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Churches going green

From swapping out light bulbs to building raised beds, faith communities throughout Chattanooga are changing their houses of worship and grounds to make them more environmentally friendly.

Various area church members said that, unlike energy upgrades at home, renovating houses of worship presents particular challenges. For example, the biggest challenge, and perhaps the biggest energy user in a church building, is the sanctuary.

At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the church green team pushed for replacing lights in the sanctuary with LED ones. Even a small change like that is difficult, requiring the church to bring in a special lift to reach the bulbs nested in the high-vaulted ceiling, said Bruce Blohm, a member of the St. Paul's green team.

The sizes of sanctuaries makes them expensive to heat and cool, as well as renovate, said Christian Shackelford, green|spaces Empower Chattanooga program director. Shackelford has visited churches in the area to identify potential changes. Around a dozen church leaders and members gathered in green|spaces last week for a presentation by Shackelford.

Common advice for those renovating a home would be to ensure air is not leaking around windows, Shackelford said. But in churches, renovating stained-glass windows is practically impossible, he said.

However, challenges like those should not dissuade churches from pursuing other changes, Shackelford said. Houses of worship can be powerful examples in their community for being more environmentally friendly.

Around 2014, members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church formed their green team, which today includes around a dozen people. The group completed an energy audit with EPB to document their high-usage times and has been pushing for changes to the building since, Blohm said.

"It's a critical mass of people who feel that it so aligns with our faith we had to do something," he said.

Along with replacing the sanctuary lights, the team has installed LED lights throughout the building and a motion-detected lighting system in the church offices. Bathroom faucets have been upgraded to curb usage and the church has replaced its boiler system with a more efficient one, Blohm said.

In 2015, the church started a sweet potato growing project that now has about 50 pots growing plants throughout the area, Blohm said. Once harvested, the potatoes are donated to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

Grace Episcopal Church has a similar focus on urban gardening. Since 2011, the church off Brainerd Road has installed and rented out 23 raised beds to the community to grow flowers and vegetables. The gardening area also has a free bed for people to harvest whatever is grown there, said Kristina Shaneyfelt, co-chairperson of the church grounds committee.

The church focused its attention on the space around the building because there is little green space in the community and building adjustments are expensive, Shaneyfelt said. The church is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and is adding tree diversity to be an accredited arboretum, she said.

"Our intention is to use native trees, use native plants to restore an ecosystem into our space and into our ground," Shaneyfelt said. " "We believe that earth care is part of our call, not just people care."

The Unitarian Universalist Church has saved more than $1,700 since May 2014 when the church installed solar panels on its roof, said Sandy Kurtz, who helped lead the project. The church remains the one local house of worship with solar panels.

Potential savings from changes made to the Chattanooga Friends Meeting building are too soon to measure, said Kate Anthony, Chattanooga Friends clerk. Several months ago, Shackelford from green|spaces visited the Quaker building and identified changes, such as better insulating outlets and windows.

The changes had strong support from members, Anthony said.

"We are mostly environmentalists, and we feel very strongly about stewardship for the creation and trying to reduce our carbon footprint," she said.

The area around the church is heavily wooded, so installing solar panels was not an option, Anthony said. Instead, the Quakers bought into the Solar Share program with EPB that allows residents and businesses to support solar panels in the area.

The other changes the church has made are smaller and easy for anyone to do, Anthony said, such as not using disposable dishes and flatware at their potlucks.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.