Divesting your congregational funds from fossil fuels

The actions we took and the lessons we learned

To put this resource together, we reflected on the challenges we faced, as well as the questions we asked ourselves and those we heard from others, as we moved towards divestment.

Are any of these questions also YOUR questions? We’ve described the actions we took and the lessons we learned, with the hope that you can adapt our learnings to your own context.

Shared leadership

We’re a small congregation. Can we do this?

Learn how TSP’s Climate Justice Group spread tasks among ourselves to ease the load.

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Build expertise

We’re no experts in divestment. How do we build the knowledge we need?

We share how we drew on numerous external resources to build our knowledge.

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Engage the congregation

How can we help our congregation understand the faith and justice rationales for divestment?

Explore TSP’s engagement of our broader congregational community to address climate justice.

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Divestment & reinvestment

What is a realistic timeline for the divestment process? What do our Board and financial officers need to know?

Learn more about the key stages in TSP’s divestment and reinvestment process.

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Media & public engagement

How should we respond to others? What is our role in the global climate movement?

Learn more about how we made our work public.

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Extend the reach of divestment

What are some other climate actions we can take as individuals? As a congregation?

Learn about other green initiatives at TSP.

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Shared Leadership

We are a busy congregation and everyone who is able to volunteer is working at capacity already. How do we take on the big question of climate justice and the call to divest from fossil fuels? This is too big an issue for us to work on; in fact, it is impossible….sorry!

If leadership is a key block to getting work done, how about changing the whole concept of leadership from one leader who takes it on to many people sharing it? How could that happen and what would it look like? The Climate Justice Group at TSP had this same issue. Once we “fell into” a new model of leadership, we were all surprised at the energy that was released and the expertise we developed. “It only takes a spark to get a fire going”, as the song says. Read on and discover how your group, no matter its size, can take on a big issue and surprise everyone at your success!

Following a “lull” of almost two years with no work on climate justice (one of the congregation’s agreed priorities), the Church Board contracted Greg Powell, a theological student with a background in climate issues to see if the congregation could summon the energy to do more work on this. He issued a general invitation to anyone in our congregation interested in climate change/justice issues. The first questions he asked were: “Why are you here? What is your key concern about climate justice? Do you have time to do anything about it?” While all 13 of us shared a deep concern to act and quickly, most of us felt already very busy or over-committed, and no one wanted to “be the leader”. What to do?

Leadership emerged almost without our recognizing it! What were some of the steps we took that helped us overcome this block?

01. Develop a focus

To help us narrow our focus, we invited members of the congregation to join us to see the movie, “Do the Math” followed by a discussion of our responses. We divided into three small groups, with each discussing a different idea as our response. We listened to the rationale of each group for that piece of work and then considered which ONE we might do. By the end of that evening, we reached consensus to join the divestment movement.

 

Why this worked: All of our work for the following two years was tied to that focus, thus limiting the drain on our volunteer capacities. Having all agreed on a shared set of goals, we were able to say “no” to ideas and initiatives outside this priority focus.

02. Welcome each contribution as a key part of the work and make it manageable

Anytime anyone offered to take on a task, small or large, we trusted that offer and understood that person as “taking a lead” on that part of the work. Each person went off to find out more from external sources about their “task”. From that point on, we learned from each other and began rotating responsibilities among ourselves as we each gained confidence.

 

Why this worked: No one took on all the work, each doing only what we felt we could do. Collectively, our energies expanded as we learned from each other, enabling us to do more!

03. Limit the number of “meetings” and get on with the work

The Climate Justice Group (CJG) meets every 4-6 weeks following the Sunday worship service. Between meetings members work individually or in small groups on particular projects–2-3 people working on an article or an event, someone working on communications, another on understanding divestment and financial options, another preparing for our meetings, different people chairing and taking notes at each meeting, or two dozen members of our congregation attending a screening of “Do the Math” or a climate march!

 

Why this worked: This approach contributed to the sense that the “leadership” of our group was fluid, and fostered our trust in one another to be a leader on a part of the work and to teach us what each had learned. That empowered us all!

04. Ensure the congregation is learning with us

This was a congregational priority, so, as detailed at Engage the congregation, we encouraged congregational members’ education and participation in the following ways:

  • through climate justice-focused events, worship, Lenten study sessions, our church website and newsletter, and through invitations to join our meetings or participate in an event; and
  • through asking members of the congregation to share their expertise with us on a particular issue – whether it was understanding divestment, pension funds, or the moral/ethical frameworks for our work.

 

Why this worked: Drawing on congregational members at different points and for specific projects further facilitated our shared leadership approach, and often resulted in their ongoing involvement with the CJG.

Build Expertise

Though members of our group offered a great deal of experience with environmental, ecumenical, and activist organizations, and a range of professional skills, including governance, finance, and media savvy, we all had a great deal to learn about divestment and about supporting change. In addition to sharing leadership internally, we also drew on leadership and resources offered by those external to our congregation.

These are some of the steps we took to identify and integrate external experience with the divestment process:

01. Develop strategic alliances

Who else is working on this? How might we benefit from their resources and save us time and energy? We immediately identified 350.org and a few other NGOs who were doing work on this. A couple of people offered to contact them. Suddenly we found key resources to lighten our work.

 

Why this worked: In addition to benefitting from information about divestment and advice on process, we found that we were not alone. Our partner organizations became a support network and source of ongoing motivation. Our CJG began to share our resources with other congregations who wished to take this on. In return we learned from them as they undertook the work!

Key action: Invite a guest from an external organization to one of your meetings.

02. Bring in expertise

We found that many people from outside were willing to help us at no cost, and we made good use of their expertise. However, the Church Board’s decision to hire Greg Powell, a social justice and environmental activist (now a minister at Castlegar United Church) to work with TSP four hours per week for nine months on the congregation’s priority of Climate Justice was very key to getting us started and focussed.

 

Why this worked: Greg brought continuity and expertise to our activities. He took the initiative in getting us going, in leading us to a focus, and in developing the first draft of a Divestment Primer for the congregation. His presence made us accountable – to him and to our congregation, who invested in his position – to make the most of his time with us. A number of other external resource people have complimented his work. Now we ourselves have gained confidence and have become resources to others.

03. Seek opportunities for further learning

Whenever we identified a gap in our individual or collective knowledge, we looked for sources of wisdom:

  • Within the congregation, on issues including the moral and economic imperatives of divestment, and on internal governance processes, including how the United Church “works” and what that meant for the divestment motions we were developing, and how pension boards understand/exercise fiduciary responsibility.
  • From external networks and organizations, by attending numerous educational events, participating in meetings and seminars on the financial aspects of divestment, and by sharing our learning and actions with others.
  • Formal education and training opportunities. For example, two members attended training from StepUp Canada on how to make presentations on climate change.

 

Why this worked: In addition to filling gaps in our knowledge necessary to meet our goals, each member benefitted from building individual knowledge and skills in a range of areas, which led to a collective sense of empowerment – an unexpected reward of participating in this work.

Key action: Set up an email list to share interesting resources and events with your group.

Engage the Congregation

While a core Climate Justice Group led the divestment process at TSP, a key to our success was the shared commitment of the whole congregation to climate justice and to divestment. We had a head start as our congregation had already identified climate justice as a priority before we started talking about divestment, but our job was to keep the momentum going – by including our congregation in our work, by integrating climate justice themes into worship services, and by responding to their questions.

The energy from this connection flowed both ways – it supported the work of the Climate Justice Group, and gave the congregation as a whole a shared project and shared success.

The strategies we used to foster this ongoing and reciprocal engagement are below.

01. Start the conversation with a broad discussion of climate justice issues

What we did: In 2010, following a discussion about our shared priorities, the TSP congregation identified climate justice as one of several priority areas for the next 5 years. Shortly thereafter, the Board approved a policy statement on TSP’s Commitment to Climate Justice and Environmental Sustainability summarizing congregational discussions and commitments to greening our congregation, and outlining how we would move forward with implementing these commitments.

This policy statement sowed early seeds for the decision that emerged towards the end of our five-year strategic planning period to pursue divestment.

If you’d like to explore whether there is interest in climate justice issues within your congregation, you might wish to use this Guide for Organizing a Climate Justice Discussion Group developed by Laura Sacks, Group leader Nelson-West Kootenay Chapter Citizens’ Climate Lobby and David Boyd, Minister Nelson United Church for the United Church of Canada B.C. Conference to discover and build commitment among members of your congregation.

 

Why this worked: Our climate justice work proceeded from the foundation of a shared commitment on the part of our congregation, which gave us both motivation and mandate.

Key action: Host a discussion or study session about climate justice.

02. Build understanding of climate change and climate justice issues

What we did: Through congregational events, we invited all members of the TSP community to learn more about Climate Justice. These included:

  • screenings of “Do the Math” and “Disruption”;
  • walking down Bloor Street – as a group of 65! – ringing the church bells to “sound the alarm” about climate change;
  • potluck dinner with the TSP participants in the New York City People’s Climate March;
  • post-service “Global Gossip” discussion sessions on actions taken in support of Climate Justice by members of the TSP community, from co-founding “For Our Grandchildren” to building information about fossil-free investing and shareholder engagement for institutions and individual; and
  • Lenten workshop series, with evening study sessions focused on climate justice

At every event and through the regular church bulletin, we extended an open invitation to all interested members of the congregation to join our Climate Justice Group meetings and future activities.

We also shared regular updates on our work and on climate justice news more generally through our congregational newsletter, ensuring that we included at least one item in each quarterly issue.

 

Why this worked: Sustaining a broad congregational discussion about climate justice kept energy and support throughout the congregation high. Regular events helped recruit new participants to our Climate Justice Group.

Building an understanding of climate change and possible responses also inspired members of our congregation to take individual action against climate change, whether through their own personal divestment and reinvestment or by greening their homes or lifestyles.

Key action: Invite members of your congregation to participate in climate events and actions.

03. Integrate climate justice into worship services

What we did: Working with the Minister and the TSP Worship Planning Team, the Climate Justice Group arranged for several services addressing Climate Justice topics: one led by Christine Boyle, a community organizer and environmental activist; another led by CJG member and minister Jim Kirkwood featuring two skits he had written: “Bertha’s persistent high temperature” and “Mother Earth’s persistent high temperature”; and yet another led by members of the CJG sharing the voices of women of the Global South about the impact of climate change and environmental issues on their communities.

CJG members also shared a video at TSP’s annual Blessing of the Bikes.

 

Why this worked: Integrating climate justice issues into worship highlighted our common faith commitment to these concerns, and emphasized the link between climate justice and other faith-based justice work.

Key action: Work with our minister and other worship planners toward a worship service centred around climate justice.

04. Build resources for congregational learning about divestment

What we did: As we considered formal motions on divestment for presentation to the congregational Annual General Meeting (AGM), we developed resources for the congregation on the faith and justice rationales of divestment for discussion before the AGM.

Our first step was to develop a divestment primer: a 14-page document, including links and resources, outlining the critical faith and justice rationale for divestment, details about the divestment process, and an overview of common questions and concerns.

We also created a single-page version of this primer.  This included the wording of the proposed divestment motions for our congregational AGM and the abridged one included the motions directed to the United Church of Canada General Council.

Two weeks before the AGM, during a worship service, we invited congregational members to read the above documents and then join us for a Q&A session the following week after worship.

Our discussion allowed concerns to surface, and allowed us as a congregation to identify potential approaches to addressing these concerns that we were all comfortable with before proceeding with a commitment to divest. In particular, we discussed:

Why we had decided to pursue divestment rather than continue our existing practice of shareholder engagement.
Acknowledging our ongoing complicity in participating in an economy and society that relies on fossil fuels.
Ways to offer pastoral care for those negatively affected by divestment.

Following a lively discussion, the members present affirmed their support for taking action. The following week, the AGM unanimously approved the motions after adding the phrase “take active steps.”

Our next focus was to build a Climate Justice section of our website and compile lists of relevant organizations and resources.

 

Why this worked: These educational resources and information sessions allowed all of us together to discuss divestment, to seek further information on our questions, and to address any concerns that emerged before bringing the motions to a vote.

Key action: Host a Q&A session on divestment before making a formal motion.

Divestment & Reinvestment

One reason we were able to maintain high energy and engagement through the divestment process was because our timeline was relatively short!  In less than six months, we moved from a decision to pursue divestment to a unanimous congregational vote to divest. Several months after that, our Board of Trustees completed the divestment process, and turned their focus to re-investment.

Planning and education

  • Early September 2013

    Climate Justice Group (CJG) forms.

  • Late October 2013

    Decision to pursue divestment.

  • November 2013-February 2014

    CJG learns more about divestment, formulates motions, develops resources for the congregation, and hosts congregational discussions about divestment process.

Motion for divestment

  • February 2014

    TSP congregation unanimously passes two motions: one to direct TSP to divest of its holdings in fossil fuels and the second to ask the same thing of the national church at its meeting in August 2015. CJG members share the news widely in church and climate justice networks, and through media.

    Our motion: That Trinity­ St. Paul’s United Church take active steps to divest of its holdings in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies in order to send a signal to those and other companies and policy­makers that we do not want to participate in generating excessive heat­ trapping emissions, which are leading the planet to ecological chaos and opposing God’s mission of abundant life for all Creation.

Divesting our funds

  • February-June 2014

    TSP Board of Trustees generate divestment action plan: to move the basic endowment fund, which was invested in the UCC Foundation with a Fiera pooled fund, to a Fiera Global Equity Fund, which was free of all fossil fuel funds.

  • June 2014

    TSP Board of Trustees announces that it has divested our funds.
    As a result of this switch, which included exposure to foreign currency, the new funds generated about 2% better returns by December 2014, than the non-divested UCC fund TSP had left. At the AGM one year after we’d voted to divest, the TSP Trustees reported that “as an unexpected blessing” the overall return on main investments in 2014 was 13.6%!

  • May 2017

    Divestment 101: Addressing Trustees Concerns and Finding Opportunities

Reinvestment

  • July 2015

    TSP Trustees re-invest holdings in Genus Capital Management’s fully fossil-free fund.
    Meetings with various fund and investment managers led the Board of Trustees to select, after due diligence, Genus Capital Management as our new investment manager. Genus is fully divested and actively invested. By July 2015, they signed the new investment agreement and transferred our investment funds to Genus.

  • Nov 2015-June 2016

    TSP Trustees invest special Green Initiative Holdings in GreenChip Financial
    In November 2015, Trustees created a small designated Green Initiatives fund. This fund was invested in June 2016 with a second manager GreenChip, who focus on Alternative Energy and Energy Reduction.

Working for divestment of the United Church of Canada

  • Fall 2014-January 2015

    CJG members develop wording for two motions to go to the United Church of Canada (UCC) General Council: the first directed to the UCC Treasury and UCC Foundation Funds; and the second calling on the UCC Pension Board to be transparent re its investments in fossil fuels and to report to its members on the faith and financial rationale for these holdings.
    The CJG develops educational materials for members of various governance bodies acting on these motions (Presbytery, Conference, and General Council).

  • August 2015

    CJG member Ann Russell attends General Council and hosts information table and workshops on divestment. UCC General Council 42 passes both motions; this action received wide media coverage.

  • December 2015

    UCC announces the Treasury Funds are divested.

Media & Public Engagement

TSP made its commitment to divestment public through sharing our story in the print and social media, participating in demonstrations of solidarity, and by sharing our own developing expertise. These actions connected our activities with broader environmental and fossil fuel divestment movements, and contributed to ethical and faith-based perspectives on climate justice. It’s energizing and validating to see that others share your goals and value your work!

We also benefitted directly from public engagement and outreach because it connected us with people and organizations who helped us on our journey. These strategic alliances included other local congregations and church governing bodies, scientists, artists, theologians, and activists. Our allies served many roles: providing moral support; complementing the expertise available within our own group; providing advice on strategy and process; and building links between our group and other organizations.

We took our work public using the strategies below.

01. Public engagement

Members of the CJG made our activities visible in the community and participated in solidarity actions locally and internationally by:

  • Hosting information tables and participating in neighbourhood events
  • Participating in marches, protests, and other solidarity activities

 

Why this worked: Through these activities we added our voice to the growing and diverse climate justice movement and demonstrated our congregation’s commitment to climate justice in a public forum. Participating in events in other cities helped us build our network further – it’s fun to see some of the same people at climate events across North America! – and energized us by reminding us that we are part of a big movement.

Key action: Gather a small group together to join a local climate march.

02. Media engagement

Another way we engaged with the public was through media. Sharing our story in newspapers and magazines made our commitment to climate justice visible and potentially inspired others to act.

Some strategies that we found useful in attracting media attention:

  • We wrote our own press release on our church’s divestment motion and, immediately following our AGM, distributed it widely to a broad number of journalists and social media outlets.
  • We followed up, whenever possible with people we knew in media, asking them to consider writing a story about our action. It worked! Our first message from social media came the next day: “Congratulations on your leadership! You are the first faith community in the country to take this action!” Our first article in the Toronto Star came a month later, entitled “Wrecking the Climate is bad business.”

Other articles followed.

 

Why this worked: To quote CJG member Jeanne Moffat from a UC Observer article:

“What seems to be missing in the discussion around ways to address climate change is moral leadership. It’s time for courageous moral leadership. It’s time to send a signal to the fossil fuel industry that they’ve lost their social licence to operate in the way that they’ve been operating. Not doing anything is a violation of our call to justice as Christians.”

Sharing our work and commitment with the media was a way to send this message to the fossil fuel industry, and hopefully to inspire others to make the same commitment. It sends the message that it can be done, that it is being done, and invites others to join the movement.

Key actions:

  • Prepare a press release announcing your congregation’s divestment.
  • Identify any press contacts or connections held by members of your group.

03. Sharing expertise

Our public outreach and engagement with other groups meant that we were often asked to share our experience with other congregations and organizations interested in divestment. We eagerly volunteered to meet with these groups, eventually referring to our visits within and outside of Toronto as our “travelling roadshow.”

Typically, these visits would consist of sharing details of how we had built support for our work and had accomplished our divestment actions, responding to requests on how to work with the trustees of our congregational funds, and how to answer tough financial questions that always emerge.

Throughout 2014 and 2015, we took our roadshow to over a dozen groups, including churches from multiple denominations, church governing bodies, and university and community groups.
We also contributed to national online resources, including webinars on Building Support for Action and Addressing Trustee Concerns, and our own Climate Justice page on the TSP website.

 

Why this worked: Sharing our work with others was a great way to consolidate our learning and experiences, requiring us to reflect on what we’d done and what we’d recommend to others. The places we visited on our travelling roadshow became some of our closest strategic allies, and we were thrilled to watch congregations and organizations we’d visited divest!

Key action: Keep track of your successes and activities to make it easier to share with others if asked.

Extend the Reach of Divestment

When the CJG decided to focus its energy on divestment, we recognized that there were other great avenues to greening our congregation that we were temporarily placing on the backburner.

Meeting our divestment goal has allowed us to move forward with two other major foci: alternative investments and more work on greening our own church building.

01. Alternative investments

CJG member Walter Whiteley has compiled an extensive list of Alternative Investment resources for individuals and institutions aiming to invest in green and socially responsible funds. This resource has been widely distributed and is one of the most-visited pages on TSP’s website!

02. Greening our church building

A Green Initiatives Fund collects donations from members of our congregation; the fund is invested in green funds, and the principal and earnings are available for capital projects that will green our church building. (See the organization Greening Sacred Spaces for similar projects.)

We look forward to working on these and other projects as we move into our post-divestment future!