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Smaller energy bill, bigger ministry

Man on roof of Ferndale UMC

Michigan Interfaith Power and Light is a non-profit organization helping churches save dollars through energy efficiency. Those funds can then be invested in congregational care and community outreach.

Senior Content Editor, Michigan Conference

Page 1 of the Bible, only three verses in. We hear God say, “Let there be light!” Today there’s a non-profit organization that speaks similar words to churches across Michigan.

Since 2015 Michigan Interfaith Power and Light has assisted 120 United Methodist congregations in the state with a program it calls Light the Way. Each church was provided with around $1,300 of free energy-efficient upgrades to their facilities. Each then saved a yearly average of $650 in utility bills.

Man pointing at thermostat
Frank Huizenga, Trustee Chair of Goodrich UMC, reports that Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, partnering with Consumers Energy technicians, replaced six thermostats in the church with no cost to the congregation. ~ photo courtesy Michigan Interfaith Power and Light

Leah Wiste, Executive Director of Michigan Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) puts it like this: “No church wants an offering plate with a hole in the bottom that leaks out dollars. Yet church buildings are doing the same thing leaking warm air into the winter cold.” She says that the aim of Michigan IPL is to help those churches spend less on utilities and more on mission and ministry.

While everybody loves a smaller electric or gas bill, the program is based on more than economics. The mission of Michigan IPL is to inspire and equip people of faith to exercise stewardship of and love for all Creation. “We offer practical tools to put faith into action by promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other sustainable practices that lead to a cleaner, healthier, and more just world,” says Jennifer Young, IPL’s Project Manager.

Michigan IPL is part of a national organization with 40 state chapters. The enterprise was founded in 2002 by a Catholic priest in response to concerns over global warming. While the core purpose of the organization is encouraging and enabling basic energy efficiency of church property, “living more lightly on earth” is also a strong core value of Michigan IPL.

Wiste does some math. “Start with the 120 United Methodist churches that have participated in Light the Way multiplied by the $650 of annual savings. Then take that out 15 years (which is the minimum lifespan of the upgrades) and that’s collectively over $1 million in savings. Pretty substantial.” She and Young would like to see more United Methodists take advantage of this opportunity. “What we do seems very much in line with United Methodist values in taking care of creation,” Wiste notes.

House of Worship Rewards is another Michigan IPL program that earns congregations dollars through recruitment of participants – individuals and churches – for  energy analysis. This church fund-raiser is supported through a partnership of Michigan IPL and Consumers Energy. Bay City Grace United Methodist Church has earned $2,000 of rewards thanks to such referrals. Cash awards of up to $5,000 are possible.

Here are just a few real-life success stories involving Michigan IPL and United Methodist churches of The Michigan Conference.

Pastor of New Heart UMC displays Consumers Energy bill
Melene Wilsey, pastor of New Heart UMC in Saginaw, celebrates the lower utility bill that enables her to put the congregation’s dollars to work for vibrant ministry and mission. ~ photo courtesy Michigan Interfaith Power and Light

New Heart United Methodist Church in Saginaw (formerly West Michigan Avenue UMC) is pastored by Melene Wilsey. In 2015 the church was about to close its doors, but today it is a hub of activity serving others with Christ’s love. New Heart has seen real financial savings through energy efficiency. In the nine months since the church installed a new, efficient boiler, the church saved more than $3,000 on its utility bills. New Heart also participated in House of Worship Rewards. When the old lighting in the sanctuary was replaced with new, ultra-efficient LEDs, the church’s energy use in that space was cut by 90%– from 4,000 watts to just 400 watts. Based on the sanctuary lighting upgrade and other free efficiency measures provided by Consumers Energy, New Heart expects to save another $750 on energy in the next year. Pastor Melene and her congregation have seen first-hand that saving money can generate more opportunities to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Frank Huizenga is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Goodrich United Methodist Church. He made the contact with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light in 2017. “Their guidance got us connected with Consumers Energy,” Huizenga states, “and that then led to an energy audit.” The result was replacement of 286 florescent light tubes and 75 light bulbs with LED tubes/bulbs. “They also replaced 17 faucet aerators, six thermostats, and one Exit Light. This was completed by Consumer Energy technicians and without any cost to GUMC,” Huizenga adds.

Michigan Interfaith Power and Light has been a resource for encouragement and practical support for Greensky Hill Indian United Methodist Church according to the Rev. Jonathan Mays. He says, “the Greening of Greensky Hill is our congregation’s comprehensive creation care vision of getting off the grid and rediscovering indigenous food, as well as traditional green burial practices.” The congregation has found that the mission and values of Michigan IPL align with the congregation’s “commitment to the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) word ganawenindiwag.” Mays translates ganawenindiwag as “taking care of each other,” and describes it as “a reciprocal relationship in which we receive life as we nurture life in one another and in creation.” Greensky Hill Indian UMC and other neighboring faith communities are co-sponsoring an event with Michigan IPL. “Answering the Call: An Interfaith Response for Climate Action,” is open to the public. It will be held on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, 7-9 pm at Bay View Association in Petoskey.

Montrose United Methodist Church is leading the way in demonstrating how going green is green for the offering plate, too. “It’s been my goal to get our energy costs down 40-50%” says John Lund, Chairman of the Trustees. “The primary way we can do that is with lighting, so when this opportunity with Consumers Energy came along I jumped on that.” Over the past few years, Montrose UMC has taken a proactive approach to water and energy conservation, beginning with replacing all of its water facilities with water efficient toilets. This took the congregation’s water bill down; the church is located in a community that has the highest water rates in the county. In 2016 the church installed high-efficiency furnaces and replaced some of its fluorescent lighting. Through Light the Way the church installed LED lights in the sanctuary and low-flow faucet aerators on the kitchen sinks. Montrose is reinvesting the savings in mission. “Every dollar we can save goes into the community,” Lund says.

Montrose United Methodist Church sign
John Lund has spearheaded Montrose UMC’s partnership with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light. Efforts included upgrading the church sign with LED lighting. LEDs last longer, give a brighter light, and return big savings to the congregation. John said regarding the cost-savings, “We take things [like the sign] for granted.” ~ photo courtesy Michigan Interfaith Power and Light

Richard Fowler, a member of Ferndale First United Methodist Church, says about his support of renewable energy, “This is a form of evangelism.” A life-long member at FUMC, Fowler has helped organize a solar energy program for the church. He and a friend started floating proposals for solar panels. Fowler found the hardest part was getting over mental barriers, even with those in the congregation who favored green living. “Nice idea,” but cost was perceived as a problem until Fowler and friend learned of Michigan IPL. There continued to be hurdles along the way, but Ferndale First now has 64 solar panels that provide about 25% of their electrical needs through a Power Purchase Agreement with an investor in the solar array. Fowler’s advice, “Stick with it! This is the way of the future. Let’s hope our difficulties can help smooth the way for those who follow.”

What excites Leah Wiste the most about her work with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light? She says, “We live in a time that needs more leadership on issues of climate change and economic inequality. These are moral issues.” She concludes, “There is tremendous potential in Michigan’s faith communities to rise up and claim this leadership. It will make a real difference.”

~ Accounts from the newsletters of Michigan Interfaith Power and Light contributed to this story. Want to explore what Michigan Interfaith Power and Light might do for your congregation? Contact them at 248-537-9175 or