A faithful leader engages creation care

Jan 19, 2015 by

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In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Brian Sauder, a fellow credentialed Mennonite minister. Last year he became executive director of Faith in Place, headquartered in Chicago, which builds relationships with and among religious communities for education and advocacy focused on care for the environment.



Sauder was raised in rural central Illinois in the Apostolic Christian Church. As Sauder grew up hearing the story passed down, the early believers the denomination attracted were Mennonite or Amish, as well as other farmers in the area.

Sauder went to college thinking he wanted to work in wildlife or fisheries management.

“Sitting in classes, what I was surprised by is the connection between the impacts of our degradation to the environment, especially on people living in subsistence poverty throughout the world,” he said. “Here I am living a faith that calls me to service on behalf of the least of those among us, and I’m learning this data set about how things that we as humans are doing — that I’m complicit in — are negatively impacting the least of those among us, and yet I didn’t have a toolkit to respond as a person of faith in a way that made sense to me, in a way that made me feel like I was living out my faith day by day.”

That awakened a calling to connect the environmental movement and people of faith.

He went to Urbana Theological Seminary and began connecting with congregations around gardening, which his family had done together when he was growing up.

“This is a way to build relationships with people of faith,” he said, “to get our hands dirty in the soil, build trust together, work with youth and with adults, and use that as a springboard to discuss bigger food-system issues, hunger issues, talk about the ethics of genetically modified crops” and other topics.

As a result of some of that organizing work, a member of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana invited Sauder to talk to a Sunday school class about his efforts. Anabaptist culture and practice resonated with him.

“My theological training allowed me to learn and explore a lot of Mennonite theology,” he said.

In 2009, he began talking to Faith in Place about launching a central Illinois office. The executive director at the time encouraged him to get a master’s degree in business administration with a focus in nonprofit management. She had seen people in nonprofit organizing move into management roles but lack business acumen.

Sauder entered the University of Illinois MBA program and found the leadership training surprisingly similar to what he had in seminary. One professor taught that great leaders are servant leaders and have a lot of humility. He noted he may have taken that lesson away because he was viewing course materials through a theological lens.

In his work as executive director, Sauder now leads the organization’s three offices with six full-time and eight part-time staff. While Faith in Place works directly only with Illinois groups, it is affiliated with Interfaith Power & Light, which works nationally.

In the movement for earth care, which can feel like all doom-and-gloom because of the enormity of the damage humans have already done, Faith in Place’s engaged and engaging leadership is a bright spot of hope.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.

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