Colorado Congregation Opts for Greener Energy System

Nearly a decade ago, people at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, noticed that the radiant heat system in the church’s floors had begun to fail, and the water bill began to rise. Water was discovered leaking through basement walls, and an investigation showed some 15,000 gallons of water being wasted per billing cycle.

An attempt was made to fix the leaks, which proved temporarily helpful; however, it was a costly solution. As soon as one leak was fixed, another would pop up. This combined with the fact that the sanctuary had no cooling system prompted the property committee and Church Council to investigate other options and building upgrades. The final straw came around Thanksgiving in 2007 when the heating system nearly quit altogether. Shortly after Christmas that year, 80 percent of the church—including the sanctuary—had lost heat.

According to the Rev. Arlyn Tolzmann, former pastor at Holy Cross, members of the congregation began talking about the issue on Sundays. “We had two or three adult forums [on the topic]. We also had a health expert come in, so we were aware of [the need for] healthy living,” he said. “[The effort to find a solution to the church’s energy issue] was very grassroots. People in their own discussions, Bible studies, or Sunday school classes…it all came together.”

After extensive research, the congregation made it through the winter and in May 2008 voted to switch to geothermal energy, a move that cost much more than other solutions but was more environmentally friendly. It was also decided that the church needed new ceilings, floors, and T8 lighting to become greener. Plus it planned to remodel two bathrooms and redo its parking lot.

“I felt for the long run [that geothermal] was the way to go,” said Pastor Tolzmann. “I let the experts handle all the questions, because we had some in the congregation.”

One expert and church member was Jack Major of Major Heating, a local company founded by Major’s father in 1970 to provide energy-efficient and environmentally friendly heating and cooling systems. Major Heating was awarded the contract to install the geothermal energy system in the congregation.

“From May to November [2008], the entire church was torn apart including the ceilings, floors, walls, parking lot, and lighting,” said Major. “During this time, no services—[even when] there were Sundays when it was in the 40s inside—were missed or rescheduled. The entire church stayed open and became the talk of the town.”

To install the geothermal heating and cooling system, one large task involved tearing up the existing parking lot and digging 28 bore holes that were each 400 feet deep. The average temperature at 400 feet deep there was 54 degrees, so the system raises that temperature slightly in the winter and in the summer merely spreads it around the building.

The geothermal project in addition to some energy-efficient upgrades cost $1.2 million. “We didn’t bring anybody in from the outside to run a capital drive. We just kind of did our own thing.” said Pastor Tolzmann. “Over $100,000 came in quite quickly. There is a Going Green project (continuing to raise money for this work).”

“The ELCA Mission Investment Fund funded our program,” said Pastor Tolzmann. “That’s where the loan is from. We were certainly the first ELCA congregation in Colorado that went geothermal and probably the first in the Rocky Mountain Synod. I give great credit to the Mission Investment Fund for having the nerve, the courage, and the faith to say ‘this is important for us. Let’s see how this works.’”

The new geothermal energy system went online one week before Thanksgiving 2008, when it started to turn really cold. ““The system is working very well, and the church is very comfortable,” said Major.

“I was one of these people who was looking down the road, and I don’t think the energy shortage was any secret,” said Pastor Tolzmann. “And so I voiced my support for what really was a grassroots effort within the congregation. It was wonderful. The seeds were planted by people in our congregation who were passionate about energy in the present and the future and what kind of carbon footprint we had.”

“We made this decision for the environmental impact [out of] Christian stewardship,” said Pastor Tolzmann. “We knew it wasn’t going to pay back the cost of doing this during a lot of people’s lifetime at the church. That would have happened after 20-plus years. But we’ve got to take care of [the earth], because this is all God’s. It’s not ours.”

Pastor Tolzmann and members of Holy Cross weren’t worried about how they would eventually pay for everything. They knew they had a strong foundation upon which to build. “The nice thing about Holy Cross is that when there was a need the congregation always rose to meet it,” said Pastor Tolzmann.

When asked what congregations can do to become more green, Pr. Tolzmann identified the following suggestions:

  • Hold adult forums, Sunday school classes, Bible studies on environmental topics and explain the importance of caring for God’s creation.
  • Pastors can preach about total stewardship, not just financially but about how people live their lives and are stewards of their time, gifts, and other aspects of daily life.
  • Invite electric and gas companies to visit congregation, perhaps as part of adult forum or Sunday school or fellowship hour; ask for free energy audit.
  • Determine whether there are reputable local heating or energy firms if the congregation decides to have work done.
  • Learn the difference between geothermal, wind-powered, photovoltaic, and other kinds of energies.
  • Start a Green Team in your congregation.
  • Seek out experts in your congregation or community who can talk about ways to reduce your congregation’s carbon footprint.
"It doesn’t take a committee of 25 people to get a congregation passionate about recycling, reusing, composting, [and caring for creation],” said Pastor Tolzmann. “It just takes a few."

Lutherans Restoring Creation (LRC) is a grassroots movement within the ELCA seeking to foster care for God's good creation in all expressions of the church's life and mission. LRC is supported by grants from ELCA World Hunger and the Lutheran Community Foundation.

[Photo of digging ditches beneath the parking lot surface to install new pipes by Jack Major]