WASHINGTON — It’s not easy building green. But churches that take the call to wise environmental stewardship seriously have a wide variety of options — from simply changing light bulbs to elaborate new construction projects certified as environmentally friendly.
The key, experts in the field of congregations and green design insist, is figuring out what’s appropriate for the church’s ministry context — and then taking advantage of the many resources available to guide the greening process.
Discerning how green to go
For churches considering how to become greener, “Discernment sometimes ends up being a challenge, because so much can be done or should be done,” said Cassandra Carmichael, director of eco-justice programs for the National Council of Churches. “Even if they are just looking at the bottom line and want to do energy-efficiency stuff from a fiscal standpoint, they often have challenges coming up with the capital at the beginning — especially if they’re in a disadvantaged area.”
Most churches face those two challenges when making a decision to become greener — the vast variety of options and then the resources to accomplish their goals, Carmichael said.
“One is that they get so overwhelmed with all they need to do or want to do, they don’t know where to start. We try to help them get past that,” she said. “You get bombarded with all the options that you have to make your church building greener and build a more energy-efficient building.”
Carmichael’s program offers a guide for congregations specifically entering into green-building projects, as well as a separate guide for practical ways that churches can become more environmentally friendly short of a new building project.
The simplest ways to green a church’s facility can make congregations not only better environmental stewards, but also better stewards of their own finances.
“Some of the best low-cost, high-return improvements are compact fluorescent bulbs, LED exit signs, occupancy-sensor controls for lighting, programmable thermostats for heating/air conditioning, yearly or ‘pre-season’ maintenance or ‘tune-up’ of HVAC systems,” said Jerry Lawson, national manager of the federal Energy Star Small Business and Congregations Network, in an e-mail interview.
“If the church is replacing a piece of equipment anyway, it is incrementally very inexpensive — sometimes no cost increase — to buy Energy Star-labeled products and equipment over non-Energy Star.”
The Energy Star program is an Environmental Protection Agency initiative creating energy-efficiency standards that generally are 20 to 30 percent higher than federal law requires for a variety of consumer products — including household and industrial appliances. Lawson’s network provides resources to congregations and small businesses to improve their energy efficiency. Among them is a guide that shows congregations how to make existing facilities more energy efficient.
The efficiency savings can be put to good use, Lawson said. “Many green efforts — especially energy efficiency — can save (a) significant amount of money that church members have pledged for the mission, only to have it go to pay for utilities,” he said. “Energy savings can be repurposed for the ministry of the congregation, and most congregations can cost effectively reduce energy bills (via increasing efficiency) by 25 to 30 percent.”
And, Lawson added, churches can educate their members to be more effective stewards of energy in their personal lives — which could, itself, have an effect on the church’s bottom line.
“A step further is that the church can help educate members that they can also cut energy costs by about 30 percent in their homes and their businesses, which could help people in their personal finances and enhance their ability to tithe,” he said.
He also noted some steps to increase efficiency could save on costs in ways beyond the simple utility bills.
“Certain green actions, such as replacing inefficient lighting with efficient, can actually save on personnel and maintenance costs due to the much longer life of efficient lighting, and HVAC tune-ups can help the equipment last years longer.”
Beyond increasing energy efficiency
Beyond simple retrofits, greening your church’s facility or building a green-friendly new building or campus becomes more complicated — and requires careful consideration of a church’s ministry context, resources and commitment to go to extraordinary lengths to embrace its call to environmental stewardship.
“As building becomes more driven by sustainable design, it may change the way we define beauty. A beautiful building may be one that looks like it is sensitive to its environment,” said Bill Merriman of Merriman Holt Architects in Houston.
Merriman’s firm recently worked on its first LEED-certified church building project — St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston.
LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an initiative of the U.S. Green Building Council. The certification program provides an internationally recognized set of standards for green buildings.
“The church had a great interest in doing a LEED-certified building. It reflected the will of the congregation,” he said, noting the decision was based more on ethical principles than cost savings.
“There was a natural sense that it’s the right thing to do — to be a good steward of the environment God made.”
Green-building levels of commitment
Keelan Kaiser is chair of the architecture department at Judson University, an American Baptist school in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Ill. Judson is the only evangelical Christian school in the United States to offer a fully accredited professional program in architecture. And the program focuses on green design — so much so that it, along with the school’s art and design programs, recently moved into a LEED gold-certified building.
“At Judson, the whole reason we’re interested in environmental stewardship is because buildings consume about 50 percent of the energy in America,” he said. There are, Kaiser said, four basic steps to creating “a truly green building, and the first is to reduce the loads, or requirements, for energy-consuming equipment.”
That can involve reducing the amount of sun a building built in a climate with hot summers gets to reduce the energy load required to cool the building. Or it could mean maximizing the use of natural light in a facility in order to save on electricity costs.
“The second step is designing very high-efficiency mechanical systems” — such as higher-efficiency heating, cooling and lighting systems — including installing thrifty plumbing systems and water fixtures.
“The third step is providing renewable energy on-site,” Kaiser said.
That can include solar panels, hydroelectric generators and even windmills. For example, a church in a place like the flat, windy Midwest could place wind turbines atop the tall roof of a sanctuary to take advantage of greater average wind velocities at such heights.
The fourth step in greening a facility, he said, “is to purchase green power off-site — to purchase a portion of your electrical consumption from what’s called green-power sources.” Many utility systems offer — usually at what Kaiser described as “a slight upcharge” — an option to purchase power that comes from sources greener than coal-burning plants or other high-carbon sources.
Building green wisely
Houston architect Merriman cautioned against “over-promising practical results” in terms of cost savings on utility bills when retrofitting or building a whole new green facility.
While energy-efficient heating and air mechanical systems do produce monthly savings in utilities, the initial outlay for a high-performing mechanical system can be costly.
Early on, he recommended, the architect a church enlists when embarking on a green building or renovation program — together with others on the building team — should develop a feasibility study to help the congregation make informed decisions.
The team would look at how the building is used and how often particular sections of the facility are utilized each week.
“Communication is all-important so there are no disappointments,” he said.
A life-cycle analysis of any mechanical heating and cooling system also provides vitally important information, he added.
If the “payback” on a high-performance system is 15 years, a church might need to reconsider. But if the system paid for itself in terms of utility savings over five or six years, that might be worth consideration.
The unique setting of each church and the composition of its membership also must be considered. For instance, he noted, bicycle racks might be a positive, environmentally friendly addition to some facilities — but completely impractical elsewhere.
Efficient use of space Judson’s Kaiser said churches might make their first step in embarking on a green building plan a re-visioning of how they use their facilities — of how they operate as a congregation.
“Green buildings are the result of green operations,” he said. “You can’t operate a building efficiently if you’re not operating your programs efficiently.”
For example, traditional churches are, simply, inefficient buildings to begin with.
“One of the problems with buildings, of course, is that you want them occupied as much as possible in order to justify its existence, so from a green-building standpoint, a church is a difficult building type,” Kaiser said. “It’s not that you can’t do it, but it’s a building that’s only occupied a small percentage of the day and week.”
The NCC’s Carmichael said some churches have taken their commitment to environmentalism so seriously that they have decided to maximize their facilities’ efficiency by sharing with other congregations — and other alterations to the way they use their space.
“It’s more energy efficient to share a building than having two separate buildings,” she said. She noted one church in Wisconsin that not only shared its building, but also used its space for things like opening gardens to raise produce for the homeless and neighbors to mowing their lawn “with a lawnmower that’s run off of used vegetable oil.”
“They’ve taken the approach of not just the building itself and let’s look at the facility, but they’ve taken it a step further and tried to incorporate those practices into the life of the church.”
Above all, the choices a church makes when it comes to greening its facility come down to its view of its ministry priorities, Energy Star’s Lawson said. “I believe the most powerful consideration (in greening a church) is the scriptural guidance on stewardship. We are called to be stewards of creation — to prevent pollution and conserve natural resources for future generations,” he said.
“Greening/stewardship efforts can be important and educational ways for the youth group and all members to contribute to the life of the church and community.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press. Camp is managing editor of the Texas Baptist Standard.)
Building Green: What can I do?
Churches can green their facilities in a number of ways. But what can individual Christians do to make their lives more environmentally friendly?
Here are a few resources:
Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission
Evangelical Environmental Network
The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University
Green Christian Network
Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative