Ministry in an Age of Climate Distress

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There’s a certain kind of grief when you are the messenger, and it feels like no one is listening. Or maybe people are listening, but they don’t care as much, or at least their actions don’t indicate they do. That is the feeling I experience in ebbs and flows as a science journalist whose love for God has led me to care deeply for his creation.

In 2017, I noted a long thread of replies when meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted this: “How am I supposed to do my job—literally to chronicle planetary suicide—w/o experiencing deep existential despair myself? Impossible.”

That’s when I realized there’s a psychological burden for scientists who work on climate change. At Christianity Today, where I once served as the science editor, I commissioned an article by Cara Daneel to coincide with World Wildlife Day. She interviewed a handful of Christians working on conservation issues. She encountered their grief and their turning to biblical lament and their relationship with the Creator God to help them in their grief over issues like coral bleaching, declining populations of migratory birds, a “thinning of life.”

It took a while longer for me to diagnosis the same emotional distress in myself as a journalist. My route into science journalism is a circuitous one. But once I realized how drawn I was to understand my local climate and the flora and fauna within the fertile Pacific Northwest, I wanted to be an environmental journalist. I’ve always been more drawn to the social and political context underlying application of scientific knowledge. Thus, as a communicator, I’ve applied this context to help me understand how to craft better messages. And yet, it’s not uncommon to find myself stumped when environmental communication seems to fall on deaf ears. Eventually, the inability to get people to care for creation and act on it wears on you.

Public Prayer

I found the help I needed to process my frustration in a weekly practice of my church: a reading of the prayers of the people. Written by a congregation member, the prayers address local concerns and requests of church members, and they also include national or even global events or conversations. I began writing on the prayer team five years ago (I’m actually on a break right now). The responsibility rotates, but I found myself writing about once every season. I knew I wanted to include the environment.

I just wanted to acknowledge and thank God publicly for the place where we lived and the ecological connections that sustain us. Generally, I’d work this into the beginning after I praised God’s character. In the spring, I wrote about planting gardens. In the summer, I wrote about appreciating colorful life within the rocky tide pools of the Oregon Coast and the assortment of wildflowers that grow under fir trees. Come fall, I recognized the spawning salmon and migrating birds in our wetlands. In the winter, I included rain (obviously).

But by including the environment, I also prayed when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report or during COP (United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties) meetings. I took note of the suffering of hurricane survivors and asked for relief. Amid my own fears and depressive state during fire season, I included the acrid smell of smoky air and concern for friends, family, and neighbors living in and near evacuation zones.

  • I reported a story on clergy of different faith backgrounds responding to climate anxiety at Grist a journalism nonprofit newsroom covering the environment.
  • Finnish Lutheran theologian Panu Pihkala writes on pastoral care and eco-anxiety.
  • To learn more about the mental health needs amid a changing climate, check out the Climate Mental Health Network.
  • The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports on climate perspectives, including worry.
  • For perspective from Christians living in other parts of the world, I like the book, Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church, edited by Hannah Malcom.
  • Also, consider Tabitha Amadea Aho’s book, In Deep Waters: Spiritual Care for Young People in a Climate Crisis.
  • Biologos’ Creation Groans podcast series describes the earth’s wounds before discussing what a path of hope looks like.
  • Rev. John Swales in the UK writes short daily prayers for the environment and reads them on a podcast.
  • Want some ideas for prayers but not yet ready to write your own. A Rocha has many resources including some prayers to get you started.

The Role of Rituals

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 66 percent of Americans are at least somewhat worried about global warming. Furthermore, Hispanic/Latino adults or Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to be experiencing more serious levels of climate distress.

As I engaged more deeply with the impact that climate change can have on our mental health, I found the work of Panu Pihkala, a Finnish Lutheran pastor and theologian, to be helpful in thinking through how churches can respond. Pihkala noticed that people in his environmental education sessions experienced shock or sadness—and sometimes anxiety or even guilt—as their learning increased.

As a pastor, Pihkala wondered how he could help people deal with those emotions. He looked to religious rituals as a way to engage with climate change. When I interviewed him recently for Grist, he suggested several ways that congregations can do this work. First, they can incorporate climate concerns within the liturgical year. “Different emotional themes can be engaged within the year,” he said. Or you can react when a climate catastrophe, like a flood or heat wave, happens. While the prayers of the people had become that avenue of engagement for me, there are many ways that congregations could more fully attend to psychological needs related to climate change.

Pihkala, who has done quite a bit of scholarly writing on climate emotions, said that religious rituals have a collective element—you’re a part of a congregation—and an embodied element—you say or hear a prayer out loud. “Broadly rituals make things more real in the public reality,” he said. “If we are realistic, there are only a small number of people who can have access to therapy. We need community-based skill for engaging with emotions.”

Perhaps you’ve been where I have: frustrated by seeing others who don’t commit to environmental action. Or maybe the emotions you’ve experienced about climate change are different. Maybe they’re more of an undetected “low-grade fever,” so called by a rabbi I also interviewed. Either way, it’s likely that the challenges of climate change will contribute in some way to mental and spiritual challenges among your congregation. I hope you consider how you can prepare to meet that need and that the resources here help you explore what works in your community.

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