by Rebekah Thornhill
The Environmental Stewardship Committee (ESC) has long served as an advocate for environmental issues by encouraging action and education among individuals, congregations, and our synod as a whole. "Divesting was a long running question for us," says Gerry Falco, chair of the ESC. "What would it mean to encourage our church to take this step?"
The conversation began in ESC meetings where they processed at length the theological and financial implications of divesting. Even if they could agree that there was an obligation to care for creation and not profit from the opposite, there were major concerns about what kind of position this might put the synod in financially.
After worship one morning, Pat Almonrode, a member of the ESC, struck up conversation with Ed Wagner, chair of the Financial Management Committee (FMC). They found that both committees were looking for ways to do more: the FMC with a socially responsible investment policy and the ESC with growing empowerment from people to make a difference with climate change.
While there were not significant investments in fossil fuels to begin with, our investment manager worked closely with our ESC and FMC to understand what was included and the steps needed to divest completely as a synod. They weighed how divestment might also affect our ability to become financially stable through our 10-year plan. When it was determined to not be something that would hurt our portfolio or goals, the time seemed ripe to consider bringing this to the 2015 Synod Assembly. "We understand the mission of the church and our strategic plan to include being socially responsible with our investments," says Ed Wagner.
The committees continued to work together to draft and support a resolution to the assembly. By the time it got to the 2015 Synod Assembly, both the ESC and FMC had talked to numerous other committees and groups of pastors to know where the questions were and how to answer them. Even still, there was a nervousness that the resolution may not pass. "It all changed for me when a member of the FMC spoke to the resolution," remembers Gerry Falco. "At one point he looked up at the assembly and said, ‘Our committee thought this was a good idea.’ I knew that things had shifted."
At our 2015 Synod Assembly, we voted to cease new investments in companies "whose primary business is the exploration, extraction, production, or refining of coal, oil, or natural gas." Further, we would divest from any current fossil fuel investments in our portfolio within the next five years.
"We added the drop dead date of five years because it helps to make it an attainable goal that is within a reasonable timeline for making changes," said Frank Suttell, Synod Treasurer. "However, we’re well ahead of schedule. We completely divested in six months."
Guided by our Investment Policy Statement (an updated version will be voted on by our Synod Council in February, 2016), we "consider our mission as a share in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. … We recognize that our stewardship comprises a dual responsibility: financial as well as social." Our investment policy had already sought to exclude supporting companies that produce or invest in weapons, alcohol, or tobacco and encourage supporting companies that maintain and conserve natural resources, avoid exploitive practices, support non-discriminatory employment, and allow disadvantaged groups to have a voice in decision making. The Financial Management Committee works closely with an Investment Manager who knows these expectations and helps to keep our portfolio in line.
"Nobody can predict the market," notes Frank Suttell, "but we can certainly make responsible, educated decisions." We have found that our investments have not been hurt, but are able to perform stronger as more and more companies and organizations are divesting. Oil is no longer being seen as a good investment.
"The momentum is growing in all sectors," remarks Pat Almonrode. "There are more and more powerful justifications to consider divesting from fossil fuels and people are becoming empowered to act regarding climate change." We have seen a groundswell with events like the People’s Climate March that drew an estimated 311,000 participants to New York City in September 2014. We’ve also heard from Pope Francis encouraging people to make a change now and the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference with an agreement on limiting global warming. We’re in this together and there is a way forward.
As people of the Lutheran faith, we recognize that we hold responsibility towards what God has created. By participating in the care of creation, we are doing God’s work – providing love and reconciliation to all of the places were God is present.
The resolution from our 2015 Synod Assembly encourages congregations to also divest from fossil fuels. "Divesting may not be the next step or an easy step for some congregations," says Gerry Falco. "However, every congregation can benefit from having an Environmental Stewardship Committee or similar group." Having such a group will help congregations to ask the necessary questions: Should we have a recycling program? Should we use organic or environmentally friendly cleaning products? Does our building need an energy assessment? Does the congregation need education on this topic?
"The church has always seen itself in society as contributing a moral voice," says Pat Almonrode. "This is perhaps the most important issue of our time and exactly where our church should be. I am glad to be a part of a church that is doing this."
To date, the Metropolitan New York Synod is the fourth synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to vote to divest from fossil fuels. Our synod among three synods that have memorialized the ELCA Churchwide Organization to divest from fossil fuels. Many more, including the Metropolitan New York Synod, have sent memorials calling for an eco-reformation. These will be taken up at the Churchwide Assembly in August 2016.