Green Your Church

The award-winning environmental ministry of Haygood United Methodist Church in Atlanta got started in 2007, when the climate gave congregant and stay-at-home mom Willa Paton-Smith a wake-up call. “We were experiencing a level-four drought and record temperatures, and it just felt like this is something we should be concerned about,” she told Sojourners. Today, the Green Team she leads is helping sustainability spread throughout the church’s ministries, from reusable mugs at coffee hour to a recycling plant tour during Vacation Bible School. Greening your church building can mean not only shrinking its carbon footprint, but also hosting educational events and getting active in policy advocacy. “Coming out of these things, there’s always some political problem that has to be dealt with,” says Paul Burks, a retired minister and leader in the Earthkeeping Task Force at Christ Church, a United Methodist congregation in Santa Rosa, California. So how can you get started?

  • Root everything in faith. Paton-Smith first showed fellow congregants a PowerPoint presentation based on the social principles of their United Methodist denomination: “It’s really hard for people to object to, when it’s there in black and white.”
  • Start small. “Recycling is one of the easiest first steps—it’s visible once it’s set up properly, and it’s very satisfying,” says Paton-Smith. Christ Church’s Burks, a former editor of EarthLight magazine, began by showing videos after worship and inviting discussion.
  • Build enthusiasm. “The key is to get people excited about something. That’s the goal—not to change them, not to get them to do something, but to get them excited, and out of that will come all sorts of new ideas,” says Burks. His group organized an appearance by environmentalist Bill McKibben that drew 700 attendees and an alliance of 40 local organizations.
  • Get an energy audit. This will tell you where your building is leaking energy, whether solar is a likely option, and what steps will get the biggest environmental return on your investment. Your utility company may offer a free audit; if not, your state chapter of Interfaith Power & Light can refer you to a good contractor (expect to invest around $1,000 for the audit).
  • Navigate potential resistance. “Especially in the politically charged atmosphere before the last election, I had to think about my audience,” says Paton-Smith, who found that even the phrase “global warming” was perceived as political by some congregants—but “earth stewardship” helped defuse concerns by highlighting the biblical basis for action.
  • Keep taking it one step further. Christ Church’s group, in addition to addressing “energy consumption in our homes, our church, and even in our community,” is actively drawing connections between the environment, food, energy, and war and peace.

Bottom Line. Although taking environmental action in your building or in policy advocacy may seem daunting at first, the journey is energizing. “Once you get the low-hanging fruit,” Paton-Smith says, “it just leads you further and you want to take the next steps.”

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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