Research & Insights

Building Stronger Relationships Between Environmentalists And Faith Communities

Yesterday, Pope Francis headed to the White House as part of his historic first tour to the United States. There, he gave a stirring address urging Americans to act on climate change, declaring that “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”

Although many observers have described Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical on climate change as a watershed moment, religious groups and environmentalists have a long history of cooperation and collective advocacy. Today, interfaith groups like Fast for the Climate and OurVoices are taking on climate change.

Still, it’s worth considering what steps environmentalists can take to build stronger relationships with faith communities. In a 2015 article, published in the journal Coastal Management, Elizabeth McLeon of The Nature Conservancy and Martin Palmer from the Alliance of Religions and Conservation share some suggestions for environmental groups looking to reach out to people of faith.

First, it’s useful for environmental groups to build on existing projects with faith-based organizations. These projects have often already established ties with the faith communities and can offer a bridge for increasing involvement, as well as the experience needed to successfully navigate partnerships between faith and conservation. Groups such as the World Wildlife Foundation’s Sacred Gifts Initiative and the Sierra Club’s Faith Partnerships program are great templates for this kind of work.

Second, McLeon and Palmer stress the need for creating a dialogue to increase cooperation between faith groups and conservationists. Although these groups may have several natural areas of overlap, it’s always useful to continue build trust and understanding between communities.

Stories, specifically, are useful in this process. “Stories can be instrumental in making or changing behavior,” McLeon and Palmer explain. Tapping into the conservation stories of different faiths is a wonderful way to build support for conservation projects. “Acknowledging the sacredness of the natural world,” note McLeon and Palmer, “provides a powerful reason to inspire the masses to protect it.”

Third, conservation groups can benefit from having a holistic vision for their projects that not only protects the natural world but also addresses social problems such as poverty. Some faith groups have argued that there is a conflict between preserving the environment and caring for people, arguing that natural resources have been place on earth for the benefit of people and should be used to benefit the poor rather than conserved. Recognizing that this is a false choice is key to a good partnership.

“Creation care recognizes that human interactions with the natural world result in both environmental and humanitarian consequences,” point out McLeon and Palmer. By taking a holistic approach to conservation that also helps the neediest in society, environmental-faith partnerships can make sure that the needs of both people and the environment are respected and nurtured.

Fourth, McLeon and Palmer remind environmentalists that working with faith groups means acknowledging the differences between – and within – faiths. “A common mistake made by environmental NGOs attempting to develop faith-based conservation programs is to create a post for a single individual who is known to have a faith and then place upon him/her the responsibility to engage all religions and serve as the liaison between religious groups and the environmental organization,” they explain.

This doesn’t work well because a single person does not necessarily represent the beliefs of all the people in his/her faith, nor does it mean that he/she can work well with people of other faiths. Instead, McLeon and Palmer recommend doing outreach to religious groups at different levels, from the local to the national, and working with these members to define shared goals.

Collaboration between environmentalists and faith groups is all about trust and a shared vision. As McLeon and Palmer note, “[P]artnerships between a specific environmental group with a clear issue to address and a faith group with a clear vision of what it believes can be most effective if the conservation group is willing to learn from the faith group about respectful and meaningful ways to engage, to invest resources (financial and otherwise) into developing the environmental leadership capacity of the religious community on these issues, and to share the benefits related to the shared activities with the partnering faith communities.”

Posted: September 24, 2015
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