The Involvement of Spiritual Organizations in Sustainability Initiatives, as seen in the Transition Towns Movement in the United Kingdom
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Spiritual organizations have historically played an important role in social and civil movements (Aminzade & Perry 2007). This research is one investigation of how spiritual organizations may benefit sustainability initiatives and contribute to increased community resilience. Based on a case study of the Transition Towns movement in the United Kingdom, the research also addresses how to minimize anticipated and actual pitfalls of spiritual organization involvement. Research was conducted through the use of semi-structured telephone interviews with key-informants within Transition Towns in the United Kingdom and with affiliated spiritual organizations. An analysis of themes discussed by participants and relevant literature suggests that the benefits of involving spiritual organizations in sustainability initiatives include the following: institutional (benefits derived from well established institutions such as churches); normative (benefits derived from a non-pragmatic based rationale for committing to social change as well as assigning intrinsic values to Nature); motivational (benefits derived from the ability of spiritual organizations to motivate people); leadership/influence (the influence and leadership that individuals with spiritual background can have in sustainability initiatives); bonding/ bridging (benefits to social capital derived from the strengthened community ties that spiritual organizations can create). Of these, the benefit of normative values was identified as most important by interviewees. Based on these findings, this research argues that spiritual capital is an important social capital resource for sustainability initiatives. Anticipated pitfalls of involving spiritual organizations in sustainability initiatives reported by interviewees included: fears of division (concern that involvement of spiritual organization could divide members along theological lines); belief that explicit reference to spirituality is “off putting” (people from diverse spiritual backgrounds or who identified as non-spiritual might be less likely to take part in situations identified with one or more specific spiritual groups or traditions) and structural or institutional barriers (based on belief, or traditions of practice, spiritual organizations might be unlikely to take part). A key finding was that Transition Town members were not experiencing these pitfalls. Another key finding was that the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) were very involved in the Transition Towns movement. It was concluded based on these findings that spiritual organizations have been able to benefit Transition Towns sustainability initiatives in the UK. Findings suggest that spiritual organizations which are most able to act as important sources of ‘spiritual capital’ for sustainability and community resilience initiatives are identified with the following characteristics: non-proselytizing, socially and theologically inclusive, and emphasizing social and/or environmental justice. By being a source of spiritual capital, spiritual organizations can offer the beneficial components of normative values that motivate, influence and bind communities.