Cultivating Community: “Just Drinking” at the Church Coffee Hour

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

Justly produced coffee packs a lot more than caffeine in its punch.

The coffee hour is a traditional perk of going to church. It means getting to talk to some folks you’ve missed all week and guzzling free caffeine (and, if you’re especially blessed, a donut or two) while you’re at it.

Or, depending on how you look at it, it’s an awkward social period during which you concentrate very hard on stirring your drink until it’s appropriate to make your exit from the church basement.

Either way, many of us take for granted that once a week we get to join a community of people who are different from ourselves, but still family enough to guarantee good conversation, a hearty  laugh, or a shoulder to lean on. That opportunity to gather sets church-goers apart from the general American public, which is largely opting out of public congregating and engagement in favor of nights in front of the television or an hour on a stationary bike at the gym, ears attuned to nothing but headphones.

Of course, for all of its community-building, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in the traditional church coffee hour, ecologically speaking: Styrofoam and plastic still reign supreme over other dishware options; little empty sugar packets still fill trash cans; those plastic coffee stirrers are used for all of 30 seconds before they, too, hit the garbage; and the coffee and tea we imbibe don’t always come from suppliers whose first priority is the farmers who grow them or the land they grow them on.

We’ve already heralded the importance (and ease!) of bringing your own coffee mug or thermos to these caffeine sessions, but next to that, one of the most effective changes your church can make to steward the coffee hour better is to use beverages that are produced in a way that is gentle on ecosystems and fair to farmers.

While the steps taken to adopt a more conscientious coffee routine at church will vary from congregation to congregation, here’s a helpful guide to the terminology and the pros and cons of the process of making your church-time java a little more just.

What Does It All Mean?
Fair-trade, organic, bird-friendly, church-going, college-educated—how many adjectives must we put before our coffee before it’s

There's a real person behind your coffee! (cc image by Rik Thijssen courtesy farmingmatters via flickr)

good for EVERYONE?! The terms can be confusing, and while most of us are probably proficient in the use of words like “organic” and “fair-trade” by now, here’s the nitty-gritty on the qualifiers most often tagged onto that cup of coffee that you always thought was just a tasty energy boost:

Certification vs. Non-Certification – Coffee is still grown primarily by individual farmers or farming cooperatives, mostly in poorer nations. Because these farmers haven’t always received fair or even living wages for their work, certification systems have been put in place to ensure that workers are recompensed fairly. Other certifications ensure that coffee is grown in ecologically sustainable ways. Growers pay to be inspected by third-party certifiers and to use the certification logo on qualifying products.

While certification can assure customers that a company’s values related to labor and environment adhere to certain requirements, obtaining that certification can be prohibitively expensive for many companies, even if they follow (or go above and beyond) the guidelines required. For this reason, many companies eschew actual certification, while still adhering to fair trade or ecologically sustainable principles. However, sometimes claims to adhere to these principles without certification can be misleading, and a lack of certification can mean that even if a company once adhered to strong ethical principles, it has no objective outsider holding it accountable to those values.

Major Types of Certification

  • Organic: As it applies to other produce, so too the organic certification for coffee means that coffee beans must be grown without the input of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, and on land that has had no synthetic inputs for at least three years. Although most synthetic inputs are eliminated by the coffee roasting process and are of little harm to coffee drinkers, their use can be very harmful to the health of coffee growers and harvesters. Some third-party organic certifiers include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, the Organic Crop Improvement Association, and California Certified Organic Farmers.
  • Fair Trade: Fair trade coffee is certified as such in the U.S. by TransFair USA, a member of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). TransFair USA certification guarantees cooperatives of coffee growers a fair price for coffee (the minimum is $1.25 per pound of coffee), fair labor standards (freedom of association, living wages, safe working conditions for workers), community development benefits (a premium on the price paid by importers goes to community and business development where the coffee is grown), and strict environmental sustainability standards (agrochemicals and Genetically Modified Organisms are prohibited in the growing of fair trade-certified goods).
  • Shade-Grown/Bird Friendly: You may not have guessed that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center would be a coffee certifier, but it actually does designate coffee growers with a “bird friendly” certification. In order to produce higher yields of coffee, many farmers strip the native tropical canopy vegetation surrounding their coffee plants to expose the plants directly to the sun. But when that canopy is preserved and the coffee beans are grown in the shade, not only are acres of tropical ecosystems saved, but the diverse migratory birds that rest in those forests are also spared destruction. Bird Friendly-certified coffee must also be organic, so this is a two-for-one deal.

Direct Trade
“Direct Trade,” sometimes called Community Trade or Relational Trade, is a form of trade not certified by any third-party, but often still in compliance with at least fair trade guidelines. Proponents of direct trade, as explained by a New York Times article on the subject “see ecologically sound agriculture and prices above even the Fair Trade premium both as sound business practices and as a route to better-tasting coffee.”

Direct Trade roasters work without the interruption of middlemen or certification agencies, most often so that they can offer better or different growing and labor standards than certifiers demand directly to farmers, in order to procure a better product. For example, Intelligentsia Coffee roasters, in Chicago, pay farmers 25% above what is required by fair trade standards.

However, this all means that direct traders operate without the accountability of certification, so you must be able to trust the word and work of the direct trade roasters you buy from if they proclaim a particular ethical standard.

Getting Conscientious Coffee into Church
Obviously there are a lot of different standards to consider when choosing ethically grown coffee, and the point of explaining them here is not to overwhelm or guilt anyone into making one choice over another. But once you have made a choice, offering your new favorite cuppa joe at church can present its own set of challenges. Here are some possible difficulties, and creative ways to address them:

It turns out that justly produced coffee carries a lot more than some adjectives and a certification sticker or two: it can also carry a hefty price tag. In a church facilities economy, where little savings matter, little expenditures can be difficult to justify. Objections to the cost of ethically grown coffee may be the primary roadblock to drinking that coffee at church, no matter how much everyone wants to drink it. Sometimes the bottom line is the line that gets most firmly drawn.

The accoutrements of coffee-making that your church uses may not be its own. Often the equipment required for brewing your coffee comes from the company that provides the coffee itself. So switching coffee grounds can mean switching the coffee infrastructure as well.

What to Do?
The church coffee hour is already a ministry—a time of fellowship, connection, and service for people who need the love of God and the love of our brothers and sisters. Drinking conscientiously-produced coffee and tea simply extends that ministry to brothers and sisters we may not be able to meet and greet, but who are no less deserving of love and justice. When this service is viewed as a ministry, and not just a perk or an expectation, options open up for making it work:

  • Ministry Partnership: Your church may support missionaries, sponsor children, or partner with a local family shelter or soup kitchen. Consider purchasing fairly produced coffee as a ministry partnership with the company you buy from and the farmers it supports. Understanding this practice as a ministry will not only encourage folks to invest in coffee-drinking as the interwoven set of relationships it is, but it will foster an ethos of considering the far-ranging impacts of our everyday activities.
  • Off-Set the Costs: There are some ways to make fair trade and/or organic beverage-drinking cheaper andfriendlier on the environment (and you thought it couldn’t get any friendlier!): Encourage church members to bring their own thermoses

    Have mug, save moolah. (cc image courtesy thehutch via flickr)

    and mugs to the coffee hour, and buy sugar in bulk, instead of offering it in packets. These two simple steps will reduce the amount of paper and plastic products your church has to buy for the coffee hour, and will reduce the amount of trash it puts out each week, too.



  • Go Local: Below you’ll find a list of companies doing fair coffee business across the world. But you can also do a little sleuthing in your own backyard to find local roasters who may be partnering directly with growers to pay good prices for fair and sustainable coffee and tea. Often coffee companies will supply you with the materials you need to serve their drinks properly, so developing a local partnership with these roasters may provide you not only with the beverages you want to support, but with the equipment you need to serve them—right from your own neighborhood.
  • Pick and Choose: Give fair trade and organic drink offerings the special treatment they deserve by offering them at exclusive events. If your church can’t afford to offer conscientiously produced coffee on a regular basis, limit the offerings to special events or gatherings. Maybe one ministry at church is willing to pitch in a little extra for a good cause, so all events or classes related to that ministry feature fair trade offerings. Or maybe one coffee hour a month is devoted to fair trade, organic servings. With a little creativity and flexibility, you can tailor conscientious coffee-sipping to your church’s particular needs, without creating too much of a burden on church finances.

Where to Get It

Trust—whether it’s in your church’s direct relationship with a local roaster, or in the certification designated to the coffee you serve—is paramount in choosing just, sustainable beverage options. Who you trust will be up to your church and its needs and capacity, but here’s a list of trustworthy companies to get you started:

  • Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee: Started with the motivation of partnering with poor farmers in post-genocide Rwanda, this company—though not independently certified—trades directly with growers, pays them above fair trade-required wages, and invests in local Rwandan communities.

  • Green Mountain Coffee Roasters: As the parent company to Green Mountain Coffee, Caribou Coffee, Newman’s Own Organic coffee, and Tully’s Coffee, GMCR offers a vast selection of fairly traded and organic coffees and teas. It also weaves its commitment to ecological sustainability into its business practices and the materials it produces. The brands mentioned above are probably already familiar to you, and easy to find at the supermarket or local coffee house.
  • Café Campesino: Café Campesino works with 18 small farmer organizations in nine developing nations to provide fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee and tea to customers. They characterize their company as doing business according to the Golden Rule.
  • Equal Exchange: Certified fair trade and organic coffees, teas, cocoas, and chocolates come from this worker-owned cooperative, which is also exploring certification in the area of shade grown coffees. In addition to ordering by mail, Equal Exchange products can be purchased at Ten Thousand Villages stores.
  • Grounds for Change: Grounds for Change coffee is certified organic and fair trade, and is grown in shade, although it is not certified shade grown. The company is also the first in the country to complete the rigorous certification process for the new CarbonFree certification, adhering to that certification’s guidelines on emissions standards at every stage of coffee production.


  1. Cindy Crosby says:

    Thank you for this informative and helpful piece! Our church has not been able to afford Fair Trade Coffee. Your “missions” idea is a good one to pitch, as well as the “special events” idea. I also appreciate the list of companies. You might also check out the Presbyterian Coffee Project for fair trade coffee purchases and ideas as well.
    I appreciate the help that Flourish offers creation care groups like the one at my church, The Earthlings of First Presbyterian, Glen Ellyn, IL. Keep the good info coming!


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