Seeing the light: Local parishes take steps to be good stewards of our Earth

Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt., is a member of Kansas Interfaith Power and Light. The parish TEST group pushed to get new bulbs installed to help conserve energy and reduce the church’s carbon footprint.

The Trinity Environmental Stewardship Team is preparing for a workshop to help Episcopal congregations get green teams in their parishes. Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt., is a member of Kansas Interfaith Power and Light. Parish members working on the team are, from left, Austin Turney, Nancy Hanson, Ellyn Owen, David Owen, Garth Burns and Sara Woods.

Visualize the inside of a church, worship hall or temple. See the big cavernous space, with its soaring vaulted ceiling lit softy by dozens of lights. Maybe there are a few beautiful old stained-glass windows that date back generations.

It is a beautiful site to be sure, but it also can be wasteful. Very wasteful: That high-ceiling sanctuary costs heaps of money to heat and cool; those lights are expensive to power, and those stained-glass windows may leak out more air than they keep in.

In fact, churches, because of their design and usage, can be some of the least energy-efficient buildings around.

“Many of the churches in Kansas are old, leaky buildings, and they’re used really at kind of bizarre times — this huge burst of energy on Sunday mornings and then maybe some meetings on evenings throughout the week. But most of the time, the sanctuary is heated and cooled and it is completely empty,” Eileen Horn says. “Congregations really, really struggle with utility bills.”

Horn is the coordinator for Lawrence-based Kansas Interfaith Power and Light, an organization aimed at helping churches and places of worship reduce their energy expenditure and costs. And it’s a lot of energy and money that can be saved, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Congregations could save 30 percent of their utility bills just by improving the energy efficiency of their buildings,” Horn says. “And that’s really significant when you think of it — 30 percent of their utility bills can be directed to their more important priorities like mission work, outreach work, charitable contributions, whatever else are their many, many priorities, that is a much better use of their funds.”

‘A sacred mission’

KIPL is one of 31 chapters of Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that began in California in 1998. Since the Kansas chapter launched in 2008, four congregations in Lawrence have become members: Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt.; Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt.; First Presbyterian Church, 2415 Clinton Parkway, and Ecumenical Christian Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave.

To become a member, the churches must sign a covenant and pledge to “green” their congregations through various means. Churches who sign KIPL’s covenant gain access to resources like a professional energy audit and support to make changes that can add up to lower bills, less energy waste and a more informed congregation.

“Interfaith Power and Light is on a sacred mission to help churches become good stewards of the earth. We couldn’t have asked for a better organization to come along,” says the Rev. Josh Longbottom, associate pastor at Plymouth. “They helped us get a energy audit of our building that would qualify us for finances, which would help with building renovations, which are things we need to do and would help bring us into better energy efficiency.”

Molly Hood, leader of Plymouth’s Green Team, says that since joining with KIPL, the church has changed a number of its habits and introduced new programs to its members.

“We have switched from Styrofoam cups to reusable mugs for coffee on Sunday mornings, we had a ‘carbon fast’ over Lent and an eco-Bible study to begin to get the congregation involved in creation care,” Hood says.

Leaders at First Presbyterian and the ECM say they’ve also taken advantage of the program’s energy audit to highlight places where they can improve their congregations’ energy usage. It’s an audit that was written by Dave Owen, a member of Trinity Episcopal’s two-decade-old green team, Trinity Environmental Stewardship Team (TEST). Horn says that Trinity is one of her favorite examples of a congregation that has really embraced environmental stewardship.

“Instead of waiting for funds to fall magically from the sky, they just organized their group and had their group do the lighting changes,” Horn says. “They got on ladders in sanctuary and changed the bulbs.”

Nancy Hanson, chair of the TEST program and a member of KIPL’s steering committee along with Owen, says that KIPL’s aims fell right in line with what her group had been working toward for two decades.

“Our aim had always been to work within our parish to try to encourage people to become better stewards of the environment as Christians,” Hanson says.

Better stewards

Horn says that’s the common denominator for KIPL’s 40-member congregations throughout the state: Some may be in old buildings, some in new, but they all understand that saving energy is good for their mission, no matter which way you approach it.

“Not only is it good stewardship of our church funds, but it’s great stewardship of creation, which we’re all called to do,” Horn says.