Serena Cottrell vividly recalls a moment one stark Midwestern winter day when her faith was stirred: “On a cold January day, we stood on ice on the shore of Lake Erie. Gray skies and cold winter. Simple and magnificent in knowing this was part of God’s creation.” 

Cottrell, a member of Good Soil Lutheran Ministries in Lakewood and Rocky River, Ohio, was on a Holy Hike with friends when she had this experience.  

Holy Hikes, a national eco-ministry dedicated to renewing connections with God’s creation through liturgical hikes, began as an Episcopal ministry in 2010. Cottrell participates in Holy Hikes-Northeast Ohio, which started in 2017 and is the first ELCA-affiliated chapter in the Midwest. 

There is also Holy Hikes-Central Pennsylvania, a joint chapter between the ELCA and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Pine Grove Mills, Pa., that started in 2016.  

Justin Cannon, Holy Hikes’ founder and rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, San Leandro, Calif., spent time at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center, while discerning Holy Hikes. “After that visit to Holden, I needed to find a way to sustain that connection in my day-to-day life,” he said.  

The Northeast Ohio chapter was started by Marilyn Matevia, administrative assistant and statistician for the Northeastern Ohio Synod, who saw a Facebook post about a church’s “worship walks” from a friend who is an Episcopal minister. Matevia connected with Cannon at Holy Hikes, and he walked her through the process of starting a chapter.  

“I’m excited about the possibilities for Holy Hikes and its expansion beyond just the Episcopal Church,” Cannon said, describing his dream where each state and each diocese or synod has a chapter. “In this collaboration between Episcopalians and Lutherans, that might just be possible.” 

Church in creation 

Matevia, who is a candidate for ordination, has an environmental ethics degree and describes Holy Hikes as “an outgrowth” of her faith. 

During their Holy Hike outings, participants usually find a trail they can walk for 90 minutes where everyone can go at their own pace. Each hike has three stops where participants celebrate the liturgy. Communion is included on many of the hikes. 

“Holy Hikes is helping people realize that their faith is not limited to the buildings they have come to know and love,” said Mark Rollenhagen, pastor of Good Soil. “We end up setting the elements—the bread and the wine—on a fallen tree. It really kind of brings home the sacredness of the outdoors when you’re gathering around word and sacrament under the trees and sky.” 

Rollenhagen has seen Holy Hikes appeal to longtime members who also enjoy Sunday services, and he describes it as “a welcome, alternative way of worshiping.” 

“Holy Hikes is helping people realize that their faith is not limited to the buildings they have come to know and love.”

Matevia says people of various ages, from  40 to 80, are enjoying Holy Hikes. As the Northeast Ohio chapter enters its first summer as a ministry, she hopes the improved weather and end of the school year bring even more people to the hikes. And as the ministry grows, she is considering a short trailside service for those who would enjoy outdoor worship but are unable to hike the 1 or 2 miles. 

Congregations sometimes struggle with integrating care for creation into each aspect of the church, Matevia said, and Holy Hikes could help. “I see Holy Hikes as one way to link those parts of our lives—bringing church into the woods where we think more intentionally about relationships with the rest of creation. Despite being in a large metropolitan region, we are surrounded by parks and forests—county, state and national—and by water.” 

When worship takes hiking “beyond just oohing and aahing over a sunset, [participants] get to know each other in a different way than [they do] standing together during fellowship hour after church on Sunday morning,” Rollenhagen said. 

Holy Hikers say participating in the ministry has enhanced their faith.  

JoAnn Dickey, a member of Good Soil, is a regular participant with her dog, Ernie. “As someone who has a lot of doubts and questions about my faith and faith in general, spirituality can seem nebulous but also unavoidable,” she said. “When I’m out there on a hike with Ernie, things make more sense and the feeling of disconnection fades.” 

Cottrell agrees: “I find it refreshing to focus on creation and our role in it. I feel close to nature and close to God in this simple setting. I’m a small part of holy creation. Holy Hikes helps me be humble and lets me focus on the simple things.”

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