Environmental action in Canadian faith communities

The following article is a research summary of Justine Backer’s Master’s thesis, Contributions to Sustainability Practices of Faith Communities in Canada: The roles of learning, action, and faith.

In 2019, I completed my Master’s thesis at the University of Manitoba. My research focused on environmental sustainability action in Canadian faith communities at the congregational level. I worked with two Winnipeg faith communities to explore what kind of sustainability action and activity occurs within faith communities, how congregation members respond to these activities, and what barriers to action/engagement communities face.

My research
Based on the data collected in 2018, the two congregations that participated in the research, labeled Case Study A and Case Study B, had already established waste management, documentary and film screenings, and presentations/information sessions, among other events, as successful sustainability-based activities. In addition, all individuals who participated in the research said their faith was inherently linked to environmental stewardship.

Most events were organized at a grassroots level by the congregation’s sustainability-based committees, which included passionate individuals who organized these activities to engage other congregation members. While both faith communities participated in and supported environmental sustainability, the level of congregational support differed between the two communities that participated in the research.

Case Study A directly supported sustainability by incorporating environmental stewardship in sermons and giving committees freedom to share information and organize events. Participants discussed human and financial barriers to environmental action but found minimal congregation-based barriers. For example, difficulties with retrofitting old buildings, financial costs, and general buy-in from congregation members. Case Study A participants also felt congregational leadership supported and integrated the connection between faith and environmental stewardship into the community.

Case Study B was more indirectly supported and had restrictions on activity and events. Participants found more congregation-based barriers and discussed the need for more support from leadership and the national level organization. For example, Case Study B had restrictions on communicating events/information within the congregation and had minimal involvement from leadership. Participants also felt that leadership failed to establish the connection between faith and environmental stewardship.

What does this mean?
While both faith communities planned successful activities and had keen individuals organizing events, Case Study A faced fewer barriers, and therefore was able to host more frequent events and incorporate advocacy-based work. The biggest difference in the barriers Case Study A and B faced was the level of support from leadership and the larger organization. While Case Study B participants’ faith was inherently linked to environmental stewardship, they did not believe the entire congregation was aware of this link. Participants in Case Study B believed that leadership could do more to incorporate teachings of creation care in the congregation, and if that connection was established, there would be more environmental engagement and congregational support.

While each community is different, this research provided insight into what Canadian faith communities participating in sustainability activities are doing. If barriers to sustainability action are addressed, there is potential to increase engagement and expand environmental endeavors within congregations. Participation in sustainability-based activities confirms that faith communities are supporting the environmental movement and that there is huge potential to engage more individuals.


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