Stepping out

Florida Presbytery promotes simple actions that can make big environmental difference

May 8, 2009

LOUISVILLE

Editor’s note: This is the 19th in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” ― Jerry L. Van Marter

Because climate change and global warming are such big issues, many people feel powerless to take action against them.

Pam McVety, stewardship of creation enabler at the Presbytery of Florida, wants to stop that attitude.

“Don’t get overwhelmed. Do something,” she says.

And McVety, the Presbytery of Florida and her church, First Presbyterian in Tallahassee, FL, have done something. Several things, actually.

In the fall, the presbytery began the Lifestyle Integrity Challenge — issued to each of the 46 churches in the presbytery. The challenge encourages participants to live intentionally, being mindful that the actions of one individual or group can have a global impact. It reminds people to live with Psalm 24:1 in mind: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

The challenge has seven focus areas — energy efficiency, food and health, purchasing, water usage, transportation, financial stewardship and recycling. Each month, the challenge focuses on a different area.

“It deals with being kinder to the earth — reducing your impact on it in everything that you do,” McVety says.

The presbytery has provided bulletin inserts and minute for mission sheets about the challenge and has encouraged church leaders to get involved.

Suggested actions include simple things like turning off the water while shaving or brushing teeth as well as lesser-known tips like buying items in larger containers to cut down on the packaging used in several smaller containers. Participants are also challenged to adjust their ways of thinking, like assessing the amount of water they use in a day and then imagining what it would be like to carry it from a well as millions of people in the world must do every day.

The challenge is a way for Presbyterians to make a real difference without a huge commitment. The goal was to provide simple ways that people could help the environment by making changes to their everyday lives, especially because some people have trouble making financial contributions in this economy.

“People feel like that need to do something — maybe not giving — but they can certainly do this,” says Jean Silva, associate executive presbyter and hunger action enabler for the presbytery.

“We’ve tried to extend outreach to everyone in the presbytery,” McVety says, adding that it’s important for people to realize that they really can make a difference. “It’s the first step in reaching out and providing information to people.”

A redefined mission

McVety’s Tallahassee church, First Presbyterian, completed a stewardship campaign called “Light from Light,” with part of the money raised going toward installing a new roof and solar panels on the church’s education building.

The roof now has 25.5 kilowatts of solar power on the roof, making it the largest solar array of any church building in Florida, McVety says.

That distinction reflects the congregation’s commitment to the environment and a redefined mission to care for the earth. The church conducted a five-week series educating members about climate change and other environmental issues.

“The church is extremely familiar with the seriousness of climate change,” McVety says. “It’s not just lowering carbon emissions … it’s changing the entire mission of your church.”

In addition to the solar panels, First Presbyterian has taken other steps to lowering carbon emissions. It recently started a partnership with another local church to make area homes more energy efficient. Families can sign up for improvements like low-flow showerheads, insulation and compact florescent light bulbs.

“We’re doing all the standard stuff that you can do — and that’s what everyone should do,” McVety says.

Personal passion

McVety has long been involved in environmental work. She has a master’s degree in zoology and spent her professional career at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She is also a founding member of the Big Bend Climate Action Team, a Tallahassee citizen activist group dedicated to reducing fossil fuel use and finding alternative energy sources.

In addition to her work at the presbytery, McVety is active in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in several other ways. She authored a 2006 General Assembly commissioners’ resolution calling all Presbyterians to go carbon neutral.

There are three steps to going carbon neutral, McVety says.

The first is to calculate your energy usage. This can be done with an online calculator, such as ones found at Native Energy, co2 or SafeClimate.

The second step is to reduce carbon emissions by reducing energy use. This can be done by driving less, unplugging electronics when not in use and using compact florescent light bulbs. A good goal for carbon emissions is the world average of four tons per person per year. The U.S. average is much higher, McVety says.

The third step is to purchase carbon offsets. Many carbon offset companies, such as Native Energy, Climate Care and Climate Friendly, sell carbon offsets by the ton. The money goes toward alternative energy projects like windmills. McVety’s family has contributed to the purchase of a methane digester on a dairy farm, which will turn cattle waste into an energy source.

“If every person in the United States took these steps — wow,” she says. “Presbyterians have always been leaders and religious groups have always been leaders. It’s a step that Christians, that Presbyterians, can do that makes a difference.”

These three steps are real, simple and efficient ways to reduce carbon emissions, McVety says, adding that people don’t have to take big action like installing solar panels to make a difference. Bigger institutions like churches and schools can be a huge help by doing small things like turning off lights and fixing dripping faucets.

McVety says she always knew that being environmentally conscious was the morally right thing to do, but that she was not very familiar with the theological basis for caring for the earth. But with the 2008 publication of The Green Bible, that’s changing.

The Green Bible is the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, with all the passages that speak to God’s care for creation highlighted in green. The book is made with recycled paper and soy-based ink and also includes practical steps and tips for getting involved.

“I really did not have a handle on how much was in the Bible that guided us and directed us to do these things,” McVety says. “This is a Christian response to what’s going on. It all relates to caring for creation.”

For more information about the environment and climate change visit the PC(USA)’s Environmental Ministries Web site.

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