Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church


MVUC-churchMt. Vernon Unitarian Church (MVUC) is a mid-sized congregation, with about 335 members, located in Alexandria, Virginia. Green Team Leaders Suzanne Cleary, Bill and Lynn Alsmeyer-Johnson, and Georgeta Pourchot told us about their work to green their church.

What is your proudest green achievement at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church?

Our proudest achievement was receiving Green Sanctuary Certification from the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 2008. The certification process took about five years to complete, since it touched on every aspect of the congregation’s life, including religious education programming, environmental justice initiatives, worship related activities, and greening the congregation’s buildings and grounds.

A highlight was the watershed improvement project that the congregation undertook in partnership with, and with funding from, Fairfax County, Virginia.  Since the congregation’s seven-acre property sits at the highest point of the county, restricting the flow of water through the church’s grounds impacts not only on MVUC’s land, but the surrounding neighborhoods as well, and ultimately the Potomac River.  Recently MVUC also studied the links between ethical eating and environmental justice, ultimately creating a church cookbook. And green approaches were used in the new kitchen and expanded Commons.

However, the most important result was the building—and continual strengthening—of a congregational culture of care for the Earth:  we believe this has carried over into congregants’ homes and has enriched MVUC’s impact on the wider community.

How did you make this happen?

All this change and community impact began small, with a group that met regularly from 2001 to 2003 to learn about—and later implement—“responsible consumption” at home and at church.  This group became the Green Sanctuary Task Force and spearheaded the Green Sanctuary Certification process at MVUC.  The Green Team worked closely with church leadership and highly respected, long-time members and opinion leaders within the congregation.

MVUC_Rain_GardenWe also linked with a number of community partners to leverage the church’s efforts.  These included: Interfaith Power and Light (DC.MD.NoVA), which assisted with the church’s energy audit for the certification project, as well as participating in annual green informational fairs; multiple branches of the Fairfax County government, which gave MVUC a $60,000 grant to carry out its watershed improvements and featured MVUC in Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation publications; the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation; the National Wildlife Federation, which helped the church gain wildlife habitat certification for its grounds; Lands and Waters, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to watershed protection and education; and finally, Virginia Tech landscape architecture professor Terry Clements, who worked with the church and with landscape architecture students to develop a watershed improvement plan. The church publicized these activities through various local media publications.

What is most rewarding about the green initiatives at MVUC?

MVUC-solar personWe’re pleased that MVUC has developed an energetic, thorough, and impactful greening approach.  MVUC’s green initiatives have raised the consciousness of the congregation while benefitting the wider community.  As evidence of the evolution of environmental consciousness within the MVUC community, early discussions of installing a green roof on the main church building met with resistance. After several years of green activities at MVUC, the green roof concept was a “no-brainer” the second time around.  Although a green roof ultimately was not found suitable for the church, MVUC welcomed the installation of solar panels. The church’s state-of-the-art solar photovoltaic panels and geothermal heat pump system have not only greened the church’s building and saved energy, but have led to events to showcase these technologies for the wider community to consider replicating.

What are the next three green things you would like to do to respond to climate change?

The congregation is increasing its expertise and efforts in lobbying at the state and federal level. MVUC is considering repeating the Green Sanctuary Certification process, intending to raise the level of green commitment still higher and to involve a new contingent of Green Leaders in the sacred task of caring for the Earth. MVUC also has an upcoming Green Fair in April.

What is your advice for other green team leaders?

First, get your congregation’s clergy and opinion leaders solidly behind the effort.  Second, involve your community’s youngsters.  Third, include services and events that involve the entire congregation rather than a green group that handles environmental issues for the whole congregation. Fourth, and most important, stay positive (and when the going gets rough, think of the children). Finally, never give up!

IPL-DMV worked closely with MVUC to identify opportunities for energy efficiency upgrades and provided the Green Team additional technical and moral support throughout their Green Sanctuary Certification and solar project. Want support on your congregation’s next green initiative? Email!