In Maine, a center is rethinking spiritual leadership for a climate-changing world

(RNS) — Recycling. Rain gardens. Reusable cups at coffee time. These are familiar steps religious communities are taking in response to the environmental crisis. But in Portland, Maine, an organization that aims to foster spiritual leadership for a climate-changing world is going beyond the ordinary, even the physical — beyond even energy-efficient light bulbs.

“These are all things that we definitely need to do,” said Reverend Allen Ewing-Merrill, Executive Director of BTS Center, “but we’re actually trying to take a step or two back and think about the crisis. climate as a symptom rather than a problem.

At the BTS Center, an outgrowth of a now defunct United Church of Christ seminary, reflection on the spiritual sector’s response to climate change is fueled by a shared belief: that the climate crisis is a spiritual crisis.

Ewing-Merrill, a United Methodist minister, is equally familiar with the writings of environmental lawyer Gus Speth and the creation stories in Genesis. Ewing-Merrill is responsible for bringing the Climate Crisis Response Mission to the BTS Center after joining the organization in 2019.

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This vision is now shared by a team of clerics, scholars, artists and activists who make up the staff of the BTS Center. Together, these practitioners have developed a wide range of eco-focused programs, from art events and preaching workshops, to reading groups and nature retreats.

People attend a one-day Wonder and Wander retreat hosted by the BTS Center at Wells Reserve in Wells, Maine in the fall of 2021. Maine master naturalist Linda Littlefield Grenfell, top right, led the excursion. Photo courtesy of BTS Center

Guest speakers and collaborators include author and spiritual director Victoria Loorz, a central figure in the Wild Church Network, and Rabbi of Jerusalem Yonatan Neril, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and co-author of the best- seller 2020 “Eco Bible”. ”

“Climate isn’t really a parts-per-million problem,” said Ben Yosua-Davis, director of applied research at the BTS Center. Instead, Yosua-Davis describes the common parameters of climate change as “the most visible, urgent, and concrete manifestation of a set of spiritual roots that go much deeper.”

The BTS Center’s own roots go back to the founding of Bangor Theological Seminary in 1843. “I regularly joke (that) we’re a 200-year-old startup,” said Yosua-Davis, who also co-hosts The New BTS Podcast. Center, Climate Changed.

Although the BTS Center is entirely separate from the Old Seminary, which closed to students in 2013, it understands itself as building on Bangor’s ecumenical tradition.

This legacy continues to bear ecumenical fruit. The BTS Center engages people from all major and non-denominational Christian churches, Quaker, Jewish and Buddhist communities, as well as those who identify as spiritual but non-religious.

For New England clergy, the BTS Center has been a welcome source of community. “I just felt like at BTS I could fit in,” said Doretta Colburn, a 29-year-old UCC pastor who currently serves the Waterford Congregational Church in southwestern Maine.

“I’ve always looked for a way to integrate my understanding of my faith and help bring others together with the environment and all of creation,” Colburn told RNS. “It was like they spoke my language,” she said of people she met during a convocation there last year.

Reverend Allen Ewing-Merrill, Executive Director of the BTS Center.  Video screenshot

Reverend Allen Ewing-Merrill, Executive Director of the BTS Center. Video screenshot

The tongue does a lot of work in the middle. “We intentionally use ‘climate change’ in a provocative way – with a ‘d’ at the end,” Ewing-Merrill said, noting that the climate crisis is “not something that is extinguished in the future.” , but rather, “the reality of the world we live in.”

But the BTS Center staff are clear that their interest is not in abstraction but in practice.

One of these practices is mourning. Some of the center’s first eco-programs, which coincided with the early months of the global pandemic, focused on rituals acknowledging eco-grief.

The effects of climate change on mental health are a phenomenon recognized by the American Psychological Association, and terms like eco-grief or climate grief are increasingly used to describe the loss people feel in light of the destruction. of the environment.

Last fall, the BTS Center launched “Lament with Earth,” a series of five virtual rituals in collaboration with Chicago music group The Many that tracked the seasons of the liturgical year. The bereavement series caught the eye of Tyler Nelson, a theology student who studies religion and ecology at Yale Divinity School.

“The growing cultural awareness of eco-grief reveals the lack of lamentation in religious communities, especially those that are predominantly white,” Nelson said, adding that he “was drawn to the creative work that BTS Center does around such practices of eco-emotional expression.

Nelson was also drawn to BTS Center’s imagination practice. At the BTS Center, Nelson says, “imagination is a virtue, an essential component in religious and spiritual leadership work.”

One program where the imagination is clearly at play is the BTS Center Research Collaboration, a co-learning community of eight nonprofit groups that asks a simple question: How would organizations act differently today if they embodied an ecological imagination?

“The basic model is to treat organizations like organisms, not like machines,” said Yosua-Davis, who in her role as director of applied research takes extensive field notes and researches themes that emerge. chat sessions.

Leaving behind what Yosua-Davis calls a “mechanistic imagination” is making way for an understanding of ecology that is, according to BTS Center staff, connected to the natural world, localized, and highly relational.

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Ben Yosua Davis.  Photo courtesy of BTS Center

Ben Yosua Davis. Photo courtesy of BTS Center

Current participants in research collaborations do not necessarily work in congregational or even religious backgrounds. Spirituality isn’t just about religious affiliation, Yosua-Davis said, but “how you see the world and what your deepest values ​​are.”

The center welcomes those partners, such as the Boston Food Forest Coalition and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, who have practical wisdom for dealing with today’s deep spiritual crises.

The BTS center also brings the practice of imagination to local New England parishes. “Because of the simple narratives of living in a world obsessed with growth and money,” Yosua-Davis said, “if you’re a small congregation, there’s often a kind of working assumption that you are deficient in one way or another.”

The small church leadership community, co-hosted by Ewing-Merrill and Colburn, is meant to solve exactly that problem. The group, which will meet periodically for five months, seeks to nurture practices that support spiritual and ecological imagination in small-scale congregational life.

Pastor Linda Brewster, a Bangor Theological Seminary graduate who now serves at Tuttle Road Community Church in Cumberland, Maine, was drawn to the small leadership community by this emphasis on imagination. “We need to help people be more creative in thinking about what the church of the future should bring to the community,” said Brewster, whose church has about 50 active members in ministry programs, but only about 30. to church on Sunday.

“I honestly think we’re going back to the days of the little church,” Brewster said. “With everything that’s happened with the pandemic, it feels like we’re coming back to needing more intimate and authentic conversations, to have better relationships with each other.”

Ewing-Merrill agrees. We “really try to celebrate the small and the resilient,” he said. “As the climate crisis escalates and we experience more and more types of community trauma and community heartbreak over what has happened to the world around us…we need more small, healthy, vital churches and resilient. No less of them.

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