Churches cut utility costs, care for earth

1/31/2011

6:00 A.M. EST January 26, 2011 | COLUMBIA, Mo. (UMNS)

The Rev. Neal Lassinger, senior pastor at North Cross United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Mo., checks the pressure and temperature for the building’s new geothermal heating and cooling system. UMNS photos by Tom Schmutz.
The Rev. Neal Lassinger, senior pastor at North Cross United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Mo., checks the pressure and temperature for the building’s new geothermal heating and cooling system. UMNS photos by Tom Schmutz.
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When high utility bills for an outdated, inefficient heating and cooling system skyrocket, what does an aging, congregation do?

It can ignore the situation, or, as North Cross United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Mo., did, it can think ahead and prepare for future generations.

“It can be a little challenging to sell a congregation on spending $750,000 on their facility, and when the work is all done, they won’t actually see anything that’s different,” admitted the Rev. Neal Lassinger.

That was the position in which North Cross Church found itself. Averaging 350 in worship, it is an older congregation, with many on a fixed income.

In 2009, the church spent $20,400 on electricity and $13,600 on gas. A new ground-source system would save the church an estimated $13,000 a year. The newest component of North Cross’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system was more than 20 years old; the oldest boilers were more than 50 years old.

To replace the entire system with traditional gas forced-air furnaces and air conditioning units would cost $700,000. Going to a highly efficient ground-source system would add $50,000 but would save on utility expenses and be environmentally friendly.

Added security would be another bonus. In one year, the church lost three outside air-conditioning units to theft. Vandals tore the units apart and took $100 worth of copper, leaving behind a broken air conditioner that cost several thousand dollars to replace. With a new system, everything outside would be underground.

Spending $750,000 to upgrade the heating and air conditioning made good, practical sense for North Cross. That did not necessarily make it an easy sell.

“I was asking people to give, sacrificially, tons of money,” Lassinger said.

To face that challenge, North Cross turned to a church financial-consulting firm.

Investing in the future

Rather than reducing the project, the consultant said, make it bigger. Add visible appeal. Replace the old aluminum, single-pane windows with thermal glass. Repaint the sanctuary, and install new flooring in the fellowship hall. Rebuild the cross tower. These additions raised the project cost to $1.2 million, but tackled maintenance issues while making the project more sellable.

Tom Schmutz, building committee chair, and Larry Wickham, a retired architect and lay leader, visited Sunday school classes to present the plan.

The cross tower at North Cross United Methodist Church is being rebuilt to repair deterioration and to add the cross-and-flame denominational emblem.
The cross tower at North Cross United Methodist Church is being rebuilt to repair deterioration and to add the cross-and-flame denominational emblem. View in Photo Gallery

“When people asked questions, we had the answers ready,” Wickham said. “That instilled a sense of confidence.”

“I advocated for a three-year capital campaign, so we wouldn’t be handcuffing the future of the church,” Lassinger said. “We went from, ‘How can we finance this?’ to ‘How can we do this?’”

The “first fruits” offering, received the Sunday after Easter 2010, brought in $210,000. By January 2011, Lassinger said, the church had received about half of the $1.1 million pledged.

He believes the congregation is investing in the future.

“This will make the operating expenses of the church cheaper, as the congregation transitions to younger families,” Schmutz said.

“We will be able to put our money into ministry rather than maintenance,” Wickham added.

“A positive side effect of this project is that people have been taking more pride in our building, and they want to do more,” Lassinger said.

The system runs on a large, centralized control system, and every room connects to the networked computer server in the office. A schedule is set for the heating and cooling of specific rooms. Thermostats in each room can manually override the central controls, but within temperate and time limits.

Although many government-sponsored incentives for making energy improvements exist, most are in the form of tax credits or refunds. The church does not pay taxes, so it did not qualify.

Wickham enjoyed seeing the aging facility updated with the latest technology to prepare the church for the future.

“People who were skeptical at first got excited, and were anxiously asking, ‘When are you going to start?’”

Finding big savings with small changes

While North Cross’ HVAC and other improvements were, perhaps, the most drastic in the Missouri Annual (regional) Conference, several other congregations have taken steps to save money for mission — and conserve God’s earth.

Members of Court Street United Methodist Church in Fulton, Mo., for example, found big savings with a small change.

Jackie Whiston reads in the hall at North Cross United Methodist Church.
Jackie Whiston reads in the hall at
North Cross United Methodist Church.
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“Two years ago, we simply moved the thermostat from the boiler room to the sanctuary, and the savings has been unbelievable,” said the Rev. Diane Loomis.

A member of Lawson (Mo.) United Methodist Church who owns a HVAC business donated seven-day programmable thermostats to run the church’s heating and cooling system. The church saved an estimated $1,000 in two years.

Leaders at Fairview United Methodist Church in Columbia signed up the church and the parsonage for a free energy audit.

At the parsonage, it was discovered that the furnace and air conditioning filters needed to be changed. This simple step helped the system operate more efficiently, but the church also replaced the old furnace and air conditioner with newer models, which improved the quality of life for the pastor’s family, as well as being more energy efficient.

Meanwhile, the church registered for a program by which the city could control the air conditioner during peak-usage periods. As a result, the church saved 5 percent on all electric bills.

“This was a no-brainer, after (we realized) that peak usage occurred on weekday afternoons, when our church was almost always empty,” said Patrick Cronan, who was on the board of trustees at Fairview at the time. “I would encourage every church to sign up for an energy audit.”

It all boils down to caring for God’s creation.

“This means we’re doing a better job of being stewards of the earth,” said Tom Schmutz of North Cross United Methodist Church. “It is what we are called to do.”

*Koenig is the editor of the biweekly Missouri Conference Review and the quarterly Bridges. His office is in Columbia, Mo. This article was adapted from the Nov. 26, 2010, Missouri Conference Review.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.