Greening Your Church:
Getting Started & Doing the Basics
The "getting started" stages of greening your church provide a wonderful opportunity to make a qualitative shift in your church life. You can go from not doing anything, to doing something! You can move toward responsible practices that will save your church money. You can start to explore new perspectives on faith, worship and spirituality that will renew and energize your members. You can engage students of all ages with creative and relevant classes that touch on a broad range of topics. You can involve people who have environmental interests in volunteer activities and new leadership roles.
A church that is getting started can avoid problems. You can stop wasting money. You can stop being embarrased that your congregations isn't doing the things your community expects. You can move past the frustration experienced by members who care about creation, but never saw the theme being addressed. You can reduce conflict by inviting clergy and other church staff to share in this project in ways that use their strengths and interests.
The process of getting started can be a big step in some churches, but it does not have to be hard. This is a time for exploration and gentle affirmations. It is a time of practical and prudent steps, and many of those basic steps can be taken quietly and without any controversy. Some careful work among a small group of leaders can lay the foundation for an ever-deepening commitment to ministry that is relevant to the great eco-justice crises of our day.
|In a church just getting started|
THE CENTRAL PROBLEM TO ADDRESS: The church is not meeting "community standards" for environmental awareness and stewardship -- either in religious awareness or in practical steps.
THE PRIMARY GOALS: To build a leadership group, start to develop a basis for theological reflection, document the use of resources, and take routine steps to reduce resource use.
THE PRIMARY STRATEGIES: The principles of "Community Based Social Marketing" are effective. Relatively little emphasis is placed on theology or values, and a strong emphasis is placed on doing what is generally recognized as reputable and responsible.
MOOD: Discovery, accomplishment, engagement and awareness can characterize the early steps of greening a church.
|Jump to sections on: Congregational leadership | Building issues | Church programs | Strategy | Resources|
There are lots of bullet points listed below --
You don't have to do them all, or do them all at once!
These are options to be considered and prioritized.
Identify and develop congregational leadership
Nothing will change in a church unless there are people who are working to make it happen!
- As an essential starting point, identify several people who will be active and visible leaders for the church's emerging environmental efforts. A group of about five people with diverse connections in the congregation (deacons, educators, building committee) will be far more effective than one or two passionate advocates. This group will generally be called "the green team" on this website, but you can be creative in finding your own labels. Set some preliminary and realistic goals for what you want to accomplish in the next year or so. (Our congregational assessment process can help you shape these decisions.)
- Talk to the minister(s) of your church, to find their level of awareness and interest. Affirm good things that are already being done by staff and members. Ask for the pastor's help instead of making demands. In the getting started stage, enthusiastic participation by clergy is wonderful, but much can be accomplished with less active support. Try to make sure that ministers don't get in the way of the green team's work.
- Visit with key people on some church boards and committees to find allies, learn about past programs, and to offer your help. Encourage them to see the introduction of green ideas as a way to strengthen and renew their committee's work.
- See if your denomination has local people who can provide help and encouragement, either on denominational staff, in volunteer positions, or in neighboring churches. Investigate ecumenical or interfaith groups in your community who have faith-based environmental programs, and tap into their resources and support.
Building and office issues
In today's economic and cultural climate, some of these basic steps are now things that are absolutely routine and prudent for any business or institution. They should require very little discussion or debate, and many of them can be accomplished "behind the scenes" by committees or building administrators. It is important, through, to keep the congregation informed about these new steps as they are taken, and to describe them as matters of faithful stewardship. (See the strategy section below for a discussion of this approach.) The steps suggested here are all very basic.
NOTE: Our recommendations change if the church is looking at a major building project, whether a new or expanded facility, a major remodeling, or substantial repairs (such as a new roof, which might provide an opportunity to install insulation, skylights or improved ventilation). It is essential that considerations of resource conservation and efficiency be very high priorities in these large investments. Once a building project is completed, going back to retrofit for good stewardship of resources will be expensive, and may be impossible. When tied to another building project, working toward standards that are much more stringent than "the basics" will be prudent and faithful; convincing the congregation to cover those added up-front costs may require more education and theological interpretation than would be the case for the basic steps listed above. See the Eco-Justice Notes, "Will They Hate You" for more information about these big projects.
- Some sort of intentional audit or review of the church's energy and resource use is an essential first step. This could be as informal as a walk through the building with fresh eyes, or as comprehensive as a full-blown facilities audit. The information gained will be very important is setting priorities and deciding which actions will make the most difference in your setting.
- Establish policies about conserving energy: turn off lights, coffee pots, computers and copiers when not in use; use natural ventilation when possible instead of air conditioning; set thermostats to energy-saving temperatures. Note – none of these steps cost a cent, and they will save you money while saving energy! Following through on these new policies, though, may take some training and persistent reminders for the people who use the church building. Reminders work best whenthey are very specific ("please turn off the lights when you leave this room") instead of general ("save energy!").
- Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent bulbs where ever possible. Older florescent tubes can be replaced with more energy efficient tubes and ballast.
- Tune-up the heating and cooling systems for peak efficiency. Insulate water heaters, and set the hot water temperatures to the lowest practical temperature.
- Install programmable thermostats to set back heating and cooling when areas of the church are normally vacant.
- Replace any very old refrigerators or freezers. (There will be a short pay-back in energy savings if the refrigerator is more than 10 years old.)
- Make sure that the attic is well insulated, and that doors and windows have proper weather stripping.
- Establish a church policy that, for any appreciable capital expenditure (copiers, a new roof, etc.), energy efficiency and conservation will be a high consideration.
- Be sure that water is used frugally in bathrooms, kitchens, and for landscaping. This may involve fixing leaks and drips, putting aerators on faucets, and changing the settings for lawn sprinkler systems.
- The church should commit itself to recycling – of paper, cans and bottles – to at least the level generally available in the local community.
- Use paper with a significant recycled content (at least 30%), and make reasonable efforts to reduce paper use.
Eco-Justice Ministries is grounded in the belief that churches can do the most in the environmental cause when they "do church" – when this topic is addressed as a matter of faith, spirituality and ethics. The building is important, but the religious programming of a congregation can have an even more significant impact on members and the community.
- Start to bring an awareness of God's creation into worship. It is nice if the natural world is celebrated as beautiful and as a source of resources. It is even better if God's creation is affirmed as a community of life in which we are participants. Language about "the creation" is more relational and theological than phrasing about nature or then environment which separate humans from the rest of creation.
- In times of congregational worship, celebrate and bless the responsible stewardship activities of the church and its members. (For example, bless a stack of compact florescent bulbs before they are installed around the church building.)
- Use special occasions (Earth Day, a blessing of the animals) to highlight environmental themes.
- Learn new hymns about our part in God's creation, and keep using good ones that are already known. Watch out for hymns that objectify nature, and that give humans unlimited control over the rest of creation.
- The time for children is often a good opportunity to lift up an environmental message.
- Include environmental messages – quotes, scripture passages, "things to do" – in the bulletin.
- The getting started stage is a time to explore new topics and to stimulate thinking. Courses that survey a range of theological perspectives may help students see that lots of churches are dealing with creation care. If you are just getting started, be careful about programs that lead to polarizing statements or dramatic actions. (Those are more appropriate in the leadership & action stages.) The extensive set of Eco-Curriculum Reviews maintained by Eco-Justice Ministries can help your church select faith-based resources that are appropriate for developing your congregation's theology and interests.
- Study denominational statements which connect your theological tradition to environmental topics. Affirm the ways that environmental perspectives are normal within your tradition.
- Do a thematic Bible study that shows the depth of "creation care" within scripture.
- Dedicate a church retreat or Vacation Bible School to an environmental topic.
- Hold a forum where people can express differing views on a controversial topic. Focus the session so that the goal is an increase in understanding, and not a decision on a particular issue.
- See a film, or host a speaker, that brings a global perspective to environmental issues.
- Include articles about your church's emerging environmental programs in the newsletter. (By replacing light bulbs in the fellowship hall, we're saving money and protecting God's creation.) Highlight a variety of people in the congregation who are doing environmental things at home, at work, or in the community. (Betty uses cloth bags when she goes shopping. Fred has started taking public transportation to work. Alex is an environmental planner for the county.) When you're getting the church up to community standards for environmental practices, do not push too hard on the theological reasons, because that makes it look like a hard choice!
Mission and advocacy
- Mission work in your community can be expanded to include some environmental components. Give away energy-efficient light bulbs along with other items from the food bank. Have a group from the church volunteer with a local agency for a day of weatherizing low-income homes.
- Use eco-justive values in promoting denominational mission work. Speak about denominational programs to created environmental curricula, and to train church leaders for environmental justice. Highlight the positive eco-justice efforts of international mission programs that provide clean water, do reforestation, or seek sustainable development opportunities -- these are often excellent examples of the way human needs and environmental care are interconnected.
- Highlight "fair trade" coffee as a way to take part in sustainable economic development and habitat preservation. Your denomination may have a program that markets fair trade coffee and provides educational materials.
- Note: In a church that is still building an awareness of environmental ethics and commitments, a strong push for political advocacy may be counter-productive. Provide information about important legislation, but be aware that these are controversial topics.
Our strategic suggestions to most churches that are just getting started are surprising and counter-intuitive. We generally recommend that the first steps taken by congregations be done rather quietly, and without a lot of theological or scientific discussion.
|The Sociological Basis|
|Our approach to "doing the basics" is informed by the excellent book, Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. Most of the book's content is available at the companion website, along with a wealth of other resources.
The book is fun and easy to read, with lots of memorable examples. The section on "tools" (commitment, prompts, norms, communication, incentives and convenience) is especially practical and helpful for churches. We recommend the book to church leaders who want to be effective in stimulating behavior change of any kind. The perspectives of the book are embodied in many of our recommendations in this section, and they inform our self-assessment tools for congregations.
Because the practical actions involved in "doing the basics" are all about "getting up to community standards," there is no need to make a fuss about the reason for these actions -- whether moral, economic, or theological. It will be most helpful if the opening approach makes only a basic religious affirmation ("As Christians, we're supposed to be good stewards of the church budget and Earth's resources"), and then highlights the mainstream sorts of actions to be taken ("so we're trying to do a better job of doing things here at church that most of us consider practical and responsible at home and at work.")
Eco-Justice Ministries recommends that churches be very careful about stressing cost savings as the primary reason for acting on energy conservation. A strong emphasis on saving money at this stage can cause problems later on if substantial financial investments are required for projects with a great moral justification, but a long-term financial payback. It is always good to affirm that "we're doing these things to be faithful and responsible. It is an added bonus that we can save some money."
When it comes to doing the basics, a long discussion about theology or lots of scientific details about the good environmental effects can make it seem like the decisions and actions are controversial or difficult. They're not! Changing light bulbs, insulating the attic, and recycling paper are all ordinary behaviors. Churches are being irresponsible if they're not doing them. The basic steps are ones that make good sense in almost any setting, and they are being done by all sorts of groups -- families, businesses, schools, and the US military -- for very practical reasons. So, too, making reference to the health of God's creation in worship is becoming increasingly common in most denominations.
Rather than staging a big educational campaign before doing anything, we suggest that the church doing the basics can publicize good effects after taking action, as both celebration and education. ("Some of you may have noticed that we've changed a lot of light bulbs around the church to a more energy-efficient style. By doing that, we're causing lots less pollution of God's creation by cutting our electricity use, and we're saving the church lots of money on our energy bill. If you haven't noticed the change, that's because the new bulbs work just as well as the old ones! Have you installed them at home?")
In areas of leadership development and programming, a church that is just getting started will want to have an invitational style, rather than pushing a strong agenda. Staff and volunteers can be encouraged to see how they might connect with this emerging perspective in the church. Education and worship can explore questions instead of defining answers, and can look at the range of beliefs and actions found among churches.
- Our good friends at Green Faith have developed a nice Start-up Kit for Houses of Worship with four downloadable resources. From our perspective, congregations that are really starting from scratch might want to hold off on some of their suggestions -- about in-depth educational programs, for example -- until there is some momentum on the first stage of practical changes. Their kit contains a great list of two dozen "Eco-Tips" for church newsletters. These tips become even more effective if members of the church can be used as models for the behaviors. ("Jim Wilson has taken his address off of mailing lists for unwanted catalogues and charities. He's delighted about having less junk mail to deal with, and about using less paper.")
- The Energy Star for Congregations program of the US Environmental Protection Agency has lots of resources and suggestions specifically developed for religious congregations. The "how-to" guide provides guidance on analyzing your facility and identifying basic -- and more advanced -- steps.
- An energy audit of your church building can provide essential information about reasonable steps to take in energy conservation and efficiency. Contact your utility company (check your electric or gas bill for the website or phone number) to see if they provide free or low-cost evaluations. In many states, the affiliates of the Interfaith Power and Light network have good information about energy audits, and about the details of laws and incentives that are unique to that state.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 *
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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