Today, fewer Americans belong to a house of worship or attend services regularly. The decline in religious participation offers challenges — and opportunities — for congregations determined to pursue environmental sustainability.
The teachings of most religions and denominations encourage, if not command, followers to care for God’s creation. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, many houses of worship have taken the message of environmental sustainability to heart. They tend to start with improving the day-to-day behaviors of their congregations: Recycling; using washable plates and cups and cutlery instead of disposables; or saving energy by setting the thermostat a few degrees higher in the summer and lower in the winter.
Next, congregations may look beyond human behavior to the operations of their buildings and grounds. They may install high-efficiency HVAC systems, plumbing and large appliances. Others may place solar panels on the roof and electric car charging stations in the parking lot. Or they adapt their grounds to better handle stormwater and to create community gardens to help feed the congregation and neighbors.
The goal of many, if not most, house-of-worship environmental sustainability programs is “net-zero emissions,” meaning a house of worship produces as much clean energy as it consumes.
“Most church sustainability guides — and there are many — ignore an even more obvious action to take to ensure true sustainability.”
Most church sustainability guides — and there are many — ignore an even more obvious action to take to ensure true sustainability: Using often grossly underused properties as fully and productively as possible for the community good.
With fewer religious followers and more improvements in internet connectivity, most congregations face a great mismatch between small, aging congregations and large, often deteriorating properties. A small number of worshipers meet in too-large sanctuaries on the sabbath, while education wings and other outbuildings lie underused or even unused.
Should a house of worship that achieves a net-zero carbon footprint but whose buildings serve few people few hours per week be considered environmentally sustainable?
Consider this example: Two city buses drive down the street. Bus No. 1 carries 60 passengers several hours every day of the week. Bus No. 2 carries six passengers only one day of the week. Bus No. 1 has to stop more often, open and close its doors more, and exerts more wear-and-tear on the engine and tires. Bus No. 2 enjoys relatively uninterrupted journeys and sits in the bus garage six days a week.
Which bus is more environmentally sustainable? Bus No. 2 might be adjudged more sustainable in the narrow net-zero sense, but most of us would agree that Bus No. 1 is in fact more environmentally sustainable. The full city bus draws its passengers from those who might otherwise be driving their own cars, greatly reducing overall emissions.
Houses of worship that decide to focus on environmental sustainability are being led to focus on energy production and consumption rather than consumption per person served, or even more broadly, for community purpose. To what ends are church properties being used and for how many people?
Congregations often don’t like the inconvenience of sharing their properties. Thomas E. Frank, dean emeritus of Wake Forest University, notes: “Congregations become as protective as homeowners, anxious not to scratch the new flooring, fearful of strangers moving into the neighborhood, welcoming only friends and family and ‘people like us.’”
“Many faith properties remain empty most of the week and are used only for a few hours even on the sabbath. “
As a result, many faith properties remain empty most of the week and are used only for a few hours even on the sabbath.
That model is not environmentally sustainable, not necessarily because the carbon footprint is large, but because the beneficiary population is small.
Contrast that with houses of worship that have purposefully opened their doors to other activities — sometimes because it helps fulfill their mission, sometimes because it helps a strapped congregation pay the bills, often both.
- Veirs Mill Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Md., hosts three immigrant congregations in addition to its own in a vibrant ethnic neighborhood.
- Jax Centre, formerly St. James the Apostle Anglican Church in Montreal, serves as home to an immigrant-serving agency, a circus and a circus school, in addition to a church.
- Emory Fellowship United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., developed 99 units of affordable and supportive housing as part of a mixed-use development on its underused land.
To ensure true environmental sustainability, in addition to pursuing net zero, houses of worship need to let the community in to the church, focusing on:
Mindset: Accept that the house of worship’s property is a community asset, not a private asset. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship offers creative ideas for its member churches in two volumes of case studies, “Sacred Spaces, Innovative Places.”
“Use as much of the house of worship’s property as possible, for as many hours as possible, in ways that assist the community.”
Properties: Use as much of the house of worship’s property as possible, for as many hours as possible, in ways that assist the community. A small congregation meeting in a huge building is not only environmentally problematic but financially questionable.
Measurement: While monitoring improvements to the carbon footprint, also measure the community impact of the house of worship’s real estate. How many people are being served, and with what impact on their lives?
Management/ownership: If the house of worship is unable for whatever reason to enliven its property, consider getting it into the hands of someone who can, whether it be through management or sale.
Of course, another important way houses of worship can become more environmentally sustainable is to educate their congregations for advocacy on environmental issues — get them to take an active role in local, state and federal efforts.
Striving for a zero-carbon footprint for the congregation and its properties is a laudable way to improve environmental sustainability. Equally or more important is for a house of worship to use its real estate to host activities that make it more than a clubhouse for its members and a true community asset.
Rick Reinhard is principal of Niagara Consulting Group of Rockville, Md., which assists houses of worship, judicatories and communities in reuse and redevelopment of faith properties. He served 30 years as a local city management and economic development leader before going to work as an official for The United Methodist Church.