Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Taking "Church" Outdoors


Covenant Kayakers

by Eric Diekhans


Outdoor ministry. The phrase evokes memories of church camp, probably a few hoursdrive from home. A week or two spent in nature for children, teens, or perhaps families.


But what if outdoor ministry was more accessible, just a short work or drive away? What if it was right outside your churchs door?


After retiring from his call as a PCUSA campus minister, Bruce Chapman became a Florida master naturalist and park ranger. When he and his wife moved to North Carolina in 2019, Covenant Church and its Outdoor Ministry Committee were a perfect fit for him. At the time, outdoor ministry opportunities there were modest. The church offered a monthly hiking excursion to contemplate nature and enjoy fellowship.


I started talking with Lauren Sawyers and other church people that were involved in the hiking,” says Bruce. We all were sensitive to environmental issues, and a core group of us wondered what else we can do as Christians.”


Bruce and Lauren became committee co-coordinators as their ambitions grew. The committee focused on a multi-pronged mission: To provide members of our community practical opportunities to experience nature; deepen relationships with the church, each other and our natural surroundings; and grow in faithful stewardship of the environment.”


The committee continued to offer hikes to beautiful area locations like South Fork Catawba Trail and the Stevens Creek Nature Preserve, along with kayaking and other outdoor activities. They also invited speakers like Timothy Beal, author of When Time is Short, to speak about climate change. An eco-study group formed and, Chapman says, We looked for ways to not just navel gaze but actually have a mission project or some kind of outreach.”


One of their first ventures was a stream clean relationship with the local stormwater district. The church adopted an urban stream in a restored riverine habitat that runs through Charlotte and committed to picking up trash there four times a year.


Last summer, the church also started a gleaning mission through the Society of St. Andrews, a grassroots, faith-based, hunger relief nonprofit. They collect leftovers from fields after harvesting is done,” Bruce shares.  “Our group visited rural North Carolina farms and collected tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables left in the field.  These were then passed through the Society of St. Andrews to needy organizations.”


The committee is also looking at ways to make a positive impact on the environment right outside the church’s doors. Just before we came to Covenant,” Bruce says, they added an addition to the building, To meet city code, they had to offset that impervious surface by digging an earthen basin to catch stormwater runoff. But the basin isnt doing its job because its not connected to any of the downspouts or drainage systems. Its just grass that we mow.”


The committee has drafted a proposal to repurpose the basin as an urban wetland habitat and micro-forest.  It sees the project as a significant statement about how Christians can be good stewards of the earth.


The work of the Outdoor Ministry Committee is just one way Covenant strives to be a forward-thinking community with a culture of embracing innovation as we live out our mission. “ In doing so, the church provides an inspirational example of how we can all be better stewards of our environment, individually and as a community.


Eric Diekhans is an author, editor of “Earth News,” a member of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and Executive Director of the Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries.

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