La Mesa United Methodist Church, La Mesa, California
La Mesa United Methodist Church in La Mesa, California is the 2022 winner of the Renewable Role Model category of Interfaith Power & Light’s Cool Congregations Challenge for their courage as a small group of people with a large historic building to successfully persuade the congregation that was declining in numbers to take on a large loan to install solar. The financial payback will be reached in only seven years and the congregation is now able to turn funds towards other energy saving upgrades to their facility and additional outreach to their community. IPL congratulates La Mesa United Methodist Church!
“This first place award for La Mesa First United Methodist Church is exciting and so humbling,” said the church’s pastor, Rev. Christian DeMent. “We’re seeing the climate crisis can no longer be a problem that is kicked down the road for later action. I’m grateful that our trustees and congregation saw the urgency of this situation; especially as it affected the disadvantaged who suffer most from climate-related catastrophes. If our church can make these hard decisions, maybe others can learn by example and take concrete steps that make a difference.”
Read their inspiring story in the words of Debbie McDaniel-Lindsey, member of the congregation:
La Mesa First United Methodist Church, celebrated its 125th birthday in 2020. All our buildings are old: the Social Hall will celebrate its 100th birthday this year, the Sanctuary was built in the late 50s, and the Education building was built before that. All three buildings have been designated historical buildings by the city of La Mesa which has presented its own restrictions on changes that have been allowed. Along with its age has come the acceptance that the insulation of windows, walls and an attic was not up to 21st century standards, there were failing electrical fixtures throughout the facility and two of the buildings had unrepairable roofs. At the same time that our Trustees faced these daunting building challenges, they faced a congregation that was declining in numbers, a demographic that leaned older and a public utility system that was increasing its fees.
The Trustees began with some easier, less-expensive decisions. Double-paned windows were installed throughout the Education building and the Social Hall. Then in 2016 the Church began the transition to totally replacing all the incandescent bulbs with LED lighting. This was completed in November 2016 at a total cost of $43,788.00. A total of 173 lights were converted to LED lights. In 2020 we converted all exterior lighting including to the “labyrinth” and the “uplit” palm trees.
Because of the central location of our church, pre-pandemic we hosted regular community meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Community Collaboratives, and La Mesa City Council Candidates’ forums, musical concerts, homeless outreach and a large preschool during the weekdays. In 2019 both the roofs of the Education building and the Social Hall had to be addressed. After investigating alternatives the Trustees found that by installing a new roof with solar panels, we would pay no more than what we were already paying just for electricity. Again, because of the old nature of our buildings we were forced to renovate, but thoughtfully our Trustees followed the United Methodist Council of Bishops letter to “incorporate climate stewardship, reducing the use of fossil fuels into the design of facilities, and reduce the carbon footprint of meetings.” We also benefited from our location in the state of California where the mandate to reduce energy consumption and move to renewable sources has been actively promoted and supported.
There are 156 panels over the two roofs of the Education building and the Social Hall at a total cost of $176, 941.00. The church membership took out a loan which allowed it to make an annual payment of $15,098.00 for 25 years, with a payout available at the end of year 7. This annual payment was less than our SDG&E budget for electricity in a typical year. The work was completed in March, 2020.
In fact our utility bill has dropped to almost $0.00 with the exception of fees and charges. There are no more electric bills. The yearly payment for the new roofs and solar equivalent is what we were paying in electric bills. We will pay off the note entirely after 7 years and not go the full 25 years of payment. Although COVID has delayed some plans, the trustees found the resources to fund a new HV/AC system and installed insulation above the ceiling tiles for both sound and temperature insulation in the Social Hall. The ceiling tiles themselves have an “R” rating for insulation, but to improve on that would be a positive step. Our success at marrying building necessity with choices that have saved us money has allowed us to apply that money to new projects that are environmentally beneficial and that support the congregants’ involvement in community outreach. As the COVID restrictions are lifted we have been able to resume our homeless outreach, a modified preschool enrollment, and some limited use of the Social Hall. As is true of many congregations, ours is having to look outward towards the neighborhood to bring new faces, new partners, and new activities into our buildings. If the Trustees had not made these cost-savings decisions we would certainly not be in a position to be entering into these new possibilities.
Our United Methodist Women members have been attending the JustEnergy4All webinars to learn how faith communities can work at the local and national level to reduce carbon emissions. Researching how our Trustees and church has taken concrete steps in this regard energized a small group to begin an Earth Care Ministry. We’ve been meeting for 1 year now and have engaged our larger church community in a variety of projects, including community gardening, sending comments to the county Board of Supervisors to develop equitable transportation in their new 5 year plan, community clean ups and discussions after showing films on a climate change topic.
The lessons we could share with others are that small groups within one’s own church have great ideas for reducing carbon emissions and they might be driven by different forces pushing or pulling them at different times. There is no one correct path or set timetable for a church to follow, but being mindful of possibilities and seizing critical moments can energize a wider set of members when they are invited to participate.
For more information contact Debbie at debmcdaniel at gmail.com