It’s Getting Hot in Here: One Soul’s Journey into Leadership for Climate Justice

It’s Getting Hot in Here:
One Soul’s Journey into Leadership for Climate Justice
by Rev. Fred Small

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
— Frederick Buechner

What happens when you heed a deeply felt call and the call takes you where you never imagined? What happens when you follow your dream and it doesn’t come true?

Was it really God calling at all?

In September 2014, in my sixteenth year of parish ministry, I had an idea about how to mobilize people of faith across religious boundaries as a public force for environmental and climate justice. The idea was to move religious environmentalism beyond personal lifestyle choices, beyond a green sanctuary, into the voting booth and into the corridors of political power.  

I called it the Creation Coalition. 

When I began to share the idea with religious and secular environmental leaders, the response was electric. People would hand me their business cards and ask me how they could help.

And then... church happened. 

Staff turnover, the pastoral and leadership demands of my congregation, a compelling proposal to convert our basement auditorium into a young adult homeless shelter—all the things that make parish ministry both rewarding and challenging asserted themselves. 

As I gave myself fully to the life of the church and its community, the only leadership I could offer the climate movement was to show up when someone issued me a personal invitation to an event—which isn’t really leadership at all. 

There was no time for the Creation Coalition.

In February 2015, delayed two days by one of the record snowstorms of that fierce Boston winter, I finally boarded a flight out of Logan Airport. I was determined to get to Asilomar, California for the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Institute, where I’d signed up for a workshop led by Joanna Macy, the revered Buddhist philosopher and activist.

As I contemplated what’s in store for our children’s children through the coming decades, I wept. I wept tears of shame at having done so little to avert it—to prevent the bad from getting worse, and the worse from becoming worse still.
— Rev. Fred Small

Macy paired us up and invited us to role-play someone from the present in conversation with someone in the year 2215—two hundred years from now. 

As I contemplated what’s in store for our children’s children through the coming decades, I wept. I wept tears of shame at having done so little to avert it—to prevent the bad from getting worse, and the worse from becoming worse still.

It was my first inkling that I might need to leave parish ministry, a job I loved.

Macy writes in her book Active Hope, “There may be a few times in our lifetime when we experience such a strong intuitive pull toward a course of action that we know it to be the right thing for us to do. Even when the odds seem against us, we feel these powerful summonings deep in our hearts and we are drawn to respond.”

She continues, explaining, “A larger story is taking place, and we’ve just chosen, or been chosen, to play a larger role in it.”

In May, I told my church board that, starting in September, I wanted to dedicate one day each week to working on climate justice. 

I didn’t ask them. I told them. Regrettably, I wasn’t very graceful about it.

Some were enthusiastic about the idea, some skeptical, some furious. But the more I discussed the plan with church leaders, the more I realized it wasn’t realistic.

My church needed a full-time minister, and I needed more than one day a week to get the Creation Coalition off the ground.

I subscribe to a daily reflection by Methodist minister Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Steve’s words on May 29, 2015 pierced my heart. He wrote, “God is creating more of you than you have yet brought forth. Each of us often feels a yearning, a swelling of our souls, a discomfort that may feel unwelcome but is something new and holy waiting to be born from within. This new birth will require pain and struggle, but will come.”

Two days later, preparing for worship, I selected at the last minute a prayer by Ted Loder, another Methodist minister. Since I’d used the prayer before, I didn’t bother to preview the whole thing. Reading it aloud in worship, I heard its closing words as if for the first time: “Breathe into me the restlessness and courage / to make something new, / something saving, / and something true / that I may understand what it is to rejoice.”

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Restlessness I already possessed. Did I have the courage “to make something new”?

I began to think: if only I had funding for the Creation Coalition, I’d resign from my church. But I’d never have time to fundraise while working as a parish minister.

Then I thought: if money is the only thing holding me at my church, my pastorate here is no longer a calling. It’s cowardice.

I prayed for wisdom. I offered my decision, and my life, to God. 

On the first of June, I had lunch in the North End with a distinguished New England conservationist. As I outlined my plans for the Creation Coalition, he grew animated. “This is an important idea,” he exclaimed. “This is a fundable idea.” Urging me to launch the Creation Coalition in multiple states, he promised to introduce me to decision-makers at top foundations who could make my dream a reality. 

He also cautioned me that quitting my day job before securing funding would not be “prudent.”

At work, I began to feel a heaviness in my heart, feeling called to the Creation Coalition but bound to my church. I felt I was living a lie, deceiving those who placed their trust in me.

Then, at Thursday morning Contemplative Prayer at Bethany House in Arlington, we were offered a reading from the Sufi mystic Hafiz as rendered by Daniel Ladinsky. It began, “Who can look each day at a beautiful landscape in the distance and not at some point want to explore it?” And continued, “It is good if something gnaws at your innards until you come to real terms with your potential. / God, like a flea, may bite some where to get your focus to shift.”

The flea had given me a good chomp, and the itching was becoming intolerable.

For decades, I’d marched in the Boston Pride parade. In all those years, I’d never attended the pre-Pride worship celebration at Arlington Street Church, where my colleague and old friend Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie presides. On Saturday, June 13, 2015 I joined the pre-Pride worship for the first time.

Most of the worship consisted of congregational singing—songs about courage and being true to yourself and others.

In the company of the faithful, I found myself singing the lyrics to “Brave” by Sara Bareilles: “Say what you wanna to say / And let the words fall out honestly / I want to see you be brave / With what you want to say / And let the words fall out.” 

As the exuberant rainbow-hued crowd spilled on to Boylston Street, my brain throbbed and my heart ached.

Brave? I was a coward, clinging to my job because I feared loss of income and status.

The truth was I’d only stay at my church long enough to get funding for the Creation Coalition. Meanwhile, I’d go through the motions of ministry, pretending that I’d still be there to execute all the grand plans my congregation and I made together.

I couldn’t do it.

They deserved whole-hearted ministry, which I could no longer provide. I had to resign.

As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.”

That night I talked with my wife, Julie, about leaving my job. I thought she’d be anxious about our finances. Instead, she exclaimed delightedly, “Now you can paint the bathroom!” We could just tighten our belts to get by on her income, she assured me, so anything I brought in would be gravy.

That night I awoke in the darkness terrified of what I was about to do. Reciting the 23rd Psalm calmed my spirit and returned me to sleep.

Early the next morning, I asked God for guidance.

Instantly I heard: “Take the next step.”

Then I heard: “Be as a child. You will be guided.”

That afternoon, I began informing church leaders that I would leave in the fall. Most were incredibly kind and supportive. A few were angry. Some said they were inspired by my courage in giving up a secure job to follow my calling.

The next Sunday, a devoted church lady beckoned me over and spoke softly but clearly into my ear: “Fred, if people are upset, it’s because you’ve done a really good job.”

Now there was no turning back.

I imagined myself clinging to the side of a high cliff, terrified by the fatal drop beneath me. I knew I should let go, but I couldn’t.

And then I did.

Plummeting to my death, I screamed.

And suddenly I was no longer falling. I was standing in something like heaven, welcomed by a being of light (was it God?), bathed in love.

In that moment, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of.

But fear was not done with me.

No sooner had I given notice at my church than two Wellesley women, Amy Benjamin and Lise Olney—energetic, savvy in electoral politics, and deeply concerned about climate—began to organize Massachusetts people of faith to respond politically to Pope Francis’s climate encyclical, Laudato Si’. They envisioned a multi-religious convocation as the springboard to a campaign of religious advocacy for a clean-energy legislative package. 

On October 12, 2015, over six hundred people crammed the sanctuary of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley for “Answering the Call: An Interfaith Gathering for Climate Action.” Less than a month later, two hundred religious activists brought our demand for a clean and just energy future to the Massachusetts State House. 

By then, the campaign had become an organization, the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or MAICCA (pronounced like “Micah,” the Hebrew prophet), and I was serving on its Leadership Team.

It would have been redundant and disrespectful to proceed with my vision for the Creation Coalition in Massachusetts when MAICCA was already organizing people of faith as a political force for climate. Half of the leaders I would have invited to my leadership circle were on MAICCA’s.

I was thrilled that MAICCA had emerged to take the lead in this work. And I was panicked when I saw no path forward for the Creation Coalition in Massachusetts.

There was another path: to launch the Creation Coalition in other states. This would require hundreds of thousands of dollars in foundation and private funding. But if I truly believed in my vision and was passionate in its pursuit, I could raise the money.

Couldn’t I?

As it turned out, I couldn’t.

I had envisioned the Creation Coalition in the fall of 2014. It was now the winter of 2016. In the intervening sixteen months, the political—and religious—landscape had changed. 

Over 300,000 people had massed in New York City for the People’s Climate March. President Obama had spiked the Keystone XL pipeline and announced the Clean Power Plan. Pope Francis had framed the climate crisis in starkly moral terms in Laudato Si’, which was resonating powerfully beyond Catholicism across the religious spectrum.

National organizations like Interfaith Power & Light and Green Faith, which for years had concentrated on supporting congregations to become more energy efficient, were turning their attention increasingly to the political realm. 

In state after state, people of faith were beginning to demand political action on climate. In neighboring New Hampshire, Seacoast Interfaith Stewards of the Earth were pursuing a political agenda. In Florida, evangelical Christians were declaring that addressing climate change was pro-life. In Georgia, the Green Tea Coalition was fighting for solar power.

Instead of being welcomed gratefully in states like these, the Creation Coalition would be viewed suspiciously as an interloper.

Meanwhile, it was gradually and ruefully dawning on me that I was not the person to launch a national nonprofit.

In late October, I attended a program at Kripalu, the beautiful yoga and retreat center in Lenox, Massachusetts, called “Unleash Your Calling: Create the Work and Life You Love!” It was led by Tama Kieves, a spiritual teacher disguised as a career coach, who’d written a terrific book titled Inspired & Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in Your Life’s Work.

I was already inspired. I came to Kripalu to become unstoppable.

Instead, I was stopped.

On the first day, Tama asked us, “What do you really want to do?”

It was an obvious question. My answer, obviously, was, “I want to launch the Creation Coalition.”

Except it wasn’t.

The answer from my heart was: I want to be a monk.

A monk? I can’t be a monk! The earth is on fire. Being a monk, withdrawing from the world, would be the height of selfishness.

Besides, I have a wife and daughter I love. I’m not going to be a monk.

Still, acknowledging my monastic impulse rang the death knell of my great plans for the Creation Coalition. It would take me weeks before I fully understood the sound resonating in my consciousness.

To build a national organization ex nihilo, I would need to be a Master of the Universe. I didn’t feel like one and didn’t want to become one. The skills I would need—fundraising, grant-writing, budget-writing—were skills I lacked and which didn’t interest me. 

I’m a thinker, a speaker, a writer, sometimes a singer. Spiritually, I’m a mystic. Temperamentally, I’m an introvert.

I’m not an entrepreneur.

This was a humbling realization. 

A child of privilege, I had excelled at the best schools—prep school, Ivy League, graduate schools. I had been prepared, groomed, for leadership. Making a significant contribution to society was not only assumed: it was expected. Part of my excitement about the Creation Coalition, I admitted to myself with embarrassment, was that it represented my big (and probably last) chance to achieve the greatness I subconsciously believed to be both my birthright and my duty.

Maybe it was time to consider a more modest contribution, to redefine greatness as faithfulness—and humility.

Ego aside (is ego ever aside?), I wanted to make big change—change commensurate with the enormity of the climate crisis, or at least enough to make a significant contribution. If I failed to rise to this challenge, wasn’t I being selfish, small-minded, accepting limits I should be shattering? Couldn’t I do anything I set my mind to?

In theory, perhaps. In practice, no—not in mine, anyway. 

Every time I thought about writing a business plan, a logic model, a theory of change—let alone a budget—my heart sank. Instead of being lit up by my new enterprise, my spirit turned cold.

My personality, it turns out, is not infinitely elastic. I need a vocation that not only calls me, but also fits me.

“Don’t ask what the world needs,” counseled Howard Thurman, theologian and spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I care what the world needs. But I seek to serve it in a way that enlivens me, not in a way that deadens me.

I felt I was spinning in a coracle, with no destination or compass, surrendering to the Holy Spirit—or was it to the vagaries of wind and tide?
— Rev. Fred Small

If I let go of the Creation Coalition, what would I do instead? 

Centuries ago, the story goes, early Celtic saints would put to sea in a coracle, a round, shallow, rudderless boat.  Trusting utterly in the Holy Spirit to guide them, they carried no paddle.

Some were never seen again. 

Others, eventually cast ashore, founded thriving Christian communities.

I felt I was spinning in a coracle, with no destination or compass, surrendering to the Holy Spirit—or was it to the vagaries of wind and tide?

My daily meditation practice was my anchor.

As I walked in meditation on a field in Waltham, a large and beautiful dragonfly appeared suddenly, alighted briefly on my chest, flew off and circled about, and then rested upon my thigh for at least two minutes.

What message did it have for me? I asked.

“Hang in there,” came the answer.

The dragonfly, a Google search revealed, is a symbol for change, particularly change in regards to perspective shifting or self realization. It seems that people around the world have associated the dragonfly with the casting out of illusions and the revelation of the true self.

Meditating at Bethany House, returning my mind again to silence after the usual mental chatter, I felt a sense of spaciousness and ease. I recognized it as something rare: enoughness.

I was enough.

I am enough.

And I wept.

In one of her books, Tama Kieves invites the reader to describe an upsetting situation first with the voice of the inner critic, then with the voice of love. 

My inner critic: “You’ve bitten off far more than you can chew, quitting your job on the assumption that you could start a major organization from scratch and get paid for it. Now your family finances teeter on the slender reed of your getting funding. Your quitting was an act of arrogance and grandiosity, and now you’re stuck without a community or paycheck and dubious prospects of employment.”

Love: “You left your church following the voice of spirit to make a bigger difference for climate justice. It was an act of tremendous courage and selflessness. You continue to heed the voice of spirit as you gather your resources, inner and outer, for a great push for climate justice. You are a servant leader offering your gifts to the world, at considerable personal risk. I’m proud of you, and I love you. I will always be with you.”

When I let myself feel all my fear, I cried out to God, “Please help me!”

“I will,” came the immediate reply.

“How?” I demanded.

“By showing you your true self.”

In an instant I felt myself rising through the air, flying above the houses and treetops, soaring upward into the sky, traversing the universe, shooting past galaxies, witnessing the birth and death of stars.

That kind of put things in perspective.

My wife was incredibly supportive. “It’s never a mistake to take a risk to do something you really care about,” she said. “You will apply your gifts and skills to the climate movement,” she told me, “and you will make a difference.” 

It’s just a matter of finding where I can be of best use. My job now is “to play and to learn,” she counseled me.

I felt deeply grateful to have this time to discern next steps, without the press of financial need, with Julie’s unstinting support.

Passing through Central Square in Cambridge, my eyes fell upon a colorful cover in the window of Seven Stars, a local bookshop. The book was Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. A glance at a single chapter compelled me to buy it because it perfectly captured how I felt—and how I no longer felt—about the Creation Coalition.

The chapter is titled “An Idea Goes Away.”

Gilbert describes how she lost faith in a writing project whose time had come and gone and how she made meaning of the loss. She explains the feeling of grief, writing, “The sentient force that inhabits all vibrant creative endeavors had vanished.” Further articulating this, she writes, “I was looking at nothing but the empty husk of what had once been a warm and pulsating entity.” 

Inspiration comes and goes, Gilbert explains. “If inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you, it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you,” she writes. “[T]he best you can hope for in that situation is to let your old idea go and catch the next idea that comes around. And the best way for that to happen is to move on swiftly, with humility and grace.”

With both sorrow and relief, Imoved on from the Creation Coalition.

I still think it’s a powerful vision. But it’s not mine to realize.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” wrote St. Paul to the Corinthians, “and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all of them in everyone.” (1 Corinthians 12, English Standard Version)

In February 2016, four months after leaving my church, I was offered the position of Director of Faith Outreach at Climate Xchange, a nonprofit that advocates for carbon-pricing legislation in Massachusetts. My job—20 hours a week—is to organize people of faith to support a fee on carbon, coupled with a flat rebate for every Massachusetts resident. Meeting with faith-based activists and state legislators is exciting work that uses my gifts well.

The same month, the board of Arlington Street Church unanimously approved my affiliation as a community minister. My title will be Minister for Climate Justice. I’ll preach and lead worship occasionally, and Arlington Street will be my home base as I advocate for climate justice as an itinerant preacher, speaker, songleader, and workshop facilitator.

Meanwhile, I plan to train as a spiritual director, so I can better companion others on their spiritual journeys—and deepen my own.

If I’m not going to launch the Creation Coalition, why did I leave my church? 

Clearly I was ready to enter a new stage of my life and ministry. But I was so focused on the world’s deep hunger that I lost track of my heart’s deep gladness.

The inner voice that summoned me out of parish ministry never said, “Start the Creation Coalition.” 

It said, “Take the next step.”

Robert Jonas compares the journey of discernment to tacking when sailing into the wind, zig-zagging in order to reach our destination. “We may set our goals and have a rough idea of our position, but conditions are always changing, both within and outside us,” he writes. “As we discern out way, we move our attention between inner and outer experience, adjusting and correcting our course as needed.”

For now, I’ve abandoned my coracle for a sailboat—more seaworthy, more dependable, but still at the mercy of the awesome power of wind and wave. My nautical skills are improving, but they’re no substitute for prayer, patience, an experienced crew, wet-weather gear—and a life jacket.

Rabbi and poet Norman Hirsh writes:

Once or twice in a lifetime
[We] may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha—Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming. §

 

 

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Rev. Fred Small is a Unitarian Universalist minister, singer-songwriter, and former environmental lawyer. He is the Minister for Climate Justice at Arlington Street Church in Boston and the Director of Faith Outreach for Climate XChange. Cited by Bill McKibben as “one of the key figures in the religious environmental surge,” Fred recently left parish ministry to devote his energies to climate justice.