Becoming an Earth Care congregation

Why it matters and how to do it

By Jessica Maudlin | Presbyterians Today

Illustration of road suspended in the sky towards a tree in the shape of heartMatthew 25:31–46 calls us to engage in the world around us, so that we wake up to new possibilities. Faith comes alive when we boldly engage God’s mission and share the hope we have in Christ. The Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Earth Care Congregation (ECC) certification program recognizes churches that are turning their commitments to caring for God’s Creation into ministry that revitalizes their own community.

All of the ECCs affirm a pledge agreeing to take specific steps in four areas: worship, outreach, education and facilities. Additionally, that pledge affirms that the Earth and all Creation are God’s. The pledge acknowledges that God calls us all to be careful, humble stewards of this Earth, and to protect and restore it for its own sake, and for the future use and enjoyment of the human family.

The call to restore

In 1990, the 202nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted the resolution Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice. The resolution stated that the General Assembly recognizes and accepts restoring Creation as a central concern of the Church.

In 2010, rooted in this report that was reaffirmed that same year by the 219th General Assembly, the ECC certification began, with eight churches becoming certified. Today that number has grown to nearly 300.

The idea for ECCs started in 2002. Jane Laping, who is now a member of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, began making the connections between her faith and the environment. After learning about the 1990 GA report, she got a copy of the Unitarian Universalists’ “Green Sanctuary Manual.” “I thought, ‘This is really great. Presbyterians should have one of these,’” she said. Though she had the idea for ECCs in 2002, the program didn’t come to fruition until 2010.

“My timing isn’t always God’s timing,” she said. “People weren’t ready for this in 2002.”

Laping and the Rev. Alan Jenkins, founder of Earth Covenant Ministry in Atlanta, worked with what was at the time the PC(USA)’s Environmental Ministries Office to create “A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.” The guide lays out the process of certification.

Form a team, take an audit

The first step in becoming an Earth Care Congregation is to form an Earth Care Team, which can be as small as two people or as big as the whole congregation. Once the Earth Care Team is formed, the members complete an audit, which is available from the Presbyterian Hunger Program here. Completing the audit gives the Earth Care Team information about what earth care activities and facilities improvements the church has undertaken and what remains to be done.

Many of the activities can be completed with little to no funding. Having completed the audit, the Earth Care Team can recommend next steps based on available resources, cost-effectiveness and acceptance by the congregation.

The Earth Care Team should then present the information to the session and ask for approval of the Earth Care Pledge. The final step is approval to submit an ECC application.

While the audit may feel a bit overwhelming with its 200-plus questions, many churches find that they are already doing nearly enough for certification. At Circleville Presbyterian Church in Ohio, Donna Solovey said, “Starting with the audit to reflect on what we are already doing also allowed us to be inspired about the possibilities.”

The certification process felt very helpful to the Earth Care Leadership Team at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

They had participated in several forums before worship where members were presented with information to understand climate change and global warming and the urgency to act for the sustainability of all life forms. But they were ready to do more.

“The certification process helped us to organize our plan for action: Green Faith, Green Learning, Green Living, Green Outreach and Advocacy (Environmental Justice). We decided that we wanted Earth care to reach into every part of our church life and every committee and community of our congregation,” said Pat Timm.

For churches big and small

Special care was given at its inception to ensure that ECC certification can work for churches of all sizes. In 2021, the smallest ECC was eight members and the largest was 5,000 members.

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis is one of the larger churches with a commitment to Earth care that predates their certification.

“Westminster has a long history of fostering Creation care through worship, education and facilities management dating back to at least the 1980s,” said Rick Person, one of the Earth Care Team members. “Becoming a certified ECC was a logical extension of this legacy.”

In addition to acknowledging and growing the commitments churches already have in caring for Creation, the program also aims to educate individual members so that they can live out environmentally conscious choices at home.

June Eakin from Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church in Kensington, Maryland, sees this happening at the church. “Congregants are taking action in their personal lives and through church changes they have witnessed that sustainability is not a sacrifice,” said Eakin.

Through it all, congregations are discovering that while they can’t address every single environmental problem that exists — and trying will only lead to discouragement — they can think about how to integrate environmental practices into the life of the church. And by doing so, many say they find new hope in the future.

Jessica Maudlin is the associate for sustainable living and Earth care concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program in Louisville.


Church embraces ‘Plastic-Free Lent Challenge’

By Frances Wattman Rosenau | Presbyterians Today

The children of Culver City Presbyterian Church participated in the congregation’s challenge to live plastic free during Lent. They shared with the adults what they were doing to care for Creation. Courtesy of Frances Wattman Rosenau

As an Earth Care Congregation, Culver City Presbyterian Church in California recently took on the challenge of a plastic-free Lent. “It was something that everybody could do to some degree, even our kids,” said Heidi Sperber.

Sperber, who spearheaded the Earth Care Congregation initiative at Culver City Presbyterian, is one who has always embraced the season of Lent. “I think of Lent as a refinement of what I need to focus on to be truly connected to God, and how I can shape my daily behavior to be more reflective of what God wants from me.” Part of the reshaping has been looking more closely at the amount of plastic waste generated not just by Sperber daily, but the congregation overall.

Last year, a congressional report, “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste,” revealed that the U.S. is the greatest contributor to global plastic waste. Those calling for a national strategy to deal with the waste say that the problem will not be solved through recycling only. Currently, only 9% of plastic is recycled in the country. The best solution to reduce waste is not to use plastic.

“Honestly, it’s corporate responsibility that needs to change,” said Chelsea Barnes, who co-founded Zero Waste LA, a local group promoting a more waste-free lifestyle. Barnes brings her wisdom to Culver City Presbyterian’s Earth-care efforts. She points out that most plastic use and waste do not come from individuals but from large corporations. What individuals can do is make a conscious effort to not buy items packaged in plastic.

Saowanee Sweeney grew up in Thailand and has brought a fresh perspective to her Culver City church family. “In Thailand, there weren’t all these plastics. When you went to the market, vendors would pack things up in banana leaves or in paper.” But when Sweeney came to the U.S., she admits she was enamored by plastic, especially all the Tupperware products.

She and her husband, Bob, were relatively new to the church when they participated in the Plastic-Free Lent Challenge. Both found the exercise of cutting down on plastic powerful, becoming more aware of daily decisions of what they buy and how it is packaged. “Before this, I didn’t think about plastics during Lent. I’m paying more attention,” said Bob.

Tom Zehnder, the congregation’s music director, found the idea of doing an Earth-friendly act as a spiritual practice — rather than proving he can avoid chocolate for 40 days, as is the common Lenten practice among so many — “deeply compelling.”

Reducing plastic is hard

The congregation took on the Plastic-Free Lent Challenge knowing full well how hard it would be to give up plastic entirely. From packages in the mail to snacks like individually wrapped cheese sticks, everything seems to come in plastic.

“My first painful and alarming realization during the Plastic-Free Lent was that I could not fully disentangle my life from plastic,” said Zehnder.

While many shared Zehnder’s startling realization, the congregation chose to emphasize hope over discouragement, focusing on ways to reduce plastic in their lives, even if it could not be eliminated entirely. Plastic-Free Lent was about awareness and taking those first, small steps. To help the congregation in their plastic-free journey, Zero Waste LA compiled a list of 25 tips and alternatives for using plastic. Each Sunday in Lent, members of the congregation shared ways they were cutting out plastic.

Zehnder and his family, for example, began looking for grocery items in cans and glass jars. The Sweeneys now cover leftover food with a plate on a bowl rather than plastic wrap. And Sperber brings her own bags and containers to the farmers market.

The children at Culver City Presbyterian also got involved. During the Lenten season, they shared in small groups about what they were changing and drew pictures of their new practices. They wrote messages on the different ways they were going to commit to reducing their plastic use. Those pictures — along with pictures taken with the families doing other plastic-free activities — were used in a slideshow on Easter to showcase the children’s commitment to a healthier planet. The children also received seeds on Easter morning to take home and plant.

While the Lenten practice was challenging and eye-opening, Culver City Presbyterian emerged with the realization that small gestures could make a big difference in the world.

The Rev. Dr. Frances Wattman Rosenau is the pastor at Culver City Presbyterian Church in Culver City, California.


Plastic-free tips for Lent

The following are some of the tips shared with the Culver City Presbyterian Church congregation to get them started on their Plastic-Free Lent challenge. The tips were compiled by Zero Waste LA, Chelsea Barnes and myplasticfreelife.com

  • Avoid the big four: plastic bags, plastic straws, take-out coffee cups and plastic water bottles.
  • Bring containers to a restaurant and pack your own leftovers.
  • Avoid precut, prepackaged vegetables. Buy them whole.
  • Shop the bulk bins at the grocery store. Take cloth or mesh bags for your purchases.
  • Try a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic toothbrush.
  • Store leftovers without plastic wrap. Use beeswax wraps or place a plate on a bowl as a lid.
  • Buy fresh bread that comes in a paper bag.
  • Say farewell to all those prepackaged meals that are all the rage in grocery stores.
  • Buy dishwasher detergent that comes in a box.
  • Use natural cleaning cloths and scrubbers instead of plastic scrubbers and synthetic sponges.
  • Check the labels on personal care products. Avoid anything with polyethylene.
  • Try bar soap instead of liquid hand soap.
  • Find hair products, lotions and soaps in glass jars or metal tins.
  • Choose toilet paper that’s not wrapped in plastic.
  • Use a handkerchief instead of tissues. Wait, are tissues made of plastic? The answer is “no,” but the box has plastic to help hold the tissues for easy access.

And for Easter:

  • Have children pick a basket or bowl in the home and leave it out for the Easter bunny to fill.
  • Avoid plastic Easter grass. Use shredded paper, a bandana or a cloth napkin to line the basket.
  • Buy bulk candy and put it into little jars or cloth bags.
  • Put a child’s favorite fruit in the basket.
  • Include a small plant or a package of seeds.
  • Use food coloring and vinegar rather than egg dyeing kits or dye eggs naturally with red cabbage, onion skins or beets.

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