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Growing Church Leaders of Tomorrow: The Green Seminary Initiative

How important is environmental education in seminaries and theological schools? To what extent should seminaries be concerned with the environmental sustainability? On March 16th, the Catholic University of America hosted a Symposium on Ecologically informed Theological education, which was co-organized by the Washington Theological Consortium, the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the Green Seminary Initiative, and the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, to address these questions. One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Laurel Kearns, a professor at Drew Theological School and one of the co-founders of the Green Seminary Initiative. For Dr. Kearns, this symposium at a prominent Catholic institution was a landmark event in the Green Seminary Initiative’s outreach into the Catholic community. She was gracious enough to speak with Catholic Climate Covenant about her organization, why it is important for theological schools to make their buildings, curricula, and community cultures more ecologically aware, and how seminaries can take steps to be greener today. 

Dr. Kearns co-founded the Green Seminary Initiative (GSI) in 2006 with Beth Norcross and David Rhoads because they were concerned that theological schools were not finding value in focusing on ecology. She says they saw a trend that institutions were not “owning” an ecological focus—instead, it was dependent on individual faculty members. They wanted to create an organization that would “foster a transformation of theological education” in terms of learning about and caring for creation and eco-justice. Now, GSI has five areas of focus: education, worship, buildings and grounds, community life, and public leadership. They provide programs, webinars, support, and conferences addressing these areas. They also collaborated with GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental organization, to create the Seminary Environmental Certification, which is designed not just to help theological schools find multiple ways to decrease their carbon footprint, but to infuse ecological awareness throughout the institution.

Ecological education and “greening” are important in seminaries for several reasons, Dr. Kearns explains. First, there is the social and eco-justice aspect. “People (and all creation) across the globe are negatively affected by environmental degradation, and seminaries train religious leaders to lead congregations and care for people, embodying the Gospel call to care for our neighbor and care for ‘the least among these.’” Secondly, the scriptures tell us that God cares for all of creation, and all creation gives glory to God by its existence. All creation is part of “God’s choir,” singing praises to God, as the Psalms tell us. We are currently in the midst of a mass species extinction because human actions are unraveling ecosystems across the world at a rapid rate. This means that hundreds of species no longer exist to sing God’s praise. Seminaries and religious institutions are called to respond to these challenges, now more than ever. We have known about our negative impact on the environment for a long time, but its full extent is only now becoming clear to us. Climate change accelerates our moral necessity to respond. “We need to be training leaders for the Church of tomorrow,” Kearns insists, “not the Church of yesterday.”

Dr. Kearns says there are many easy ways to green your seminary, school, or home. One of the easiest is to focus on energy efficiency and on minimizing your institutional carbon footprint. Be mindful of not leaving windows open if your buildings have central heating and cooling, and keep your usage at a minimal. Make sure you are using LED lighting instead of incandescent ones. Kearns recommends a professional energy audit to assess your building’s energy efficiency. She also says it’s important to consider the food you eat and how much you waste. Many schools incorporate a Meatless Monday, she says, but the fact that Friday abstinence is already built into the Catholic tradition makes reducing meat consumption that much easier for Catholic seminaries and schools. Many factors must be considered in relation to food and drink, including the amount of food waste your institution produces, where your food/drinks are coming from, and how it is produced and transported, and how the workers are treated. Buying fair trade coffee is another simple way to make your institution greener and more just, as it supports coffee-producing communities that are sustainable both for the earth and for workers.

Kearns also recommends switching to 100% recycled paper, making two-sided printing the default, and instituting paperless meetings. To reduce the use of chemicals that are harmful to the ecosystem, you can use green cleaning supplies and move away from the use of pesticides on your building’s grounds. “If, as theological schools, we are teaching the full Bible,” she says, “we need to care for all of creation,” which precludes the use of toxic chemicals that “put [living] things out of existence across the food chain.” In all of these changes, it is crucial that we make an effort to change “practice into policy” so that helpful practices don’t vanish with the specific people who instituted them. We must also tie all of our sustainability practices in with the concept of justice for God’s people, particularly the poor and vulnerable. She recommends that every seminary read Laudato Si’ for its inclusive vision of caring for our Home, and perhaps incorporate information on climate change into multiple courses into their curriculum, teaching their students how to preach about it. 

You can read more of GSI’s suggestions for greening seminaries and learn more about the Seminary Environmental Certification Program for your school on their website. For more ideas, refer Catholic Climate Covenant's toolkit on Integrating Creation Care into Parish Ministry, or subscribe to our Homily Helps ideas about how to integrate the vision of Laudato Si into your homilies. With the help of the Green Seminary Initiative and other organizations like it, seminaries and theological schools can continue to grow as places where tomorrow’s church leaders take action on climate change today. 

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