Church Leadership and Climate Change:

a quick guide to action for the perplexed

I work “bi-vocationally” as an evangelical youth minister and as a faith-rooted climate change activist. In the latter, I am mobilizing young Christians to influence our senior church leaders to use their moral authority to support meaningful climate action.

Given this unique role, a number of my sympathetic—but perplexed!— colleagues in ministry have asked me this question:

“What can we, as leaders of the church, do about climate change?”

They assume I am some sort of a expert on the topic—and for a while I did too, until I opened my mouth and realized that all that was coming out was talking points and sound bites. While these quips have certain value for inspiring large audiences and time-strapped leaders, they are not necessarily helpful for navigating the complexities of church ministry.

Recently, I have been brainstorming how to answer the climate question using the language of ministry—the sort of language that might actually take root within the church leadership imagination and blossom into original ideas and real projects. As an activist, this exercise has given me a fresh and exciting vision of what “climate action” consists of.

And so, as both an activist and a church leader, I want to share some of these ideas with you. To start, I am going to discuss the two modes available to the minister for speaking about climate change: the prophetic voice and the pastoral voice.


The Prophetic Voice

The prophetic voice is a tradition that stretches back to the Old Testament. The prophets were men and women who looked upon their world with godly eyes. With this perspective, the prophets called out the present situation for what it was — and the future for what it might become.

The prophetic voice is a natural fit for talking about climate change. In a rush for cheap energy, we exploit God’s creation to extract the fuels that give us incredible power and speed. The present situation is such that scientific abstractions (e.g. carbon emissions, radiative forcing) are compounding with the rest of the world’s brokenness, as the global poor and marginalized are left most vulnerable to climate disruptions — despite contributing the least to the problem.

If we do not repent and change our ways, we risk a future where our civilization’s existence stands at risk. The planet we neglected to take care of threatens to take revenge on us through plagues like catastrophic flooding and crop failures. It is an ironic twist of justice that seems like it would fit snugly in between the writings of Amos and Obadiah.

While climate change might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, the moral obstacles are as old as the prophets. Human beings continue to succumb to greed, pride, and the false notion that there is nothing that actually can be done. We still act as if God is not real and alive in our time. Because of this, it is imperative that ministers of the Christian gospel reclaim the prophetic voice and speak out boldly against the sins that drive anthropogenic climate change.


The Pastoral Voice

Whether or not our job title includes the term “pastor”, many of us in church leadership embrace the pastoral dimensions of ministry. We hear ourselves in the call of Jesus to Peter: “tend my sheep.” Through projects of compassion and spiritual formation, we speak with the pastoral voice to join Christ in the work of leading people to streams of living water.

If it is prophetic to share the latest United Nations report on our Facebook wall, it is pastoral to join the Facebook group Climate Change: It’s Personal, where members “discuss the subjective, psychological, social, and spiritual experience of climate change.” If there is a climate report that might be of pastoral interest, it is the American Psychological Association’s recent analysis titled “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change”.

The work of pastoral care requires that Christian ministers be in tune to a range of emotional crises and mental distresses — including those wrought by climate change. Not only will the physical impacts of climate change be a driver of stress, trauma and grief in the 21st century, but the mere idea of climate change has important psychological consequences as well. This is evidenced by the depression and hopelessness suffered by many scientists, the so-called “frontliners” who have wrapped their minds around what our civilization is spiraling towards. Within the broader environmentalist community, phenomena like solastalgia and ecoanxiety are not figments of the imagination but very real experiences for a growing number of people. (Trust me, I’m seeing it.)

My prayer for the church is that we can learn to come around all who are suffering, all who are yearning for hope, all whose problems have been trivialized by the rest of the world. In relation to the sheep of the 21st century, this learning can only happen if the shepherds grapple with understanding how climate change is causing the flock to stir.


The Prophetic and Pastoral in Harmony

I’m no choir director, but my understanding is that when two different voices come together in song, the aim is that they somehow make a harmony. When it comes to climate change, the prophetic voice and pastoral voice resonate best in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary and empowerment.

Reconciliation

Sin deforms our relationships into destructive and hateful forms. Accordingly, the ministry of reconciliation is the work of joining God “who reconciled himself to us through Christ” in navigating these relationships back to a place of goodness and wholeness.

When it comes to climate change, the most obvious relational fault line is the divide in our political spectrum. By a fluke of history, climate change has become a marker of cultural identity and partisan politics in the United States. The stereotype goes thus: if you’re a Democrat, you “believe” in climate change; if you’re a Republican, you don’t.

In fact, studies show that a person’s view on climate change is more strongly correlated with their political affiliation than their religious identity. This means that the divisions we see in Congress are also likely to be found in our pews.

Partisan politics may seem petty to a minister of the Christian gospel. After all, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. But we are not called to transcend the fray but rather to live among it, building bridges among a humanity prone to division. This works requires the sincerity and objectivity of the prophetic voice, but also the compassion and patience of the pastoral voice.

Sanctuary

The world can be a threatening and dangerous place. For millennia, people have found refuge in spaces meant to house the sacred — in Latin, sanctuarium — so that the word sanctuary has come to mean “a place of safety.” As climate-related natural disasters increase and some parts of our civilization perhaps even destabilize, the ministry of sanctuary is all the more necessary for church leaders to consider.

The ministry of sanctuary is clearly pastoral: it is providing a space for peace and order in the midst of chaos and brokenness. But in a world affected by climate change, sanctuary must also be prophetic: it will require foresight to see the challenges ahead and be ready when disaster strikes, instead of passively waiting until after and too late.

Of course, not every church has a sanctuary building, nor does every church find itself in a community where these sort of climate-related emergencies are a realistic threat. If we expand our imagination, however, we can think of the ministry of sanctuary as directing our financial assets through our missions and international relief agencies, in order to respond to the increase in humanitarian disasters worldwide.

Empowerment

Climate dread is the overwhelming fear many feel when contemplating worst-case climate scenarios. Climate denial, on the other hand, is the categorical rejection of climate change as a reality.

While seemingly opposite, climate dread and climate denial have a common obstacle: the belief that there is nothing that can be done about climate change. Climate dreaders see planet-wide catastrophe as inevitable, either because they think we have already reached the “tipping point” or because they cannot imagine how the political coalition required to halt climate change will ever form.

On the other hand, climate deniers usually are not greedy, inhumane, or dumb — despite the stereotypes. Rather, most climate deniers have not been presented with adequate solutions to the problem. When they realize that their ability to do good is not enough to solve the problem, they mentally convince themselves that the problem is not as big as it seems. (In psychology 101, this is called cognitive dissonance).

Empowerment can play a key role in overcoming this obstacle. By giving people a sense that there is something they can do about climate change, we can help them cope with the problem or perhaps even admit to its reality. The ministry of empowerment requires using the prophetic voice to point the way forward and the pastoral voice to encourage others on that journey.


An urgent call

I have outlined two ways of speaking about climate change — prophetically and pastorally — which intersect in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary, and empowerment. My hope is that these categories are specific enough to give you a vision for your own leadership, yet open enough to apply to any context.

Perhaps, even with this practical way forward, you don’t see climate change action as a priority for your ministry. Let me remind you that climate change is set to be one of the defining issues of the 21st century, shifting the ground we journey on — figuratively and literally. Many institutions, from Wall Street to the Pentagon to subsistence farmers in Malawi, are aware of this and reconsidering their own strategic priorities in light of what is being called the “new normal”.

We as church leaders must begin to think ahead and prepare for the various socio-cultural impacts climate change will bring to our world and our work. Otherwise, we risk being leaders of a church that — much like as we saw in the 20th century — will find itself playing catch-up to the present, struggling to be “relevant” and “contemporary”.

And so I beg you to take these considerations to heart — if not for the sake of the planet, for the sake of your ministry.

May God find us faithful.

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