Greening the Faithful

Congregations cut energy costs while working toward a more sustainable future.

Pullen Baptist Church

Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., recently received Interfaith Power and Light’s Green Energy Leader Award for its new chapel, fellowship hall, children’s classrooms and playgrounds. Energy-efficient features include geothermal heating and cooling (saving an estimated $6,000 per year in energy costs). Photo: Richard Crume


If you were to single out the most energy-wasteful building in your neighborhood, chances are it would be your local house of worship. With high ceilings, old doors and single-pane windows, many churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are anything but energy efficient.

Fortunately, congregations across america are greening their facilities — and educating local communities about energy conservation in the process.

The buildings belonging to many congregations are particularly inefficient to heat and cool. among the 370,000 houses of worship in the United States, many are old, built at a time when energy was cheap and the global warming problem unknown. These structures, although old and inefficient, provide necessary space for worship and congregational business.

We knew that [our green technologies] would pay off over the years if we put in that investment. But we didn’t do it just because of the money. We did it because it was important to us, important to us theologically, as people of faith. “ — Jack McKinney, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church

Pullen Rooftop Garden

A rooftop garden is among efficiency upgrades at Pullen Baptist Church. Photo: Richard Crume

Creating an energy-efficient sanctuary for worship services is a particular problem. although congregational worship may take place only a few hours each week, sanctuary space is commonly made available throughout the day for choir practice, study groups and individual worship. Thus, it is not unusual for sanctuaries to be heated or cooled and illuminated many hours a day, even when congregational use is limited and sporadic.

Energy consumption in sanctuary space is often exacerbated by the need to create a comfortable, quiet and reverent environment, which can be accomplished architecturally with high ceilings and large stained glass windows. Unfortunately, high ceilings increase the volume of air that must be heated, and stained glass limits passive solar heating from the outside. Furthermore, many older stained glass windows are single-pane and uninsulated. The sanctuary entrance door can be a problem too. Its old wood and hardware may be warm and inviting, but in all probability, the old door is difficult to weather strip.

Other meeting spaces in congregational buildings can also consume inordinate amounts of energy. For example, a large and drafty meeting hall may be open from early morning for a daycare program into the evening hours for scouting or teen events. and for older facilities, it is a good bet that the kitchen is full of inefficient appliances that drive up utility costs.

Identifying Smart Choices for Congregations

Most religious institutions are far from wealthy, and many struggle to pay their monthly expenses. across the United States, congregations spend $3 billion each year on utility costs, money that could be put to better use if their buildings were more energy efficient. yet, finding the cash to make energy improvements is always difficult, and congregations must be smart about identifying those improvements that provide the greatest value for each dollar spent.

Pullen Baptist

The green expansion at Pullen Baptist features recycled siding. Photo: Richard Crume

The specific energy upgrades a congregation chooses will depend on many factors, including the availability of financing, tax credits, rebates and other cost incentives. an energy audit can help identify low-cost steps to cut energy use, and for new construction, many contractors are now well-versed in affordable green technologies.

Here are 10 simple, cost-effective steps congregations can take to start upgrading their existing facilities:

  1. Start with low-cost improvements like improving weather stripping around exterior doors and windows and replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). For worship and meditation areas, select CFLs that provide lighting in warm colors. Consider installing motion detector light switches that automatically turn lights off when rooms are unoccupied, and use task lighting rather than ceiling lights in the business office. Replace exit signs above doors with light-emitting diode (LED) models.
  2. Prevent unwanted heat gain from the summer sun by using interior blinds or curtains and by installing exterior shades. Landscaping can also provide effective window shading. Pay special attention to direct sunlight exposure from the south and from the west later in the afternoon, as the sun sets.
  3. Replace appliances more than 10 to 15 years old with energy-efficient models. New Energy Star-rated refrigerators and dishwashers can save 10 to 30 percent in energy use, depending on the model.
  4. Adjust the operating temperatures of refrigerators and freezers to their ideal settings. This is usually around 3°C (37°F) for refrigerators and 18°C (0°F) for freezers. Water heaters can be cut back to about 54°C (130°F), and check to ensure that the heater tank and pipes are insulated.
  5. Routinely clean or replace furnace and air conditioner filters. you can also save energy by turning off gas pilot lights in the spring when furnaces or boilers are not in use.
  6. For sanctuaries and other rooms with high ceilings, install ceiling fans. During the heating season, ceiling fans blowing in a reverse direction (upward) can help circulate warm air that has risen to the top of the room. In the summer, ceiling fans blowing downward can provide a cooling breeze, but be sure to decrease the air conditioning to save energy and turn the fans off when rooms are unoccupied.
  7. Install programmable thermostats. These inexpensive devices can be set to automatically cut back room heating and air conditioning during times when facilities are not in use.
  8. Buy energy-efficient electronic devices and unplug them when not in use. Instant-on TVs, video players and other electronic equipment draw electric current even when switched off.
  9. Try to schedule congregational events and room cleanings over consecutive hours and days. Doing so will allow some downtime in the weekly schedule when heating and air conditioning can be reduced. also, schedule events during daylight hours when possible to reduce artificial lighting requirements.
  10. Teach congregational members about the importance of conserving energy. Turn lights off when not in use, don’t needlessly run hot water in the kitchen, keep exterior doors closed, and cut back room heating and air conditioning when not needed. Help members understand that reducing energy consumption fights climate change while freeing up cash for more important priorities. Talk with the congregation about options for purchasing renewable energy and carbon credits, and help them investigate green cleaning products and pest management practices.

What Drives Congregations to Reduce Energy Consumption?

U.S. congregations spend, on average, about $8,000 annually on utility costs. By investing strategically in energy-efficient equipment, facility upgrades and improved maintenance, a congregation’s energy consumption can be cut by up to 30 percent, resulting in annual savings of several thousand dollars or more.

First Baptist Springdale

Since beginning an energy-saving program in 2008, the First Baptist Church of Springdale and Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Ark. has saved more than $200,000 annually in energy costs. In designing its energy program, the church collaborated with Energy Education Inc., a Dallas-based energy consulting firm. The church was one of just four churches nationwide to receive the 2009 Energy Star award for congregations. Photo: Brian Adams

Congregations are also concerned about the environment, particularly with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reversing climate change. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (,

There is broad agreement among Americans, and among most religious groups, on the issue of environmental protection. More than six in 10 Americans (61 percent) say tougher environmental laws are worth the cost.”

Every major religion and denomination in the United States has a green building or environmental sustainability program, many motivated by a calling to play a leadership role in building a just and sustainable future.

Energy Star for Congregations ( estimates that if each of America’s houses of worship cut energy use by just 10 percent, nearly $200 million would be saved for congregational missions and other priorities and more than 2 million tons of green- house gas emissions would be prevented.

Most congregations can cut energy costs by up to 30 percent by investing strategically in efficient equipment, facility upgrades and maintenance.” — Energy Star for Congregations

If old appliances and other equipment cannot be replaced right away, begin researching energy-efficient replacement options anyway. This will increase your likelihood of making a good purchase at a future time during an unexpected equipment failure.

Jewish Reconstructionist

The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Ill., has achieved a LEED-platinum rating for its newly built synagogue. Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

For new construction and major renovations, install large south-facing windows with more clear glass than stained glass and, where stained glass is used, consider including themes reinforcing the beauty of creation. For two-story buildings, think about placing the sanctuary or other high-use rooms on the top floor, where skylights or solar light tubes can reduce lighting needs while creating a nice ambience. When deciding how to heat a sanctuary or meeting hall, look into radiant heating, which requires less fuel for large spaces because it warms objects instead of the air.

To help preserve our natural resources, consider the various sustainable building materials that have been used in new congregational buildings, including straw-bale walls and recycled newsprint insulation. One congregation bought only local building supplies and materials, another installed reclaimed and refurbished pews, and a third purchased wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council ( Finishing materials include non-toxic, low-emitting carpeting and paint and formaldehyde-free plywood. These and other green building stories for congregations are available at the Council of Churches of Christ’s Eco-Justice Program website (

Mosque Solar Thermal

The Mosque Foundation of Illinois in Bridgeview was the first U.S. mosque to install solar water-heating panels. Photo: Kifah Mustapha, The Mosque Foundation

A word of caution about stained glass windows: Be careful insulating old windows with clear glass or plastic because any trapped moisture can damage the frames and glass. For new stained glass installations, low-emissivity glass and insulated frames are available. Speak with a windows professional about the best options for your circumstances.

Providing the Greening Tools

One organization that is working directly with congregations to reduce their energy consumption is Interfaith Power and Light (IPL, Founded in 1998 as a public outreach campaign of the Regeneration Project (, IPL’s mission is to “Be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

Considering global warming one of the biggest threats facing humanity today, IPL believes the very existence of life is jeopardized and every mainstream religion has a mandate to care for creation, act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.

With more than 30 state affiliates and 10,000 U.S. congregations supporting its mission, IPL has become one of the most influential faith organizations working for solutions to climate change while promoting sustainable energy. Several examples of IPL’s ongoing projects:

  • Supporting energy efficiency and conservation among all faith communities through education programs and materials (books, DVDs and study guides) and by providing guest ministers of all faiths.
  • Conducting energy audits and assisting with renewable energy installations.
  • Lobbying state and congressional representatives and international organizations on issues related to climate change and sustainability.
  • Providing discounts on energy-efficient products through its web site (including a special pricing arrangement with Sears on select energy-efficient appliances).
  • Helping congregations estimate their carbon footprint with an online Cool Congregations calculator (see
  • Making available a 15-hour program called “Saving Through Energy Management” that teaches congregations energy conservation skills.
  • Distributing films such as former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (so far, reaching over 4,000 congregations and a half-million viewers).

A new IPL program, the Carbon Covenant (, attempts to link U.S. congregations with those in the developing world more directly on the front lines of climate change consequences. For example, one Carbon Covenant project seeks to head off deforestation by teaching local people how to switch to sustainable livelihoods like beekeeping and snail farming. Another project has joined Protestants, Catholics and Muslims to plant 100,000 trees in Cameroon over three years. U.S. congregations support Carbon Covenant projects by providing volunteer workers, technical expertise and financial resources.

Taking Action at the Local Level

We live during a time of growing skepticism in the United States about the reality of global warming, when some politicians question the need for climate change legislation and even the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority for greenhouse gases is being challenged. According to a March Gallup poll, the proportion of Americans who now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated is 48 percent — the highest percentage in the 13 years Gallup has been asking the question (

Far from being discouraged, however, many congregations have taken matters into their own hands to reduce carbon emissions locally. By making their facilities more energy efficient, congregations are setting an example for others in their communities. Ultimately, it may be people of faith who make significant strides toward preserving the Earth and all its wonders for our children and generations beyond.

Low-Risk, High-Return Actions to Improve Energy Efficiency


  • Turn lights off when not in use.
  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps.
  • Install switch plate occupancy sensors and LED exit signs.
  • Rely more on daylighting.

Office Equipment

  • When replacing office equipment such as computers and fax machines, choose Energy Star-rated equipment

Heating and Air Conditioning

  • Perform an annual tune-up.
  • Change filters monthly throughout heating and air conditioning seasons.
  • Use programmable thermostats.
  • Limit summertime solar heating through windows with solar screens and films, awnings, vegetation, shades, blinds or curtains.
  • Install ceiling fans and operate when rooms are occupied.
  • Draw in cool air from outside the building with a whole-facility or attic fan.
  • Examine and replace weather stripping and caulking around doors and windows.


  • Install water-saving faucets, showerheads, toilets and urinals.
  • Place an insulation blanket around older water heaters.
  • When replacing a water heater, buy one with a high energy-efficiency rating and consider tankless heaters in areas with infrequent water use.
  • Lower the water heater temperature.
  • Incorporate green landscaping designs that require little water, and irrigate with gray water, where allowed.

Kitchen and Food Service Equipment

  • Purchase Energy Star-rated equipment, when replacing.
  • Clean refrigerator coils twice a year, and replace door gaskets when worn.
  • Service large and walk-in refrigeration units at least annually.
  • Source:


Richard Crume works as an environmental engineer and teaches a college class on air pollution and climate change. A frequent contributor to SOLAR TODAY, he lives with his family in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has no connection with any of the organizations mentioned in this article.

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