From “Church Property” to “Earth-Community” Ethical Actions for Restoring Land

[1] One of the major ways we humans can help to heal creation is to protect those areas of land that are relatively free of human intervention and to restore areas that have been destroyed, degraded, and polluted by humans. Mineral extraction, overgrazing and overproduction, mono-crop growing, fertilization, deforestation, and pollution from farms and factories—all of these and more contribute to the degradation of land. This depletion of the land contributes to global climate change, the greatest threat to planetary stability. The protection and restoration of land can help to mitigate these effects because rich soil absorbs carbon so that it stays out of the atmosphere. Re-forestation and re-vegetation can also do much to absorb carbon. Furthermore, large areas of land that thrive in a natural state help to preserve healthy eco-systems that support many species of animals and plants.

[2] The church can contribute much to this protection and restoration of land. Between outdoor ministry sites, colleges and seminaries, social ministry organizations, and congregations, the ELCA has responsibility for quite an extensive amount of land.[1] Were we to inaugurate a church-wide program of protection and restoration of land, the ELCA could contribute significantly to the well-being of planet Earth.

[3] Ecological Restoration

[4] Ecological restoration is the effort to recover the health, integrity, and sustainability of ecosystems. The Society of Ecological Restoration sees restoration as “a critical tool for achieving biodiversity conservation, mitigating and adapting to climate change, enhancing ecosystem services, fostering sustainable socioeconomic development, and improving human health and well-being.”[2] Some specific restoration activities of land can include reforestation, removal of non-native species, planting of native species, stopping soil erosions, and cleaning up from mineral extraction, among other things. In this way we can, as Gil Waldkoenig has so aptly put it, transform “scenes of disgrace” into “scenes of grace.”[3]

[5] By restoring, we do not mean undoing all that humans have done to the rest of nature in order to get back to the state of the planet as it was before humans began wantonly trampling the garden. We cannot go back there. Nevertheless, we humans can exercise responsibility in preserving and restoring some stability to nature.

[6] Before looking specifically at church property, let’s put these proposals into the context of a larger vision. To protect and restore enough land to address the size of the crises we face as a planet, humans must think big. Something dramatic is needed, a large vision that will capture our imaginations. The socio-biologist E. O. Wilson has proposed that we dedicate one-half of Earth—half of the land mass on Earth—to wilderness territory where human beings have relatively little presence or impact, except as agents of restoration.[4] This effort would involve preserving all wilderness areas that currently fall within those parameters and restoring other land that has been degraded by human activity. In order for ecosystems to thrive and for animal and plant species not to go extinct, we need to enlarge the wilderness spaces we have and also provide land corridors between these areas. Half-Earth would give enough space for animals to roam for food and for animal and plant species to migrate to new areas in response to climate change.

[7] The dramatic changes in climate along with a host of other related ecological crises are about to generate a tragic loss of animal and plant species on Earth, reckoned by many ecologists to be between 25 and 50 % of all species by the end of this century. Restoring degraded ecosystems would give plants and animals areas to survive and thrive. Along with others, Christians can contribute to such restoration in major ways.

[8] Some people take issue with the arrogance of suggesting that humans can “restore” creation, arguing that God alone restores creation. Of course, we agree that God is actively sustaining and restoring creation in every moment of every place, as Paul says, “. . . working for good in all things” (Romans 8:28; my translation). The issue is the role of humans. I assume that if humans can destroy creation, which we are most certainly doing in a reckless and cavalier manner, then we can also act to restore creation. God’s work, our hands, dedicated to “the care and redemption of all that God has made.” In this work, we join Earth, which has its own tremendously renewing powers and which is also organically engaged in restoration. Even our Scripture says that God told the land to “bring forth living creatures” (Genesis 1:24).

[9] From Church Property to Sacred Space

[10] Generally speaking, we are all caught up in a treatment of church land that comes from the culture rather than from our theological traditions. We tend to see our land as a commodity. We look at church property as “sites for development.” We consider its commercial value. We talk about “owning” the land, and we have “property” committees. We “maintain” the property based primarily on cultural values of attractiveness—which often lead us to treat the lawn with weed-killing toxins and to plant non-native trees and shrubbery based on appearance alone. In churches as in the society at large, we humans are like an invasive species that comes in and takes over the land in self-serving ways.

[11] Now we need to “reorient” our views in order to see ourselves as stewards of land that is God’s good Earth. In the first biblical creation story, God made the land and called it good even before creating humans. That is, creation is to be valued for its own sake, apart from human use of it. God created humans last to exercise dominion/ responsibility for Earth (Genesis 1:1-2:3). In the second creation story, God commissioned humans “to be slaves to” the land and to “protect” creation (Genesis 2:15, my translation).

[12] We Lutherans have a sacramental theology affirming that “the finite can bear the infinite.” Our Lutheran theology champions the goodness of the material world. The affirmation of God’s presence in bread and wine assures us that if God is present in such ordinary things as grapes and grain and water, then God is ubiquitous. We claim that the movement of God is toward becoming incarnate in, with, and under creation. As such, we consider God to be everywhere and in all times present and creating in an ongoing way.

[13] The consequence of these convictions is that we see all land, and in particular our church land and all living things that share this space, as sacred. Land is not simply the measured square footage with six or so inches of topsoil. Land is not soil apart from the microbes, worms, grubs, beetles, that inhabit it, the trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that are rooted in it, the air and water that nourish it and interact with it, the insects, birds, mammals, and rodents sustained by it—including the humans who depend on the soil and on all that lives out of the soil for sustenance, beauty, and breath itself. All of these comprise an Earth-community, and we are part of it.[5] It is time now to treat our church land as an Earth community: to love it, celebrate it, and care for it.

[14] Because all of it is sacred, we who share this space are enjoined to treat the land of our congregations, however small or extensive, with reverence and to care for it in such a way that life thrives there. Our reverence for the land is the right basis for our use of that land. And we need to see our relationship with life around us as one of kinship and communion. To emphasize this kinship, one congregation includes pictures of trees and birds and small mammals from their land as part of their church directory of “members.” Another church has taken pictures of their trees, enlarged them, and framed them as artwork for the church—so that people would notice their trees in a new way.

[15] Ethical Actions to Reclaim the Land and its Inhabitants as Earth community

[16] We may be able to contribute in major ways to the preservation and restoration of our land in extensive tracts of land available to our outdoor ministry sites. Yet there is also much we can do to renew the small patches of land that our congregations inhabit in urban, suburban, and rural areas. What ethical actions might a congregation take to show reverence for their land and to protect and renew it with humility, gratitude, and grace? What follows are some specific suggestions of practical actions we might take to change our relationship with the land and to work to restore it.

[17] 1. Cultivate a Relationship with Nature and with God in Nature

·         Worship with creation. In worship, invite the congregation to join with the choir of creation, confess sins against creation, offer petitions on behalf of creation, and commission people to “Tend the Earth.” Know that Earth itself is the true sanctuary in which we gather and worship.

·         Hold special worship services. Celebrate the Season of Creation and Earth Sunday.[6]

·         Bless the animals. Hold a blessing service outside for family pets, local animals from farms, and the animals that frequent your church land.

·         Bless the plants. Hold a blessing service for plants on your land, with a blessing of seeds in the spring and a “harvest festival” in the fall. Have tree planting ceremonies.[7]  

·         Enhance health. A relationship with nature improves the health of mind, body, and soul. A relationship with nature is part of the church’s healing ministry.

·         Enjoy nature. Worship outside. Display a nature map of your land and the trees and other plants on it. Arrange for members to do a walk-around on your land with a naturalist.

·         Bring nature into the church building and the worship space. Trees and plants purify the air. They enhance your commitment to worship with creation.

·         Go to local green spaces: Organize outings to local nature preserves or parks or the zoo. Hold a council meeting or congregational retreat in a natural setting.


[18] 2. Know Your Space and Place[8]

·         Understand the place of your land in the local watershed so as to preserve the quality of rivers, streams, and lakes in your area.

·         Understand how your land relates to land contiguous to it so as to support the animals and plants that inhabit that land.[9]


[19] 3. Preserve and Restore the Natural State of the Land

·         Identify native plants and protect them. Expand your native plant species so as to support native species of insects, birds, mammals, rodents, and other plants.[10]

·         Plant a prairie area: Take a segment of your land and turn it into prairie.

·         Design a landscape of native trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass. This will create a rich eco-system to celebrate. People thrive in the midst of natural beauty.

·         Plant trees. Choose trees that absorb carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.[11]

·         Care for the birds. Maintain bird feeders and bird baths so as to attract a variety of birds.[12]

·         Consult local experts. Know the restoration ecologists in your area to determine practical plans for a habitat that will flourish in specific places.[13] 


[20] 4. Serve and Protect Your Lawn

·         Learn and use Earth-friendly techniques. Create and maintain a safe, healthy, and attractive lawn in Earth-friendly ways.

·         Plant native grasses. They root deeper, require less water, withstand extreme weather, and need less mowing.

·         Introduce short grasses. They require less mowing.

·         Avoid pesticides, herbicides, and toxic weed killers. Protect the watershed from runoff.

·         Consider Earth-wise driveways and parking areas: Install permeable cover, use gravel, or provide islands of trees and drainage areas in the parking lot.


[21] 5. Gardens

·         Vegetable garden. Practice organic gardening. Share produce with food pantries. Access local master gardeners. Engage the congregation, neighbors, and churches that have no land. Plant seasonally.

·         Flower garden. Grow native species. Sell them to raise money for a food bank or give them to shut-ins. Decorate the altar rather than getting flowers shipped from a distance.

·         An orchard. Go organic. And share with local food banks.

·         Roof top gardens. Make the most of your space while moderating building temperatures.

·         Container gardens. On unused blacktop, place small plastic swimming pools or wood frame containers allowing members and neighbors to do intense gardening.

·         Greenhouse gardens. Extend the growing season and maximize productivity.[14]

·         Rain gardens: Using plants with deep roots, they absorb water deep into the ground. The water is cleansed by nature and does not carrying toxins into the local watershed. Local environmental organizations can assist in planting them.

·         Specialized natural spaces. Set up butterfly gardens or way-stations for migratory birds.

·         Peace garden. Form a sanctuary with native trees and plants with benches for worship and meditation. Include a labyrinth as a guided walking meditation.


[22] 6. Best Practices

·         Local foods. Observe coffee hour with healthy foods grown locally. Purchase wine for communion from a regional winery and bread from grain grown in the area.

·         Compost. Provide a compost site for the garden waste and lawn clippings for church land and yards of members. Create a worm compost for food scraps.

·         Rain barrels. Collect runoff from the roof for use on the church garden and lawn, preventing polluted storm water from gushing off into the watershed.

·         Renewable energy. Provide solar panels that draw upon the energy of the sun or set up a wind turbine, both of which lower pollution of land, air, and water from power plants.


[23] 7. Extend Your Commitment Beyond Church Land

·         Farmers market: With area farmers, organize a weekly market on your parking lot for locally grown foods. Sell produce from your garden along with baked good and craft items. Give proceeds to a food bank.

·         Community Supported Agriculture. Match individuals, food cooperatives, and other organizations with local farmers. Serve as a weekly drop-off point.

·         Urban food production. Transform vacant lots into community gardens, grow vegetables indoors, and raise fish in inside pools. Provide gardens in impoverished areas.

·         Gardens and lawns at home. Teach members Earth-friendly practices for lawn and garden care. Offer a “covenant with creation” for members to pledge best practices.

·         Local projects: Engage members with opportunities to restore natural habitats, carry out reforestation, or plant trees in the city. Support your community in becoming a Bird City or an Arbor City. Cooperate with local environmental organizations in efforts to strengthen the Earth community in your larger neighborhood.

·         Waste. Reduce, reuse, and recycle with intention. Use ceramic plates and utensils or purchase ones that decompose (and do not discard them in sealed plastic garbage bags!). Avoid the use of toxic products and dispose of any properly. Adopt “zero waste” policies and practices.[15] Use green cleaning products.

·         Spread the word. As opportunities arise, let your commitments and practices be known throughout your community and the ELCA.


[24] 8. Land Trust

·         Place your land area in a permanent land trust so as to preserve it from development in perpetuity.

·         Prohibit the rights of commercial companies to extract minerals from your land.


[25] 9. Public Witness

·         Local Advocacy: If your church or community is near mining industries or fracking sites or land development or agribusiness sites or logging or brown fields, consider conversations and/or protests that work toward safe environmental practices. Be especially aware of the human cost from ecological injustice and environmental racism. Consult the ELCA resources for advocacy.[16]

·         National advocacy: Support laws and policies that maintain national parks, preserve wilderness areas, and protect endangered species. Support efforts on behalf of clean air, pure water, and fertile land. Sign up for ELCA action alerts.[17]

·         Global advocacy. Become aware of the problems created on lands around the world from global climate change, degradation of land from agribusiness, stripping of rain forests, and use of toxic spray to enhance food production. Contribute to Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Relief.

·         Global solidarity. Yoke with a congregation in an impoverished area of the world to addresses the ecological conditions of land that they may be facing. Work with your synod to do the same with sister synods around the world.


[26] 10. Learn about Nature

·         Nature as a book of Revelation. Martin Luther promoted two books of revelation: the Bible and nature. In the 16th century reformation, Luther put the Bible into the hands of the laity. Now it is time to put nature into the hands of all of us and treat it as a critical source of our relationship with God.

·         Educational programs. Incorporate a relationship to the land in the educational program of the church for all ages.[18]

·         Church schools, kindergartens, child and adult day care programs. Model and teach Earth-friendly practices related to the land in the programs you sponsor as a congregation.

·         Stewardship. Revise your vision of stewardship to encompass care for creation of the “Earth-community” on your land.

·         Church library and reading groups. Stock the library with books and videos about ecology, eco-theology, and devotional literature on creation care.


[27] Conclusion

[28] In sum, we need to address our common ethical responsibility to protect and to restore creation. We need the conceptual framework to providing us with a theological basis for our care of the land. We also need practical ideas to carry out the mandates that arise from such reflections. We need to see our commitments as prophetic actions that bear witness to our vocation as Earthkeepers. In all of this, the goal is to create an ethos of Earth-care embedded fully in the identity and mission of the congregation such that members are able to say: “This is who we are. And this is what we do!"

David M. Rhoads is professor of New Testament, Emeritus, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. 

[1] See the article in this issue by Gil Waldkoenig. See also his article, “From Commodity to Community: Churches and the Land They Own,” in The Cresset LXXVII (2013) pp. 19-25. (accessed January 15, 2015).


[2] (Accessed January 15, 2015).


[3] Gil Waldkoenig, “Means and Scenes of Grace” by Gilson Waldkoenig in Dialog: A Journal of Theology  50 (2011) 327-335. Available at (Accessed January 15, 2015). The entire issue is dedicated to eco-theology.


[4] “The Wildest Idea on Earth” by Troy Hiss, in Smithsonian 45 (2014) 66-78. Learn also about the project to restore “Piney Woods” forest in the American Southeast.


[5] See Anthony Westin, Back to Earth: The Environmental Movement in the Twenty-first Century (Temple University Press, 1994).


[6] For a resource for year around, creation-care worship, visit (Accessed Janury 15, 2015). For Earth-oriented worship, see Ben Stewart, A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (Augsburg Fortress, 2011). On the Season of Creation, see also Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and Paul Santmire. The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Fortress, 2011)

[7] See (Accessed January 15, 2015).


[8] Jeff Wild and Peter Bakken. Church on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place (Fortress, 2009).


[9] On developing your land as a natural habitat, see the resources of the National Wildlife Federation at (Accessed January 15, 2015).


[10] Douglas Tallamy. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants [latest edition] (Timber Press, 2007).


[11] On the many values of trees, consult the Arbor Day Foundation website at (Accessed January 15, 2015).


[12] For the many benefits of bird life, visit the National Audubon Society website at (Accessed January 15, 2015).  


[13] For a congregation that has made the most of its land area, see Advent Lutheran Church in Madison Wisconsin at (Accessed January 15, 2015).


[14] All Peoples Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, WI has built a greenhouse onto their church building. See (Accessed January 15, 2015).

[15] See (Accessed January 15, 2015).


[16] ELCA advocacy practices. (Accessed January 15, 2015).

[17] Join the ELCA advocacy network and sign up for action alerts at (Accessed Janury 15, 2015).


[18] See “Earthbound: Created and Called to Care for Creation,” an ELCA-produced six-part video series on DVD that looks at Christians’ complex relationship with God’s creation. The series is available at half price through Lutherans Restoring Creation at (Accessed January 15, 2015).

© February 2015

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 15, Issue 2