Longtime congregant John Overholt lights a candle in Rock Spring’s chancel, where LED lighting in the ceiling is saving the church money.
Longtime congregant John Overholt lights a candle in Rock Spring’s chancel, where LED lighting in the ceiling is saving the church money. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

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ARLINGTON COUNTY, Va. — When the choir at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ complained about overheating while harmonizing under incandescent lights more than 15 years ago, congregant John Overholt didn’t just empathize.

He acted. The self-described “handyman who fixes things” replaced the 20-plus blazing hot bulbs in the chancel ceiling with cooler, then-state-of-the-art, money-saving compact fluorescents.

That stop-gap switch not only granted the toasty singers relief, but was also an early indicator of the church’s environmental ethic. 

Since then, that commitment has only accelerated. The Northern Virginia church is this year’s winner in the energy saver category of Interfaith Power & Light’s Cool Congregations Challenge. The Oakland-based nonprofit’s mission is to motivate people of faith to take bold and just action on climate change.

The national contest, initiated in 2011, drew 77 entries in six categories that also included cool planner, sacred grounds steward, renewable role model, electric vehicle leader and community inspiration. This year’s winners were announced on Feb. 28.

“We want to celebrate congregations that are leading by example,” Sarah Paulos, community engagement director for the interfaith group, said about the contest’s message. “You can’t just sit back and hope things will get better. 

“Hope is an action — it’s a verb, not a noun. If you want to see a difference in the future, you have to start doing things differently today.” 

Insulation in the sanctuary attic keeps warmed or cooled air from escaping the building. John Overholt checks one of the “light boxes” built from drywall and topped with a sheet of metal. They’re designed to keep air from leaking around each light fixture’s housing. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Overholt is a force behind Rock Spring’s collaborative and overarching goal of becoming a net-zero campus, the first in Virginia, by reaching peak energy efficiency in all 33,000 square feet of its sanctuary and two other buildings. Ideally, it strives to eventually meet its energy needs on site, and even redirect some electrons back to the grid.

That dedication is outlined in “Leading by Example,” the contest entry outlining how the church is spending $405,000 on a two-phase undertaking. The first part, completed in October, includes blowing in improved attic insulation, as well as replacing a roof and covering it with a solar array.

On tap for this year is automating the lighting and heating and cooling systems, weatherproofing sanctuary windows without compromising their historic character, and upgrading other windows.

The arithmetic shows the investment has the potential to drop the church’s annual utility bills by 85%, from about $37,000 to $5,000.

Overholt, a steady member of Rock Spring’s property board, began attending the church 41 years ago because its spirit extended beyond the neighborhood.

“This church spends its money for community good and the good of the world,” he said. “For me, that has major appeal.”

Rock Spring’s roots in the neighborhood stretch back to 1912 when worshipers gathered in outdoor pews. As its physical space has grown, so has its climate mission. For instance, the church donates produce from its Plot Against Hunger garden to local food banks. Congregants participate in local stream cleanups and partner with a project that provides solar panels to rural India and Puerto Rico.

The large sanctuary windows behind the Rev. Laura Martin are part of the original 1940 structure. Congregants are now figuring out how to make them more airtight without compromising their historic value. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Aiming for net-zero on its campus was such a high target that those spearheading the initiative presented three in-depth talks to congregants, fielded questions and explained financing, said the Rev. Laura Martin, a Rock Spring associate pastor since 2015.

Much of their to-do list came from a spring 2019 basement-to-roof evaluation by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. The ensuing study opened their eyes to dollars wasted on energy escaping through air leaks.

Members gave the pursuit of net-zero a resounding thumbs-up — 97% voted yes in October 2020. Ultimately, the church opted to finance $284,000 of phase one costs via a 20-year loan from its endowment fund. 

Martin shepherded completion of what she called an “intense” Power & Light application that required detailed documentation via photos and descriptions.

Ryan Snow, of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council, was one of two judges Power & Light recruited to review the 18 entries in the energy saver category.

Over his three or four years of helping to judge this contest, he’s watched the entries become more sophisticated and holistic. For instance, the term net-zero is cutting edge enough to be a new entry in the competition’s vocabulary.

“I was very happy a shining example came from the South,” said Snow, whose professional work focuses on the South Atlantic and South Central regions. “From a green building perspective, Maryland, D.C., and Virginia have consistently been at the top. Now that leadership is translating to places of worship.”

Snow is impressed that Power & Light’s application process goes beyond standardized data such as reductions of kilowatt-hours and heat-trapping gases. 

That beyond-the-numbers approach is reflected in the four categories judges must weigh: Is the project well-defined? How creative is it? Did it involve community engagement? Will it inspire others to act and take a leadership role?

“What I love about this is that it’s showing what is possible,” Snow said. “Places of worship are not corporations; they are volunteer-based and non-technical.

“It’s very different when you have to rely on the community to keep the church open, then make the commitment to become net-zero and then engage the community to get there.”

Young congregants at Rock Spring celebrate completion of a 119-panel solar array atop the church’s Carpenter Hall. Each module is 375 watts. Credit: Courtesy

Rock Spring’s net-zero ambition was far from a snap decision. It was only on congregants’ radar because of the sturdy green foundation they had already shaped.

For instance, Overholt’s long-ago attention to the chancel’s outdated lighting was merely a start. Roughly 450 super-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs and tubes now shine, on demand, across campus. The church also added attic insulation and purchased new heating and ventilating systems powered by condensing boilers with an efficiency rating of at least 93%.

Overholt, who earned a degree in chemistry, is a force behind that collaborative progress. He was born into a family of inventors and spent most of his career in information technology at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, retiring in 2005. 

“I always want to know, how does something work and how do I make it work better,” said Overholt, certified as an “energy master” through the county extension service.

That mantra explains why he monitors a spreadsheet documenting the color, brightness and beam width of each LED bulb and if it’s the ideal match for the room it’s illuminating. And, why, instead of installing more fixtures in a dark hallway leading out of the sanctuary, he opted for a tubular skylight that floods the corridor with natural light. That $700 expense came out of his own pocket. 

As the self-appointed chief of lighting, he also knows where the church stepladders are stored — for the rare occasion when a bulb burns out.

“I want to do my part to make the church work better and lower the footprint it has on the world,” he said. “I hadn’t thought about this being my legacy, but I guess it is. It’s one of my main hobbies.” 

Actually attaining net-zero status will likely require future outlays for battery storage other technologies, Overholt said. Still, he’s impressed the church is an aspiring pioneer.

His advice to other congregations curious about venturing into eco-friendly alterations? “Start small. It can be as simple as changing all exit sign lights to LEDs.”

Martin is hopeful that recognition from Power & Light will be a beacon for others.

“What’s exciting is letting us tell the story of what we did,” Martin said. “That inspires congregations to see what’s achievable.”

In fact, she’s already heard from leaders at First Plymouth Congregational Church near Denver, seeking to follow Rock Spring’s green lead.

And does the Arlington church yet have plans for its $1,500 in first-place prize money from Power & Light?

“Oh yes,” Martin said. “We will certainly put it toward net-zero work.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.