a presentation for the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, ELCA
Good morning, grace and peace be with you, a big howdy, and thanks for being here. I’m Nick, a pastor at Advent Lutheran, one of the two partner congregations of Madison Christian Community—or the MCC as we shorthand it—not too far from here on Old Sauk Road, just past West Towne Mall. I’m excited to be on the Caring for God’s Creation team from the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin that put this event together (and took off from the City of Middleton to have I think the first ever religious body resolution in favor of Carbon Fee & Dividend), and I’m also on the board of Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light, for an extra shout and to continue holding the religious perspective and in a larger-than-Lutheran way.
In some regard, it may seem obvious to have somebody like me on this panel. Here we are in a Lutheran church. I’m an official Lutheran character as clergy. And this stuff is important to me.
But in another regard, I don’t fit in this mix of really astute and important folks you’re hearing today who know their stuff and find ways to make it happen. Neither can I compare with those at the tables in back, or your own capabilities and connections and success stories and bigger dreams. But I’d also say that makes it really, really fitting for me to be up here, to remind you that this isn’t about me.
Let me begin that by explaining that my congregation, the MCC, had solar panels long before I arrived. In fact, they were working on this nearly half my life ago. So I want you to hear that I can’t take any credit. I wasn’t the driving force. I didn’t have the expertise or know-how or insight or well-researched position. I wasn’t a motivator or techie or fundraiser. I’m here entirely as a tagalong, riding on coattails of this wonderful stuff, a Johnny-come-lately who can’t claim it, even while standing up here celebrating it all.
I admit that proudly. It may be your role, also. Or you may be the sort of person who makes it possible for other schmoes like me to stand up and cheer and celebrate. It’s the nature in our congregations, at least, and may be in other places as well.
With that, I’ll also clarify that this isn’t primarily a program I can offer. I’m not up here for a how-to manual on preparing to do renewables in your congregation. I’m not the example for your pastor needing to be a real green eco-freak to make this happen. There’s no magic recipe. Instead it’s always about the random coincidence of possibilities that converge in their own time and place, dependent on its own moment. You may like to term that God’s plan or fate or just happenstance, but regardless that’s what I’m here to attest to. So I’m going to zero in and tell the MCC story, and declare from the get-go that in practically no way will it match your story.
In our case, the question came up maybe 17 years ago. Environmental conservation had long been part of the identity. Our purpose statement now describes it as “living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation.” It was a congregation who built on donated farm land, and wanted to keep that connection, so for 50 years has hosted community gardening. For about 40 years they’ve worked on restoring native prairie on old farming soil, which (by the way) benefits carbon sequestration. They tried to embody this stuff as part of the pervasive Spirit of who they were.
They’d also done good like upgrades in lighting, moves many of us have made through CFLs and toward LEDs. They’d done audits and energy studies. That reminds us these efforts are multi-pronged. It’s not just the glamorous stuff, but the zillions of small bits toward what needs to be done.
Adding solar panels at the MCC came because of a passionate individual. That person has been long gone. It wasn’t the pastor. Staff was supportive, but I want you to hear this wasn’t possible because of an official leader or paid person.
We’re now on a second set of panels. The first set was decided on mostly because of affordability. That meant it was a small demonstration project. Again, we celebrate this in many and various ways. It’s not just equating with taking X numbers of cars off the road or powering so many hundred homes. The demonstration project was along a busy street where 10-20,000 cars per day would see it. Incidentally, that became not just an advertisement for renewable energy, but a huge banner of community recognition and reason people decided to join our congregation. It spread to members’ home systems and to other congregations who came for tours and such.
The first small set of panels were removed for a re-roofing project (and were subsequently donated to another congregation). That started a two-year conversation on what to do next. Though for the sake of the climate and planetary wellbeing we’re urgently needing to make these transitions as quickly as possible, I have to remind myself it still can be worth the time. At the MCC, that involved cost-benefit analyses, discussions in annual meetings and adult ed sessions. There were lots of options, not only on bids for how many panels and where to place them, but also if it would be better to invest the money in a community-buy—here or in Africa or whatever—or whether it was feasible at all. Again, it was driven by an eager set of regular folks and right circumstances, including the retired maintenance manager Tom who relayed all this to me.
In the end, they decided to proceed with an 18.6 kilowatt system, more than seven times what they previously had. The cost was going to be about $60,000. Sort of like the RENEW Solar for Good fund, Focus on Energy came up with a $10,000 grant. The remaining $50,000 still seemed like a steep amount, especially for those of you who know how tight congregational finances often are. But in this case, the capital drive raised it in less than two weeks. That’s one of the most exciting parts of this story to me, that people were excited and eager and found ways to offer support that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
So a little over a year before I finally arrived, the new solar array went up. It has been practically maintenance-free. It cut our electrical usage by 37% (and electricity bill) in the first year. It’s got this great software especially for us geeks that shows when a vacuum cleaner turns on or a cloud comes by and tallies our savings and our expenses, both worth watching.
Maybe as one more aspect of the multi-pronged necessity and our ways to plug in (for a little pun): when the panels first went up, we used to sell back to the energy company at the same rate we paid to buy electricity, but the politics of the Public Service Commission have meant we now have a lower, regressive rate of return. So it’s not just those with the chutzpah to push for solar panels, but in small choices we make and where we put our money and how we vote and advocacy efforts.
I’ve more than expended my expertise, so I’ll stop there for now. Thanks.