A Pastoral Letter to the 222nd General Assembly: Compassion, Solidarity and Divestment

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Phil 2:1-5)          

Commissioners and Advisory Delegates,

Three years ago, the two of us worked together with the churches of Hudson River Presbytery and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond to Superstorm Sandy - a “one hundred year storm” that devastated coastal and river communities in New York City and the Hudson River Valley. We have personally seen the devastation of climate change.

In our judgment, Presbyterians largely agree that climate change is real. Most of us believe that that this crisis poses a huge threat in communities that are at risk across our country and around the world. Further, there is broad consensus among Presbyterians that the scientific consensus is correct that this threat will grow exponentially over the years to come. We saw very little debate about these basic facts as Committee 9 deliberated this week.

We also sense that Presbyterians agree that there are moments when the church is called to take a risk and to be a prophetic witness.

As the two of us have listened to others with whom we disagree about divestment, we have heard their concerns:

  • They are concerned about the people in our churches who are employed by or benefit from the oil, gas and coal industries.
  • They feel anxiety about the financial implications for many of our churches and mid-councils that depend upon offerings from those who benefit financially from these industries.
  • Many feel it is hypocritical to divest as a church while all of us remain individually dependent on fossil fuels.
  • Some are concerned that a blanket divestment from the fossil fuel industry precludes the possibility that individual companies might choose to align more closely with Presbyterian values.

We are weary of divestment debates that pit us against members of our church family. Many of you know that those debates have divided even the two of us in recent years.  Together, we raise these issues for your consideration as you deliberate this week:

1.       We must intentionally commit to provide pastoral care and support not only to the victims of climate change as we did after Sandy, but also to our members who are fully caught up in this industry for their livelihood, many of whom who can see no easy way to extract themselves from their dependence on this industry for their family’s well being. All of us are complicit in the moral quandary presented by our dependence on fossil fuels and the threat posed by climate change.

2.       It is unfair for our church to place the potential burden for our prophetic action on those parts of our body that are most dependent on this industry. It is possible that some will leave our denomination because of the prophetic stand we are called to take. Families may make hard choices to relocate as the inevitable shift to alternative energy takes place over the coming years. The financial implications for our churches and presbyteries in place like West Virginia, Texas and Ohio are quite likely to be significant. In the same way that our national church shoulders the burden together following a natural disaster, we must work together to support those most impacted by our commitment to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

3.       Local congregations must be the locus of our effort to change our personal dependence on fossil fuel. Our collective commitment not to profit from the earnings of an industry that is stealing our children’s future can be turned into concrete action in our churches as we study and practice new ways to live more lightly on God’s earth. These resources already exist within our denomination, and local congregations like the one Susan currently serves in St. Louis are already taking action together.

4.       For those who are concerned that a blanket divestment from the industry is punitive, this assembly might choose to encourage Presbyterian Agencies to consider future re-investment in energy companies that can demonstrate they derive at least fifty percent of their annual revenue from alternatives to fossil fuels. We note that the action to divest supported by Committee 9 proposes that the PC(USA) maintain minimum levels of stock in these companies to allow us to continue to participate in dialog and shareholder action.  We believe this is a wise move that will allow us to encourage these companies to retool for a fossil free future that protects our children and grandchildren.

This overture came to our Assembly with support from thirty-one Presbyteries and represents a grass-roots movement of Presbyterians across the country who place this concern at the heart of their faith. We must not shrink from the call God has given us to care for creation. Our action to divest sends a strong message to these companies that we cannot and will not ignore this threat any longer.

And…

Even as we act to divest from companies dedicated to fossil fuel extraction, we can and we must stand in solidarity with those who will feel the greatest burden. That is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. If we divest without a commitment to support one another, our action will fall short of God’s deepest desire for God’s people. But if we seize this moment to live boldly and with love, our care for one another can strengthen the whole church even as our prophetic action can make a critical difference in the global effort to stop climate change.

We give thanks to God that we are a part of you, and we will hold you in prayer as you continue your work.

Susan Andrews, Moderator, 215th General Assembly
Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator, 216th General Assembly