Sustainable and Responsible Investing: Controversy, Complexity, and Community

by | Jan 22, 2016

I love it (sometimes) when we argue in church. Not because I’m a conflict maven–because I’m not. But I deeply cherish the way that our community values the discipline of intentionally and patiently listening to views with which we may disagree, respecting individuals who embrace those views and seeking both the guidance of the Holy Spirit and paths toward consensus.

The issue of whether to more extensively embrace principles of Sustainable and Responsible Investment (SRI) is a great example of where the stakes are high, views may be polarized, passions tend to run hot—and where I believe we’re called to exercise our muscles of careful, respectful, and creative discernment in community.

The underlying concept of SRI is a simple one, and is not new in this Diocese. Briefly stated, advocates of SRI urge that institutions like the Diocese of Washington invest their funds in ways that align with organizational values.

The concept of aligning values and investments has been part of the life of this Diocese since the days when, pursuant to the Sullivan principles, this Diocese and other church and secular organizations across the world declined to invest in the securities of organizations supporting apartheid in South Africa. Most observers agree that the organized disinvestment movement was among the key factors in helping to reverse a policy rooted in sin.

Since those days, the formal investment policy of the Diocese has specified a number of limitations on investments of the Diocese that seek to assure that we don’t preach against sin on Sunday and invest in it on Monday. Currently, the investment policy of the Diocese constrains the investment of Diocesan assets in any company “that derives substantial amounts of income from the manufacture, distribution, or selling of firearms to the general public; alcohol; tobacco; or other products or services that conflict with the Christian mission of the Diocese as from time to time may be communicated to the Investment Manager by the Committee.”

Approaches to SRI such as this are referred to as “negative screening” since they involve screeningout investment in what are often referred to as “sin stocks.” As the concept of SRI has matured in recent years, advocates of SRI urge that organizations go beyond negative screening and include intentional investment in the securities of companies that provide products or services that are affirmatively aligned with organizational values. Stocks that promote care of the environment – solar energy or wind power – are frequent examples of such companies. This more affirmative approach – seeking companies that engage in areas that promote certain values—is referred to as “positive screening.”

Almost three years ago, Diocesan Council first engaged the issue of whether Diocesan investment policy should be expanded to require the Investment Committee to engage in practices such as positive screening. Discussions in Council meetings evidenced sharp disagreement concerning the adoption of expanded SRI practices. Council’s difficulty in reaching consensus led to the introduction of a resolution at Diocesan Convention last year and the creation of an SRI Task Force. Council appointed the Task Force last spring and the Task Force submitted its report to Council in December. The report is informative and excellent and I encourage you to review it with care. This report will be presented to delegates at the upcoming Diocesan Convention and a further resolution on the subject has been placed on the agenda.

The report reflects careful and fair-minded work by a group that included individuals with a range of views on the subject. While the report specifies a range of optional strategies concerning SRI, no specific recommendations were made by the Task Force since no consensus formed in support of any particular strategy for the Diocese.

Earlier this month, Council took action inspired by the Task Force report. Council was moved by the seriousness of aligning our investments and our values, but also recognized both the stakes—the Diocese holds investments of approximately $50 million for the Diocese itself and almost 40 parishes and organizations—and the absence of any consensus within the Task Force on issues of how to practically integrate more extensive SRI approaches with existing negative screening. Responding to one of the options identified by the Task Force Report, Council voted to establish a committee that will develop resources on SRI, including a dedicated page on the website of the Diocese, and be in communication with congregational leaders to promote wider and deeper understanding concerning SRI.

Particularly when dealing with issues involving high stakes and deep disagreement it can be challenging to be a part of a community. I thank God for the ability of our Diocese to engage important issues where we don’t agree. It’s hard work, sometimes, since it requires us to intentionally still our passions and be open both to the views of people with whom we may currently disagree–and to the Holy Spirit. But time and again, we learn that it is through such hard work we may discover the best way forward in and as a community.