Investment and the Church conference raises tough questions on fossil fuels

A group of Episcopalians is urging the Diocese of Massachusetts to vote with its dollars on the issue of climate change, sparking many conversations about the intersection of church investments and fossil fuels. It's part of a wider debate going on in universities, municipalities and faith communities: if an organization wishes to take a moral stand on climate change, should it make a statement by divesting completely from fossil fuels, or keep the investments and enact shareholder activism from the inside? 

This debate was at the center of the Investment and the Church Conference on Oct. 12, collaboratively sponsored by the Trustees of Donations and Episcopal City Mission (ECM).  About 50 Episcopalians gathered at Christ Church in Needham for the day of education and conversation, all surrounding the question of how the church’s investments should play a role in caring for creation. 

“I was encouraged to see so many people engaged so intensely around this issue of fossil fuels and care for creation,” said Ruy Costa, Executive Director of ECM. There were presenters and participants from both sides of the debate.  “[These are] people who have given their time to build the assets of the church, and people who have given their time to make those assets work in a fashion that is consistent with the teaching of the church…and they don’t necessarily see things the same way,” said Costa.

“It was wonderful to see ECM, the Trustees of Donations and the diocese collaborate on an issue that is so important from a theological as well as ecological point of view,” said the Rev. Canon Mally Lloyd, Canon to the Ordinary, who attended the conference. 

The objective of the conference was to gauge interest in a fossil fuel-free fund that could be established by the Diocesan Investment Trust. “The conference provided participants with a deep dive into the issues, and explored what goes into creating a best-in-class category for investments,” said Richard Blakney, Investment Coordinator for the Trustees of Donations. “I think people who attended left with an understanding of the nexus of investing and climate change, and the information to decide how as investors they can best address the issue.” 

The catalyst for the Investment and the Church conference was a resolution that will come before the Diocesan Convention on Nov. 2. The resolution calls for the Trustees of Donations to freeze all direct investments in the Carbon Tracker top 200 fossil fuel companies and to research investments in alternative energy companies.  Divesting from fossil fuels is a national movement that has gained momentum in recent years: Several universities are purging fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios, and Cambridge, Northampton and Provincetown have committed to divesting city funds from fossil fuels. The United Church of Christ has also voted to divest its assets from fossil fuels.   

If the resolution passes, the Trustees of Donations and all parishes and institutional investors of the diocese will need to decide how to respond. According to Blakney, one option may be creating two funds—one that holds some investments in best-in-class fossil fuel companies and one that is completely free of fossil fuel investments.  

Episcopal City Mission has no investments in fossil fuels. Costa said he would like to see the diocese and other religious organizations follow suit. 

“Some people say explicitly that the job of the trustees is to generate income so the church can do its work, and not get involved in politics,” said Costa. “That position expresses a presumption of innocence, that money is innocent…that we make money and we do good work with the money, as if the way we make the money doesn’t matter. That’s why ECM is inviting people to think about what they do with their money…not only charity but how we make money.”

Those on the shareholder activism side of the debate argue that divesting from fossil fuels does not affect fossil fuel companies, and that it is better to keep the shares—and therefore a voice in the corporation—than to shed them entirely. Advocates of shareholder activism argue that divesting entirely from fossil fuels will have little impact as long as the vast majority of Americans still rely on fossil fuels in so many other aspects of life and business, from utilities to transportation. 

The conference opened with a keynote by Laura Berry, the executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. After the keynote, attendees participated in break-out sessions about tools for socially responsible investing, and then listened to a debate between Bob Massie (on the side of divestment) and Tim Smith (on the side of shareholder activism). The day closed with a panel discussion among Berry, Massie, Smith and other experts on socially responsible investing. 

Massie is the former president of Ceres, a network of companies, investors and public interest groups that works to expand sustainable business practices and build a healthy global economy. He is a vocal activist in the national movement for universities, churches and other organizations to divest entirely from fossil fuels.  

Smith is the former executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of shareholders who are dedicated to using their investments to advocate sustainability and corporate responsibility. He is a specialist in sustainable and responsible investing, and is currently the senior vice president and director of the environmental, social and governance group at Walden Asset Management. The Ethisphere Institute named Smith one of the top 100 most influential people in business ethics. 

Costa noted that it is the advocates for divestment who created the demand for a conference on socially responsible investing in the church. 

“This event would not be happening if there were not a number of Episcopalians calling for divestment,” said Costa. “That to me speaks volumes about the value of that position.  If divestment is going to be effective, we need to build a movement around it…and people like Bob Massie are saying, O.K., let’s build the movement.”

Blakney said he was pleased that the event offered an opportunity for reasoned, thoughtful debate, and that experts from both sides were able to contribute their perspectives. 

“It really demonstrated that reasonable well-informed people of goodwill can be found on both sides of the issue,” he said. 

Lloyd said that she appreciated that the participants of the conference had come together despite their differences in opinion, and that they were able to have the crucial conversations about how investors can balance fiduciary responsibility with care for creation. 

“It was clear that people of faith, trying to make decisions based on their faith, can disagree strongly,” she said, “and when you have that, the importance of community in decision making becomes more and more important.” 

--Ellen Stuart