by George Clifford
The Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, NC, started ZeroWasteChurch.org, engaging congregants in ministries and mission that stretch from the local to the global. ZeroWasteChurch.org has diminished environmental damage, spread Christ’s message of love for all creation, and been a catalyst for spiritual and numerical growth at the Church of the Nativity. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served this parish as priest-in-charge and then as a priest associate but moved to Hawaii several years before the congregation began ZeroWasteChurch.org.)
Examining ZeroWasteChurch.org highlights six organizational dynamics essential for congregations that desire to increase both the number of Jesus people who attend as well as their spiritual depth.
First, ZeroWasteChurch.org emphasizes an issue central to human existence. Perhaps the two most immediate threats to continued human existence are nuclear war and the global warming caused by humans. Scientists detected the first signs of the adverse effect of humans upon the environment in the early nineteenth century. (For a chronology of the emergence of global warming as a significant concern and failed efforts to alter human behavior, read Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” in the New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.) Since the problem of global warming was first recognized, ending environmental damage and reversing its ill effects have become ever more urgent. Other issues central to human existence include the need for meaning (what psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as self-actualization) and humans’ basic needs for food, water, and shelter.
Most individuals must cope with one or more of these issues central to human life. More broadly, many Christians and non-Christians are committed to helping their local community and perhaps the world address one or more of life’s central challenges. Consequently, the potential for congregational growth is pervasive. However, congregations often fail to grow because they (1) focus on that which is of minor or no ultimate importance, such as liturgical niceties or biblical trivia, or, (2) remain content with the status quo regardless of any avowed commitment to growth.
Second, ZeroWasteChurch.org affords congregants and other people multiple opportunities to get involved. At Raleigh’s Church of the Nativity, persons may assist with the bird and pollinator friendly community gardens, work to reduce energy consumption at home and in the parish, aid in the continuing installation of solar panels on parish buildings (these now provide in excess of one third of the energy the parish uses), composting organic waste, recycling non-organic waste, commit to a year of personal action, publicize ZeroWasteChurch.org or maintain its website, speak at other churches about the program and ecological stewardship, develop new resources, etc. In sum, the Church of the Nativity aims to have enough options for involvement that most persons can hear a call to support the program in a way that capitalizes on their emotional energy, utilizes their skills and abilities, and fosters spiritual growth.
Third, ZeroWasteChurch.org enjoys ongoing support from the congregation’s leadership. For over fifteen years, the parish’s clergy, wardens, and vestry have enthusiastically supported what began as a handful of people committed to ecological stewardship that now involves a large portion of the congregation. The leadership’s commitment includes: personally participating in the program; encouraging others to participate through sermons, the parish newsletter, and personal contacts; allowing ZeroWasteChurch.org and its associated programs free use of the parish campus; and funding ecological stewardship programs.
Fourth, ZeroWasteChurch.org took fifteen plus years to blossom. It began with a few congregants’ interest in the nexus of science and religion. A small grant from the Templeton Foundation funded some early initiatives. Those developed into an adult study program that spanned several years. Congregants slowly started to search for ways to translate environmental concern into action. This spawned a community garden, a short-lived speaking program designed to highlight the theological mandate and scientific rationale for environmental stewardship, a desire to add solar panels on the roofs of parish buildings, and more. The Episcopal Church gave Nativity a 2017 $10,000 Stewardship and Creation grant to promote “carbon farming,” i.e., removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil. Nativity eventually united its varied ecological stewardship efforts under the ZeroWasteChurch.org umbrella.
Fifth, ZeroWasteChurch.org carries the gospel, or at least one central aspect of the gospel, to the world hoping to form the lost into Jesus people. Scripture is a window into God’s heart, not a science textbook. The multiple stories of creation Scripture references (e.g., Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) historically situated presume the creation science of different cultures. Israel had no science of its own. When we ignore the anachronistic, erroneous science found in Scripture, we can hear Scripture repeatedly and consistently emphasize creation’s goodness. God values not only humans but also everything that God created. Today, God’s concern for all creation is a vital issue for both the well-being of the earth and for continued human existence.
Sixth, ZeroWasteChurch.org is a sustainable program with an open future. Its founders metaphorically cast scattered seeds on the ground trusting that the Holy Spirit would bring growth. Signs of that growth include the Church of the Nativity, its members, other congregations, and disparate individuals more fully caring for creation and more closely walking the Jesus path. In the years ahead, some current aspects of ZeroWasteChurch.org will fail, other aspects will morph into new expressions, some aspects will end having achieved their limited objectives, and still other aspects will last many years. Importantly, the Church of the Nativity’s fifteen plus years of investment in ecological stewardship has both improved the environment and grown the parish numerically and spiritually.
Congregations of all sizes can adopt and then invest in a program similar to ZeroWasteChurch.org that incorporates the six organizational dynamics enumerated above. For example, St. Elizabeth’s Church in Honolulu has achieved numerical and spiritual growth through a set of programs that have dramatically improved the quality of life for many of Honolulu’s marginalized and the city’s thousands of houseless who live on streets and in the parks.
Conversely, congregations lacking a program(s) characterized by these six organizational dynamics implicitly communicate a lack of knowledge in how to strive for real growth or perhaps a lack of genuine interest in numerical and spiritual growth. These six factors do not represent everything a congregation can or should do to as Jesus people to increase love of God and neighbor but are essential steps for translating laudatory aspirations into effective programs.
Sadly, most of the congregations that I visit, whether as a guest in the pews or as supply priest, do not have a program comparable to ZeroWasteChurch.org. And then we Episcopalians frequently ponder, often with considerable frustration, our seeming inability to reverse the decline of our beloved congregations. We should instead, learn from growing congregations. Like good stewards, prepare the soil and lovingly plant seeds of faith around one of life’s central issues; engage the energies and talents of clergy and laity in lovingly watering, fertilizing, and weeding the sprouts; and then joyfully reap a harvest assuredly pleasing to the garden’s owner.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes, and blogs at Ethical Musings.