Green Congregation Program
There are many strategies to be pursued in the course of greening a congregation. What follows are some suggestions to consider as you chart you own course. Attend to those most relevant to your congregation and most appropriate to your assets and opportunities. See resources at the bottom of this page.
Keep the larger purpose in mind. Any effort to green a congregation is related to the degradations of the eco-system of Earth and the human efforts to restore rather than to destroy our Earth habitat. As Christians, we are called to be servants and keepers of God’s whole creation. In your Green Team meetings, include a brief educational/ devotional component that centers everyone to their larger purposes in meeting.
You are not alone. Congregational efforts are part of a larger ecclesial movement to incorporate care for creation into the life and mission of the church. There are many religious faiths working for the environment—the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, The National Council of Churches Eco-justice Working Group, the National Catholic Conference, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. There are numerous para-religious groups (see links here).
Double your commitment to human justice. Every ecological problem affects the human community, usually having the greatest impact on the most vulnerable—the poor, people of color, third world countries, the elderly, the disabled, among others. Every human justice problem is exacerbated by the degradation of creation. It is sometimes thought that social justice and care for creation undercut each other. The truth is that we desperately need commitment to both causes as one commitment, because the concerns are inextricably intertwined. Therefore, as you articulate your care for creation, double your commitment to human justice, because the recognition of the role played by the environment will give you an awareness of the full extent of the injustice. So, as you plan activities, ask: How does this further the care for all creation?
Keep the immediate goal in mind. The immediate goal is to transform the life and mission of the congregation so that care for creation is incorporated into every aspect of the congregation. The key here is that the “environment” is not one more issue among others. Rather, as we define it, care for creation is fundamental to what it means to be human. It is as fundamental as “Love God, love your neighbor, and love creation.” Hence, the approach is to make the care for all creation an integral part of every aspect of the life of the congregation.
Seek to act out of gratitude and grace. In response to the ecological state of the world, it is natural for people to be motivated by fear or grief or guilt or outrage. While these emotions are indeed appropriate responses, they are not a solid basis to make wise decisions, and they will not sustain one’s efforts in the long run. This is true both for your own sources of life-giving support and for the motivation you seek to engender in others. Be alarming without being alarmist. Do not become the environmental police. Avoid raging against the powers that be. This advice in no way minimizes either the problems or our part in them or the urgency of the situation. We should seek to work positively and constructively out of the deep reservoir of God’s grace present in nature itself.
You are not starting from scratch. There are many different ways to get a started on the process of transforming your congregation into a community that cares for creation. It is likely that there are already a number of people who recycle and reuse. There are probably people who read about environmental issues but have never connected them to their faith or parish community. There may or may not be a lot of people willing to jump in and take a leadership role in getting the congregation involved; but that does not matter, because it only takes a few folks to make a lot happen for everyone. Make use of commitments already there.
Different Levels of Commitment. The key to understanding how this works is that you want to think about different levels of commitment. Do not assume everyone will be involved at the same level. Some people may take leadership roles in initiating programs and ideas. Others may be part of the church governing board to authorize or approve plans and related budget items. Others may be members of committees (such as the property committee) that would carry out a project. Still others may teach children, youth or adults in one class or another. Virtually everyone may be involved simply by participating in the bulletin recycling program after worship or by turning out lights in the bathroom when they leave. Celebrate the level at which everyone does their part, without expecting everyone to be involved at the same level of commitment.
It Only Takes a Few. So you may need a few people to get the ball rolling. This can be done whether you are a pastor or a lay leader or an interested parishioner. If you are a pastor, you may be in a position to give some impetus or direction to the process of becoming a creation-caring community. If you are a lay person, you may want to ask permission or inform the church council that you are planning on initiating some of these efforts in the parish, or you may wish to seek out others in the community who would be interested in offering some leadership on these issues with you. If you are in a position to get a formal committee or subcommittee established, all the better. You may talk personally with others who may be interested or you may want to put a notice in the bulletin or newsletter inviting anyone interested to a meeting. There may already be a standing committee of social concerns where it is appropriate to initiate eco-justice concerns. It is best to keep the process as open as possible and let the leadership and the congregation know what is happening and what is being planned. There may be people who object to the presence of this issue in the church; however, it is not necessary to achieve consensus in order for those who wish to go forward to do so. In the paragraphs below, we outline several first steps that may be taken.
Small Group. A small group or committee may form in the congregation in an ad hoc way and begin to serve as leaven for the rest of the congregation. The group may carry out projects on their own, propose projects for the church council to approve, and promote ecological concerns through education and other promotional means. The task before you requires only a small group of dedicated and committed people who are willing to grasp a vision for the congregation and to stay at it for the long term. One individual or a small group of people can do the planning together and recommend the projects to other groups from year to year. Seek to diversify involvement in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and occupation. Always have open meetings promoted so that all who wish to participate may do so.
Get Authorized. It is so important to locate the committee in the congregational structure. It may stand on its own, for example, under the aegis of the governing board. Or it may serve as a subcommittee of another committee, with a member of the oversight committee serving as a liaison member. It may simply be necessary for the small group of people working to green the congregation to let the pastors and governing board to know of their work and seek their blessing or authorization to proceed. Report regularly to those to whom you are accountable and let your activities be known to the community.
The strategy of the Committee is to green the whole congregation. It is crucial to recognize that the purpose of a committee is not to do all or even most of the “care for creation” activities but to serve as leaven to green the congregation as a whole. The committee functions as a catalyst to lead other committees and employees of the church to incorporate eco-justice concerns into their arena of responsibility. In this way, everyone participates and takes ownership at different levels and in different ways. The committee serves the whole congregation, such that care for creation becomes part of the ethos of entire life of the congregation.
Develop an Action Plan: It is important to have a plan for greening your congregation. Otherwise, the process will be scattered-shot and haphazard. It is also important for the plan to be comprehensive. Otherwise the actions will be quite limited. We recommend the following model to use when making an action plan. It has five areas: Worship, Education, Building and Grounds, Discipleship at Home and Work, and Public Ministry (www.webofcreation.org). We encourage you to keep coming back to this action plan regularly so that you keep the larger picture before you and that you keep the process of brainstorming and planning as an ongoing part of your work.
Make it policy/ Institutionalize It: Institutionalize and regularize the actions as quickly as possible. This way, it will not depend on the committee to suggest them anew each year. For example, if you celebrate Earth Week one year, seek to make it a regular part of the worship schedule for every year. If you purchase green cleaning products, make that a standard procedure. Do not reinvent the wheel each year!
Do not try to do it all at once: Do not be overwhelmed by all that there is to do or all that could be done. The idea is to choose projects that are manageable and that have a good chance of coming to fruition. You cannot do all of them at once. So pick and choose. You will find that there are good starter projects. As you reach a threshold of interest/ support, other more ambitious projects will be possible. Celebrate what you get done without worrying about what does not get done. You can only do what you can do!
Work cooperatively and realistically. One goal of the committee is to foster eco-justice decisions and events among all activities and offices of the congregation. You may want to promote care for creation worship with the Worship Committee. Or you may want to promote Earth friendly lawn care with the custodian. Or you may want to develop a relationship with the Education Committee to suggest a creation theme in the next Vacation Church School. Look around to see assets and opportunities. The role of the committee is to suggest, encourage, support, and offer resources—rather than to take over any decision-making or job belonging to another. Again, do not try to do too much at once. Work realistically and cooperatively with people. In a small, close-knit community like a congregation, there is little place for pressure or protest. Invitation, cooperation, influence, and support will go a long way.
Assess assets and opportunities. Find ways to identify the people who are already committed to eco-justice and seek to determine the nature of that commitment. The congregation is a busy place. People are already committed to tasks in the congregation. So, as much as possible, work with the committees already present. Encourage people not to add on new tasks but to incorporate care for creation into the tasks they already have. Build a green congregation around the opportunities at hand.
Get everyone involved at some level. Strategize how to get everyone involved in some aspect of the greening of the congregation. Only a few people need to join the committee. Engage people at the level of their involvement, in relation to the things they already care about—some in worship, some in teaching, some in community activism, everyone in recycling and conserving energy, and so on. Try to identify the nature of everyone’s potential involvement and then challenge them in that commitment.
Keep care for creation before the attention of the community. Through worship, educational programs, Bible studies, green notes in the bulletins and newsletters, with displays, and so on, let people know the importance of the work of becoming earth-keepers who care about ecological justice. When the congregation grows, make care for creation part of the training for new members. A brochure may help in this endeavor. If one goal is to shape the ethos of the congregation; then care for creation becomes part of the atmosphere!
Provide practices and events that are repeated each year. Devise a strategy that keeps the commitment going and keeps the concerns before the community. For example, the committee may seek to foster some key events each year, such as:
Presentations in worship at the beginning of each fall.
Worship service in which members make a “covenant with creation.”
Celebrate the Season of Creation.
Blessing of the Animals on St. Francis Day (October 2)
Open committee meetings with an educational component
Adult forums for the congregation with guest speakers
An event with the youth, with the women’s group, with the older members.
Earth Week worship
Such a structure will give a familiar pattern to the program from year to year and engage committee members in keeping care for creation before the community. Delegate the responsibility for each of these events to the appropriate groups/ committees. Plan only those activities that you have resources and energy to carry out.
Seek to be in touch with nature. The feelings of closeness to nature are crucial for the commitment to care for creation. Nurture this relationship for the community—whether through greening the sanctuary with plants or getting a naturalist to show you the area of your congregation or providing retreat opportunities for the council or the congregation. We seek to restore nature by being in solidarity with all creation rather than by manipulating it from above. We are called to love creation as God does. We will not save what we do not love.
Develop a description of the tasks of the Green Team. It might include items such as:
Work to green every aspect of the life of the congregation
Prepare an action plan and carry out the plan
Network and cooperate with the offices and programs of the congregation
Organize and sponsor meetings, lectures, workshops when feasible
Promote care for creation among the members in their homes and work
Update the description each year.
Publicize, publicize, publicize. Community organizers say that in order to promote effectively a movement or an event, you must do so in seven different media. Try e-mail, bulletin blurbs, newsletter articles, posters, personal contact, phone trees, announcements, bulletin boards, a brochure, among others. Even if fewer people than you had hoped show up for an event, the whole community knows what is happening.
You may wish to have a series of classes in the evening or a series of forums on Sunday morning (perhaps coupled with sermons on our responsibility to creation). There are many resources available for such classes. Here are some ideas:
- Explore Biblical passages dealing with our human relationship with creation
- Study your denomination's social statements on the care for creation and on environmental justice
- Look at the local church resource center or church press catalogues for curriculum on caring for creation.
- Watch one of the many videos available for such a forum.
- Get speakers from local high schools or colleges who have expertise in environmental issues.
- Get speakers from local agencies that deal with eco-justice issues.
- Do a series of case studies on the environment.
- Get in touch with your denominational office responsible for environmental ministry and ask about resources and speakers.
- Identify other churches in the area who have done environmental ministry and ask them to share their experiences.
The educational process may enable you to find out who has a commitment to do further work with environmental ministry in the congregation. The group may plan a project or suggestion further steps. One congregation that held a six-week study on Sunday mornings decided at the last session to do a project retrofitting all the lights in the building!
Retreat. It may be that you want to invite interested persons on a retreat for a day or two to a place in the countryside. The retreat might include:
- discussion of people's concerns and experiences;
- input from an informed person about the environmental state of the world;
- opportunities to discuss particular local environmental problems;
- the relationship between environmental and justice issues;
- study of an eco-justice manual for congregational life;
- formulation of a plan to continue the process.
There are educational resources available in video format or church school curriculum that may be used to plan the retreat. It may be possible for the members of the retreat to commit themselves to a project, then meet again for another retreat in six months to report on the success of the project, and to plan another project, and so on; or you might formulate a plan for the next steps to engage the whole congregation.
Church Council. Plan a retreat for the church council or plan a presentation that would inform the congregation about environmental ministry as an important part of parish life and mission. From there, you may want to form a task force or standing committee or a subcommittee of the Social Concerns committee to begin the process of environmental ministry.
Survey. Do a survey of the congregation to determine who is interested, who has a commitment, what concerns people have, how they view the environmental state of the nation and the world, what experiences they have had, what expertise they may have, and so on. From the responses, plan a retreat or form a committee in order to share the results of the survey and to set a direction for the group and the congregation.
Keeping a Log/ Make Annual Reports. It would be helpful if one person was willing to keep a record of what was considered and how it was done and what the outcome was. This record will draw others into the process who were not there from the beginning. It will also track all that you do so the congregation can begin to build an identity as a community that cares for creation. Publicize your successes and achievements.
What’s in a name? It is important to name your endeavor or identity. People will respond to a name and remember what your congregation is doing in becoming green. You will want a name that refers to the whole congregation: Green Congregation, Green Zone, Eco-justice Center, Care for Creation Congregation, and so on. Draw on the symbols and ideas from your tradition to connect your efforts to your denomination. Develop a logo that reflects your purpose. You may want to name the committee accordingly or have different name. It might help to call it a “team” (such as The Green Team or The Eco-justice Working Group or The Creation-Care Group) rather than a “committee”—as a means to emphasize the idea that it is not one committee among many but a catalyst and leaven for all the committees and programs.
You will need people resources. To a greater or lesser degree, you will need both persons and money to carry out activities of the action plan. To identify persons, it might help to send out a survey or request a survey response at several worship services. The survey might assess interest, skills related to environmental projects (such as a garden or publicity), environment-related occupations, desire to be on the Green Team, the willingness to participate in one environmental projects, the eagerness to give financial support to the program, and so on. Follow through with positive responses.
You will need financial resources. Of course, there are many activities and events that do not cost the committee or the congregation. However, it may be possible to get a line item in the budget. Or the committee could apply for a grant from local or national church organizations. Your committee may be able to cooperate with other groups or organizations that have funds. Fund raisers are very helpful. Make sure the kind of fund raiser you embrace furthers the environmental efforts, such as selling compact fluorescent light bulbs or fair trade products.
Seek Recognition as a Green Congregation. The committee and the congregation may wish to seek accreditation from the Green Congregation Program. Such a program will give focus to your efforts. The achievement of the accreditation will also give publicity and a boost to the efforts. And there will be incentive to develop ongoing plans as means to maintain the accreditation.
The success of the program will draw new members. Prospective members who learn about your environmental activities and the greening of your parish will often consider this an important factor, perhaps the decisive factor, in their choice of a church home.
Be visionary. Instead of thinking about change as incremental in relation to what now exists, imagine the congregation as it might be 50 years from now in an ecological age when every aspect of the life and activities of the culture will be ecologically restorative—a place where the love for all creation and the care for all human and non-human creatures is obvious. Such a vision may lead you to make a leap forward in an area and act in prophetic ways to live out our call to be servants and keepers of Earth.
Conclusion. These are some ideas and suggestions for your consideration when setting up your own program. You will find what works best for you and what the pitfalls are as you go. The helpful thing is that when you have done a certain number of activities, you will attain a threshold of support that will enable you to do things you could not do before. Make the best use of these moments. Then when you have done further activities, you will attain another level that thrusts you forward even further. Before long, there is a climate in the congregation, a sense of identity, which empowers you to generate personal and institutional commitments that were not otherwise possible.
- Checklist for Getting Started
- Eight Strategies to Engage the Whole Congregation
- Names and Symbols; Promoting Your Identity
- Using a Parish Model
- What Church Leaders Should Learn About Caring for Creation
- Green Congregation Certification Process