people are working on it, but we don't do it here.

That is tragic, on many levels. When the church is silent about such things, deep pastoral needs are not being met, our moral voice is not shaping society, and the church is easily seen as irrelevant to the world's most pressing issues.

There are many reasons why churches might not see eco-justice (the interconnection of ecological health and social justice) as part of their ministerial turf. On a very basic level, though, talking about environmental crises and related human distress goes against how many people -- clergy and laity alike -- think of the role of the church.

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I'm grateful to my friend and colleague, Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter , for an insightful and edgy article that she wrote a year ago. "Diary of a Wimpy Church" uses a very simple analytical tool to understand congregational dynamics.

She notes that "you can tell a lot about the life of a church by their prayers. It's a window into the congregation's values and concerns, hopes and fears." Drawing on years of experience visiting churches, she identifies five categories of the most commonly voiced prayer requests: People recovering from illness or surgery; Their caregivers, or sometimes their survivors; People traveling; Communities hit by a natural disaster; and The US Military and their families.

Rebekah is careful to say that those are all valid issues to raise in prayer. The problem is that the prayer topics are out of balance. "Our individual prayers for our health, safety and comfort generally constitute the sum total of the corporate prayers offered in worship as the body of Christ."

Her article goes on to develop three reasons why such self-oriented prayers are wrong, and she offers some suggestions to clergy that can start to broaden the scope of pastoral prayers.

But I want to go back to Rebekah's starting point that "you can tell a lot about the life of a church by their prayers." If the prayer concerns of a church tend to be about us, then that is a pretty good indicator that the most valued parts of the mission and ministry of a congregation are about us, too.

If we pray most often and most deeply about our health, our safety, our comfort, then it is going to be very difficult to have programs and teachings that challenge our personal and collective comfort zones.

Rebekah's five categories reveal a longing for a world that is secure, predictable, orderly, and under control. And the topics that environmental advocates want to raise in churches are just the opposite. They reveal our insecurity in a world that is disordered and seemingly out of control. When spoken prayers ask for a safe trip for somebody flying to a meeting (which, statistically, is about as safe as you can get), then the cataclysmic extinction of species is an unspeakable terror. When we pray for the healing of a loved ones' cancer (or for graceful dying), then the need for planetary healing of accelerating climate chaos is too big and too hard to face.

Rebekah's insights about pastoral prayers suggest to me one very difficult reason why pastors and congregations don't respond to environmental programs. Churches that have a gospel of comfort and safety will rarely be able to consider the painful and challenging realities of a world in ecological turmoil. "We don't do that here" because extinction and climate chaos and environmental racism contradict the sense that God's love will make us happy and comfortable all the time.

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To those of you who have been -- who are -- frustrated about the lack of response to all of your good efforts at environmental organizing, this analysis suggests a different strategy.

Before classes on climate change can be well received, a congregation needs to think of its mission as more than comfort and simple hints on energy conservation. It needs to consider mission in a global and generational context. It needs to be open to confession and transformation as part of the real good news of the Christian gospel.

As Rebekah noted, congregational prayers are a faithful and very effective way to make that shift in ecclesiology. Bringing new topics into the prayers -- whether in the pastoral prayer, or the concerns lifted up by church members -- is a way to expand the circle of church awareness and concern. And when those topics start to show up in the prayers, then it will become necessary to deal with them in sermons, and educational programs, and political activism.

I'm not suggesting that dropping endangered species and fracking pollution into the standard prayers will be transformational. (Indeed, I know of a congregation that tried to do an environmental prayer topic every week, and it was a catastrophe because it was such a glaring shift from the ordinary list of medical concerns.)

For church members, I suggest that voiced prayer requests be put in pastoral terms -- your grief in the presence of devastation, your struggle to find hope in the face of political gridlock, your gratitude for those who are bringing healthy local food back to your community. (And perhaps share this column with your pastor.)

For pastors -- if your church tradition allows you this freedom -- I suggest that your prayers on behalf of the congregation get away from a listing of thanks and requests, and enter into a more pastoral tone. I have been touched and encouraged by the marvelous prayers of Walter Brueggemann collected in "Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth" -- and I frequently have used his prayers as the pastoral prayer when I am a guest preacher. The short prayer selected as a sample on the website, "Yes", brings together thanks and praise, confession and aspiration, in a way that allows a congregation to consider hard topics.

It is my prayer that churches claim their calling in this age, and that they develop programs that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward ecological sustainability and social justice. (That's the gist of the Eco-Justice Ministries mission statement.) Watching the Sunday morning prayers of the church is a good way to see if that mission in being taken seriously.


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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