1. Use Real Dishes and TableclothsOne decision that makes a difference is ditching disposable items in favor of owning reusable things and caring for them together. We save money by not buying all that instant garbage (and by having less trash, if your church pays for trash hauling) and we increase community spirit by having our things that we use together, shared physical objects that collect memories of all the events where they are used.
Be a Dish Disciple!I have countless memories of conversations with church friends while we hand-washed and dried dishes together, in the years when our church didn’t have a working dishwasher. Now that we have two dishwashers, using our real dishes has become so easy, I see no excuse for disposable plates, cups, or utensils! A lot of people do, though–they think disposable stuff is so much more convenient that they’re entitled to use it routinely. I had some arguments about this, as well as a lot of times when people didn’t argue with my swooping in to substitute real stuff when they hadn’t thought of it on their own. Then I wrote “Eternity in Your Hand” and sent it to the parish email list. That helped a lot! (My first draft named a specific 90-year-old lifetime member of our parish, who really had said that she used to wash those same dishes when she was my age. Connecting the idea to a beloved real person helped it hit home.) Since then, I’ve found the phrase “Eternity in Your Hand” a useful shortcut that reminds some people right away. Others need this brief explanation: “We could use this plate once and throw it in the landfill forever, or we could use a real plate and wash it and keep using it again and again.” For people who aren’t moved by the environmental reason, talk money: “Every penny we spend on plastic forks delays our raising the money to fix the roof [or whatever is your church’s financial goal].” These days, most people in my church are bringing out the real dishes when serving food. We only use disposables when we have more people than dishes!What if your church doesn’t own dishes? If you have someplace to store dishes near a big sink with hot water, you’re set–just ask members to donate dishes and utensils they’re not using anymore, and then fill in by buying from a thrift shop. America is overflowing with used dishes that are still good! So what if they’re out of style? They’ve got character!My church owns an enormous amount of matching china and glassware. But our forks, spoons, and knives are a miscellany! Another church in our area has dishes that look so familiar because they’re the dishes a local restaurant used to have–apparently when the restaurant bought new dishes, the old ones were sold or donated to that church. One way to encourage members to get behind the idea of acquiring and maintaining real dishes is to appeal to aesthetics: A real mug is so nice! Hospitality is a virtue, and isn’t an honored guest worthy of a real dish? Would you entertain angels with foam cups?!My congregation invested in dishes many decades ago. Over the 22 years I’ve been there, members have donated dishwashers–one in the kitchen that’s the size you might have in your home, and a commercial dishwasher for the dish room with its U-shaped counter and rinse sink. We own these wonderful resources we can use again and again–why would we choose to buy more garbage instead?! I asked that question to Roxann, a church member who’s also employed a few hours each Sunday making coffee, washing dishes, and cleaning. “Work,” she said, shrugging. A lot of people don’t want to do work…. Sunday is the day of rest…. But did God ever intend for us to avoid work by converting Creation into things we’d use once and toss all over our beautiful world? Surely we can give back a little. Work done mindfully, in community, can be sacred.
Toss Trashy Tablecloths!A plastic-film tablecloth is another big wad of eternity that generally gets just one use before it’s torn or sticky. Tissue-paper tablecloths are even flimsier, although they’ll eventually biodegrade. Washable cloth tablecloths are a much better investment! The downside is that most churches don’t have a washing machine, dryer, or clothesline. Tablecloths will have to go home with someone to be laundered and returned. My church has had a diligent “tablecloth minister” at times, and in other years there’s been a more haphazard system of several people laundering them, but it’s always worked out somehow! You might consider using cloth napkins, kitchen towels, and/or hand towels, too. And it’s great to have plenty of aprons on hand in a church kitchen! If your church has space to install a washer and dryer, that’s well worth considering. Having laundry machines onsite makes reusable cloth things easier to use. Offering people in need a place to do their laundry would be an excellent service to the community, too.
If your church won’t cooperate…You have the option of being a “green evangelist.” You can do something you know is good stewardship of Creation, even if your church can’t facilitate that choice for everyone. You might bring your own mug for coffee or your own dishes for picnics, and wash them at home. Every bit you don’t trash makes a difference. When people ask why you’re doing something different, you can explain. Don’t be shy about explaining environmental stewardship in religious terms to other people of your religion! Your faith is common ground that may help them understand what Earth has to do with God.
2. Bringing Food? Use What You Have.When it’s time to bring a dish to a potluck dinner or set up some snacks for coffee hour, start by thinking about the ingredients already in your pantry and refrigerator and freezer. Figure out what you can make with that, and only buy more food if you need a few ingredients to complete a dish.Not only are you avoiding wasting food, not only are you saving money on this (so you’ll have more to give in other ways), but this approach makes it easier to decide what to serve! Instead of choosing an option from among all foods, you only have to choose among the different ways you could use this limited set of ingredients. After years of practice, I demonstrated that I can do this even at midnight with a brain injury! Shopping the pantry is easier than shopping the store. The last coffee hour of September was served by Mark, who is famous for his blueberry scones, so of course, he brought those–but I asked him which of the other food he brought was stuff he already had: Cucumbers and red peppers, in season here in Pennsylvania. He also happened to have some crackers. So he bought some cheese and made egg salad to go with those. He’d also bought some more baked goods.Speaking of using what you have, Mark decided to put out a stack of napkins from SubWay that someone had left in the church kitchen. If you have useful items, you may as well use them! I thought the logo coordinated nicely with the cucumber circles. Check out my guide for what to serve at coffee hour! Think outside the box–hummus on veggie strips might not seem like something people eat with coffee, but it’s extremely popular at my church. In fact, many people appreciate having some healthier food instead of just donuts and cookies. Getting enough protein to delay lunch helps people stick around for conversation, which is so important to fellowship and community.On our coffee hour table this day, right next to the sign-up book was a canister of tea someone was giving away. Food that we want to share doesn’t have to be served at church; it can be given to another member of the community or a visitor to enjoy at home.
3. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”All four Gospels tell us that Jesus took five small barley loaves and two fishes, gave thanks to God, and fed five thousand people as much as they wanted–and then the disciples gathered up enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets, so there was more food left over than they’d had in the beginning! I’ve never seen a miracle that huge, but I’ve had many times when faith that there will be enough food for a church event really seems to make the food stretch farther and to bring in unexpected donations of food! It’s important to notice that this Gospel story is not just about trusting that God will provide abundantly for our needs; it’s also about showing our gratitude by making wise use of every morsel. We can have what we need, but let’s not waste it!My church has a bagel breakfast in between the two Sunday morning services. Wiltrud brought the bagels on the Sunday of Mark’s coffee hour, and she offered the leftover bagels to add to the table. This meant that I got to eat egg salad, cucumbers, and red pepper on a sesame bagel–delicious! That wound up being my lunch! The Sunday before I’m hosting coffee hour, I check the church kitchen for crackers, cheese, cookies, nuts, or dips that will still be fresh enough to eat next week. I plan to use those rather than buying more of the same thing or making more from scratch. Then I buy some fresh fruit or veggies compatible with the leftovers. When you have a lot of food events in a short time, use leftovers from each event in the next one and fill in with new food as needed. Holy Week at my church includes supper on Maundy Thursday, a reception after the Easter Vigil, and a large-scale coffee hour after the Easter morning service. Some of the leftovers from each event can be served at the next. Here are the details on how it worked out one year. Sometimes I’ll take home a leftover and use it as an ingredient in food that I serve at church. For example, frozen blueberries that had been thawed for the Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner turned into blueberry muffins at the next coffee hour! When you don’t have another church event coming up soon enough to use all the food before it spoils, then it’s time for this next strategy:
4. Shepherd Leftovers to a Good HomeFresh fruits and vegetables, cheese that’s been sliced and handled, fresh bread, and creamy dips won’t last a week. Make sure someone eats them! Think of the sunlight and water soaked up by the plants, the cows making milk, all the people who gathered and processed the food, drove the truck, worked at the store, bought and cooked for your church family and you will see God’s loving care poured through that food’s whole existence! Let that caring nourish someone.Maybe you can use leftover ingredients to make food for a homeless shelter, make a casserole for a new mom, or otherwise serve people in need. But even if you serve it just to your own family, you’re still doing a good deed by preventing waste! (Again, every dollar you save on groceries is a dollar you can use to help people in another way.) Here are some ways to use food that you don’t want to eat in already-served-once condition:
- Fruit: Make a cooked fruit sauce for topping yogurt, ice cream, or pancakes. Almost any fruit except melon works–I’ve never had a medley that turned out badly!
- Veggies: Roast or saute as a side dish, whip up a stir-fry, or make this versatile, high-protein pasta salad.
- French toast is more interesting when you have a medley of bread types.
- Make breadcrumbs for all your recipe needs! They can be frozen for later.
- Cheese: Top a casserole or Flexican Cornbread Pizza–or grate and freeze cheese for later.
- Veggies, bread, and cheese: Cheesy Vegetable Bread Pudding.
- Veggies, cheese, and meat/fish: Tetrazzini.
- Apples: Cook them up with cinnamon and nutmeg as a filling for pie or apple crumble…or just eat them with yogurt or oatmeal.
- Katie also has some fun preservation tips to try.
- Bananas: Let them turn brown, then bake banana bread. We had it for Easter dinner once!
- Bell peppers: Danielle at Poor & Gluten-Free has 8 ways to use them.
- Carrots: Apricot Lentil Soup or Masoor Dal or Grildebeen Burgers or carrot cake.
- Zucchini: Zucchini Bread or Cheesy Zucchini Casserole.
- Crystallized ginger: Finely dice a slice or two, mix with a diced apple, heat, and eat with yogurt–yummm! (I mention this because I happened to bring home some crystallized ginger from church just when I had the year’s first apples from my CSA farm share!)
5. Reuse in CommunityWhen people are eager to take home leftovers, how will you pack up that food to keep it from spilling on the way home? Paper plates covered in cling-wrap are so wasteful! But if you didn’t plan ahead by bringing the right number and size of reusable containers, what can you do? Years ago, I asked several of the most kitchen-y people at church to help me choose a space in the kitchen where we could store containers for leftovers. We settled on a basket in a cabinet under one of our two kitchen islands. We stocked it with some random plastic tubs and boxes that were already knocking around the kitchen, and then I started washing out empty containers from purchased food like
- plastic tubs from yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc.
- plastic boxes with snap-on lids from foods like cookies and fruit
- plastic cake domes–these are great for bringing home extra pancakes!
6. Buy Fair-Trade CoffeeThe ideas I’ve listed so far cost very little and can even save money. This one might cost you a little extra…but treating people fairly and caring for our world is more important than money…. Prayerfully consider whether your church’s budget can cover fair-trade coffee or you personally can donate a big bag once a year so that at least some of the church’s coffee is fair-trade. Fair Trade is a set of voluntary business practices designed to give small farms a fair price for their crops, promote farming techniques that are safe for workers and environmentally sustainable, and bring products more directly from producers to consumers. With fewer middle-men involved, more of the price you pay goes to the farmers who grew your coffee. Many varieties of fair-trade coffee also are grown organically, without pesticides and herbicides that may damage the health of farmers, roasters, and coffee drinkers.Equal Exchange sells fair-trade coffee (and tea and chocolate) at a discount to faith groups–big bags for all your church’s coffee-serving needs, or cases of smaller packages that you can re-sell at church events for people to use at home. My church buys 10-pound boxes of Equal Exchange coffee through Episcopal Relief & Development so that some of the money helps people in need around the world.How much does it cost? In my article about alternatives to K-cups, I calculated that the Equal Exchange coffee I buy from the food co-op to use at home costs about 9c per cup, while the very cheapest ground coffee in the supermarket costs about 4c per cup. Equal Exchange says that their price on Breakfast Blend for faith groups works out to 8c per cup. So, it’s about twice as much as the cheapest coffee you could get–but it’s less than fancier brands of ground coffee. (And it’s about 1/5 the price of K-cups!) Consider putting out a donation basket at coffee hour, with a little sign explaining Fair Trade. My church has been serving fair-trade coffee for about 15 years now, with only a brief lapse during our most struggling phase. Most of us agree it’s worth the extra cost. It tastes great, too!To make my church’s investment in good coffee stretch farther and make fair-trade coffee more affordable for my family, I bring home leftover coffee after coffee hour. The church owns some insulated carafes that are rarely used except by my borrowing one–sometimes two or three–to bring home coffee that I can drink later in the day or even for several days. (I don’t mind reheated coffee.)
7. Get Good EnergyBy fortunate coincidence or divine providence, when I was already planning to write this article I was asked to represent my church at a presentation of the EPA Energy Star Stewardship Tour! Two men from the Environmental Protection Agency spoke at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary about Energy Star for Congregations, EPA’s program to help places of worship reduce our energy use. I learned a lot of great stuff! The program opened with an explanation of why saving energy is a priority not only for “liberal” congregations: Because reducing energy use reduces energy bills, saving energy saves money! So that’s an easy sell. And it turns out that most worship buildings lose a lot of energy to high ceilings, old-fashioned design, intermittent use, and just carelessness. There are more than 412,000 houses of worship in the United States, and their average utility bill is $8,100 a year, of which more than 70% goes to heating. That’s a lot of money getting burned up! It’s also a lot of coal, fuel oil, natural gas, and uranium getting used up forever and creating pollution of various kinds. Your church can buy from a green power supplier to get electricity that’s generated from renewable sources. But, depending on which state you’re in and what special deals are available to houses of worship, you may find that too expensive for your budget. EPA offers a free program to become an Energy Star partner and use online tools to do a baseline assessment of your energy use, create an action plan, implement it, and evaluate it. Their Portfolio Manager tool will track your energy use, create custom reports, and develop a strategic management plan for your building. Portfolio Manager uses “weather normalization” to help you see how this year’s unique weather patterns affected your energy consumption and how it would be different in an average year in your location. It gives you EPA data on emissions for your area and shows you how much pollution your building creates–adding together the pollution that actually comes out the exhaust pipes of your building and the pollution created by the utilities you use.
Here are some highlights of EPA’s suggestions for cutting utility bills:
Automated technology and conscientious alternativesInstalling energy-saving features, as you can afford them, makes conservation easy. Meanwhile, spread the word about simple habits that save energy. Use programmable thermostats to heat or cool the right parts of your building at the right times for your regularly scheduled activities. This eliminates problems with people leaving the heat or air-conditioning running full blast when they go home. Keep doors closed between a part of the building that is heated/cooled while an adjacent area is not. “Please keep door closed,” signs help my parish hall stay comfortable!Motion-activated light switches are great for spaces like hallways. But before we got them, a “Did you turn off the lights?” sign next to the door was a helpful reminder.
Greening your light bulbsLED bulbs use about 10% as much electricity and produce about 25% as much heat as incandescents. They last many years, which saves time and increases safety (fewer trips up and down ladders!) for whoever changes the bulbs. Avoid over-lighting a space by choosing your bulbs using lumens (amount of light emitted), not watts (amount of electricity used).Don’t neglect EXIT signs! These are required by law to be illuminated at all times, and incandescent ones are power hogs. In many cases, you can change the type of light without replacing the entire sign. If you have fluorescent lighting with tubes 1 1/2″ in diameter, replace them with narrower tubes that give the same amount of light. The wide ones use an old type of ballast that’s much less efficient. In addition, use motion-activated light switches in spaces like hallways and stairwells, where people often forget to turn off lights.
Save energy with your appliancesAbout 1% of all electricity worldwide is used up by appliances in “standby mode” waiting for someone to press a button! Unplug things like computers, television sets, audio equipment, and microwave ovens when they won’t be used for a few days. (If the outlet location is inconvenient, use a power strip with a switch, and turn it off after you turn off the appliance.) When it’s necessary to replace an appliance, buy an Energy Star appliance to minimize your electricity use. If your refrigerator or freezer is more than 10 years old, consider replacing it right away. Improvements in technology make newer ones much more efficient. Many states have a rebate to motivate you!
Improve your “building envelope” by sealing leaks and using the sun’s heat to your advantage:
- Check for places where cold air comes in during the winter, and caulk them.
- Drafty windows? Plan to replace them as you can afford it. (My church had to get a grant to afford windows compatible with our historic-building status. I’m glad we did! The parish hall and library are much more comfortable now!)
- Make sure you have adequate insulation in attics and wall cavities, and around hot-water pipes. Insulation can settle or break down over time.
- Install insulated drapes on windows that get direct sunlight. Close them on hot days; open them on cold days.
- Plant deciduous trees (the kind that lose their leaves in winter) along the west and south sides of the building. They’ll block the sun in summer but let it warm you in winter.
- An 8-foot-deep band of shrubs and trees around a building reduces the indoor summer temperature by 8 degrees!
- In very hot climates, consider painting your roof and western wall white to reflect heat.
Saving waterWhen a plumbing fixture needs replacement, EPA’s Water Sense program will help you find one that uses less water. A “tankless” or “on-demand” water heater can be a great choice for a church where almost all hot-water use is on Sundays. Why keep water hot through the other six days? This type of water heater is more expensive than the tank kind, but it may pay for itself with energy savings. For landscaping, choose plants that don’t require routine watering but can get by on rainfall.
EPA’s Energy Treasure Hunt Kit makes spotting sources of energy waste into a fun activity for teams of adults, older kids, or families! You’ll find easy ways to reduce your energy bills up to 15%.
8. Choose Green ProductsEnvironmentally friendly choices don’t always cost more. Take a look at what your church is buying at what price, and compare that to the price of a greener alternative product. Change the choices that won’t cost too much more. Two main types of products to investigate are paper and cleaners. Look for paper products made from post-consumer recycled paper that is processed chlorine-free. See my toilet paper article for more information on how paper recycling and bleaching affect our environment. What paper products does your church use?
- Paper for printing service leaflets, children’s coloring pages, and other communications
- Toilet paper
- Paper towels
- Paper napkins
- Paper cups and plates
- Envelopes for your weekly offering money, marked with your pledge number so they can track how well you’re fulfilling your pledge. These drive me nuts! A glossy cardboard box of 52 color-printed envelopes for every pledger?! At least, a church should allow pledgers to opt out of envelopes and just write your pledge number on your check.
- Hand soap
- Dish detergent for washing dishes by hand
- Dishwasher detergent
- All-purpose cleaner for mopping floors, cleaning sinks, etc.
- Wood polish
- Toilet-bowl cleaner
- Laundry detergent
9. Reduce and RecycleThere are many ways to use less stuff, which saves money as well as resources! Some of the stuff you do need to discard can be recycled–but are you actually recycling it? Products labeled “recycled” or “biodegradable” or “compostable” aren’t any better than others if you just throw them in a landfill.Here are a few options that would reduce waste in a lot of churches:
Use less paperDoes your church routinely print a lot more copies of a document than are needed? Does your service leaflet have a whole lot of white space or include long passages that are also in the hymnals or prayer books? Speak with the office staff about your concerns–but come prepared to listen to the reasons why they do what they do. If you have some computer skills, offer to post announcements on your church’s website or arrange an easy-to-use email list, to minimize mailings and printed announcements. This also saves money!Don’t use a disposable plate where a paper napkin will do! If people are just eating crackers, for example, napkins will be enough. If you give them the option of taking both a plate and a napkin, they probably will use both.
Plan children’s crafts using “clean trash” instead of new supplies.The web is full of ideas for fun crafts–even religious-themed ones–using materials like egg cartons, plastic bottles, and paperboard boxes. Choosing to reuse materials will save money as well as reduce waste!
Recycle paper, bottles, and moreMany curbside recycling programs don’t collect from churches. You could set up a contract for a recycling company to pick up from your church every week. But if you’re a small congregation, you may not have enough recyclables to make that worth the expense. One option is to have volunteers take home the church’s recycling and add it to their curbside bins at home. I did this for my church for about 10 years. (One time, it was the grossest thing I’ve ever done to help the environment! But all the other times, it was easy.) Another option is to pool your recycling with other nearby organizations or businesses. Either you’ll divide the cost of the recycling contract, or they’ll say, “Meh, we’re paying a flat rate for pickup–what’s a few more bottles?” My church is next door to a private school, which holds its weekly chapel service in our church. Several years ago, when our sexton (that’s Episcopal for “janitor/handyman”) quit and we were having trouble finding another person to take this part-time job, a vestry member negotiated with the school: They accepted what we could pay and arranged for their custodial staff to do our weekday cleaning and maintenance. I soon found that they were emptying the recycling bins, and when I asked about this I learned that they were adding our recyclables to the school’s. I didn’t have to do it anymore! In addition to the usual bottles, cans, and paper, consider collecting things that are harder to recycle. A church can be a great place for this because the dozens or hundreds of people who come into the building every week can bring in their special recyclables.I collect coffee bags for recycling at my church. (I even get some from non-members who visit the church regularly for Alcoholics Anonymous or Historical Society meetings!) Other collections that might be helpful are pens and markers, crayons, batteries, or plastic bags. RecycleNation has great info on how to recycle unusual things! Sometimes, it pays to recycle: Katie’s church hosts a Paper Gator bin, where they collect recyclable paper and earn a little money to support their youth group. Look for a similar program in your area!
Consider a compost binIt’s easy to throw food scraps in a heap and let them decay into free fertilizer! But somebody needs to spend an hour a month or so mixing the compost and spreading the finished product on the flowerbeds. You’ll need a system for setting aside compostable material during food preparation and then bringing it to the compost bin (instead of letting it rot in the kitchen until next Sunday). This method of reducing trash in the landfill will work only if some volunteers are willing to maintain it.A church compost bin is useful not only for disposing of fruit and veggie scraps generated by the church but also for members who can’t/don’t have compost bins: They can collect their scraps during the week and bring them to church for composting. (That sounds annoying, but several apartment-dwellers in my parish were eager to do it!) If your church doesn’t have its own compost bin, you can set aside scraps when you’re cutting up veggies at church (put them in one of those leftover containers!) and bring them home to your own compost. Composting is something my church said we were going to do but didn’t, but we got pretty far in planning! Barb bought a rotating composter she was going to donate. We were working out a system for collecting scraps in the kitchen. Our problem was that our priest had a very specific spot in mind for the composter, but some old branches and vines needed to be cleared out of there, and she always had a reason why nobody could do it just yet. Several years have gone by, and we have a different priest now. Maybe it’s time to try again!
10. BONUS TIP: Create a Certified Wildlife Habit!This might sound like an advanced move, but it’s really pretty simple. Check out my church’s garden and learn what makes it an urban oasis for wildlife!
Is It Too Late Already?The recent United Nations Climate Report frightened a lot of people with its dire predictions about what will happen on Earth in the next few decades. It is very disturbing to imagine a warmer world filled with flooded cities and desperate refugees both human and animal! We must do what we can to reduce the damage, and there is still hope. “This is our chance to decide what that road will look like,” says one of the authors of the report.God promised the living creatures of Earth that we would never again be destroyed by a flood. That gives me faith that we can find a path away from doom. But it doesn’t mean that God will fix it for us no matter what we do! And it doesn’t mean things won’t get worse before they get better. We must use our free will to choose to save ourselves, and we must pray for God’s help to guide and support us in better choices and strengthen us through the scary times ahead.
Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory. — from Prayers of the People, Form IV, Book of Common Prayer
Is your place of worship going easy on the environment? What challenges you when you try to make things greener?