Updated: Nov 27
It’s not coming, it’s here. Across the United States in the 1980’s, we were often warned that the climate crisis was coming. We took collective action to protect forests from clear cutting, focused research on nuclear power, attended concerts to help starving children in Ethiopia, and began recycling programs in our schools. At the turn of the century, we began raising discussions about renewable energy, launching efforts to compost in our churches, installing energy efficient appliances and windows, and ensuring our buildings were insulated.
Today, the Church mops up contaminated flood waters in our sanctuaries after burying our dead, holds the hands of farmers who have lost their crops and subsequently their family farms, collects coat donations to ensure people who have lost their power do not freeze to death, and start community gardens, while “investigating hydroponics”, to help feed our starving communities.
The Church in its response has come a long way... and it hasn’t. Religious governing bodies, like a denomination or diocese, have invested in the establishment of “green teams,”encouraging congregations to “Go Green,” by promoting the financial benefits of energy and waste reduction. Sunday morning services regularly incorporate elements of ecotheology into the liturgy with voices lifted in five-part harmonies proclaiming the magnificence and divine creativity humans witness among the rest of creation. Sermons and meditations focus on the interconnected burdens and travail of nature and marginalized peoples with the sins of over-extraction and exploitation named and lamented. And in theological treatises, climate change is still being highlighted as an existential threat that Christians are called to address... peripherally.
Meanwhile, climate change is progressively pushing our environmental stability and social wellness to breaking points, leading to community-level suffering that has not been witnessed by the Church in generations while enhancing existing stresses for clergy and lay leaders. Clergy attrition was significant before the impacts of climate change became so pervasive, with studies like one from the Alban Institute and Fuller Seminary finding that 50% of ministers are dropping out of ministry within the first five years, many never returning to church again. Another study from researchers at Duke University found that 85% of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within five years. Further, 90% of all pastors will not stay until retirement (not to include their passing). Add the significant stressors of community-level suffering to ill-prepared clergy, who receive minimal support after a disaster and even less support for baseline community changes, and those numbers are likely to grow exponentially. We can only bury so many, house so many, weep with so many before we are all victims.
Souls Saved, Lives Destroyed
In the United States, there is a cognitive dissonance around climate change that limits how pastors and congregations process and respond to an ever-changing environmental landscape.
Despite massive wildfires along the West Coast, devastating heatwaves and droughts, climate-induced supply chain disruptions, and locales experiencing multiple 100-year floods in the past few years, individuals often choose to assume that their leaders are taking action and, so long as we cast them our support, all will be well.
A 2021 poll by researchers at Yale and George Mason University found that only slightly more than half of Americans believe that any individuals living within the United States are being adversely impacted by climate change. Even though roughly 30% of individuals relocating in 2022 within the United States cite climate change as a motivation to move, with 40% of Americans having lived in counties impacted by climate disasters in 2021, and 80% of individuals in the United States having experienced at least one heat wave, the majority of individuals living in the United States do not see climate change as a tangible problem in their life, or at least one that requires personal and immediate action.
Yet, climate change is already profoundly impacting communities in the United States in many easily identifiable and sometimes more subtle ways. In addition to increasing natural disaster intensity and frequency, climate change is one driver of inflation, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable members of society while propagating a larger sense of resource scarcity and fear in all sectors of our societies. It has also been linked to increased hateful rhetoric and violent extremism in virtual and physical spaces, increasing rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents, increased asthma rates in children, and increasing rates of gender-based violence after climatic disasters, just to name a small subset of less obvious challenges associated with climate change.
While we are usually able to save many souls in climate disasters and related crises, the lives of the survivors are forever changed, and usually not for the better.
Walking on Sinking Ground: The Paradigm Shift of Climate Change in the Church
For many pastors, climate change has already invisibly shifted the baseline conditions of ministry, whether they know it or not. It is creating an atmosphere of unwellness and uncertainty among congregations, making the day-to-day pastoral work more emotionally and spiritually draining. Even for congregations that have largely been shielded from many natural disasters or catastrophic economic impacts, congregants and pastors are not immune to the psychological and spiritual trauma imparted by the daily news of devastating events like massive floods in Pakistan, supply chain issues and crop failures from unprecedented droughts in China, failing water systems in Jackson, Mississippi, or overt acts of political hate stemming from scarcity mindsets driven by inflation and philosophies like the Great Replacement Theory.
Current environmental doctrinal dogmas and theologies often oversimplify climate crises as “carbon dioxide production”, thus minimizing our interconnected environmental crises while compressing complex interactions between humans, ecosystems, and earth systems into a singular chemical formula that can be easily addressed. Meanwhile, these dogmas are also dangerously Calvinistic, creating divisions between a mostly white European descended “climate elect” that does not need to be concerned with the impacts of climate change, and a climate damned, “marginalized groups and environments'' that have historically been impacted by technocorporatism, eurocentrism, classism, racism, and colonialism in ways the climate elect can only imagine.
Enter a need for an integrated and intersectional theological understanding of how climate change is impacting the world we inhabit. An informed theology will provide religious leaders the frameworks and language to effectively minister to their congregations when climate disasters occur.
By promoting a more panoptic view of climate change, clergy and congregations are provided a common language to speak to the daily challenges associated with climate change like inflation, hunger, cancer, heart disease, depression, scarcity, and, ultimately, potential systems collapse. When congregations and clergy encounter these sources of spiritual, psychological, physical, and emotional suffering being experienced at every level of our interconnected societies, they will be more prepared, able to process, and empowered to respond to this unique environmental moment. And, maybe most importantly for local churches, congregations and clergy can work through the theological and practical expectations of clergy response in a climate-driven disaster before the disaster becomes a crisis.
Clergy Bailing Water, and Bailing Out
Managing the long-term community response, congregant trauma, their own secondary trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that accompanies disasters becomes another burden for the local pastor. That pastor is already navigating challenging baseline community shifts, organizational politics, and other congregational pressures, and, more and more, these additional burdens are contributing to burnout and resignation.
Every day we hear stories of clergy members bailing out. Denominational work groups are turning into emotional support venting sessions without accomplishing their work. Church Pastoral Care Committees, if existing, are at a loss as to what to do as they too are experiencing an abundance of suffering that makes it difficult to assist another.
Terms like “burn out,” “clergy stress,” “congregational bullying,” and “abusive church,” are prolific in the news media and within religious governing bodies, and are treated as root causes for clergy resignation, even though these issues are merely symptoms of larger problems. These stressors are pervasive, and often overwhelming, so much so that denominations do not have time or capacity to address the root causes, but can only apply psychological band aids, like intermittent spiritual direction or guided spiritual retreats, in an effort to stop the bleeding of their clergy. Despite calls for self-care, pastors report spending so much time taking care of others’ immediate stressors (bailing water) that they never step back to consider the cacophony of drivers that lead to their own suffering, let alone the deeper implications. By the time they recognize the impact, they’ve already resigned, retired, or are so burnt out that they are becoming a danger to others. Now endemic, clergy are experiencing burnout at an unsustainable rate post-2019.
The costs of clergy burnout are impacting all aspects of religious life with very few tangible answers. Because of the increased psychological and spiritual impacts of climate change on pastors, the care needed today is more significant than self-treatment and dedicated respite for spiritual formation. Even in cases where pastors are able to recover somewhat from this debilitating critical stress through a retreat or time off, they are immediately returning into the exact same conditions that led to that stress in the first place, creating a vicious cycle of spiritual depletion, burnout, and endless retreats.
Even seasoned clergy who are accustomed to self-governance and service and have a long habit of “sticking it out,” are finding themselves overworked and overwhelmed. While they are, by far, our best weapons in the fight to minimize suffering, they are increasingly having to manage their own suffering as well as the suffering of inexperienced colleagues. Additionally, internal congregational strife, resulting from basic dysfunction or external crisis’ such as those driven by climate change, is breaking the trust between beloved leaders and congregants, leaving experienced clergy in a position of perceived abandonment, isolation, and suffering with nowhere to go. Rev. Eric Atcheson of Birmingham, AL recently was quoted in an NPR article reflecting on clergy burnout, “I’m so exhausted from things happening to me.” The “problem” has turned into “crisis” and the leadership is ill-equipped to address the challenge despite best efforts.
If the Church doesn't change, we will continue to see a mass exodus of clergy post-pandemic, far worse than the projected baby boomer retirements and normal attrition rates. The loss of moral leaders negatively impacts not just the congregations, but the larger community as well, with fewer public advocates for things like equitable public housing, community food programs, abuse victim services, incarcerated individuals, and other vulnerable populations. With retention rates of seminary graduates within the first five years at an all-time low, there are fewer qualified replacements for retiring clergy. For those who choose to stay, expectations exceed their physical ability to effectively manage all of the multifaceted and ranging demands of their jobs with total competence, driving the church further into a leadership sinkhole with no way to reverse it.
Pastoral wellness in this time of attrition is the utmost priority. Unfortunately, with crises like climate disasters and long-term climate change that negatively impact communities, there is little to be done once the events do their damage. To address these challenges before they impact communities, Brugmansia Ministries and The Parsonage Project are working together to help clergy and congregations prepare for these life-changing events by building resilience. That resilience is, in part, created by the contextualization of climate impacts on communities and the Church through education, preparation, and interpersonal connection.
Becoming Life Guards in the Deep End
The Church doesn’t have to be underwater. It needs to learn how to swim. As climate change continues to shift our expectations around our lives, from the price of gas and groceries to the availability of needed medical care, our churches need the flexibility in application of their theology, to respond effectively. For clergy, this may mean reimagining the execution of their role and purpose in both the religious institutions and in the world. And for religious governing bodies like denominations, the opportunity to provide training to contextualize climate change on a personal scale, refining organizational structures to effectively communicate across interfaith and secular lines, and broad internal networking for local ministries to efficiently access resources becomes morally imperative and spiritually essential.
Despite trauma and unfathomable suffering, climate events provide the church opportunities to clarify its mission and rebuild in ways that are more missionally aligned and prepared for future disasters. In this resurrection of a congregation after a climate disaster, churches can invest in congregational life and in the life of their communities in ways that were not present before the disaster. This fresh start allows savvy and prepared clergy to address historical traumas and trends within their congregation that they previously could not resolve. This is also an opportunity for leaders to launch new models for ministry and shared community that are more effective, more spiritually nourishing, and more in line with the congregation’s calling. Just as physically rebuilding is paramount to community success, living into a new climate-informed theology provides the framework to build ministries that meet the ever-complicated and changing needs of the local congregation.
For clergy, disasters can offer an additional chance to live into their ministry in an authentic way like never before. Leading their congregations in the co-creation of new missions while reestablishing the sacredness of their congregation and the wider community, will invigorate congregations and lead to growth. Meanwhile, the process allows them to thrive in their vocation rather than continue to suffer from fortified institutions, notions, and expectations that limit the flourishing of the church.
But, none of that happens if our religious governing bodies and clergy are not prepared for the depth of challenges associated with climate change. The results are simple and predictable: broken clergy, broken congregants, and a tremendous missed opportunity to create space for God to heal and work within our communities through our unabashed care, love, and hospitality.
Unlike the inevitability of the ever-present and increasing challenges of climate change, there is still time for religious organizations to address the clergy crises enhanced by climate disasters. Our responses are not set. Our leadership can invest in preparing clergy and congregations to reduce the long-term effects of trauma from disasters and critical stress incidents by building resilience through large-scale preparation. In that careful preparation, we have the opportunity to foster healthier clergy, congregations, and ultimately communities - an opportunity that our faith communities cannot afford to lose.
Pastor Josh Richardson, M.A., M.S., is the Executive Director of Brugmansia Ministries, a ministry focused on preparing congregations for the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges of climate change through community resilience building.
Rev. Ribbons Harris, M.T.S., C.I.S.M., is the Executive Director of THE PARSONATE PROJECT, a ministry dedicated to helping clergy build personal resilience to address isolation, fatigue, and critical incident stress.