(Creating a) Climate (of) Change

(Creating a) Climate (of) Change

In the Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry courses we teach a session on “creating a climate of change”. This reflects a common expression, and in the session we draw together a number of theories of change and integrate them into a particular perspective on transition as the emotional response and adaptation to change.

I wonder what it would mean if we turn these words around to talk about “a change of climate” rather than “a climate of change”. I’d like to share a few reflections on the relationship between climate change and transitional ministry from the perspective of the bushfires currently ravaging Australia. I want to talk both literally and symbolically.

Australia is undergoing fires that are unprecedented in historical times. The Australian bush is adapted to fire as a normal part of the lifecycle of trees and shrubs. Our iconic eucalypts can be burned black with no sign of life, but within weeks will start to shoot bright green “sucker growth” on their trunks and branches or from their roots. Many shrub seeds are only released from pods after fire, or need fire and smoke to germinate in the ground, once again resulting in intense green new growth. That is all normal after fire. However, what we are experiencing now is not normal. Our fires this summer are more widespread, more intense, and started sooner than at any time in the past. Over 11,000,000 hectares have been burned, an areas larger than Scotland, and 100 times the area burned in the California fires of 2019.

An estimated billion wild animals have perished. Over 2,000 houses have been destroyed in New South Wales alone, in addition to farm buildings and other infrastructure. All of these numbers are not just a statistical blips but are off the scale, just as are our record high temperatures and low humidity which have created the conditions for these fires. This is not climate variation; it is climate change. Climate change is not something that may happen in the future; it has happened and is continuing to happen. The Australian bushfires are the canary in the coalmine for global climate change.

Literally, for congregations and ministers, the reality of climate change has created many changes and the subsequent reality of entering into a time of transition:

  • The anxiety of the situation makes people less able to cope with change in all areas of life, thus inhibiting any previously necessary transitions in the life of the congregation.
  • The loss of production in rural areas has a direct impact on families’ incomes, and hence giving to the church. Nine percent of the national cattle herd has perished, and 12 percent of sheep.
  • The economies in areas dependent on tourism are devastated, also affecting incomes.
  • Ministers are stretched to the limit. As I write in mid-January 2020 there are 34 evacuation and relief centres open in NSW alone, when the most at any one time in the past has been two. We provide Disaster Recovery Chaplains to these centres, mostly pastors of congregations being released by their congregations.
  • Similarly, volunteers are stretched to the limit.

Relating the impacts I have described to our focus on systems theory in transitional ministry, we can see that the lives of our congregations are inextricably linked to decisions made in cabinet rooms and corporate boardrooms globally. Systems within systems. While the devastation of the fires is our primary focus, congregations are also deeply impacted negatively in their internal lives as well as in their community engagement.

When we teach about clergy stress and self-care, the impacts of climate change need to be recognised as a stressor.

Metaphorically, we can also think of congregations and climate change.

  • The change of climate in western society is discontinuous and disruptive, not gradual and predictable. Just as we need to respond to global climate change in novel ways, we need a total rethink of how we operate as churches in our contexts/climates, for instance around “generating power”.
  • With such climate change, we need to embrace Ronald Heifetz’ language of technical vs adaptive challenges. Just as we can’t solve our unprecedented bushfire situation with existing knowledge and approaches, so too our churches are in danger of vaporising in the fires of social change.
  • There is much climate change denial among politicians and sections of the media, generally using fake science as a cloak for ideology and corporate self-interest. There has always been such resistance to new realities, for instance in the revolutions of consciousness around recognising not only that the world is not flat, but also that it orbits around the sun, not vice versa. Just so, there is much theology that functions metaphorically as climate denial. It is easy to turn tradition into a form of work avoidance, or “faithfulness” into passivity.

Drawing all of this together by way of conclusion, I have tried to offer two broad insights.

The first insight I offer is that the Australian bushfires are just the tip of a melting iceberg of global climate change, and that this directly and materially affects the life and mission of our congregations. Negatively, global climate change inhibits necessary transition at precisely the time when transition is most needed. Positively, natural disasters such as bushfires and cyclones (hurricanes) offer opportunities for churches to serve and engage with their communities.

The second insight I offer is that global climate change provides a metaphor for the experience of the church in society today. The global social climate in which we exist has changed as disruptively and discontinuously as the global weather climate. We need to find wholly new and creative ways to respond and engage.

Can we meet these challenges?

Some links that may be of interest:

A church volunteer story

A disaster recovery chaplain story

An LA Times opinion piece on the Australian bushfires

Helmet camera video of firefighting, taken less than 500 metres from Rob McFarlane’s holiday cabin in the Blue Mountains

Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane is Presbytery Ministry Leader in Parramatta Nepean Presbytery.

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