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Starting a creation care ministry: Same goal, different approaches

Cadence Cobb (left) and her mother, Megan Cobb, dig at Hillcrest United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee. 75 volunteers from the congregation and the surrounding community planted 250 native trees as part of a Creation Care effort. Photo by Kathryn Spry
Cadence Cobb (left) and her mother, Megan Cobb, dig at Hillcrest United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee. 75 volunteers from the congregation and the surrounding community planted 250 native trees as part of a Creation Care effort. Photo by Kathryn Spry

Across the denomination United Methodists are responding to the threat of climate change and its effects. Grassroots organizing and ministry through congregations, districts and annual conferences was among the approaches discussed extensively during the July 11-14, 2019, Creation Care Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. This report is based on one of those workshops.

“Do Something Oturgeous – Transform the World with a Creation Care Ministry Team”

  • The Rev. Pat Watkins, retired, former missionary for creation care with the General Board of Global Ministries; founding member of creation care ministry teams, Virginia and North Carolina annual conferences
  • Jaydee Hanson, policy director for Center for Food Safety; member of Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, Arlington, Virginia; former staff executive for environmental justice, General Board of Church and Society
  • Mike Koob, member, Baltimore-Washington Conference Creation Care Team; founding member, Multi-faith Alliance of Climate Stewards of Frederick County; member, Middleton United Methodist Church, Middleton, Maryland

When developing a successful creation care ministry team one size does not fit all, said the Rev. Pat Watkins. The first missionary for creation care of the General Board of Global Ministries, he later started successful creation care ministries in both the Virginia and North Carolina annual conferences.

Start with scripture

Watkins’ started the creation care team in Virginia by joining the conference’s board of church and society as chair of the environmental justice working group. He recruited 40 other people from across the conference to join his team or support the cause. In 2009, the Virginia Conference officially designated the Caretakers of God’s Creation as a permanent ministry. Since then, the conference has developed the Green Church Initiative, a program to help local congregations develop their own successful creation care ministries.

“When developing a creation care ministry in your local church,” Watkins said, “I found it’s best not to start by talking about the issues. Start with biblical faith by grounding yourselves in the scripture and theology behind creation care.

“The essence of Christianity is relationships, our relationship to God and our relationships with each other. I believe we also have an important relationship with all of creation that must be nurtured.”

A creation care team needs to have the support and blessing of the larger congregation to succeed, he continued. “Make sure you infuse your team into the life of the whole congregation by working with existing committees and getting other church leaders to join your team. Your team will be far more effective if it has support of the church leadership.”

When Watkins retired and moved to the North Carolina Annual Conference, he could not escape his call to creation care ministry. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward asked him to start a new team there. “We launched the new team in April of 2018, so it’s still relatively new,” said Watkins.

Commit to actions

Jaydee Hanson is also active in creation care efforts in Virginia where his ministry team is tied to Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington..

“In 2005 the stewardship chairman at Mount Olivet approached me one day and asked me to start an environmental stewardship committee. Shortly afterwards Hurricane Katrina hit and we sent groups from the church down to do mission work in Louisiana and Mississippi. We decided to use the occasion to educate our mission volunteers on the connection between climate change and severe weather. That was the beginning of our work,” Hanson said.

In 2008, Mount Olivet voted to join the Green Church Initiative Watkins’ team had developed. The church committed to specific action steps in five categories: worship, education/discipleship, stewardship, evangelism and mission/outreach. For each category has a list of action items the church seeks to fulfill.

“Under the worship category we pledged to hold at least one Earth Sabbath service a year honoring God’s creation,” Hanson explained. “For education we hold training events, environmental Bible studies and video screenings among other things. Stewardship commitments include taking steps to reduce our total energy consumption as a church while also giving financially to other environmental justice causes. Evangelism for us has meant projecting our green ministry out to the community and letting guests know what we’re about on their first visit to the church. Mission and outreach activities include engaging in green service projects and connecting environmental justice to other forms of justice.”

Engage in advocacy

In contrast to Watkins’ starting with a scriptural and theological foundation, Mike Koob found an issues-oriented approach worked best to mobilize the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference to pursue creation care.

Koob explained, “The first issue we focused on was fossil fuel divestment. We sent a resolution to General Conference 2016 calling on our pension programs to divest from fossil fuel companies. There wasn’t a central team operating in the conference at the time, but there were many individuals and local ministries interested in different aspects of creation care. Developing the resolution and building support around it helped us find each other and begin coordinating our ministries.”

Koob was able to build a permanent network of creation care advocates through his work in fossil fuel divestment. He also built relationships with secular and interfaith groups and organizations committed to environmental justice such as Interfaith Power and Light. He’s also a founding member of the Multi-faith Alliance of Climate Stewards of Frederick County. Much of Koob’s work on creation care since 2016 has been advocacy-driven, which makes sense in an annual conference like Baltimore-Washington with the nation’s capital and many public policy organizations in its boundaries. The Baltimore-Washington Creation Care group was one several environmental groups that successfully petitioned the State of Maryland to ban hydraulic fracking.

“We call legislators, hold protests and rallies, write letters and engage in civil disobedience,” Koob said. “Advocacy is a way of life in our conference, since we are centered around D.C. Our core team includes representatives from (the General Board of) Church and Society and United Methodist Women along with local church pastors and laity. We’ve been intentional in making sure our team is diverse and includes people with a variety of experiences and perspectives.”

Whether starting a creation care ministry in a local church, district or annual conference, one size does not fit all.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

More than 200 creation care advocates gathered for the 2019 Creation Care Summit, July 11-14, in Nashville, Tennessee, USA to network, worship, collaborate and strengthen their movement and to share information through educational plenaries and workshops.

Read the UMNews coverage at Urgency needed to combat climate change.