Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Speaking with Knowledge and Faith
distributed 3/2/18 - ©2018

A month ago, I wrote, "When churches are silent on matters of importance, it is a crisis for the church and for our society."

I affirmed the churches that are speaking up -- whether about the mix of issues that had been named at the recent Women's March, or climate change, or other critical topics -- and I suggested three reasons why pastors and church leaders might avoid today's most pressing issues. The three that I named (a fear of conflict, theological uncertainty, and an other-worldly theology) are deep-seated and probably hard to address.

A good friend wrote to me with a fourth option for why churches might avoid complex issues. She not only names an important factor, but it also is one that is much easier to resolve. Cynthia said:

Here's another category of reason the pastor may be silent on important issues: no academic training in that topic, and therefore little confidence to speak on technical topics. Science, law, and economics, for example, are complex disciplines.

Indeed, it is not a good thing when people speak out on topics about which they know next to nothing -- whether the reckless voices come from pastors, pundits, politicians or our social media friends. Fortunately, there are some helpful ways for the church to lift up voices that are both faithful and informed.

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There was a time when a local church pastor might have been the most highly educated person in most congregations. As the only one with an advanced degree, the pastor had some authority as a public intellectual, a well-informed and careful generalist.

Now, that's rarely the case. I think of a friend who served a prominent church in Boulder, Colorado. He told me that he was careful about preaching on topics like climate change, because several of the nation's best-known climate scientists were members of his congregation, along with a crop of professors from the University of Colorado.

In most churches these days, there will be members with specialized knowledge that is far deeper than that of the minister, or the volunteer who teaches the adult class, or the passionate person who heads up the social action committee. That's even more true as the church tries to speak to the broader community, which is filled with highly trained experts. As Cynthia said, science, law and economics are complex disciplines, and we don't help our cause when we speak out on matters where we're not well informed. So what can we do? A few practical suggestions:

  1. Cynthia noted that pastors without expertise will often choose to be silent on such matters, even if the topics are of great moral importance. She proposed an alternative. "The solution might be to form advisory councils of experts from the congregation."

    If there is prominent climate scientist sitting in the pews -- or an urban planner, a lawyer, a biologist, a banker or a social worker -- then it would be foolish and a waste to ignore their wisdom. An advisory council could provide ongoing advice and support for the pastor and other leaders. The experts can be invited to teach classes on the topic. It is even possible, with some discretion, to have a well-informed lay person preach a sermon in their area of expertise. A dialogue sermon between the pastor and the expert is another option.

    We can think broadly about who the "experts" are on various topics. There's an ecumenical challenge for 1,000 sermons on climate change, tied to the "Our Children's Trust" lawsuits that I wrote about last October. The "Justice for #EachGeneration" website calling for sermons suggests, "Youth are especially encouraged to join this effort and raise their powerful voices!" Youngsters in our congregation may not be experts on climate science, but they are experts in looking at their future in a climate-warped world.

  2. Rethinking what sort of knowledge and expertise is needed to address an issue can open the door for church leaders to speak appropriately. A statement on climate change, for example, might not need to draw on atmospheric science and computer modeling, if the main point has to do with global justice and climate impacts on the world's poor. Or a "climate change" sermon might speak pastorally to the fear that we feel in a world that is tumbling into ecological chaos.

    Many years ago -- even before starting Eco-Justice Ministries -- I wrote a short article on "Three Layers of Environmental Preaching". "Issue preaching" needs to draw on knowledge from experts, is likely to generate some conflict, and should probably happen fairly rarely. Thematic preaching draws on the pastor's expertise in theology and biblical studies to explore religious aspects of caring for creation. The deepest level may not be explicitly "environmental," but can explore pastoral questions of grief, hope, repentance and forgiveness that underlie the issues of current events. Here, too, the pastor draws on her own expertise in speaking to relevant issues. Pastors can speak on complex current topics when they tap into their own specialized training in theology, ethics and pastoral care.

  3. If there are ongoing issues of great importance where a pastor is poorly trained, the best solution might be ... to get some training. Read a couple of good books. Sign up for workshops or continuing education programs. Spend a sabbatical learning about an emerging topic. Enroll in an on-line course from a seminary or university. There are many options available so that clergy and church leaders can build a solid background in the topics that are most important.

    For the future health of the church, it is essential that clergy-in-training get some of that expertise at the start of their careers. The Green Seminary Initiative is grounded in the conviction that faith communities need to provide leadership on issues of environmental destruction, and that "theological schools should provide clergy and religious leaders with the tools necessary for them to lead their congregations, communities and organizations in meeting their unique call to protect and restore creation." This interfaith initiative is doing great work to reshape theological education so that church leaders are able to speak with authority on matters of environmental justice.

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When churches are silent on matters of importance, it is a crisis for the church and for our society. Some churches may be silent because pastors don't feel adequately informed. (Or because the pastors have been told that they don't know what they're talking about!)

Fortunately, there are many ways that churches can find their voice on these matters of importance. They can draw on the expertise that exists within the congregation. They can recognize their own areas of expertise in theology, ethics and pastoral care. They can find appropriate training to get up to speed on essential knowledge.

"I don't know enough" is a poor excuse for silence from churches. On today's critical issues, there are many ways to claim knowledge and authority. A faithful church will do the work needed to strengthen their moral voice.

If your church has been silent on matters of great moral importance, explore ways to develop the necessary knowledge so that you can speak boldly and well.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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