Faith, Spirituality, and Environmental Stewardship Workshops: Communicating Sustainabiliity with Faith Communities

In 2008, the Center for the Environment hosted a three day conference on Faith, Spirituality, and Environmental Stewardship (see link here). This conference was deeply impactful for participants. The conference brought together national leaders in the field, such as the Rev. Sally Bingham (The Regeneration Project), Dr. Karen Baker-Fletcher (SMU, Perkins school of theology), Gary Gardner (Worldwatch), and Fred Scherlinder Dobb (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life).

Last year (2012), the center facilitated three Faith, Spirituality, and Environmental Stewardship evening workshops. They included focus groups delving into a variety of topics which provide “how-to’s” for faith communities seeking sustainability. Examples of focus group topics include solar energy, recycling, gardening, environmental groups and youth programs (the complete list can be found here).

The center has been offering these workshops as one arm of their Campaign for Clean Air: a broad-based campaign which aims to improve the air-quality of the region through programs, outreach, and resourcing primarily within Rowan-Cabarrus counties. The other arm of this campaign is currently connecting with school teachers. The impetus for clean-air initiatives comes from poor air quality in the region. According to the American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air report, the Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury area ranks 19th worst, among 277 metropolitan areas, for its number of high ozone days (see the report and find out about your area here).

The center has promoted dialogue in area faith communities on environmental issues and has opened avenues for ecumenical and interfaith communication– if only in these brief encounters through the workshops and conference. I interviewed a few local practitioners of “congregational greening” with a fellow-Stanback intern, Helen Wu, to see how these workshops can remain an open dialogue that informs their environmental engagement. Such engagement can be found in the center’s Environmental Stewardship Manual under the section titled “The Sustainability Efforts of Surrounding Faith Communities” (found here). I also want to put these local leaders in conversation with each other through this blog.

I found those I interviewed to have a deep interest in greening their church, and they also had a deep understanding of the challenges at hand in their particular context. A lot of the challenge is behavior change and just changing the way things have been. The small changes involve less significant behavior change and are therefore easier to enact. The convenience of disposable plates and utensils can be substituted with environmentally friendly dishware and utensils. However, beyond this consumer understanding of sustainability as a horizontal shift between products, faith communities have the responsibility to embody a deeper shift, namely behavior change.

While the definition and direction sustainability takes is contested, faith communities must ultimately seek behavior change as a means to sustainability because of the central concern of wholeness and the necessary reconciliation between spirit and body, individual and community, human and non-human. I want to suggest that the ability of faith communities to move towards sustainability is dependent upon ecumenical, and even interfaith, communication and collaboration, since sustainability in its fullness must allow the life of others and otherness. Sustainability is about relationships; behavior change reorients our part of the relationship. Sustainability, like adhering to a life of faith, involves what at first seems to be sacrifice but ultimately is understood as more fulfilling life.

I have interviewed people from several different denominations with differing types of participation within their congregation. Greg Alcorn is a member of the green team at First UCC in Salisbury; Oscho Rufty is the facilities manager of St. John’s Lutheran in Salisbury; Reverend Steve Haines is the senior pastor of First UMC in Salisbury; and Rev. Dr. Ken Clapp wears many hats at Catawba college including Chaplain, and Director of the Lilly Center, but he is also a member at First UCC in Salisbury.

Greg Alcorn facilitated a workshop on “teaming up for the earth” and states that in bringing together faith communities for environmental initiatives “the question is how do you connect”. Hoping to test my idea, I asked him about creating an online means of communication and resource sharing between congregations. Quite poetically, he responded “if you do everything online, you will have a great community, but it won’t be like a church connection; a church connection is social, relational… the bonding is three-dimensional.”

So, how do you maintain face-to-face interactions across denominational lines for the purpose of propagating ideas about sustainability in congregations? Especially with the fact of what Rev. Dr. Ken Clapp calls “lone-rangerism”, the sometimes isolating do-it-yourself ethic, often at work in congregations.

Oscho Rufty affirmed this desire to connect across denominational lines, sharing his early desire to form a co-op type organization to purchase energy efficient or renewable energy technology in bulk or in common at lower prices with a group of partnering congregations. However, the denominational structure itself presents a significant barrier to this type of cooperation. Churches are organized to support the needs within their community, reaching out in specific ways. This once again reaffirms the need for collective behavior change and a larger practice of community, ecumenical and interfaith

Dr. Clapp contemplated the possibility of cooperation: “I’m not sure if environmental issues would be easier to embrace [than other issues]. It may be theological but not as much as other issues, such as infant versus adult baptism,” concluding positively that “cooperation may pay dividends.” He also offered a few steps towards cooperation: “The solution to cooperation needs to address barriers in finance, denominational structure, and theology.”

These are far reaching changes that are required for faith community sustainability, and congregations want to get started now. Oscho Rufty addressed the deep need for “cost-cutting” and how sustainability is an opportunity to “maintain what we are doing in the community by cutting back what we do in the house [in terms of energy and other costs].” Taking the initial steps unfortunately can make sustainability seem like all the practical problems that go along with it. However, by keeping mission and outreach at the forefront of these efforts, such as Oscho Rufty points out, sustainability can be understood as a great opportunity to allocate money and effort in the outside community instead of unnecessary costs in maintenance within the congregation.

Faith communities are poised to offer a way forward, incorporating sustainability into the fabric of their day-to-day life. This can be a way of life-giving behavior change. There is ample encouragement and mandate for sustainability in the sacred texts of world religions. The language is developed. Rev. Steve Haines advised, “Creation is not to be abused. We are caretakers. We are supposed to be responsible.” Behavior change puts this belief into action.