Eight Strategies to Engage the Whole Congregation
What Steps to Take to Involve Many Members of the Community
at Different Levels of Commitment
Here are some ways to get the entire congregation engaged in caring for creation.
Prayer and Bible Study. For discernment and the leading of the Spirit, begin and end your conversations and decisions by entering into prayer. In relation to care for creation, pray for your congregation, for your community and for the world. Gather participants around relevant Scripture passages. Identify passages that resonate with your community. A farming community may connect with creation stories. Communities close to wilderness or desert may seek Job. Inner city congregations may look to the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. All worshipping communities can relate to Psalm 104. In all your deliberations, stay rooted in biblical resources and the good news of the gospel.
Strategy One: Brainstorming as a Basis for Action
A small group or the church council may want to brainstorm about what your particular congregation might do to care for Earth. It might help to work with a model or list of ideas as a basis for suggesting possibilities. The idea or ideas might be presented to the church council for approval and for the delegation of tasks to carry out the initiative. The proposal should include cost, the people or committee to carry it out, timeline, and specific suggestions for whatever might be needed to complete the project. It would be helpful to begin with projects that have the greatest chance for success.
Strategy Two: Learning as a Basis for Action
This approach provides an opportunity for many people in the congregation to learn about care for Earth as an entry into possible organizing or taking action. The idea would be to have a forum or series of adult forums or a six-week class focused on care for creation. There are many resources available for leaders to draw upon as a basis for such a forum—congregational handbooks, denominational printed resources, denominational representatives, books oriented to lay people, internet sites, and local people with expertise in some issues. From the group engaged in these forums, there might emerge a core group of people eager to take leadership in enabling more to happen.
Strategy Three: Listening and Consensus as a Basis for Action. Develop a process for a small group to have one-to-one listening relationships with members of the congregation in order 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 what projects they would like the congregation to embrace. From the responses, plan an event to share the results of the “listening” and to set a direction for the group and the congregation.
Strategy Four: Action Based on Need
This is an approach that assesses the needs. The idea is to identify the need and then marshal the congregation and its members to address the problem. Here the congregation can look to identify needs at different levels:
- The Parish: If there is a need to save money, the congregation may look at energy costs and determine a comprehensive approach to addressing them—insulation, boiler maintenance, heat distribution, a grant for “starter-funds” to get energy efficient lighting, and so on.
- The Community: Perhaps a nearby stream has been polluted and is causing health problems for the community; so, you organize to engage in habitat restoration or urge the local government to address the issue. Maybe an incinerator is causing health problems or a local factory is exceeding federal standards of emissions and causing local health problems or the water supply is being polluted by runoff pesticides. The parish can provide leadership in community organizing.
- State and Nation: Many in the congregation might be concerned that federal standards for clean water or clean air are being eroded and desire to engage in letter writing or phone campaigns to express their concerns and advocate for certain actions or legislation. This can also be true for other issues (e.g. smog, ozone, water conservation, logging, etc.)
- Global: The effects of global climate change loom large and the congregation can marshal its resources to bring influence to bear on government representatives to address the issue. Some in the congregation may be aware of global efforts to address climate change and related problems. There may be a desire to learn more about international conferences or treaties and to urge government to participate.
Strategy Five: Action Based on Opportunities
Opportunity-based organizing involves acting on an opportunity that does not necessarily involve a specific need. For example, you have property that is not well-developed and you can make a nature sanctuary area; or you are building an addition or a new building and have the chance to incorporate many eco-design features into your new building. Your grounds lend themselves to establishing a community garden, so you seek to gather people who might organize and lead the community to develop and care for such a garden, perhaps to benefit the poor in the neighborhood. Perhaps the youth group is looking for a service project. The opportunities are endless.
Strategy Six: Action Based on Congregational Assets
This approach draws upon the assets of the congregation. Instead of trying to identify needs and seeing how they can be met, this approach looks to assess all the resources available among members of the congregation as well as the assets of the congregation as a whole, and then to develop ways to move forward making use of these assets.
You will find many people already committed to care for Earth in a variety of ways—people who read about environmental issues, people who are recycling or composting as an expression of their commitment, people engaged in social justice that are deeply entwined with creation-care, or people who are concerned about the issue but are not sure how to act on their concern. Some folks may already have seen their concerns as a religious issue, while others may never have made the connection between their faith and their care for Earth. Now is an opportunity to encourage such people to transform their concern into a religious practice or discipline. People who already have a commitment to Earth-care may be the greatest resource, and their commitment—once expressed—can be contagious for others.
In addition, many resources/assets in the congregation will come from people already doing environmentally-related activities in their jobs, people who may have ideas and expertise that would generate many actions and much learning for the congregation:
- Salespersons who sell energy saving appliances/ heating and air-conditioning units
- Engineers who promote energy efficient lighting
- Nurses who know about healthy diets that promote eco-concerns
- Farmers who are committed to environmentally-safe farming practices
Such people can serve as consultants for decision-making, offer forums on relevant topics, or just be part of a discussion group.
In addition, there will be people who have skills and interests that can be very helpful in enabling the congregation to become a creation-caring congregation. Those interested in gardening can develop a community garden on the grounds—for the benefit of food pantries and needy families. Abilities and interests—from boiler maintenance, to landscaping, to bringing greenery into the church, to insulating windows, to carpooling to church—can be a part of your congregation's environmental mission. Once people see the vision for their parish, many interested people may come forward.
Finding out about the resources can involve a survey shared through the church newsletter or distributed at a service or congregational meeting. It can also be done by phone pools or internet forms. Questions could include:
- How would you state your concern or commitment to care for creation?
- What eco-friendly practices do you do? Recycling, reusing, eco-purchases?
- Do you have a job that relates to environmental issues (list examples)?
- Do you have interests or hobbies that might be helpful (list examples)?
- Have you related these concerns to your faith and faith community? If so, how?
- Would you be willing to express/ act on your concern and gifts as a Christian?
- Would you be willing to meet and explore what our congregation could do?
Based on the gathering of information about these resources, some suggestions for action could be made that reflect the interests, commitments, and gifts of the people. Bringing a group of folks together around these issues might lead to some concrete decisions.
Strategy Seven: Action Based on Consensus
Here is an opportunity to survey the church or a group meeting to assess what people would be willing to do by consensus. A small group would prepare information about a range of things that could be done to care for Earth. For each item, a description is given, then the cost, payback possibilities, who would do it and how, and so on. (Be sure to include some items that people would be likely to support!) Then, people would check if they would support enthusiastically, support provisionally, be cautious about, or outright oppose each item. Space should be given to allow people to explain their reasons (objections that could perhaps be addressed). Here are some project ideas:
- Recycling bins for the church
- Nontoxic cleaning supplies
- Retrofitting the lighting in the church
- Incorporate creation concerns into worship life
- Circulate a petition supporting efforts to address global climate change
It is best to determine your own list based on needs and opportunities in your congregation and the larger community, and on the commitment of parish members.
Strategy Eight: Join Forces
You may want to proceed by joining up with folks from a nearby congregation or people from another religious tradition. Some congregations naturally yoke well together. There may be a community project that needs the commitment of several organizations and more people. The cooperation may enable projects done in common to benefit from the low prices of contractors. Cooperation among several congregations may enable financial resources that would not be available from only one congregation. A project in the community, such as habitat restoration or opposition to the construction of an incinerator, might best be done by as many local organizations and groups as possible. The cooperation with people from other traditions gives an opportunity to learn from each other ways of addressing our ecological situation theologically, spiritually, and ethically.
In addition, you may want to work together with organizations that are not faith-based, in order to support them in a project they are doing already or to initiate a new project. Such groups might include local branches of national organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Association, Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society, or Transitions US. Or you might join with local environmental organizations, such as the garden groups, tree-planting organizations, Community Supported Agriculture, Land trust societies, among others. We need all the cooperation we can muster among many groups in the quest to care for Earth. This is an effort that can unify rather than divide communities, and we need to do our part to foster such unity.
We suggest all these strategies not to overwhelm you with possibilities but to affirm that there are indeed many ways to proceed. The idea is to find what might be best for your congregation, given the interest you already have, given the personality of the congregation, and given the particular organization and procedures for decision-making. There will be obstacles along the way, which we hope that you are able to translate into challenges or find ways to shift gears and move in new directions. The goal is to keep moving forward together toward an integration of care for creation into the full life and mission of your congregation.