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Cultivating Cool Congregations & Communities

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Cool Congregations, a program created by Sarah Webb and two of her friends from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cedar Falls, IA, helped fellow members cut energy use on average by 9%, saving around $200 annually per household. Since expanding nationally, the program has touched over 250 faith communities in more than 10 other states through Interfaith Power & Light.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Form a creation care team - The St. Luke’s Church creation care team provided ideas and manages ongoing events and communication for their fellow members.
  • Involve your congregation’s leadership - The endorsement of the priest and the church board helped give credibility and public support for their efforts.
  • Provide a clear path - Cool Congregations offers simple, tangible steps that people can do right away to become better stewards.
  • Find the right success stories - Their team didn’t use their “greenest” members as success stories, they chose people that the congregation would most identify with.
  • Share and celebrate progress - The program promotes sharing accomplishments and friendly competition through awards based on measurable outcomes.

“Better to Light a Candle”

“I wanted to take a page from my personal saint, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was fond of saying ‘It’s better to light a candle than it is to curse darkness,’” says Sarah Webb reflecting back on what drove her to start Cool Congregations, a program that has helped thousands of people of faith from across the country save energy in their homes and congregations.

It all started back in 2007 when Webb and two fellow “church moms” heard about a proposed coal power plant in their neighboring town of Waterloo, Iowa. Rather than simply protesting the plant, they chose to be part of the solution. That year, Webb and her friends started a new program designed to engage members of their congregation in reducing their home energy use as part of their faith. They called it Cool Congregations.

Webb and her friends used the program as a vehicle to give their fellow members the tools and resources they needed to cut their carbon footprint by 10 percent, based off the Christian principle of tithing. To facilitate this, Webb and her team helped their members determine specific actions to achieve their energy-saving goals. Program leaders also equipped members with a number of resources, including a step-by-step manual, helpful checklists (such as “25 Steps Under $25”), and a customizable carbon calculator that allows people to enter real data and track their progress over time.

Your success stories can’t be the person who was already biking to work or driving a Prius. They need to be someone others can really identify with. 

Sarah Webb
Founder, Cool Congregations

At Sarah’s congregation, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Cedar Falls, 38 participating households reduced their carbon footprint on average by 9% through the program, saving around $200 annually per household.

Building Community

So how did Sarah and her fellow leaders achieve their success?

Sarah says a critical first step was getting her church leadership to buy into the program, which helped lend it credibility. In practice, this meant that Webb sent a letter out to congregation members announcing the program, signed by the priest (her husband) and the church board president in advance of the official program launch. The priest also gave sermons on the importance of taking care of creation, saying, “To keep the faith, we must keep the earth.”

In addition, Sarah and her fellow creation care team leaders made sure the members weren’t acting in isolation. Sarah and her team encouraged competition between families and celebrated achievements through a “Biggest Loser” award ceremony, given to the congregation’s top energy savers.

Creating a strong creation care team and facilitating continuous contact between members and creation care team leaders were also critical to the program’s success. The church’s creation care team engaged members with announcements, one-on-one conversations, movies, faith-based study sessions, creation care workshops, and sermons on stewardship. They even surveyed members to find out what they would want to hear more about and had members of the congregation from outside of the creation care team present on those topics.

The St. Luke’s creation care team was also very careful to “mainstream” the program. This not only meant getting the endorsement of important church leaders, but also not having the “greenest” members of their congregation be the public face of their efforts. In choosing people to serve as their public test cases, they were careful to find the individuals that best represented their congregation. “Your success stories can’t be the person who was already biking to work or driving a Prius,” says Sarah. “They need to be someone others can really identify with.”

Scaling Up

It didn’t take long for word of their program to spread. Soon, Sarah and her fellow leaders started holding 3-hour “train the trainer” workshops on weekends as volunteers for other faith communities. Eventually, the program became a part of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light (Iowa IPL), a faith based nonprofit. To date, the program had touched over 250 faith communities and expanded to more than 10 other states.

Cool Congregations now lives on through the national Interfaith Power & Light organization, which has adapted the program to help cut energy use in congregational facilities as opposed to individual homes.

Sarah’s story is just one example of how a small group with dedicated leaders and a well-thought-out approach can bring communities across the country one step closer to climate solutions.