Does your church building use electricity? Is your church interested in being good stewards of their resources? Does your church want to take the call of Jesus to love your neighbor seriously? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you might be interested in the Cool Congregations program.
Taking Stewardship a Step Further
Cool Congregations encourages communities of faith to think of stewardship more broadly than just time, talent, and financial resources. God gave us the earth to tend; as part of that responsibility, Cool Congregations challenges faith communities to think about reducing their carbon emissions and caring for the earth as a sort of tithe.
Sarah Paulos started Cool Congregations in 2007 out of her home church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Over time, other congregations heard about what the church had done to reduce their carbon footprint and asked how they could do the same at their home churches. The Iowa Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) invited Paulos to offer training sessions as well. Eventually, Paulos was hired by IPL. Today, Cool Congregations is part of Interfaith Power and Light, a national organization of 40 state affiliates whose goal is to help people to reduce emissions and to serve as an advocate for sustainable policies.
“By the time I left Iowa, there were 300 congregations who were taking steps to reduce emissions,” Paulos shared. Today, Paulos lives with her family in Montana, where she is active in her role as IPL’s Community Engagement and Program Director for Cool Congregations.
“All of the major religions call for their believers to care for one another, and one way we care for one another is to care for our common home,” said Paulos. “Climate change is making it harder for people around the world, especially the most vulnerable, to make a living and to grow food. Rising sea waters are washing away their homes.” These and other environmental challenges affect all of us, our immediate neighbors and our entire global neighborhood.
“This is the greatest moral challenge of our time – how are we caring for one another?” Paulos asked. These are not just environmental concerns, these are moral, ethical, and spiritual imperatives. “Many of our world’s religions believe that God created the earth, and that is reason enough for us to take good care of it. We need to draw upon our religious traditions to motivate ourselves to take action.”
The Cool Congregation program empowers local churches and faith communities to embrace the call to care for creation by providing them with educational resources to make a change possible. Resources are available to address the energy usage of church facilities as well as tools to help individual families make changes in their homes.
The program encourages congregations to turn to their own religious tradition’s beliefs about caring for the earth. Many denominations have stewardship or creation care statements that can serve as guiding principles for local congregations. The Cool Congregation initiative is a vessel to connect individual congregations to a larger purpose within their community and with their denomination. “As they do so, they end up saving money too,” Paulos said. “Some congregations take action to help their broader community reduce emissions as well.”
Resources to Become a Cool Congregation
If you’re just beginning to explore how your family or congregation can make a difference for the environment, it can be overwhelming—where do you even begin? The Cool Congregations Start Up Kit provides all the resources you need to start reducing your carbon footprint. The kit guides congregations on how to get organized, inspire congregants, spur on energy-saving ideas, conduct an energy audit, and apply for certification as a Cool Congregation. You can download it for free on the Cool Congregations website.
Paulos encourages congregations to begin by starting a Green Team—a collection of people who are passionate about environmental issues—and discern together where to begin. Follow the congregation’s lead when it comes to their particular interests and passions.
The next step for any congregation is to get a baseline of energy usage. There is a Cool Congregations Calculator and a Calculator for Households to measure one’s current carbon footprint and find ways to reduce energy usage. These tools provide a simple approach to analyzing current energy practices and inspiring ideas to save money and resources through simple changes. This combined with an energy audit, conducted by your local utility company, can help congregations decide what efforts the community wants to take first.
Cool Congregations Certification and Challenges
After these initial steps, Cool Congregations offers two ways to recognize congregations: Certification and the Cool Congregations Challenge.
Congregations that reduce their carbon footprint by 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, or more can earn a Cool Congregation Certification and be recognized on the Cool Congregation website for the difference they have made. Certification flags a congregation as a green leader in their local community and connects them with a broad network of other faith communities around the country.
Congregations can also apply for the Cool Congregations Challenge, an awards program that recognizes congregations for the work they’ve done in six different categories: Cool Congregations Planner, Energy Saver, Renewable Role Model, Sacred Grounds Steward, Community Inspiration, and Electric Vehicle Leader. These categories cover green initiatives from audits to HVAC to solar power to water conservation, and everything in between. The top winner in each category receives $1,500, and two runners-up in each category are awarded $500.
“Apply!” Paulos said. “So many wonderful congregations are doing so much good work. We want to lift up their stories to the wider public, and in doing so encourage other congregations to follow suit.” Each contest category is judged by a faith leader in the IPL community and an expert in that particular field. Jerry Lawson, the head of EPA, was one of the judges for the Cool Planner category.
“These congregations are casting a vision for the kind of world in which they want to live, and then carrying out that vision with practical actions that make a real difference in creating lasting solutions to climate change,” said Rev. Susan Hendershot, IPL president.
“People of Faith Are People of Hope”
Churches have such a powerful opportunity to impact energy conservation and affect change within our communities.
“When we identify as people who care for creation, we’re more likely to take more steps, join others, and take collective action to have a greater impact,” said Paulos. When congregations connect with Cool Congregations, they join their voices with other congregations in the IPL community.
“Collectively, if everyone decided to reduce their emissions for heating and cooling to net zero – we have several listed on the website – we would make a world of difference. It’s possible! People are doing it and it does make a big difference. At church in particular, you are an example not only to the members but to the wider community. You hold out this vision of what’s possible.”
“People of faith are people of hope,” said Paulos. “So much of society is in the depths of despair around climate change, and when you are in despair you are inactive. We can bring hope, and action is the antidote to despair.”