Author: Ray Wilson, chair of the Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light Board
In 2006, two congregations in Indiana, The Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington voted to seek accreditation by The Unitarian Universalist Association as Green Sanctuaries. During their journey they realized that numerous other congregations in Indiana were also interested. By 2010, numerous congregations formed groups such as Indy Green Congregations, Bloomington Earth Care, and Eastside Creation Care Network. The people involved found that by sharing successes and challenges, they could begin to influence their congregants and their leadership. Ultimately these congregations formed H-IPL, an affiliate of the national organization, Interfaith Power and Light.
In 2013, two congregations from Indianapolis and four from Bloomington sought a $150,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Energy to install rooftop solar panels. To make the grant application attractive, in addition to installing solar panels, they promised to reduce their energy use at least 25 percent encourage their congregants to reduce their home energy use at least 14 percent, and give presentations about their experiences to their denominations and other congregations around the state. These congregations found that installing solar panels was an exciting proposition for other congregations. The Bloomington and Indianapolis groups reduced energy use as much as 40 percent, and they did make numerous presentations around Indiana.
As a result of their experience, H-IPL developed several in-person and virtual workshops such as: Using Energy Prudently, Climate Boot Camp, Green Team Basics: Creation Care 101, Environmentally Responsible Investing Workshop, and Solar Panels for Congregations.
Nearly every training session starts by asking the question, “Why are you here?” The answers we hear often are:
- To save money for church operations and outreach.
- Because of faith teachings (e.g., till and tend, Laudato Si, care for creation).
- To save the earth for our grandchildren.
- To learn from others’ experiences.
Because of these workshops, over 50 Hoosier congregations have installed solar panels on their buildings. H-IPL now offers a service called Energy Stewards, which allows congregations to monitor their gas, electric, and water consumption and cost month by month. Energy Stewards also provides over 100 steps that a congregation can take to reduce energy use in their buildings and save money. Numerous congregations have saved thousands of dollars a year.
Another very important activity that congregations participate in is advocacy. Through the work of green teams and H-IPL, congregations influence state legislation on solar rights and other environmental needs in support of addressing climate change.
We have learned a lot while implementing these initiatives. We have learned that just a few people in any congregation can initiate climate resilience work. When congregations go through training together and then form cohort support groups, they are much more successful in meeting their challenges. And each congregation has its particular starting point. Sometimes it’s as simple as deciding to use ceramic rather than Styrofoam coffee cups or recycling bulletins. For other congregations, it may be starting a vegetable garden or planting a prairie.
We have also found that climate work can change the culture of a congregation. It attracts younger people, and the congregation makes different decisions based on their commitment to addressing climate change. We have progressed to the point that a few congregations have signed a Paris Pledge to reduce their carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. Some congregations are mapping their steps to get there, and a few are near to reaching carbon neutrality or net zero carbon emissions already. All it takes is the passion and dedication of a few people and the support and leadership of clergy.