The Holy See announced this month that it would become the world's first "carbon neutral" sovereign state by planting trees in a Hungarian national park to offset the carbon-dioxide emissions and energy use of Vatican City.

— Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service, July 25, 2007

Theological schools, with their faculties of Bible scholars, historians, theologians, and ethicists, are uniquely equipped to think about sustainability in a profound way, grounding it deeply in philosophical and moral theology, history, and scripture. (PHOTO OF MISSION SANTA YNEZ, SOLVANG, CALIFORNIA, BY JAY BLOSSOM)

In July, when I read that the Vatican was participating in a "carbon neutrality" program, I took note. Francis X. Rocca's Religion News Service article explained that within the last year, the Holy See has sponsored a conference on climate change and has announced plans to install solar panels on the papal audience hall. The Associated Press quoted Pope Benedict XVI declaring that Christians should "take care of creation without squandering its resources."

In May, Christianity Today had reported on the "green revolution" at evangelical Christian colleges. In the protective environment of these schools, some students were beginning to reconsider some of their former attitudes. The Christianity Today article quoted sophomore Amanda Benavides, a student at Point Loma Nazarene University: "I grew up thinking: 'environment, liberal, bad.'" But when she read the documents of the Evangelical Youth Climate Initiative, she was persuaded "to act as a Christian for environmental justice issues."

In August, the Washington Post reported that concerns about global warming were spurring some evangelical leaders to take a more active and vocal role in promoting environmental sustainability, and I began to wonder if we had reached a tipping point. Further evidence for this came from one group of evangelicals that proposed an Evangelical Climate Initiative and issued a "Prayer Guide for Global Warming."

To be sure, not all Catholics and not all evangelical Protestants have joined the environmental movement — for that matter, not all mainline Protestants have either, although many have long been involved in climate issues — but sustainability is without a doubt one of the major trends of this decade.

Needless to say, there are skeptics — and I'm not even referring to the debates over global warming. The skepticism to which I'm referring is based on the wisdom that trends wash over society periodically, pulling along anything that's not firmly grounded, and that the environmental movement is likely to be that kind of trend. This way of thinking says, "Last year the hot topic was global warming; this year it's our crumbling infrastructure; next year it's likely to be water shortages or exploding cell phones. Who has the time and energy to keep up?"

The question for those who have responsibility for the governance — and the future — of theological education is this: Is sustainability a passing fad, or is it something real, a watershed?

Facets of sustainability

I suppose that the answer to this question may depend on how you define "sustainability." As used today, it's a cleverly flexible word. It does include environmentalism, because at its best, the environmental movement looks to the long-term health of the earth and all its ecosystems for sustaining life. Seminaries and theological schools can only do so much on this front, but it naturally behooves all of us to clean up after our messes. No doubt we all want to make our local environments a little more habitable, even if we leave the major work of caring for the environment to others.

The latest wrinkle in the movement is an emphasis on carbon (or climate) neutrality, which is what the Vatican was seeking when it announced its plan to plant trees in Hungary. People or organizations seeking to be carbon neutral attempt to tally up their toll on the environment — how much energy they use in all its forms, and thus how much carbon they are expending each year. Then they seek to reduce their "carbon footprint" by reducing their energy use. Finally, they often purchase "carbon offsets" from organizations that plant trees or otherwise help the environment. This intriguing idea of carbon offsets is still relatively new and controversial, even among committed environmentalists, some of whom say that it lets rich people off the hook, because they can waste all the energy they want and then purchase offsets to atone for their ecological sins. Moreover, there is the real possibility of abuse, because the question of who is overseeing the sellers of carbon offsets has not yet been settled. For now, perhaps only a few theological schools will feel compelled to take part in this aspect of sustainability.

Another facet of sustainability refers to cost-saving measures, which most chief financial officers are already promoting. The key question for many of these measures is the payback period. Some seminaries (like The General Theological Seminary) are comfortable with the relatively long payback periods of geothermal wells and other major capital improvements, which might take 10 or 15 years to pay for themselves. On the other hand, compact fluorescent bulbs pay for themselves in months rather than years, dramatically reducing electricity costs. Many other efforts (like weather stripping and fixing leaks) are routine tasks that should be performed as part of a regular cycle of maintenance. And new or renovated buildings can take advantage of all kinds of innovative products that reduce energy use, including solar panels and more efficient insulation, windows, and HVAC systems.

It seems apparent that those schools that have most readily grasped a comprehensive definition of sustainability have been able to see it through a theological prism. (PHOTO OF ST. MARK'S CHURCH, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA, BY JAY BLOSSOM)

Most of these concerns rightfully belong to the theological school's administrative team, including the facilities management staff, and are a bit too detailed — too focused on the trees rather than the forest — for the board's work. But it is within the board's responsibility to let administrators know that the board sees the value of energy-efficient and environmentally safe solutions in facilities management, including attention to deferred maintenance. Those looking for more ideas can peruse the U.S. Department of Energy's "Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy" Web page, which provides information about alternate technologies like wind and solar power. The Energy Star Webpage offers much more detail about efficient appliances and office equipment.

Another side of sustainability is reflected in the growing "green building" movement. For those of us with hearts that race at the thought of a great new building, green construction is especially exciting, partly because it takes advantage of all those high-tech innovations. And of course, a new building lends a sense of vitality to a campus, drawing positive media attention, and it can serve as a selling point for prospective students and faculty. Heather Grennan Gary's article gives examples of North American theological schools that have recently completed new green buildings, but those interested in learning more can visit the U.S. Green Building Council's Web site.

The heart of mission, the heart of sustainability

Seminary board members are certainly familiar with the idea that sustainability equals long-term economic viability. Much of the board's work is concerned with monitoring the school's financial dashboard indicators — is the development office achieving its goals? Are enough students matriculating? Is the endowment performing as well as it should? Are costs being kept under control?

But does financial sustainability have anything to do with these other "green" forms of sustainability? I'd like to propose that the two are intimately related. Theological schools are ultimately trying to change the world for good by preparing students for ordained and lay ministry and for continuing theological scholarship, so they always have an eye on the world's needs. A comprehensive definition of sustainability ought to include the long-term health both of the school and of the world — its people, the God-given environment where these people live, and the churches that point them to their Lord.

I'm not suggesting that theological schools make reversing climate change their core goal, which would be ridiculous. But I am suggesting that theological schools adopt a comprehensive understanding of sustainability that includes love of God and love of neighbor. In this expanded view, sustainability means knowing your mission, and carrying it out, while keeping one eye on the continuing health of the community. It includes ensuring that financial and human resources are sufficient to enable you to fulfill your calling for the long run. Sustainability is mission-driven vitality combined with good-neighborliness.

Seen this way, thinking about sustainability is not trendy. Instead, it's the essential work of the board. And as boards grapple with big questions like the purpose of the theological school, where its deepest commitments lie, who its constituents are, what its financial trajectory is, and whether it is aligned with what God is doing in the world, they are asking the core questions of sustainability.

The roots that give rise to a vision

Does this mean that every theological school must approach sustainability in the same way? I should hope not. Although many seminaries have similar mission statements, each has a unique position on the landscape — a physical presence and a representational reality.

First, each school occupies a particular neighborhood. Edmonton's concerns are not the same as Atlanta's. Rural schools necessarily have a different view of sustainability than their suburban or urban counterparts. On rural campuses, the preservation of surrounding farmland may be a high priority, along with reduction of heating and cooling expenses and meeting student recruitment goals. A suburban school may be concerned with heavy traffic around the campus or the restoration of natural wetlands that were covered up by a parking lot decades before, along with increasing online resources to benefit commuter students. And urban schools may face urgent space shortages, high land values that make expansion impossible, aging gothic buildings plagued by deferred maintenance, and a student body that is marvelously diverse but woefully ignorant of the denominational tradition that undergirds the school. These, along with the ever-present concern for fundraising that all seminaries share, are sustainability issues.

Just as important as a school's literal place on the landscape is its theological position. It seems apparent that those schools that have most readily grasped a comprehensive definition of sustainability have been able to see it through a theological prism, and I expect that in the future, ever more scholars will reflect and even publish on the connections between sustainability and their own theological traditions.

A comprehensive definition of sustainability ought to include the longterm health both of the school and of the world -- its people, the God-given environment where these people live, and the churches that point them to their Lord. (PHOTO COURTESY BANGOR THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY)

Some examples: One of the vows that Benedictines take is stabilitas loci, which requires a monk or nun to commit to one community in one place and not move about. So Benedictine schools enjoy a firm theological basis for care of their environment, for the sake of their community and those whom it serves. Anabaptists and Quakers, on the other hand, place a high value on simplicity, and so you would expect their seminaries to be marked by modest structures that use little energy and allow occupants to have contact with nature. Many Baptists consider seminaries to be training grounds for their foreign missionaries, so Baptist theologians have the opportunity to think broadly about pollution, poverty, food supplies, health, and their connection to worldwide evangelism. And of course Christians of all traditions are concerned with the plight of the poor. If sustainability doesn't encompass care for the "least of these," surely it misses the mark.

What is remarkable is that theological schools, with their faculties of Bible scholars, historians, theologians, and ethicists, are uniquely equipped to think about sustainability in a profound way, grounding it deeply in philosophical and moral theology, history, and scripture. How useful it would be for some of these scholars to share their insights with board members, who make many of the crucial decisions affecting the future of the school.

On page 17 in the Spring 2007 issue of In Trust, Andre L. Delbecq issued a "plea for philosophical and theological attention" to organizational leaders. My guess is that many board members would also welcome theological attention to their work — attention that inspires board leaders to think expansively about the role of the seminary in the community and in the world but also acknowledges the challenges of charting a future direction when overhead costs are climbing, endowments are scanty, student fees are already high, and everyone wishes the custodial staff could be paid higher wages.

Thinking expansively about the role of the seminary while watching the bottom line is a perennial challenge for board members, but I like to think of it as a high calling rather than a hopeless (and thankless) task. Trustees are charged with keeping the forest in view so that all the multiplicity of trees can thrive. Knowing and relentlessly pursuing the school's mission is essential, as is the economic vitality that makes pursuing the mission possible. But keeping an eye on the neighborhood is important too, and that means cleaning up the messes we make and tending the local and worldwide relationships that will contribute to the ongoing creation of God's world. All of that — the focus on mission, the concern for the bottom line, and the care for the neighbor — defines sustainability as we await the fullness of the coming Kingdom.

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