According to the EPA's Energy Star for Congregations program, if America’s more than 370,000 houses of worship cut their energy use by 10 percent, they would prevent more than 1.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

And now the more than 10,000 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations can take additional steps to do their part, with the help of a new program from Environmental Ministries.

Earth Care Congregations is a program that encourages churches to care for God's earth and celebrates those that have committed to this mission. The program takes a holistic approach to earth care, incorporating worship, education, facilities and outreach.

"Caring for creation is part of our faith," said Katie Holmes, program assistant for Environmental Ministries. "Look at what our faith says about caring for the earth and take that as a stepping stone to action."

"Because of their love for Christ who is firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), churches are challenged to live in a manner consistent with God's call to not only care for creation, but commune with creation. Earth Care Congregations are answering the call to the human vocation of “tilling and keeping” the garden from Genesis 2:15," states the Earth Care Congregations guide.

In 1990, the 202nd General Assembly adopted Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, a report that calls the PC(USA) to greater environmental stewardship. One of first steps to becoming an Earth Care Congregation is to commit to the Earth Care Pledge, which states that a congregation will take earth care into account when making decisions. The pledge is based on the 1990 report.

The 219th GA (2010) approved an overture that, among other things, lifted up the 1990 report, commended congregations that have worked to restore creation and urged congregations to adopt lifestyles that made better stewardship of resources.

The Earth Care Congregations program certifies congregations that have committed to the pledge and have completed different actions in the four areas of worship, education, facilities and outreach. Congregations must earn 25 points in each area. A list of actions and points for each of them is listed in the program’s Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.  

Earth Care Congregations recently completed a pilot round, with eight churches becoming certified.

"There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm around earth care in Presbyterian churches," Holmes said.

She acknowledged that while many churches had already taken greener steps, the program is a good starting point for churches that don’t know where to begin. And the actions don't all require a lot of money or drastic changes to buildings. In the "facilities" area, churches can earn points for having sealed windows and doors, serving fair trade food or using cloth tablecloths.

Although the program launched in July, the idea for Earth Care Congregations was born in 2002. Jane Laping was a stewardship of creation enabler (SCE) in Houston before moving to her current role as SCE for the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. Although she'd long worked in the environmental industry, it wasn't until later in her life that Laping made the connection between her faith and the environment. After learning about the 1990 GA report, she got a copy of the Unitarian Universalists’ green sanctuary manual.

"I thought, 'This is really great. Presbyterians should have one of these,'" she said.

And though she had the idea for Earth Care Congregations in 2002, Laping said she couldn’t find much support until recent years. But she’s thankful the support is there now.

"My timing isn’t always God's timing," she said. "People weren't ready for this in 2002. But they're ready for it now."

Laping said organizers put a lot of thought into the program, wanting to ensure it can work for churches of all sizes and all levels of environmental awareness.

"We made it so that churches that don't have much money can do it as well as churches that can afford to replace their air-conditioning system," she said.

Churches are asked to renew their certification every year, with the hope that thinking about the environment will become second nature. Holmes added that the program also aims to educate individual members so that they can live out environmentally conscious choices at home.

"Churches use a great deal of energy," she said. "If all churches started talking about environmental issues and all church members started making small changes, it would have a huge ripple effect."

And for Laping, caring for the earth can be a spiritual practice. She said she feels most connected to God when she’s in nature.

"God has given this to us. If we love Him, we will love what He's given us," she said. "I really feel the best place for this movement is in the church."

Congregations interested in learning more about earth care can also participate in a webinar hosted by Environmental Ministries and Energy Star for Congregations. Participants will learn more about the Earth Care Congregations program and how to use Energy Star's Portfolio Manager to become more energy efficient.

The webinar is Oct. 6 from 3 p.m.-4 p.m. EST. Register here.