Ben Brooks is a very sharp fellow in the world of business (he is VP and Practice Leader for Marsh, Inc. see www.linkedin.com/in/benbrooksny), and I was listening to him present some advice to a corporate training group last week. What struck me as I took notes is how applicable his insights were for those of us working in environmental ministry among religious communities. What is true for those trying to move forward in the world of business is true for those trying to move forward in the world of ministry. Let me make some translations of his advice from the one context to the other.
1. Find an Itch and Scratch it
While this may seem obvious to those of us committed to the idea that the environmental crisis constitutes a very significant itch indeed, we must not miss the point – the itch we are trying to scratch is not our own. It is the itch of those whose cooperation and investment we seek. The distinction is much closer to home than we may think. I often hear complaints from eco-warriors of how absent bishops and reluctant clergy hamper efforts at moving the eco-ministry forward. We do our best to paint for them a picture of urgency and crisis as we try to raise the stakes and the volume about the heart of the matter. But what we are doing in this is bringing to our faith leaders problems we want them to help us solve. In other words, we are often trying to create an itch – not scratch one.
In this day of declining participation and finances in religious institutional life, what is it that makes your religious leader itch? While we may wish it was climate change or eco-justice, it is far more likely their attention is being drawn to declining attendance, weakening patterns of commitment, challenges to the faith, the loss of younger generations and other forms of spiritual lethargy and disconnect. Make connections to those issues and you will get a hearing. Connect eco-justice to moral renewal. Help make the faith attractive through relevance and the joy of living rightly in creation. Show how congregations can grow by engaging people in loving those who suffer most from our misuse of stewardship. Bring to your leader solutions, not problems.
2. Make Learning Covert
Making learning covert is to blur the line between work and training. In the business world, this means bringing information and learning so close to people’s everyday tasks that it becomes a natural part of their work flow rather than an “event” for which they must set time aside to attend. To accomplish this, you change processes around the people and make needed information available in the moment and right at hand.
In churches, this could mean doing more but saying less – less preachy, less teachy and certainly less wagging of the green finger. Set up recycling, bring in fair trade coffee, replace thermostats, reduce the trash output and green the grounds as the simple and natural course of good stewardship without stressing the political connections to the environmental war around us. And follow up with a garden as a fun and educational project for both children and adults. Then let people learn something about ecology in the process. Work on making green behaviors natural, easy and close at hand. Yes there is great urgency as our natural systems collapse around us, but we still must go gently into the noise and haste.
3. Go Where There is Energy
Which battles should you choose to wage for the good of the cause? The answer, according to Ben Brooks, is those where people already display some energy. If your community loves food but seems unconnected to issues of energy and climate – go with food justice, food wisdom and food fun. If you live in a community awash in the impact of toxins in air, water or soil – tap into the local pain and anxiety. If you have a good group of members in your community ready to get their hands dirty for the sake of the local wilderness or watershed – let that direct you to your next step. This is an application of the adage, “Think globally, but act locally.” It may not be wise to begin with the world’s largest problems. It may be better to start with your closest one.
4. Create an Engagement Sink
A “carbon sink” is something in nature that captures carbon and sequesters it (like a forest of trees capturing carbon from the air and turning it into wood and soil). An engagement sink captures people’s intention and willingness and joins it with others. In business, this means creating systems that help identify interest, talent, skills and availability and then connects them with opportunities. In a church or other ministry, these would be the communications, invitations, activities and the like that invite a range of opinions, ideas, participation and energy. In other words, these are the systems that engage people outside the established green committee, the church board or the obvious members of the green choir.
Look for related issues outside the “choir” that would attract engagement. Look for channels for listening to not just the core but the edges of the green conversation. What avenues are there for new or even opposing ideas to find voice? What opportunities are there for the less-committed to play a role? Use honey, not vinegar, to build the ministry.
5. Talk Business, Not Code
In the corporate training world, a training department may be responsible for delivering learning, but it is often some other executive department that determines its budget and priorities. If the training department wants the support of the business, it had better know how to be understood by the business. To do this, it must present its plans and priorities in business-speak, not training-speak.
So it is with environmental ministries within the religious community. Many of the concepts, methods and priorities for environmental ministry have been adopted from the secular environmental movement (for good reason, since they have been at this so much longer). This sets up a potential disconnect, however, when translating these into congregational life. We must be careful lest we fall into the trap of simply recruiting our fellow communicants to join us in our secular work. In other words, we must not, in our environmental zeal, view the faith community as primarily a storehouse of willing hands and open pocketbooks. To stay out of this trap, those involved in eco-ministry need to remain first and foremost people of faith that help congregations do what is most central to them – connect people to God’s story and live it out in time and place. To do this, green teams must themselves be connected to God’s story and about the business of living it out. Thus, faith, not science, is the primary language of eco-ministry within communities of faith.
6. Treat Associates Like Customers
In business, when a training team loses it focus, it will often fall into the trap of treating the corporate associates like so much chattel meant to fill their rosters and support their programs. A similar trap awaits the eco-ministry which uses the people as tools to serve their causes, ideals and institutional functions. The real work of an eco-ministry is to heal the environmental disconnects within, among and around the community of faith and its members. Our customers are the people we invite to join us in the healing and through which we might bring healing.
But sometimes, in the midst of the despair and foolishness of our human enterprise, we turn from or turn against the people and take refuge in the ideals. We know we have made this turn when we dwell upon people as the source of the problem more than their potential to be a solution. By then we have doomed our ministry. We must always first love the people; inviting them into God’s abundant life. People respond best to being loved.
What is clear in both business and ministry is that effective change is primarily people work. Basic rules of integrity, service and love apply across the board no matter where you are. To lose sight of this will diminish and doom your work, no matter whether you are in a corporation or a congregation. So, while an important element of your eco-ministry may be to speak for the trees, the heart of your ministry is to speak of faith, hope and love.
The Rev. Jerry Cappel is Associate for Justice Ministries, St. Matthews Episcopal Church and President, of the Kentuckiana Interfaith Community in Louisville, Kentucky.