by Jennifer Halteman Schrock
In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives. We hope that these glimpses into conversations of the past continue to inform our thinking and work today. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.
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. A recent study investigated 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.
All of the churches in the 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, because of long winters 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 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.
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. 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
How is you church or community engaging with the challenges of climate change? MCC Canada and a growing list of national churches, Christian international development agencies, and faith-based organizations have come together as people of faith in the hopes of making a meaningful contribution in the next decade towards a sustainable future for all life on the planet. Get involved: learn more about the For the Love of Creation campaign and take action today by signing e-petition 2712.
This article was originally titled “Churches working against climate change: four case studies”
Banner image: Yucca stems waiting to be planted at MCC partner Sembrandopaz’s experimental farm just outside of Sincelejo, Colombia. Rural communities in the Montes de María region of Colombia are on the front lines of climate change—droughts are growing longer and harsher, and water is becoming scarce. (MCC Photo/Annalee Giesbrecht)