What are congregations actually doing in the way of study, celebration, and action on environmental issues? People have produced many books, study guides, and curricula aimed at teaching congregations about creation care. New ones are being published regularly. Furthermore, groups like the Episcopal Ecological Network, Presbyterians Caring for Creation, and Interfaith Power and Light have worked hard to raise awareness of the need and reasons for preserving the natural environment.
I decided to explore what actions congregations are taking. How much study is being done and what resources are being used? Is creation being celebrated in worship and in what ways? What concrete steps are congregations taking to green their operations? What are the biggest obstacles they face? Are they doing community service or public advocacy in this area? As I evaluated the data, I also looked for correlations among the various activities. For example, I wondered whether congregations which spend more time studying creation care also take more steps to green their operations, and whether congregations which have a creation care team study more or take more steps to reduce their environmental footprint.
To find out, I developed a survey and invited, via email, representatives of 766 congregations to complete it. (205 out of 766 responded for a response rate of 27 %.) The survey invitation went to two groups. One was the Episcopal Ecological Network, a nationwide network of Episcopalians concerned about environmental stewardship. The other consisted of all congregations of any denomination or faith within 10 miles of my home in Bloomington, Minnesota that could be reached by email. Responses from the two groups were very similar, so I have treated them here as one sample.
This survey was exploratory, seeking to describe what congregations are currently doing. Testing and comparing different approaches was beyond its scope. Nevertheless, the results suggest which ways of helping congregations care for creation are more likely to be effective. They also show how much is being done in the congregations surveyed and provide many ideas for others who want to do more.
Studying Creation Care
Within the last three years, 74% of responding congregations had undertaken some study of ecology and faith. They drew on a large number of different resources. Most congregations used a book or video as the basis of discussion, or invited a speaker and then discussed the presentation. Relatively few said they used a study guide or curriculum, (13%), or offered an art or entertainment event (15%). The movie, An Inconvenient Truth1 was named more than any other movie or book as the basis for discussion. The movie (or in one case the slides from it) was shown in fourteen of the congregations responding. Renewal2was shown in three congregations. Only two books were read in more than one of the congregations surveyed: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, each read in two places.3No other book or video was named more than once, meaning that an additional 39 resources were used by the congregations.
Likewise, congregations drew on many different speakers for adult forums. Those that were utilized by more than one congregation were Alliance for Sustainability (3), Interfaith Power and Light (4), Will Steger (4), and Congregations Caring for Creation (3).4Beyond these four, no speaker or organization was named in more than once of the 117 responses.5 Most congregations used secular materials and outside speakers to create their own learning opportunities and found ample resources to choose from. Few used the curricula that have been prepared specifically for churches. This suggests that writing additional curricula or study guides would not be particularly beneficial.
Creation Care in Worship
Overall, 72% of congregations had highlighted environmental stewardship during worship in the previous year. The most common way of focusing on creation care was to have “one or more sermons on environmental stewardship.” Three other methods of including environmental stewardship in worship, celebrating Earth Day, celebrating planting or harvest time, or using a creation-oriented liturgy, were about equal to one another in popularity. A whole creation season was less common. In the comments section, respondents listed many additional ways of including a focus on creation in worship. Eight congregations reported holding a Blessing of the Animals service on or near the Feast of St. Francis (October 4). Other ways of celebrating included the Jewish Tu B’Shevat—a celebration of trees, a flower festival, and Rogation Day services. “Traditionally, [Rogation Days] are the three days before Ascension Day. In England they were associated with the blessing of the fields at planting.” The vicar “beat the bounds” of the parish, processing around the fields reciting psalms and the litany.
Many people have become accustomed to recycling at home and at work, keeping the thermostat lower in winter and higher in summer, and have heard about the benefits of compact fluorescent light bulbs. It seemed likely that these behaviors would transfer to their activity at church. Survey responses indicated, however, that only 66% of congregations had taken five or more steps towards a greener church from a list of inexpensive options like recycling. On the one hand it’s a positive sign that the majority had done so. On the other hand there is a lot of room for congregations to reduce their environmental impact in inexpensive ways.
Although none of these small steps will solve the world’s environmental problems on its own, every improvement helps. It is likely that a broad range of large and small adjustments will be needed to reach a sustainable way of life. In addition, small steps can serve as sacraments—outward and visible signs of a deeper commitment to creation care.
A majority of US churches have fewer than 100 regular participants. 7 The high costs of salaries, benefits, and building maintenance mean that most congregations are chronically short of money. Therefore I estimated that only 10% of parishes had taken more than one expensive step (one that typically costs $500 or more) to green their operations, such as:
Replaced less efficient furnaces or hot water heaters before the old ones failed, for the sake of increased efficiency;
Increased insulation in ceilings;
Increased insulation in exterior walls;
Replaced windows (or improved their insulating ability);
Installed geothermal heating;
Installed a rain garden or other runoff control device;
Installed a green roof;
Restored natural habitat on church property.
Surprisingly, many more of the congregations than expected (27%) had taken these kinds of expensive steps. Nevertheless, many congregations still have opportunities to make their operations more environmentally friendly.
Because, in my experience, a majority of congregations have difficulty meeting their annual operating expenses, I expected that the greatest obstacle to taking any of the above expensive steps would be lack of funding. Indeed 91% of congregations cited lack of funding as an obstacle. Even though they had already checked off money as an obstacle, seven respondents named it again in the comments section. Another way of getting at the question of cost as an obstacle is to ask whether congregations would take steps to green their operations if the cost were lower. Three-quarters of respondents thought their congregations would be receptive to making major energy-efficiency improvements if the improvements could be made for less than $500. It seems likely, therefore, that many congregations would be willing to improve their energy efficiency and reduce their environmental impact if funding assistance were available.
Many people regard public advocacy (attempts to influence individual, government, or institutional behavior beyond the church) as inappropriate for churches. Others view public advocacy as something individual members do as an expression of faith, but not as something the congregation would do. Even so, 40% of congregations reported reaching beyond their doors to advocate for environmental stewardship in the community or participate in community projects. Specific activities mentioned included an Earth Day fair, beach cleanup, community gardens, and an “outreach of distributing 1000 compact fluorescent bulbs together with information encouraging people to take the Minnesota Energy Challenge.”
In evaluating the data, I also looked for correlations among the various activities. Did congregations that spent more time studying creation care take more steps to green their operations? Did congregations that had a creation care team study more or take more steps to reduce their environmental footprint? Did those who took small inexpensive actions also take larger more expensive ones?
Betw een Study and Action. There is a small but statistically significant correlation between the number of study activities undertaken by congregations and the number of low cost steps undertaken to green operations. Similarly, the number of hours devoted to the study activities also shows a small correlation with the number of low cost steps taken. The amount of study shows no significant correlation with large steps to green operations. It appears that studying creation care has some impact on behavior, although not as much as we might hope.
Between having a creation care team and other green activities. Having a specific group in the congregation responsible for creation care activities correlates with higher levels of education and environmental stewardship activities across most but not all categories in the survey. For example 69% of congregations with a group solely focused on environmental issues, and 52% of those with a group focused on environmental issues in addition to other issues had held one or more discussions of a book or video, whereas only 20% of those without such a group had done so. Those congregations with environmental groups also reported more people participating in their studies, and more hours of study. The correlation was less pronounced but still significant in the area of celebrating creation during worship.
In the area of greener church operations, having a group responsible for creation care activities showed a weaker correlation with taking less expensive steps such as using fluorescent or compact fluorescent bulbs. Overall, however, congregations having a specific group responsible were somewhat more likely to take steps to green operations. Having a specific group responsible made almost no difference in terms of the number of major ($500.00 plus) improvements made by congregations. On the other hand, it made a substantial difference in the likelihood of public advocacy. 59% of congregations with a dedicated team and 54% of those with a team partly focused on creation/environmental issues participated in a community meeting or demonstration, compared with only 19% of those congregations which did not have a team.
Not surprisingly, when a specific group is responsible for creation care in a congregation, the congregation as a whole is more likely to learn about, practice, and advocate for environmental stewardship. On most of the questions, a group with creation care as its sole focus was associated with the highest levels of activity.
Between taking small steps and taking large ones. Taking large steps that cost more than $500 to green operations shows a small correlation with the taking of lowcost steps. This may suggest that taking the simpler, less-expensive actions prepares the way for the larger, more expensive steps, or it may simply be that congregations with an interest in creation care are more likely than average to undertake both kinds of activities. There is a tiny degree of correlation between the size of a congregation’s budget and the number of low-cost steps taken but, counter intuitively, an insignificant correlation between size of budget and more expensive steps taken.
Suggestions for Activists
In the final comments section of the survey, the vast majority of responses (134 out of 171 or 78%) either stated or assumed that care for creation is an important or essential part of the work of the church. Among the congregations surveyed, three-quarters had undertaken some study of ecology and faith and twothirds had taken at least five inexpensive steps to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. Twenty- seven percent had taken at least one expensive step to green their operations.
The greatest single obstacle to taking additional expensive steps was lack of funding. Ninety-one percent of congregations cited lack of money as an obstacle. Therefore, one of the most important things creation care advocates could do to support congregations would be to find funding sources for environmental improvements and help congregations access them.
Taking more expensive steps to green operations correlates more strongly with taking small steps than with more study. Rather than promoting study, therefore, advocates may want to focus directly on encouraging congregations to take small steps toward greening operations because they act as a warm up, preparing the way for larger steps to be taken later.
Portions of this article first appeared in Chapter 3 of my Doctor of Ministry thesis, “Creation Care: Learning, Celebration, and Action in Congregations” (United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, 2010). The complete thesis is available online at www.tomharries.net.
- Davis Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth (United States: Paramount Pictures Corporation, 2006).
- Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, Renewal: Stories from America’s Religious-Environmental Movement (United States: Fine Cut Products, LLC, 2008).
- Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (New York: HarperCollins, 2008); Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin Group, 2006).
- “Alliance for Sustainability,” http://allianceforsustainability.net ; “Interfaith Power & Light | A Religious Response to Global Warming,” http://interfaithpowerandlight.org ; “Will Steger Foundation—Home,” http://www.willstegerfoundation.org ; “Congregations Caring for Creation,” http://www.c3mn.net/ .
- A complete list of study resources reported may be found in the document “Appendix A, Comment Fields,” http://www.tomharries.net .
- “Office for Liturgy and Music,” The Episcopal Church: Liturgy and Music: Rogation Days, http://www.episcopalchurch.org/19625_15247_ENG_HTM.htm.
- Marlis McCollum. “Congregation Size: What the Research Tells Us.” Congregations 31, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 13-17.
Questions for Reflection
- In what ways is your congregation already engaged in creation care? What small, inexpensive actions can you take to further reduce your congregation’s carbon footprint?
- Is your congregation willing and/or able to take at least one large ($500 or more) step to green its operations? Is money your congregation’s greatest obstacle to making major steps in being green? What else is standing in the way?
- Is your congregation involved in public advocacy? What topics or subject matters would your congregation or its members be willing to support or speak out against? How can your congregation reach out to the local community?
- Is there a group within your congregation devoted to creation care? If so, how effective are they? Are they reaching out to other members of the congregation and to the community? If not, how effective have the congregation’s independent efforts for creation care been? Who could you ask within your community to pull together a devoted creation care group?