Faith leaders must address our serious climate crisis

A shepherd walked with a herd of sheep as he crosses a dried water bed in the outskirts of Hyderabad, India in 2010.
A shepherd walked with a herd of sheep as he crosses a dried water bed in the outskirts of Hyderabad, India in 2010. Associated Press

The U.S. government report on the devastating effects of climate change was released on Black Friday, detailing what is happening now and how the situation will worsen in the years to come. Catastrophic weather events, air pollution, loss of species and habitat, ocean acidification and rising sea levels have implications for every human being.

Yet how often do clergy address environmental issues in their houses of worship?

I conducted a survey of 1,200 mainline Protestant pastors in early 2017 asking about their choices of contemporary topics to address in sermons. The results indicate that environmental issues were among the lowest priority, with only 25 percent of respondents indicating they had preached on climate change in the previous 12 months.

Further down the list, 16 percent had mentioned pollution, nine percent clean energy, seven percent environmental racism, six percent fossil fuel extraction, and only 3 percent had preached a sermon that mentioned species extinction.

As a seminary professor, environmental activist and former parish pastor, I have argued that clergy have a key role in helping congregations understand environmental issues as a matter of faith and moral and ethical obligation.

This was one of the main tenets of my book, “Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit” (Chalice Press, 2015). Specifically, I argued that we must pay special attention to the ways in which the oppression of those most vulnerable and the oppression of Earth are intertwined if we are to follow Christ’s mandate to care for “the least of these” in both our human and biotic communities.

In this day and age, preachers must be attentive to the eco-crucifixion that is going on all around us, felt most keenly by those living in poverty, indigenous communities and people of color.

This is an “all hands on deck” moment for clergy. Our silence about these issues is a form of theological malpractice that we must remedy. The sixth great extinction, the growing “garbage patch” in our oceans, the massive die-off of coral reefs, water pollution, along with the increasing frequency of droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons and wildfires, are all signs of the eco-crucifixion.

Scientists are now debating how long the planet will remain habitable for human beings. 300 years? 100? 50? The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humanity has just over 10 years to get global warming under control before the cascade of disastrous impacts overwhelms our capacity to adapt.

How can faith leaders help? Read the government’s report with your congregation and look at how climate change will affect your region of the country. Discuss ways your house of worship can help prepare for the calamities to come and put together an action team to implement those strategies.

Also, read and interpret your faith tradition’s holy books with an eye toward how the values of compassion, assisting those in need and holding leaders accountable to the criteria of justice all apply to the climate crisis.

We need to seek out, listen to and learn from a multitude of stories from a variety of locations spoken by voices previously unheard or disregarded — including the poor, threatened communities and Earth itself — to break our hearts, change our minds, bring us to our knees in repentance and creatively engage the climate crisis with all our strength.

Research has shown that when clergy speak about climate change and other environmental issues in their sermons, people listen. Sometimes they resist, but often they respond. It makes a difference.

When faith leaders step into this present crisis, they will help elicit a depth of wisdom, insight and motivation that can guide us as individuals and as a society toward a more peaceful, just and Earth-honoring future. This is our challenge. This is our holy calling.

Reach Leah D. Schade, a seminary professor in Lexington, at leahschade@gmail.com.