The Genesis Covenant: Action for Climate Change

By Nancy McConnell and Patricia Helmer, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Caring for God's Creation (March 2011)

Read the newspaper or listen to the news. Weather events – hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires – capture the headlines. Unfortunately the consequences of these events too often strike those with the least – the poor and marginalized in undeveloped countries.

Global climate change models predict that extreme weather events will become increasingly common. Yet too many in our country and in our church prefer to ignore these consequences. We continue our exorbitant use of fossil fuel, we continue to pollute the air and water, and we continue to balk at reforms aimed at reducing greenhouse gasses. We Christians disregard our covenant with the Creator to care for God’s good creation. We disregard the teaching of Jesus who in the New Testament told us to care for the poor and least among us.

How can we Episcopalians overcome this apathy?

We can begin by making the Genesis Covenant a central ministry of the church.

Genesis Covenant? Never heard of it? Adopted in 2009 at the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Genesis Covenant is “a public commitment by the Church to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from every facility it maintains by a minimum of 50% within ten years.”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But how does a church begin? And what needs to be reduced by 50%?

Setting a Baseline

The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia’s Bishop’s Committee for the Environment has been working hard to provide congregations with resources to meet the challenge presented by the Genesis Covenant. First off, churches would need a starting point to measure greenhouse gas emissions.

The Genesis Covenant task force identified and researched carbon calculators. They invited six Episcopal churches, a small business, and a utility to try out the carbon calculators and test the effects of retrofitting lighting in the church buildings.

One of the calculators used was the Environmental Protection Agency’s Portfolio Manager for Houses of Worship. This free, online, interactive energy management tool allows users to track and assess energy and water consumption within individual buildings as well as across an entire building portfolio. Type in your zip code and data is normalized for climate and for your utility providers. Enter a year of data for your energy providers (electricity, natural gas, propane, wood…) and you establish your base year. Your 10 years to implement the Genesis Covenant is now ticking away. Click on view, select emissions, and see your greenhouse gas emissions in cubic metric tons. Divide that number by two and you have your target – where you want your greenhouse emissions to be in 10 years.

Continuing Support

The Bishop’s Committee for the Environment offers support for churches on greening paths, including hands-on workshops in using Portfolio Manager for Houses of Worship. Teams from churches come with laptops, set up a Portfolio Manager account, and enter data for one of their energy meters. With a little more data entry, the church will have a starting point for its Genesis Covenant work.

The Committee also provides small Green Grants to churches for energy retrofits. In 2010 eight grants totaling $3,800 were awarded, leading to $25,000 worth of improvements in church buildings. In one small northwestern church the narthex was so drafty that opening the main door was a struggle. A Green Grant covered half the cost of weather stripping and insulating, and church members did the work. Now people can open the door and enter a warm and welcoming space. Another church, built in 1892 and added on to over the years, had a hodgepodge of lighting fixtures. Many were T12 fluorescents, soon to be phased out. With a Green Grant, utility rebates, and vestry funds, the church was able to update all of its lighting fixtures and exit signs.

Ongoing Actions

Celebrating the success stories of greening churches is another way the Committee has supported churches. Members of church green teams or faith and environment committees welcome opportunities to tell how they have gotten recycling started in the church kitchen, turned some space on the church grounds into a vegetable garden where food is raised for food banks, or hosted meals featuring locally grown, organic foods. Often churches can help other churches by coming up with solutions for problems: yes, using the church china at coffee hours is more environmentally friendly – but then someone has to do the dishes! Or one church’s success inspires others to take on a new project. By sharing successes at workshops, the annual retreat, and on the diocesan website, churches help others stay on their greening pathways.

Resource Partners

The Bishop’s Committee for the Environment is also fortunate to partner with Earth Ministry, an ecumenical faith and environmental organization. Although Earth Ministry is located in Seattle, its reach is national. Working with Earth Ministry allows the BCE to link churches to rich resources for advocacy, congregational study on topics ranging from climate change to food choices, and creation-honoring worship. Interfaith Power and Light is another key resource in assisting congregations in their work of reducing their energy usage and carbon footprint.

At a time when so many are suffering the consequences of the world’s economic difficulties, care of creation may seem a lower priority than the pressing human needs we see. But human health, economy, and well being depend on a world where air and water are clean, resources are shared and managed wisely, and the beauty of creation is honored. In caring for God’s good earth, we are caring for our neighbors and for the generations to come.

Nancy McConnell chairs the Bishop's Committee for the Environment, Diocese of Olympia; the committee supports local Episcopal churches in "healing and celebrating Creation." She attends St. John's Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington. There she heads the Creation Stewards who keep their church on a greening pathway by recycling, reducing energy use, organizing community events like Eat Local, Spend Less, Enjoy More, and running a large organic garden where food is raised for local food banks.

Patricia (Tisha) Helmer is the chair of the Genesis Covenant Task Force, a committee on the Bishop's Committee of the Environment of the Diocese of Olympia. Tisha has been a member of St James Episcopal Church, Kent, Washington since 1982. Her job as a major account manager with Puget Sound Energy, the largest utility in WashingtonState has assisted the Task Force in all matters pertaining to utility usage, grants and rebates.


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  • Parishioners from Grace Episcopal in Syracuse, NY convert their parking lot into planting beds.
  • Logo from the Genesis Covenant project

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