In the highlands of northwestern Ethiopia, Orthodox Christian churches provide habitats for plants that have become rare in the surrounding agricultural landscapes. The objective of this paper is to investigate why and how the local clergy and laypeople protect and promote woody plants within their sacred spaces. Interviews at 11 churches in the Debark District of North Gonder generated a list of 47 woody species, of which most are rare in the rest of the landscape. Three tree species (indigenous cedar, Juniperus procera; indigenous olive, Olea europaea subsp. cuspidata; and exotic Eucalyptus globulus) were identified as most important. While cedar and olive are symbols of tradition and witnesses to church history, eucalyptus is a source of income and alternative material for church construction and repair. A significant proportion of indigenous species within Debark's church forests were said to have been planted, including cedars and olives. Knowledge that these species are cultivated enhances the conservation value of these forests by inspiring local people to continue planting trees and shrubs. In addition to serving as refugia for rare species, Ethiopia's church forests nurture the knowledge necessary to promote plant diversity in the rest of the landscape and serve as archetypes for community-driven conservation.