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Q & A
Q&A: UM missionary called to serve God’s creation Sam Hodges, Mar 5, 2012
The Rev. Pat Watkins was a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries who, serving in Africa, found a further calling as an environmentalist. His current GBGM appointment has him as executive director of Caretakers of God’s Creation in the Virginia Conference. He’s leading an effort to explore ways to make that a denomination-wide ministry.
Mr. Watkins agreed to an email interview with managing editor Sam Hodges.
How did serving as a missionary in Nigeria turn you toward environmentalism or “creation care”? Because of the extreme isolation of our village, I was forced to live my life far more connected to the way in which the earth lives its life than I had ever before experienced. It was necessary for survival but over the years I began to feel as if there was something really good about that kind of life, maybe even a sense of sacredness about it.
What steps did you take after Nigeria to position yourself to do environmental work, and what ministry jobs have you had in this area? I came home from Nigeria with a burning question in my heart: “Is there some connection between this newfound relationship I had made with the earth and my faith as a Christian?” I took several classes in a masters program in Environmental Science because I wanted to have a conversation within myself using the disciplines of theology and science to answer that one question that would not let me go. After a couple of years of school, I worked as environmental policy advisor for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and also as the director for Virginia Interfaith Power and Light.
More recently, you’ve been leading Caretakers of God’s Creation as a ministry of the Virginia Conference. When and how did that effort come about, and what has it accomplished? I had no problems at all working in the interfaith arena but after a while I began to feel a strong need to re-immerse myself in my own tradition. I have always been a United Methodist and continue to feel a strong sense of call to ministry in and through the church. I simply got what I thought was a bright idea that the church should make me a missionary again, only this time instead of sending me to a particular country or group of people, the church should send me to God’s creation.
So I asked GBGM about the possibility and they said, in effect, “We think that’s a pretty good idea, so go for it.” I then applied to the Church and Community Ministries Program to become a missionary and began that phase of ministry in January of 2009. Simultaneously we applied for Caretakers of God’s Creation, which was already a ministry of the Virginia Conference, to become a Church and Community Project to which I could be appointed.
Currently we have around 100 churches that we know of that have some kind of creation care ministry. Of those about 35 have committed to the Green Church Initiative, a program we developed to help our congregations learn the theology of creation care and then to give them lots of ideas and resources to make creation care an integral part of the total life and ministry of the congregation.
You’re now leading an effort to make Caretakers a denomination-wide effort. What do you envision, and what steps have you taken so far? On January 28 Caretakers of God’s Creation hosted a meeting for interested people across the connection to come together and begin to think about a denominational organization. We are in the process of creating a vision as we feel it must be done collectively. As a denomination we are incredibly gifted with expertise in all areas of this topic of caring for creation so it will be as our conversation continues that our vision will emerge. We have formed a steering committee and will begin monthly meetings to flesh out a vision.
Is there any UM agency or organization you see as a model for what a denomination-wide Caretakers would be like? Initially, anyway, we are focusing on a grass-roots organization; we’re not looking to the current UM agency structure to house this ministry at this time. We feel as if part of what we can offer to the church is perhaps a brand new kind of organization, one that is far more creation-friendly and not so dependent on the bureaucracy. With what is likely to happen at General Conference this year, such a new organizational model may have even more merit.
How would you grade the UMC in terms of environmental/creation care effort? The UMC has been doing advocacy on behalf of God’s creation through the Women’s Division and the General Board of Church and Society for quite some time. In addition several annual conferences have creation care ministries and at least two jurisdictions sponsor creation care events annually. Hundreds of local churches also participate in ministries involving God’s creation. GBGM has been open to considering God’s creation to be a valid “mission field” as evidenced by the fact that it commissioned me as a missionary to God’s creation as a Church and Community Worker. So I think the UMC is doing very well, but I have a vision that we can think a bit more broadly in terms of how creation care can be incorporated into the total life and ministry of the church.
Your Green Church Initiative 2.0 within the Virginia Conference has offered certification to churches. Explain how that works. The Green Church Initiative is a resource that can be used by local congregations that desire to begin or enhance their ministry of caring for God’s creation. It is divided into five main focus areas—discipleship, stewardship, worship, mission and evangelism. Each area contains many suggestions for things the congregation can do; each suggestion has a number of points associated with it. When a church accumulates enough points in each of the five areas, we certify them as a Green Church. As the church continues its ministry and accumulates even more points we certify them at a higher level, sort of like the LEED Green Building system.
What are things that a church, large or small, can do right away? A church can change to compact fluorescent light bulbs and do weather-stripping. Recycling and getting rid of Styrofoam are also very easy. A church garden is a great way to capture imagination and attention, not just of church members but of the community as well.
Is there one UM church you would point to as a real leader in going green? I love the story of River Road UMC in Richmond, Va. It has done lots of things, but one thing they did in a relatively recent remodel was to install waterless urinals in the men’s rooms. They use no water whatsoever and come with a plaque that explains that said urinal is saving the facility up to 40,000 gallons of water per year.
A family visited River Road UMC after the urinals had been installed. The husband had to partake of a urinal, and upon discovering the waterless ones at River Road, exclaimed to his wife and kids, “We are joining River Road UMC because here’s a church that cares about God’s creation!” And they did and he became a very active part of the creation care ministry at River Road UMC. I call that “waterless urinal evangelism.”
Bill McKibben is a United Methodist who has written extensively about climate change and led the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Is he right that climate change is both real and a huge threat? We should be proud that McKibben is one of us. I believe that he is right, that climate change is both real and a huge threat and that we bear lots of responsibility for it. In addition I would say there is a sense of urgency that solutions need to be enacted very soon. In a recent bishop’s pastoral document, “God’s Renewed Creation,” the bishops promised to carry out carbon footprint calculations of their episcopal offices; many have already done that.
At our last General Conference in 2008, we created a Climate Change Task Force that will bring a report to this year’s General Conference. Both the Women’s Division and the General Board of Church and Society have been and continue to advocate for U.S. federal policy that will alleviate problems due to climate change. The Women’s Division, in addition, makes connections between climate change and the suffering of women and children particularly in developing countries.
Climate Change is a global problem requiring global solutions; given the fact that we are a global church, we are in one of the best positions, in my opinion, of really making a difference.
Is there one Bible passage that speaks to you more than any other as you do your work in this area? It’s really hard to come up with one that may speak louder than the rest. But I love Psalm 24:1-2, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” If I really believe that God had a hand in the creation of all that is and declared it “very good,” then I simply have no right whatsoever to abuse it and waste it.