Church Leadership & Climate Change: a quick guide to action

I work “bi-vocationally” as an evangelical youth minister and as a faith-rooted climate change activist. In the latter, I am mobilizing young Christians to influence our senior church leaders to use their moral authority to support meaningful climate action.

Given this unique role, a number of my sympathetic—but perplexed!—colleagues in ministry have asked me this question:

What can we, as leaders of the church, do about climate change?

They assume I am some sort of a expert on the topic—and for a while I did too, until I opened my mouth and realized that all that was coming out was talking points and sound bites. While these quips have certain value for inspiring large audiences and time-strapped leaders, they are not necessarily helpful for navigating the complexities of church ministry.

Recently, I have been brainstorming how to answer the climate question using the language of ministry—the sort of language that might actually take root within the church leadership imagination and blossom into original ideas and real projects. As an activist, this exercise has given me a fresh and exciting vision of what “climate action” consists of.

And so, as both an activist and a church leader, I want to share some of these ideas with you. To start, I am going to discuss the two modes available to the minister for speaking about climate change: the prophetic voice and the pastoral voice. These two voices will harmonize in three familiar ministries that can be applied to your church context.

The Prophetic Voice

The prophetic voice is a tradition that stretches back to the Old Testament. The prophets were men and women who looked upon their world with godly eyes. With this perspective, the prophets called out the present situation for what it was — and the future for what it might become.

The prophetic voice is a natural fit for talking about climate change. In a rush for cheap energy, we exploit God’s creation to extract the fuels that give us incredible power and speed. The present situation is such that scientific abstractions (e.g. carbon emissions, radiative forcing) are compounding with the rest of the world’s brokenness, as the global poor and marginalized are left most vulnerable to climate disruptions — despite contributing the least to the problem.

If we do not repent and change our ways, we risk a future where our civilization’s existence stands at risk. The planet we neglected to take care of threatens to take revenge on us through plagues like catastrophic flooding and crop failures. It is an ironic twist of justice that seems like it would fit snugly in between the writings of Amos and Obadiah.

While climate change might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, the moral obstacles are as old as the prophets. Human beings continue to succumb to greed, pride, and the false notion that there is nothing that actually can be done. We still act as if God is not real and alive in our time. Because of this, it is imperative that ministers of the Christian gospel reclaim the prophetic voice and speak out boldly against the sins that drive anthropogenic climate change.

The Pastoral Voice

Whether or not our job title includes the term “pastor”, many of us in church leadership embrace the pastoral dimensions of ministry. We hear ourselves in the call of Jesus to Peter: “tend my sheep.” Through projects of compassion and spiritual formation, we speak with the pastoral voice to join Christ in the work of leading people to streams of living water.

If it is prophetic to share the latest United Nations report on our Facebook wall, it is pastoral to join the Facebook group Climate Change: It’s Personal, where members “discuss the subjective, psychological, social, and spiritual experience of climate change.” If there is a climate report that might be of pastoral interest, it is the American Psychological Association’s recent analysis titled “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change”.

The work of pastoral care requires that Christian ministers be in tune to a range of emotional crises and mental distresses — including those wrought by climate change. Not only will the physical impacts of climate change be a driver of stress, trauma and grief in the 21st century, but the mere idea of climate change has important psychological consequences as well. This is evidenced by the depression and hopelessness suffered by many scientists, the so-called “frontliners” who have wrapped their minds around what our civilization is spiraling towards. Within the broader environmentalist community, phenomena like solastalgia and ecoanxiety are not figments of the imagination but very real experiences for a growing number of people. (Trust me, I’m seeing it.)

My prayer for the church is that we can learn to come around all who are suffering, all who are yearning for hope, all whose problems have been trivialized by the rest of the world. In relation to the sheep of the 21st century, this learning can only happen if the shepherds grapple with understanding how climate change is causing the flock to stir.

The Prophetic and Pastoral in Harmony

I’m no choir director, but my understanding is that when two different voices come together in song, the aim is that they somehow make a harmony. When it comes to climate change, the prophetic voice and pastoral voice resonate best in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary and empowerment.

Reconciliation

Sin deforms our relationships into destructive and hateful forms. Accordingly, the ministry of reconciliation is the work of joining God “who reconciled himself to us through Christ” in navigating these relationships back to a place of goodness and wholeness.

When it comes to climate change, one of the most obvious relational fault line is the divide in our political spectrum. By a fluke of history, climate change has become a marker of cultural identity and partisan politics in the United States. The stereotype goes thus: if you’re a Democrat, you “believe” in climate change; if you’re a Republican, you don’t.

In fact, studies show that a person’s view on climate change is more strongly correlated with their political affiliation than their religious identity. This means that the divisions we see in Congress are also likely to be found in our pews.

Partisan politics may seem petty to a minister of the Christian gospel. After all, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. But we are not called to transcend the fray but rather to live among it, building bridges among a humanity prone to division. This works requires the sincerity and objectivity of the prophetic voice, but also the compassion and patience of the pastoral voice.

Sanctuary

The world can be a threatening and dangerous place. For millennia, people have found refuge in spaces meant to house the sacred — in Latin, sanctuarium — so that the word sanctuary has come to mean “a place of safety.” As climate-related natural disasters increase and some parts of our civilization perhaps even destabilize, the ministry of sanctuary is all the more necessary for church leaders to consider.

The ministry of sanctuary is clearly pastoral: it is providing a space for peace and order in the midst of chaos and brokenness. But in a world affected by climate change, sanctuary must also be prophetic: it will require foresight to see the challenges ahead and be ready when disaster strikes, instead of passively waiting until after and too late.

Of course, not every church has a sanctuary building, nor does every church find itself in a community where these sort of climate-related emergencies are a realistic threat. If we expand our imagination, however, we can think of the ministry of sanctuary as directing our financial assets through our missions and international relief agencies, in order to respond to the increase in humanitarian disasters worldwide.

Empowerment

Climate dread is the overwhelming fear many feel when contemplating worst-case climate scenarios. Climate denial, on the other hand, is the categorical rejection of climate change as a reality.

While seemingly opposite, climate dread and climate denial have a common obstacle: the belief that there is nothing that can be done about climate change. Climate dreaders see planet-wide catastrophe as inevitable, either because they think we have already reached the “tipping point” or because they cannot imagine how the political coalition required to halt climate change will ever form.

On the other hand, climate deniers usually are not greedy, inhumane, or dumb — despite the stereotypes. Rather, most climate deniers have not been presented with adequate solutions to the problem. When they realize that their ability to do good is not enough to solve the problem, they mentally convince themselves that the problem is not as big as it seems. (In psychology 101, this is called cognitive dissonance).

Empowerment can play a key role in overcoming this obstacle. By giving people a sense that there is something they can do about climate change, we can help them cope with the problem or perhaps even admit to its reality. The ministry of empowerment requires using the prophetic voice to point the way forward and the pastoral voice to encourage others on that journey.

An urgent call

photo-1413977886085-3bbbf9a7cf6eI have outlined two ways of speaking about climate change — prophetically and pastorally — which intersect in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary, and empowerment. My hope is that these categories are specific enough to give you a vision for your own leadership, yet open enough to apply to any context.

Perhaps, even with this practical way forward, you don’t see climate change action as a priority for your ministry. Let me remind you that climate change is set to be one of the defining issues of the 21st century, shifting the ground we journey on — figuratively and literally. Many institutions, from Wall Street to the Pentagon to subsistence farmers in Malawi, are aware of this and reconsidering their own strategic priorities in light of what is being called the “new normal”.

We as church leaders must begin to think ahead and prepare for the various socio-cultural impacts climate change will bring to our world and our work. Otherwise, we risk being leaders of a church that — much like as we saw in the 20th century — will find itself playing catch-up to the present, struggling to be “relevant” and “contemporary”.

And so I beg you to take these considerations to heart — if not for the sake of the planet, for the sake of your ministry.

May God find us faithful.



Cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn Pulse.

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Church Leadership & Climate Change: a quick guide to action

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Like most historical figures of the early 19th century, Hannah More is not someone I thought I would be bringing up in casual conversation. That changed soon after I started reading Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of this remarkable author, educational leader and slave-trade abolitionist.

I had heard positive buzz about how “Fierce Convictions” was a quality book, researched with academic rigor yet presented in engaging prose. However, as my interests do not include Victorian-era England, a biography about the so-called “first Victorian” Hannah More wasn’t likely to wind up on my to-read list. What eventually pushed me to grab the book for myself was when I registered for an intensive course on Christian Education and Formation at North Park Theological Seminary, and one of the pre-reading requirements was “a biography on someone who made an educative/formative impact on society.”

In terms of fulfilling that course requirement, Fierce Convictions succeeded. To offer a snapshot of what can be found in the book about education: as a child, More had a unique educational journey, living in a time when views towards female education were impoverished but nonetheless having the fortunate advantage of being raised in a family of educators. More grew up to be a educator herself with an approach to teaching that perhaps is as refreshing today as it was back then, an approach exemplified by her warning to fellow educators: “Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull” (p. 27). Yet, More’s greatest legacy within education was perhaps the numerous “Sunday schools” she established with her sister Patty. These schools brought in thousands of poor children who simply wanted to be literate, Sunday being the only day the kids had off from farming or other labor.

However, More was not just a leader in education. Within London high culture and beyond, she made a name for herself as a playwright, poet and author. For the uninitiated, Prior does a great job of explaining how More’s various works fit within More’s life and English society. My interest in More was piqued to the point of wanting…well, more More. For those of us interested in further reading, perhaps the only thing lacking here was an annotated bibliography that mapped out which of More’s works are actually timeless and which are better left for the scholars.

What has got me talking about More the most was her moderate-yet-effective politics. For example, she used her celebrity to play a major role in the abolitionist movement commonly associated with the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce. More never quite identified as evangelical and remained committed to the established Church of England, and in so doing proved that ideological purity is not prerequisite for making a positive impact in society. The 21st century reader will rightfully disagree with More on a number of her sensibilities that were shy-of-progressive, such as the role of women in society or her beliefs towards class (and in these cases, Prior does a good job explaining More without excusing More). Nonetheless, the Hannah More portrayed in Fierce Convictions exemplifies the sort of bridge-builder and pragmatic leader who we could use more of in our world today.

Chapter 12, “Burdened for the Beasts”, outlines More’s concern for animals subjected to cruelty. It is unclear why there is an entire chapter dedicated to this topic (as Prior admits, “animal welfare was never a central focus of [More’s] work” p.195). Despite the importance of the issue both then and today, readers in a time crunch can pass over this chapter without interrupting the narrative flow of the biography.

With that caveat, I can sincerely recommend the whole of Fierce Convictions — not only as an enjoyable read, but as what appears to be a well-researched portrayal of a historical figure who certainly deserves more fanfare than we have given her.

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

Update: Dr. Prior called me out on my one point of critique. I’ll let her have the last word here.

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

Your nose looks a little different this new year

These last few months, thanks to all sorts of fun yet time-consuming activities, have not been a blogging season for me. To be sure, there are a number of half-baked drafts on my hard drive; none of them, however, seem worth sharing at this point. Good thing this isn’t my job.

I came across something exciting last night, however, leading me to turn this particular post around in under 24 hours. The thing that excited me was a bit narcissistic, but oh well this is a personal blog and that is bound to happen from time to time.

The exciting thing came from a snippet of a book blending youth ministry practice with social construction theory, one which I have been reading these past few weeks (emphasis added):

Let’s face it: our readings of Scripture are deeply biased. Biases are not necessarily good or bad. They are like noses; we all have them. But just like the noses on our faces, they can be difficult to see. When we do not recognize our biases in reading Scripture and treat them as ultimate truth, we eliminate others’ biases. This limits new forms of understanding and manufactures division that hinders relational growth.

— Brandon McKoy, Youth Ministry from the Outside In, p.156 – 157

This got my attention, because I used the same “nose” metaphor in my senior-thesis-turned-e-book that I published earlier this year, The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (see excerpt below). While this may be a case of wit’s all been done before, I think McKoy and myself are both sufficiently influenced by Gadamer to say that this is a pretty neat case of language being shaped by tradition. Besides, coming up with the same language as someone more learned and experienced than myself is a reassuring sign that I might be on the right track (I had a similar realization last year with Barbara Brown Taylor).

Granted, McKoy talks about biases, while I talk about prejudices, but we are talking about essentially the same thing. For those of us who are card-carrying members of the human race, our understanding of the world is fundamentally finite. Rather than trying to know everything from all possible perspectives, the remedy to this so-called problem is hardly a remedy at all but rather the way the world should have been from the beginning: that we develop trusting relationships with people who see things differently than us — so that we may be corrected, humbled, and inspired.

I don’t like to drum up gloom, but initial reports suggest 2013 has been the year of suspicion. Congress is in deadlock, ethnic tensions seem anachronistically high, and our private lives and personal information feel compromised. In the political economy of 2013, trust has been a more precious resource than gold or oil or even bitcoins.

For Christians, our churches continue to divide, using certain verses as cleaving knives. What sadness.

Emergent problems require innovative solutions, yet tradition (and the corresponding wealth of wisdom) has been held hostage by those who fear change. The guardians of tradition, whoever they may be, need to let go of the false notion that tradition is unchangeable and static. Every belief or ritual or symbol they hold so dear was, after all, an innovation of it’s own back in the day.

I am droning on (I guess that is something else that happened in 2013), so let me get to the point, which is hardly a point but more of a New Year’s challenge.

  • Looking back on 2013, how has your metaphorical nose (your biases, your prejudices, etc.) been changed through experience or through relationship?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of your metaphorical nose — regardless of whether you think it is awkward or perfect or something inbetween?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of others’ metaphorical noses — in a way that does not induce shame or hostility?

While you reflect on those questions, go ahead and read this excerpt from The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (for context, this part of the essay is reflecting on the July 2013 verdict of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial). Afterwards, feel free to share your reflections in the comments section.

It seems shameful to have prejudices, although prejudices are as normal as the noses on our faces. Many are awkward, to be sure, but that is no reason to hide them. Yet, shame is precisely what our culture encourages. We like calling people out: “You’re insensitive!” “That wasn’t politically correct!” “What a moron — I’m going to call out your bigotry on the internet and get a bunch of like-minded people to share my content!”

Calling people out makes us feel enlightened, like we stand on the moral high ground. For the truly oppressed, calling out an oppressor may feel like the only shred of dignity they can get in the fight.

But, if I dare say it, it is when we cover up our prejudices that they are most likely to erupt in violence. Like an algae bloom in stagnant water, our faulty prejudices are most threatening when they are not constantly being exposed and stirred and moved and challenged.

And so, we don’t magically need fewer prejudices. We need more safe places to sound stupid. We need to be compassionate people in both correcting and correction, with whom wrong answers are opportunities to practice humility instead of shame.

By the way: for this weekend only, the Amazon.com gods are letting me offer The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay at the reduced price of FREE. You might as well download it to pad the new e-reader you got for Christmas, or send a copy to that one uncle who wouldn’t shut up about religion or politics during holiday dinner.

For that matter, I’m still reading McKoy’s book, but I can already say I strongly recommend it for any youth minister with a social sciences/philosophy bent. Check it out here.

Your nose looks a little different this new year

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

Confession: because of a lot of exciting projects I am in the middle of, I had decided to take April off from the blogging game.

Confession #2: I’m going to fail at that un-resolution. In addition to the knee-jerk response I wrote after the Boston Marathon bombings, I wrote a newsletter piece for Ravenswood Covenant, the church that I work at, that I think those of you who like what I write here might appreciate.

Confession #3: I am really, really excited for May. Stay tuned.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

The imagery of a mustard seed parable has been helpful for me when it comes to understanding the sort of kingdom work that has been taking place among Ravenswood Student Ministries, work that has taken place not just over the past year but also before I came on as program coordinator.

I came to Ravenswood with my youth ministry background being almost entirely in camping ministry. Camp is a unique environment for spiritual formation – kids are there for a week or more, all distractions from the outside world are cut off, and a large and focused staff work to create a big experience. From this big experience comes the big stories of conviction, conversion and commitment.

Things are different at the corner of Damen and Ainslie. At best, youth come for a couple hours a week, but sometimes we see them only once or so a month. The outside world makes itself known, as we spend Thursday nights talking about the week’s highs and lows. Instead of an army of college students who have taken what often is a convenient summer job, we have a crew of 5th Quarter tutors and Thursday night leaders who all have to make certain sacrifices to be there consistently.

But because our presence is felt year-round, because our conversations are rooted in day-to-day issues, and because our love is so sacrificial, we have been effective in a way that (at the very least) complements the camp experience. If from camp comes big stories, then I believe here at Ravenswood Covenant that God has entrusted us with the small stories.

Small stories like the one night the kids actually listened to me talk about finding their identity in Christ. Or the 5th Quarter student who is learning to express himself musically for the first time. Or the Thursday night regular who is turning in her application to be a part of North Side Youth Collision’s discipleship program. Or the fifth grader who can’t wait till next year to join Ravenswood Student Ministries.

Some of the small stories are so small, they go unnoticed by myself and the student ministries team. But that’s because there is mustard seed logic at work here: we have faith in a kingdom that grows and becomes like the largest of all the garden plants. We do not know when these small stories will come to fruition: maybe it will be at camp, or maybe it will be when one of these students is in their mid-twenties and has hit rock bottom and all they can remember is that one happy time when a church cared unconditionally for them.

Perhaps then too, they will become part of a project so big that the birds can perch in its shade.

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry