“Buildings can teach us if we pay attention,” Ray Wilson told a room of pastors and church leaders in early December. He described crawling onto the roof of his church building to check a radar system they use to keep raccoons from burrowing into the roof of their building. Nelson’s church had discovered the problem during the energy audit to begin working with Energy Stewards, a program to help faith communities reduce energy consumption and improve creation care. The rascally mammals had created a large hole and the building was leaking heat.
With the Energy Stewards program, Nelson’s Indianapolis congregation has reduced its energy consumption by fifty-one percent since 2008 and its emissions by fifty-nine percent. They had been paying almost eighteen thousand dollars a year in gas, electric, and water bills. Last year they paid only four thousand dollars, though part of the time they were in lockdown, he noted. He’s excited to see if they keep their costs low this year.
Wilson and Sarah Mundell and the League of Women Voters were inviting Montgomery County churches to learn about the program, which provides measurable, do-able, affordable steps to better use church resources, “to keep” the earth as God commanded in Genesis, to care for creation as most faith traditions call humans to do.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christians are called to participate in the reconciliation of God and the world as in the time of Eden. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has published extensively about protecting the environment. Last September, he joined Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in signing a joint statement calling on people of faith to take action. Other major denominations- Baptists, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Quakers, United Church of Christ, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, and Evangelical Lutherans, among others- along with most traditions such as Baha’i, Buddhists, Hindus, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, have statements providing the philosophy and actions for doing our part. But what does it look like for faith communities to put that into measurable, timely action?
The Energy Stewards program through Thriving Faith Communities and Hoosier Interfaith Light and Power provides congregations with the means: a real-time energy consumption dashboard, mentors to plan out what works for each congregation, help with obtaining a professional building audit, education, and a cohort to share “hacks” to reduce energy usage. The goal is to drop usage by twenty-five percent over three years. Thriving Faith Communities also helps congregations tap into grants from the Center for Congregations to pay for an energy audit.
Many congregations have people motivated by the spiritual and fiscal benefits of reducing energy consumption but lack the plan and tools to help their churches achieve measurable goals. Wilson shared some tips, including auto-shutoff lighting, programmable thermostats, improved insulation, building audits for heating/cooling leaks, low-flow toilets, filter replacements, energy star appliances, and bulb replacement. He called on churches to drop their thermostats to the fifties in the winter and up to the eighties in the summer when the building is not in use. Even transforming large lawns into gardens reduces energy by requiring less mowing. (Some churches donate the produce from gardens to local food programs.) While all of these are good, it’s difficult to quantify and communicate the value gained without a program like Energy Stewards. The program has a minimal cost ($200) to keep the energy dashboard running. It allows the ministry of buildings and grounds to evaluate best practices. With the savings, congregations are able to reallocate funds towards missions or to improve the aging building.
At the meeting, some churches wanted to be sure that the sponsor, Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light (HIPL), was not a mere political organization. Because it is a 501c3 non-profit, HIPL does very little political work and does not charge more than the $200 dollars, which is dedicated to the energy dashboard. It does ask congregations to donate ten percent of their savings from reducing energy costs if the program works for them.
Its goal is to see the ripple effect. Indiana has over thirty thousand faith congregations made up of families who learn savings techniques used at church. Multiplying each congregation's efforts is like multiplying loaves and fishes and helping to care for not only creation but fellow human beings. As Pope Francis noted, those living in poverty are often the worst impacted and most vulnerable to runoff, pollution, unsafe water, and natural disasters happening at increasingly frequent rates. People of faith know that caring for the least of these- from bees to low-income households- is part of living out faith.