Green Congregations Promote Sustainability

Whether your church goes solar, diverts money from utilities to missions or plants a community garden, you can find creative and sustainable ways to model that the earth is the Lord’s.

Flatbush Reformed day camp learns about composting
Flatbush Reformed day camp learns about composting

Whether your church goes solar, diverts money from utilities to missions, or plants a community garden—you can find creative and sustainable ways to model that the earth is the Lord’s.

At St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in Toronto, Ontario, the exterior of the narthex (lobby) embodies Canada’s geological history, because the walls use limestone embedded with fossils of ancient sea creatures. Inside the narthex, worshipers inhale the fresh scent of a living green wall—a vertical frame of soil and plants. Seeing and hearing water trickling down the green wall reminds people that they are baptized and have gathered to praise their Creator.

Passive solar-efficient plumbing, recycled pews, and other features helped St. Gabriel’s become the first church in Canada to achieve gold level LEED certification. Mark Torgerson describes it and other North American congregations in his book Greening Spaces for Worship and Ministry: Congregations, Their Buildings, and Creation Care.

“Making a commitment to greening the life of a faith community is necessary if we are to model our belief that the earth is the Lord's, and fulfill our primary charge to serve and protect the creation,” Torgerson writes. And, as countless churches have discovered, you can begin greening your building and grounds with little or no money.

Start where you are

If your church is preparing for a building or renovation project or a staff change, then you have a wonderful opportunity to become better stewards of God’s creation. You can also begin with basic practices that everyone should implement to preserve the earth for future generations.

When St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish outgrew their deteriorating facility, they knew they wanted to “build green” and reduce energy costs in their new church. But as Father Paul Cusack explains on the church website, “Our primary motivation was to establish a link between the sacredness of the gathered community of Faith and the sacredness of the Earth.”

That’s why the narthex does more than use flowing water to remind worshipers of their baptism. It also overlooks a water feature that channels rainwater from the roof into an efficient drip irrigation system and rain gardens. Church bathrooms use waterless urinals, dual low-flush toilets, and low-flow sink fittings. Architect Roberto Chiotti often explains that it’s a contradiction for churches to use “the precious natural resource of water as a primary religious symbol while willfully contributing to its ongoing degradation.”

In Greening Spaces for Worship and Ministry, Torgerson also profiles churches that used renovation and expansion or historic preservation projects as fresh starts for promoting sustainability. His final chapters give green ideas that any church can adopt.

It often makes sense to change light bulbs, recycle paper, or insulate before you launch a scientific or theological campaign about going green. That’s according to Peter Sawtell, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Eco-Justice Ministries. He advises pointing out, after the fact, that the new light bulbs save energy, “cause less pollution of God’s creation,” and save money for the church.

Sawtell has found that quietly shifting toward responsible building and grounds practices often inspires churches to explore other ways to value God’s creation in worship and congregational life.

Free up money for ministry

Tight finances prod some churches to conserve energy. Many find that—just as God provides sun, rain, and oxygen—resources already exist to help congregations audit and reduce energy use.

St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Ottawa, Ontario, realized that its leaky old front door and inefficient furnace were costing them. “It’s like throwing money out the window. If we spend less on heating, we can spend more on ministry,” Gregor Sneddon said in a brief video posted online. His congregation received a diocesan grant to help pay for a Green Audit from Greening Sacred Spaces, an ecumenical nonprofit in Ontario and Manitoba. The auditor suggested short-term and long-term projects, along with budgets, paybacks, and a baseline for measuring how well the improvements reduce costs and energy. 

In County Cork, Ireland, Clonakilty Methodist Church used free checklists from A Rocha Eco-Congregation. This eco-audit helped them identify environmental priorities for their building and assess creation awareness in worship and outreach. Gradually they replaced their boiler, lights, cleaning products, and energy provider. They now use Fair Trade coffee and tea and host joint events with local churches to support animal welfare and international development projects.

First African Baptist Church (FAB) in Savannah, Georgia, still worships in the brick building constructed after-hours by slaves in 1859. The congregation received a matching grant from the Georgia affiliate of Interfaith Power & Light to insulate its attic. FAB recouped its grant share in energy savings in less than two years. It also hosted free home energy audit classes for the community.

Faith in Place, a Chicago nonprofit, helped Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church begin conversations about environmental issues. The congregation switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, weatherized its building, and gave weatherization kits to shut-ins and seniors.

Baptisms at Resurrection Lutheran Church now happen with sun-warmed water. Faith in Place connected Resurrection with government programs that provided more than half the cost of becoming Chicago’s first church with solar hot water. A denominational loan also helped. Pastor Brian Hiortdahl said the system would save about 70 percent in annual water-heating costs. During sermons he has described Resurrection’s solar roof panels as a way to practice “Easter hope for God’s bludgeoned and suffering earth” and to remember Psalm 113: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.”

Consider the common good

Christians often talk about being God’s stewards of the earth, not owners. Yet we live in cultures that glorify individual property rights and quick profits. Congregations that put a higher value on cooperating with God and nature can be a living example of the shalom God intends for all creation.

In Greening Spaces, Torgerson writes that neighbors weren’t happy when Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church built on ten acres in Homer Glen, Illinois. But a few years later, when the township began focusing on environmental care, Annunciation decided to lead by example. It redeveloped its property to create community walking and biking trails through restored prairie and forest habitats.

Annunciation added a green roof, rain gardens, permeable pavement, and more to reduce storm water runoff to area homes. It has since won several conservation awards, and community respect.

Urban areas suffer when buildings, roads, and non-permeable parking lots replace vegetation and moist areas. These developed surfaces can be 50–90°F (27–50°C) hotter than the air, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. High heat increases energy use, pollutes air and water, and hurts human health.

That’s why Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church in Oklahoma City has planted so many trees on church property. When they repaved, they created parking lot islands for trees which will eventually shade the whole lot. “When we reroofed our parish building, we paid extra to have the new roof painted white to reflect light. Our reason was to mitigate the urban heat island effect," says Bob Waldrop, Epiphany’s music director. He is author of iPermie: How to permaculture your urban lifestyle.

Churches around the world build community gardens, greenhouses, berry patches, and fruit and nut orchards. Some grow flowers for nursing homes and produce for food pantries. Others provide individual plots for refugees who want to learn English, neighbors, or homeless people who crave fresh food. Several churches combine gardens and greenhouses with youth or employment programs.

Wildwood Church in Tallahassee, Florida and Englewood Church in Indianapolis, Indiana open their kitchens each summer for community canning so people can preserve fresh produce.

Featured Links

Learn More

Buy Greening Spaces for Worship and Ministry: Congregations, Their Buildings, and Creation Care by Mark Torgerson. Connect with Torgerson and see green congregation photos on the book’s Facebook page. Get more ideas from churches profiled in Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate by Mallory McDuff.

Watch Steve Fridsma’s “Creation Care for Church Facilities” presentation, archived from the 2010 Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Use free assessments from these organizations to identify sustainable first steps for your church: A Rocha Eco-Congregation, Eco-Justice Ministries, Energy Star, and GreenFaith. Learn about loans and grants available from Greening Sacred Spaces (Canada) or your Interfaith Power & Light state affiliate (U.S.). Your denomination, regional ecumenical association, or local utility company may have programs to help you pay for conservation measures.

Learn how churches in Australia and Canada are greening their outdoor spaces. Imagine if your church became a community source of free fruits, berries, and nuts. It’s already happening with the Incredible Edible model, the Fallen Fruit network, and communities described in Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture by Darrin Nordahl.

Start A Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, building and grounds, board, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about how creation care and sustainability function (or not) in your setting.

  • What is your favorite example of how God is intimately involved in restoring creation? How does this example intersect with your life?
  • What environmental practices are common in your community’s homes and businesses? These might include recycling, water conservation, or using public transit. Does your church meet these community standards?
  • In what ways do your church architecture, building, and grounds proclaim God’s love for creation or your congregation’s desire to heal and preserve the earth for future generations?

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