Doctor Determined to ‘Serve God, Save the Planet’

09/18/09 by Staff Writer

Rachel Roberts

He was a successful doctor -- the hospital’s chief of staff, head of ER, big house, affluent lifestyle, the works. And then something happened.

Actually three things happened. First, Dr. Matthew Sleeth became increasingly aware of the change in the diseases he was seeing over the short period of his medical career. The most startling example was the incidence of breast cancer. “When I began medicine 20 years ago, 1 in 19 women got breast cancer,” he says. When I stopped in 2004, it was 1 in 9. Now it’s 1 in 7.”

Second, he noticed significant changes in the natural world. “I noticed all the things that have gone extinct in my lifetime,” Sleeth says. “There are no caribou in Caribou, Maine; no elms on Elm Street; no chestnuts on Chestnut Street. You could go on and on.”

He grew up in the largest dairy-producing county in the United States, a county which had a population of 70,000. Now this county in Maryland has 1.1 million people and only one dairy farmer.

Third, he came to faith. “I became a Christian, which changed my world view,” Sleeth says. “Following Jesus is radically different from what I was following (as a non-believer). He calls us to take responsibility for our neighbor. So being part of the solution for any of those first two things called for a radical change.”

And radical it was. About five years ago, he quit his job and gave away half of what he once owned. He made a commitment to talk to people about God’s creation – “not just his world but us, too.” His book, Serve God, Save the Planet, grew out of that commitment.

Not only that. He and his family – wife, Nancy; son, Clark; and daughter, Emma – sold their huge house near Portland, Maine, and bought another that was the size of their former garage. “It was exactly the same width and depth,” Sleeth says. “I tell people, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. Have you ever seen a doctor’s garage?’”

The Sleeths cut their electric bill to 1/10 of the national average and their fossil-fuel use to 1/3.


Sleeth spoke at a conference called “Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship” at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College.


They eventually moved to Kentucky to be near their children, who currently attend Asbury College two blocks from their home. “We figured if we flew them back and forth from Kentucky to where we lived in New England for every school vacation, we would bust our ecological footprint,” he says. “Secondly, maybe families ought to be a little closer.”


He acknowledges that those are “pretty big changes, and not without some tears and controversy.” But the response to his book and speaking engagements has confirmed that people are eager to hear his message. He spoke at more than 100 churches last year alone and has talked about his commitment on more than 50 college campuses. Serve God, Save the Planet was chosen as a finalist for the 2008 Christianity Today Book Award in the Christianity & Culture category.


He talks to people about the changes he has made. “It gives people heart to make change themselves,” he says. “It’s much easier to follow someone else than to strike out on your own.”


He talks about the biblical rationale behind his commitment and how it plays out in history. He talks about John Calvin and Martin Luther and John Wesley, about St. Francis and St. Augustine.


And he answers questions – hundreds and hundreds of questions – sometimes until his voice gives way.


He does it because he is called to do it. “It’s important,” he says, “Number 1, because if we don’t change, I don’t know anyone who thinks we can continue in the mode that we’re in as a human society and have it end up in a good way.”


Number 2: The first commandment in the Bible – in Genesis 2:15 – is to tend and protect and planet, says Sleeth. “That never ran out. It wasn’t revoked, and it is reinforced a number of times. Even if it didn’t make sense to us, the Bible tells us to do it. For those who take the Bible as the plan for life, it’s really not an optional mandate.”


Number 3: “If you make these changes because you love your neighbor and you care about the future, you become less selfish, and that’s something our society could do with,” he says.


“Christ didn’t say, ‘I’ll give you a big car and a six-lane highway.’ He said, “Come with me on this narrow path.’”


Sleeth joined other nationally recognized figures at a Faith and Environment Conference at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., May 29-31 to talk more about his commitment to ‘serve God and save the planet.”


Other featured speakers included the Rev. Sally Bingham, originator of Episcopal Power & Light and executive director of The Regeneration Project; Gary Gardner, director of research at Worldwatch Institute; and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., board member of the Coalition on the Environment & Jewish Life.


For more information on the conference, visit


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