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A Brief History of the Green Sanctuary Program

The Green Sanctuary (GS) program was originally an outgrowth of the Seventh Principle Project, a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)-affiliated environmental organization that was created in 1989. In 1991, the Seventh Principle Project published the Green Sanctuary Handbook, introducing Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations to the concept of integrating our environmental consciousness into our faith communities. That first handbook helped UUs begin to imagine what it would look like if congregational life reflected the seventh Principle of Unitarian Universalism, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

The Green Sanctuary concept continued to circulate throughout the 1990s, but there was no specific process by which the activists in a specific congregation could engage the rest of the congregation in transforming that concept into reality. Finally, in 1999, one of the early promoters of the concept, Fred Small, seized an opportunity to move it to the next level. As his thesis at Harvard Divinity School, he developed a proposal for a comprehensive Green Sanctuary program modeled after the very effective Welcoming Congregation program. This new program would invite congregations to carry out a series of actions addressing various environmental issues. Successful completion of these actions would bring the congregation recognition or “accreditation” as a Green Sanctuary.

Following the presentation of this concept at the 1999 General Assembly, a group of enthusiastic activists took on the challenge of translating Fred Small’s proposal into a real program. Seventh Principle Project member David Cockrell convened a task force to add new material to the original manual and to craft a step-by-step process that could be implemented by a congregation. That second edition of the Green Sanctuary manual was ready for distribution in the fall of 2000. Mr. Cockrell called for a number of “Founders” congregations to pilot the program, testing how the concept would actually work and what resources would be needed to support congregational efforts. Several congregations took up the challenge, with five completing the program in 2002 and three in 2003.

By early 2003, experience had shown that the concept worked well in congregations, but more flexibility was needed. The program has to be accessible to congregations with different sizes and capabilities, and adaptable to issues that varied widely with geographic location and culture of the congregation.

The third edition of the Green Sanctuary Manual was unveiled in 2003, inviting congregations to create their own program of activities and projects within a framework of four focus areas that encompassed all aspects of congregational life. Participation grew steadily in the following years. By 2005, when the Seventh Principle Project became the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE), thirty-one congregations had been recognized as Green Sanctuaries.

A turning point was reached in 2006, both in attention to environmental issues by congregations within the Unitarian Universalist Association and in commitment to addressing those issues through a structured program. That year marked the culmination of a two-year period of study and action in congregations on the issue of global warming. Delegates to the General Assembly that year campaigned for, and then voted overwhelmingly to adopt, a Statement of Conscience on the Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change-arguably the clearest and strongest statement on that subject by a religious institution to date. This was a grassroots effort, tied very closely to Green Sanctuary work in many congregations.

At that same General Assembly, a record nineteen new congregations were recognized as Green Sanctuaries, bringing the grand total to fifty. For the first time, certificates were presented to those congregations in a public ceremony on the plenary stage, dramatically increasing visibility for the program.

The fourth edition of the Green Sanctuary Manual was published by the UUMFE in the fall of 2007. By that time over 125 Unitarian Universalist congregations were formally enrolled in the Green Sanctuary program. The new version of the manual sought to provide more detailed information about how to manage the process and create a comprehensive program. A process was added for renewing accreditation every five years.

By 2008, the Green Sanctuary program had become so successful that the UUMFE’s small staff had difficulty keeping up with demand. In July of that year, the UUMFE handed over responsibility for the Green Sanctuary program to the Congregational Stewardship Services office of the UUA.

In its new home, supported by the resources of the larger organization, the Green Sanctuary program continues to thrive. In the summer of 2009 there were 98 accredited Green Sanctuary congregations and 116 in candidacy. Combined, these represent over 20 percent of UUA congregations.

The year 2012 began a series of reviews of the historic work of the Green Sanctuary Program, in particular to learn how congregations were doing with the Green Sanctuary Program in relation to environmental justice work. In addition the reviews included the potential for coordinating efforts of UUA staff and organizations concerned with environmental justice. At the same time UU Ministry for Earth engaged an investigation of "The Theology and Ethics of Environmental Justice" with Meadville Lombard and Starr King seminaries, made possible with funding from the UU Funding Program.  By now there were 194 certified Green sanctuaries and 3 Re Accredited.

In 2013 it became more possible for UUA leadership across staff teams and UU organizations with environmental and justice concerns to work in greater collaboration. Many have used the language of "culture shift" to describe our intentions for working together. By fall of 2013 the Green Sanctuary Manual was revised to incorporate environmental justice throughout, and to experiment with ways to encourage and support congregations to make the connections between multiple oppressions in their analysis and strategies to address environmental issues.

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For more information contact uua_greensanctuary@uua.org.