Ministry Leaders Gather at the Duke Marine LabProfessors from Duke Divinity and the Nicholas School for the Environment lead sessions on pastoral care for climate change
How can the church address climate change when many congregations say they care but don’t act, and the problem is clearly urgent but too easy to ignore?
This question was central to a recent event, “Pastoral Care for Climate Change: Weaving Together Science and Theology for Justice,” at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. The event, led by Creation Justice Ministries, brought together Duke Divinity School faculty and alumni, as well as faculty from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and other Christian leaders. Recent alumnus Avery Davis Lamb, who graduated in 2022 with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity and an M.E.M. from the Nicholas School, is co-executive director of Creation Justice Ministries and helped to organize the event.
By connecting pastors, theological faculty, Christian leaders, environmental scientist faculty, and scientists, the retreat aimed to discover approaches to addressing climate change that could empower Christian leaders to move their congregations to action and advocacy.
Faculty from both the Divinity School and Nicholas School offered presentations to help participants engage thoughtfully with the climate crisis. The scientists illustrated how climate change is a social justice issue, while the theologians offered practical ministry tools to take back to congregants.
Said Nicolette Cagle, lecturer in environmental science and policy at Nicholas, “Data tells us that when stakeholders with different perspectives, from different disciplines and different walks of life, work together to solve problems, they are more likely to be successful. The climate crisis requires us to work together, consider all voices, and share power.”
One of the challenges of spurring congregations to action is that not all congregations feel the same effects of climate change. Geographic location and socioeconomic status has an enormous impact on who is vulnerable to direct, immediate harm from climate change. Lower-income households already spend a higher percentage of income on food; price increases affect them most.
“From what I remember from Sunday school, the Bible has a lot to say about how we should be navigating suffering in the world. I believe that telling these stories that link the impacts of climate change to Scripture in a way that resonates deeply with the faithful will bring people together to reduce that suffering.”
— Brian McAdoo, associate professor of earth and climate science
Elizabeth Albright, assistant professor of the practice of environmental science and policy methods, gave a presentation that displayed how the practice of redlining pushed lower-income families into higher-temperature, disaster-prone zones. The effects continue to linger, leaving these families in climate insecure areas.
When those most directly affected by climate change aren’t the members of your congregation, fostering empathy and understanding that is strong enough to spur action and overcome helplessness and despair becomes critical.
Vulnerability is created, said Wylin Wilson, assistant professor of theological ethics; it doesn’t just happen. Those who are vulnerable to climate change are put in that situation through social and economic conditions and through the norms and relationships that constrain our lives, she said.
“How do we address these issues in our congregations?” she asked. “Something as simple as having a Bible study, when you look at an issue from the lens of, What is my role as a child of God? What does that mean? Does that role call us and help us move more deeply when it comes to thinking about our faith and lives?”
Wilson led participants in creating “eco-autobiographies,” narratives that ask how your physical and natural environment influences your community’s health, in positive and negative ways.
“These are good ways to foster empathy,” she said. “Folks need to connect and can connect through narratives.”
Said Brian McAdoo, associate professor of earth and climate science, “For us to get our learning out of the ivory tower and to the people that need it most, we need to tell stories.”
Scientists, he said, often are only in conversation with other academics, but linking science with the pulpit can engage far more people. “From what I remember from Sunday school, the Bible has a lot to say about how we should be navigating suffering in the world. I believe that telling these stories that link the impacts of climate change to Scripture in a way that resonates deeply with the faithful will bring people together to reduce that suffering.”
Connecting Through Food Ministry
Churches are often active in food ministry, and helping congregations make the connection between climate change and food security can encourage congregations to take action before disaster strikes, said Norbert Wilson, professor of food, economics, and community and director of Duke’s World Food Policy Center.
McAdoo showed retreat attendees that natural disasters have a greater effect on those in some areas, including coastal regions, and have a disproportionate effect on those already suffering food or income insecurity. At the same time, he recognized the ability of the church to reach those most in need. “The church is a community in itself—a place where people come together and look after each other,” he said. “We have shown that close-knit religious communities in Indonesia were more resilient following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami due in part to their looking after each other.”
Natural disasters such as droughts and floods, which increase as the climate changes, bring immediate problems of food availability and access, which can be difficult to shake as communities struggle to get back their footing.
“Dr. Wilson’s session on food insecurity and how it connects to climate change was an ‘aha’ moment for me. Food ministry is something churches love to talk about and do. If you’re going to introduce something like climate change into a congregation that doesn’t think much about it already, it can be tricky. One of the most effective ways I’ve learned to do that is by pairing it with a value that already exists inside the congregation.”
— Sarah Seibert, M.Div.’19
“When major events happen, it’s difficult to access food even years after for some households,” Norbert Wilson said. “Doing something before disaster strikes could be an important way to bolster the community when disaster does hit.”
Over time, crops that once provided jobs as well as sustenance are more difficult to grow due to climate changes, and agricultural workers face extreme temperatures and dangerous working conditions.
Congregations can take action now to improve food systems, address issues of food loss and waste, and involve the communities that are most affected in planning how to address these issues, said Wilson.
“Dr. Wilson’s session on food insecurity and how it connects to climate change was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” said Sarah Seibert M.Div.’19, director of Christian education at Hillyer Memorial Christian Church in Raleigh, N.C. “Food ministry is something churches love to talk about and do. If you’re going to introduce something like climate change into a congregation that doesn’t think much about it already, it can be tricky. One of the most effective ways I’ve learned to do that is by pairing it with a value that already exists inside the congregation.
“The Bible talks a lot about food, we meet at the table, we feed people in the neighborhood as a downtown Raleigh church. Asking our people to think about those food supplies and how climate change may affect it was really helpful for me.”
Jerusha Neal, assistant professor of homiletics, led a retreat session on how to preach about hope in the midst of climate crisis, emphasizing the need to move beyond politicized trends.
“Some of us are the displaced people of God and some of us are more like Babylon. You can’t preach the same sermon to both groups. You better know where you are standing and what your hope is connected to.”
— Jerusha Neal, assistant professor of homiletics
“Creation care does tie into those big theological words: covenant, reconciliation, and incarnation,” she said. “And I would ask you to use those words when you preach about the climate crisis. It signals to your congregation that this is not some politicized fad, but it is central to Scripture. That doesn’t mean there is one scriptural-biblical narrative in relation to creation. There are actually multiple streams. It’s one of the beautiful things about the biblical text. All of these books emphasize the relationship between creation care and theology in different ways.”
Not all congregations come from the same background, and they shouldn’t be preached to in the same way, she said.
“Some of us are the displaced people of God and some of us are more like Babylon. You can’t preach the same sermon to both groups. You better know where you are standing and what your hope is connected to,” she said.
She encouraged pastors to take the long view on climate, preaching on climate justice often, with sermons that are biblically grounded; locally rooted, referencing the local environment and geography; concretely descriptive, relating to the pastor’s lived experiences with climate change; and covenantally committed, encouraging covenant with creation as well as with each other.
“We are in this to be counterculture witnesses to a different way of existing in this world. To live in equity as if our actions matter,” she said.
Taking Climate Change Back to the Congregation
McAdoo noted that despite the urgency of the climate change issue, scientists have had a difficult time engaging and enlisting the help of many in the church.
“We need to be able to convince the clergy to recognize that these changes are coming for us, and we need to be ready to come to the aid of those most in need. I don’t know what that means in more conservative churches, but I know that we’ve failed in delivering our stories to them in a way that resonates. The clergy can do that translation for us.”
— Professor Brian McAdoo
“There is a great deal of questioning climate change coming from the more conservative members of our society, many of which are people of faith. Climate change is already bringing suffering to communities across the planet—from Kentucky to Kolkata. We need to be able to convince the clergy to recognize that these changes are coming for us, and we need to be ready to come to the aid of those most in need. I don’t know what that means in more conservative churches, but I know that we’ve failed in delivering our stories to them in a way that resonates. The clergy can do that translation for us.”
Felicia Chang, M.Div. ’19, children’s ministry coordinator at Chinese Mission Church in Durham reflected on bringing this message to the church: “A lot of classes on climate care at Duke are theology-focused, but don’t always answer the question ‘How do we apply this in churches?’ Being with other clergy who are working on this, it was cool to hear the different things that they are doing in their contexts—the practical side.
“It was really encouraging to see how open people were to have these conversations despite our different backgrounds—the clergy and scientists coming together—even though we might not agree on everything. We could respect each other’s contexts because we are all working within different frameworks. This is complicated, and it’s okay to wrestle with some of these questions.”
Sarah Seibert agreed: “As a leader in the church, I can help direct attention and focus. I have the opportunity to think about the ways we are finding space for these conversations and encourage the congregation to think about it, too.”
Chang said she’s already taken what she learned in the retreat back to her congregation, leading a two-week session on food and faith and talking to the children in her ministry about the interconnectedness of creation.
“They learned about it in school, so I think talking about it in church was a helpful thing. It got them thinking, ‘Where is God in all of this?’ And once we really start thinking about the world around us, we can see how God is connected to everything,” she said.