[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Since its inception a decade ago, Mennonite Creation Care Network has called congregations in Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) and Mennonite Church Canada to respond to environmental crises with reflection, repentance and action. While the Network has not focused its efforts specifically on climate change, some of its congregations have embraced the issue. Over the past ten years, Mennonite congregations have installed solar panels, challenged their members to reduce personal carbon consumption, made local ecosystems more resilient and engaged in political action. This article investigates the factors that motivate some congregations to act while many in Canada and the U.S. still ignore the carbon counts that tick steadily upward. I interviewed representatives (including pastors, lay leaders and other congregational members) from four congregations actively responding to climate change to find out what common actions they undertook and what motivated and sustained those initiatives.
All of the churches in this study were majority white and college-educated, located in towns or cities with a university. Apart from those similarities, their contexts were quite different. Tucson’s Shalom Mennonite Fellowship bakes in the Sonoran Desert, while at First Mennonite Church in Edmonton, Alberta, people joke that global warming is a good thing. Huntington Mennonite Church is located in Newport News, Virginia—one of the communities in the U.S. most vulnerable to sea level rise. Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, nestles in the Shenandoah Valley and draws strength from ideas and activities at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).
The Park View and Huntington congregations have focused their environmental efforts specifically on climate change. Both churches aim to become completely independent of fossil fuels in the future and are approaching the issue systematically. At First Mennonite and Shalom, efforts have included climate change discussions, but have been focused more broadly. Most notable climate-related activities included an eco-footprint group at First Mennonite and water conservation measures at Shalom in response to increasing drought.
Each of the congregations interviewed share three characteristics that supported climate change action. First, each church has benefited from the leadership of a pastor with a long-term interest in creation care paired with one or more lay leaders with relevant professional expertise. At First Mennonite, the pairing involved a pastor with extensive experience in camp settings and an environmental sociologist. At Huntington, a NASA scientist whose job includes climate modeling teamed up with a pastor who “understood climate change from a theological perspective.” At Harrisonburg, a pastor who shared that “Creation care has been an interest of mine as long as I can remember” worked with a business professor who researches sustainability. Shalom’s pastor brought ten years of experience as the director of Christian Peacemaker Teams to her role. “It was work that CPT does in partnering with First Nations that made me understand how care of the earth and care of human rights are really the same thing,” she reported. Lay leaders at this church include a specialist in watershed management and several scientists who contributed to the congregation’s level of comfort with climate change science. While respondents were quick to state that their accomplishments were congregation-wide efforts, these teams were blessed with skilled pastoral and lay leadership.
Second, each of the congregations displayed an ability to integrate deeply held faith concepts with contemporary issues. A lay leader at First Mennonite told about the significance of God as Creator to his own conversion to Christianity and his ongoing work with climate change. A Shalom congregation member applied the language of stewardship to the congregation’s stormwater project, reflecting, “I believe God calls us to use science as a tool, to use religion as a tool and to put them together in some way that reflects reality, not what’s convenient for me.” Park View’s climate change reparations policy, meanwhile, reflects the congregation’s “commitment to mirror God’s love and care for creation and God’s love and care for the vulnerable and poor of the world.” The Huntington survey respondent highlighted Jesus’ relationship with creation as a model for the church’s action today. Respondents expressed these convictions in a faith language accessible to other churches.
Third, respondents from each of the congregations recognized climate change as a threat to themselves or to people to whom they felt a connection. For Huntington residents living near the coast, rising sea levels are local issues. Shalom members described the drought they lived with and the ways climate change played into the plight of immigrants supported by the congregation. International students from EMU and the overseas experiences of Park View members connected the church to areas vulnerable to climate change. For First Mennonite, the issue was prominent in a different way. One respondent explained:
In Alberta, there’s lots of talk about the oil and gas basis for the economy. That raises the question of what we’re going to do about our carbon emissions. But people both inside and outside of our church rely on resource extraction. It frames the conversation and impacts how we look at things. We realize people’s livelihoods are part of this.
One way or another, climate change touched each of these congregations directly, propelling them towards climate action.
Findings from this study offer encouragement for people of faith hoping the church will put its moral weight behind climate change efforts. First, many people are ready to confront climate change. A survey created by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, a program recently launched at EMU in collaboration with MCC and Goshen College, gauged responses to climate change within the Mennonite community. Almost two-thirds of MC USA respondents said they were alarmed by or concerned about climate change. This finding suggests that the majority of MC USA members are ready to engage climate change issues if provided with good leadership.
Second, effective communication goes a long way in enhancing support for climate change action. None of the four congregations reported conflict related to their climate change initiatives, possibly because their leaders were good communicators. Leaders used a variety of ways to communicate about initiatives and keep them on the front burner. These included announcements, children’s time, sermons and projects requiring hands-on labor from many volunteers. Furthermore, despite advanced levels of education, leaders explained the theological rationales for their climate change work in accessible language.
Finally, the study underscores the importance of leadership development. Both future pastors and potential environmental professionals now have opportunities to learn in faith-based settings where creation care is a priority. Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) expresses its desire to work at climate change through membership in the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, through curricular initiatives and by drawing energy from a large solar installation. Undergraduate opportunities abound, such as the three sustainability majors that Goshen College launched this year: these courses of study have the potential to develop more creation care leaders like the ones represented in this study.
For the Mennonite Creation Care Network, the most noteworthy finding from this congregational study is the conclusion that efforts to mobilize congregations to climate change action should focus more deliberately on pastors and their role as moral leaders and eco-theologians, as well as on environmental professionals within congregations. Secondly, the above research confirms the Network’s big-tent approach that encourages congregations to work at creation care in ways relevant to their own contexts. If people are motivated by threats they take personally, the most effective question for a congregation to ask may not be, “How can we fight climate change?” but rather, “What environmental concerns threaten us?” A zealous attack on air pollution will bring with it climate change benefits even if the motivator was childhood asthma, not a more abstract desire for carbon reduction. Healthy farms can sequester carbon no matter if the farmer fears climate change or soil erosion. By focusing on engaging pastors in creation care and encouraging congregations to find personal motivation for working on environmental issues, Mennonite Creation Care Network and other faith-based organizations can help to develop the characteristics within church congregations that lead to climate change action.
Jennifer Halteman Schrock is leader of Mennonite Creation Care Network and communications manager at Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center.
Mennonite Creation Care Network. Available at http://www.mennocreationcare.org/
Park View Mennonite Church. “Creation Care Council.” Available at http://www.pvmchurch.org/about-the-creation-care-council.html.
Park View Mennonite Church. “Approach to Climate Emissions.” (September 2015). Available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/15rfBnElI3u2WWIavHOo_V-sVN8QBR3adAAnvprnbVxs/edit.
Mennonite Creation Care Network. “Virginia Church Pays Climate Change Reparations” (April 2017). Available at http://www.mennocreationcare.org/virginia-church-pays-climate-change-reparations/.
Mennonite Creation Care Network. “Net Zero Energy Grants” (n.d.) Available at http://www.mennocreationcare.org/green-energy-grants/.
Stella, Rachel. “Virginians Put a Charge into Creation Care.” Mennonite World Review (August 2016). Available at http://mennoworld.org/2016/08/29/news/virginians-put-a-charge-into-creation-care/.
Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. “Creation Care Efforts at AMBS.” Available at http://www.ambs.edu/about/creation-care.
Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions. Available at https://www.sustainableclimatesolutions.org/.
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” (2008). Available at