What Is an Eco-Chaplain? | Sojourners

What Is an Eco-Chaplain?

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It took only a short weekend in upstate New York for Alanna Birch to realize something in her life had been deeply missing.

It was early summer in 2014. Birch had been living in Brooklyn, “doing the art-student-by-day, waitress-by-night routine,” when a friend invited her to their homestead to harvest garlic and plant tomatoes. When she put her hands in the soil that weekend, something shifted. Through the act of physically making a connection with the land, she started to remember a long-forgotten relationship with the planet.

That started a long journey through holistic health practices, clinical herbalism, and finally to the eco-chaplaincy program at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in 2021, where she found a way to create a safe space for herself and others amid a worsening global climate crisis.

Now, Birch provides her own eco-chaplaincy services, offering one-on-one spiritual care, leading group ceremonies about climate grief and resilience, and facilitating community conversations about climate change.

And Birch isn’t the only one embracing eco-chaplaincy. Bekah Estrada, now the Southern California director of California Interfaith Power and Light, previously served as the first eco-chaplain at the University of Southern California in 2023 after seeing the need for climate-related spiritual care on college campuses for several years as the college’s director of Christian life.

“In the general sense, chaplains are spiritual leaders who respond to a crisis, usually in hospitals [or] military, in places with high intensity,” Estrada said. “An eco-chaplain is a chaplain who responds to the climate crisis.”

Coined by environmentalist and eco-chaplain Sarah Vekasi in 2005, “eco-chaplaincy” refers to a form of spiritual care that focuses on understanding and dealing with socio-environmental challenges through acceptance, resilience, and a renewal of one’s relationship with nature.

Eco-chaplaincy, unlike other forms of chaplaincy, is more deeply grounded in humanity’s relationship with nature than a particular religion. Depending on their training, some eco-chaplains, like Bekah Estrada and Alanna Birch, may bring in specific religious practices, while The Chaplaincy Institute’s Lauren Van Ham has an interfaith approach, and others take a secular or humanist approach. But all find their primary root in caring for the planet and in regenerating and healing our spiritual relationship with the natural world.

“Being an eco-chaplain, for me, feels like being rightsized. There’s nothing grandiose about this work. It’s about understanding that I am as much a participant in the ecosystem, like the mushroom, like the bird, like the creek bed,” Van Ham said. “My spiritual practice invites me into ritual to grieve, lament, and process those feelings. It also encourages me to celebrate and praise and revere the beauty that is around me.”

What really makes an eco-chaplain?

Van Ham pointed to the “eco” having roots in the Latin word for “home,” to help define eco-chaplaincy.

“To be a chaplain who is tending ‘home’ can mean and look like a lot of things,” she said.

This is because eco-chaplains bring spirituality to climate conversations through several different perspectives. This can happen through courses in ecological mindfulness, eco-grief vigils, community support groups, or even one-on-one consulting. At Sewanee: The University of the South, a liberal arts college in Tennessee associated with The Episcopal Church, ecological mindfulness shows up in most courses. Andrew Thompson, director of the Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee, said the climate crisis was the “background against which … all ministry is happening now.”

“Climate change and environmental crises reshape how we approach ministry in general. It is not a special interest, it is not one thing among others,” Thompson said. “So, the ways to respond to that are going to be very diverse. It is going to involve nonprofit work, it is going to involve advocacy work, it is going to involve activism.”

Sewanee offers a graduate degree with a concentration in religion and environment, where two to four students each year explore the intersectionality between faith and nature. This program often leads to students creating their own approach to eco-chaplaincy.

“Our faith compels us to be involved in this work,” said Thompson, who is one of the instructors for the program. “The grief, emotion and the spiritual challenge of these times also requires religious communities. Communities that have strong bonds and strong emotional and spiritual resilience, those are precisely the communities that have climate resilience, that are able to adapt to the negative effects of climate change more effectively.”

Estrada said her role as eco-chaplain at USC included helping students understand and cope with the grief, sadness, fear, and other challenging emotions that accompany the climate crisis.

“When I would open up the table for discussion, students really wanted to talk about stories about what’s going back home,” Estrada said. “Students who are actively responding to climate change in an academic or professional way say, ‘I don’t feel like I am doing enough,’ the weight of climate change really [bearing] on them.”

Eco-chaplaincy lends itself beyond traditional faith practices, due to its connection to the planet. But Alison Cornish, coordinator of the Chaplaincy Initiative at the BTS Center, said interfaith adoption of the practice is partly influenced by an impulse of faiths that seek to go beyond their own walls.

“We wanted people to experience care. We needed to go to them rather than wait for them to come to us. Now, to do that without also proselytizing is something that was really important in our [Unitarian Universalist] tradition,” she said.

Teaching climate-conscious chaplaincy

In recent years, several academic programs and certificates, like the one at Sewanee, have emerged to formally educate eco-chaplains and create a pathway for more to explore nature-based healing and reconnection.

The 18-month program at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, where Birch was trained, focuses on teaching environmentally based spiritual care through online sessions as well as two week-long retreats out in the wilderness.

Ram Appalaraju, who was a member of Sati’s 2021 cohort and is now one of its teachers, said the Buddhist teaching of interconnectedness and living in harmony with all other living beings is a very environmentalist approach in itself.

“Climate change has caused a lot of adversity and suffering in people’s minds, from loneliness to despair, they are feeling the brunt of it,” he said. “Buddhism allows us to cultivate the state of mind, the state of heart that sees the connection inherent in everything we have around us. We support those people to find reason, meaning, and really telling them that your work matters, you are having an impact.”

The training at the Sati Center eco-chaplaincy program not only involves training in chaplaincy skills, but also training in rituals including listening circles, meditation circles, and the importance of building support through community. Since the beginning of the program during the pandemic, the center has trained more than 70 eco-chaplains.

The BTS Center has also launched a program for climate-conscious chaplaincy. Cornish, who founded the program with support from the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, said that she prefers the term “climate-conscious chaplaincy” to eco-chaplaincy because she doesn’t want to relegate environment-related spiritual care to a specific type of chaplain. Instead, she believes every chaplain should be trained in climate-conscious care because of how central it is becoming to the general work of chaplaincy.

“A climate-conscious chaplain might sit with a family who has lost their home to a flood or a fire, so that is disaster spiritual care,” she said. “But grief leads to something. It might mean an activist stance, it might lead to writing, it might lead to developing a ritual or ceremony, it might lead to righteous anger. That’s something that a climate-conscious chaplain might do.”

The future of eco-chaplaincy

Cornish has been seeing a need for climate-conscious chaplaincy training show up for a lot of people who are undergoing seminary or clinical pastoral education, largely due to the increasing prevalence of extreme weather and climate-change fueled natural disasters.

“We know that the recovery period from these disasters is really different and much longer,” she said. “I would love for climate consciousness to come into disaster spiritual care in such a way that it informs how people prepare, how people are tended to during an incident and for how long, and what kinds of care they get following a disaster.”

Cornish hopes that the BTS Center and other environmentally conscious faith organizations would become safe places where people can bring their questions and thoughts about climate change that they normally wouldn’t be able to talk about.

“We’re not here to have an agenda, we’re not here to fix or solve or to influence an outcome with any particular agenda. It’s to create a friendly, compassionate, open space for the presence of spirit to just be,” Birch said. “There’s so much that we don’t know. If we are to move into a new phase of emergence as a species to meet the challenges of this time, it helps to provide a presence to the capacity of the human spirit, whether that be through spiritual resources or in completely other ways.”