Thank You for Asking… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

question-markLast week I wrote a guest post at Jan Edmiston’s blog. Today Jan shares her space again for a great post. Larissa Kwong Abazia writes about the sticky (and in some cases illegal) questions that search committees have asked her in interviews:

I’ve recently started interviewing for ministry positions and felt I was prepared for the onslaught of what I deem “inappropriate questions” from churches.  As a 30-something woman of color, I am familiar with comments that pose doubts about my age or experience, ability to minister to people older than me, slotting me right into youth ministry roles, assuming that hiring me will automatically grow the young adult population, or blatant misunderstandings surrounding race.  I’ve learned to take them as par for the course, as sad as it may seem in the life of the Church.  I was not ready, however, for questions surrounding my role as a mother.

Every single interview (Did you read that?  EVERY SINGLE INTERVIEW) that I have had in the past several months has included some form of the question, “How do you feel about going back to work?” or “What will your son do once you start working?”

I started to comment on the post but it got long. I want to give Larissa’s post a hearty “Yes… and.”

Every person’s experience is different. I know many women who have experienced a level of sexism, paternalism, and intrusiveness that I simply have not. That said, I’ve been asked similar questions, though not in an interview setting. In almost every case, the person was asking out of curiosity, concern, and in good faith.

Curiosity: The idea of women serving as pastors is beyond a no-brainer for me, but it’s still new to many people. Many of them are not looking for a reason to weed you out, or a reason for you not to succeed. They are simply trying to picture how the life of the pastor works, what with night meetings and hospital emergencies. Our busiest times in ministry coincide with the school’s winter break and spring break. (Fairfax County schedules spring break during Holy Week every flippin’ year. Grrrr.) So… “how do you do that?” they want to know.

Concern: Many church people I meet are genuinely interested in the well-being of the pastor and her family. Many church folks get the stereotypes surrounding the minister’s family—how kids are put under the microscope and spouses are expected to be a de facto “second pastor”—and conscientious ones want to mitigate that through expressions of care and concern.

Yes, in some cases, “How do you feel about going back to work?” is a trap. But not necessarily. Remember, the church is a community, a place where people care about people. Many people sitting on search committees have felt ambivalence about going back to work—and joy at being there. The question is not necessarily a wall. It can be a bridge.

Good faith: Again, I know women who have been the victim of appalling examples of sexism. That has not been my story, for whatever reason. I wonder all the time why that is. It could be that I’m simply clueless, that there’s sexism going on and I’m not paying attention. Or I got lucky with the congregations I’ve served. Or I’ve decided to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when those potentially iffy questions and comments come my way I see it as someone trying to establish contact and relationship, albeit in a fumbling or even frustrating way. Probably it’s a combination of all three.

(This is an aside, but I was asked some time ago how I view my leadership style as a woman—how do I understand authority and assertiveness, especially with people who may not be keen on a woman pastor? My approach is twofold:

1. a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor

2. really knowing my… stuff.

Both are vital. The former is what disarms one’s detractors; the latter ensures that they can’t write you off.)  

Recently I highlighted a pair of articles that touched on issues of clergy health and clergy burnout. I suggested that the traditional understandings of authenticity, boundaries and pastor-parishioner friendship are changing as the demographics of pastors change. So how do questions like the ones Larissa writes about play into these changing boundaries?

Am I suggesting that religious communities should be allowed to ask illegal questions in interviews? Well, no. But I want search committees to care about work-life balance. And if I have children, their child-care arrangements are a part of that. That’s just a fact.

Larissa writes:

It seems as though the underlying concern in [intrusive] questions is a distrust that a woman can care for her congregation if she is also a mother (and therefore caring for her family).  Perhaps, then, congregations should consider if they are asking for too much time and energy from their leaders that won’t allow them to maintain healthy boundaries outside of the church.  We aren’t parents of, but partners in ministry with our congregations.  It’s long overdue that we begin thinking about the ways we support our clergy, male and female, in their calls in ways that allow them to be whole people both inside and outside of the church walls.

 

I completely agree with the second part (we are partners in ministry), but am not at all sold on the first part (the questions show distrust). Of course, it depends. But if we are partners in ministry, don’t we have to hold one another accountable? Aren’t questions about self-care part of accountability?

I guess I’m arguing for more questions, not fewer. They need to be good ones, of course, Generative ones. But ask. Ask everyone. Congregations should be similarly concerned about male pastors, with or without children. They should care about single parents, and single folks without children.

I want churches to care about, and ask about, the self-care of their leaders.

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An Improvising God

Many years ago I worked for an interfaith organization that did work in the Third Ward of Houston. One of the congregations there overlooked a building that had been tagged with graffiti. Various people had painted over the graffiti, but it always came back with a vengeance. So the congregation worked with an artist to design a mural that incorporated the graffiti into the design. The wall was never bothered again.

I can’t find a picture of the wall, but a Google search suggests that this is a common approach to graffiti. I remembered that today when I saw this piece on Colossal: Brilliant Urban Interventions by OakOak Turn Crumbling City Infrastructure into a Visual Playground. Click the link for more, but here are two of my favorites:

oakoak-1

 

 

 

oakoak-5

 

 

 

I’ve been thinking for some time about the rules of improv as they relate to life, church work, and even our ideas about God. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and—to accept what is offered and to build on it. That’s what I see in these images, and in the Third Ward mural. (Listen to Stephen Colbert talk about yes-and in this YouTube video; skip to minute 18:00 for the pertinent bit. Or just watch the whole thing, because Colbert.)

This is a personal journey for me—I’m such a planner at heart. If I can plan it, I can control it. If it all fits on the calendar, then it will fit in real life. But life doesn’t work that way, and the older I get the more I see the limitations to planning. It’s not that planning is useless. But what’s more important is cultivating the grace and especially the skill to adapt to changing situations. Like Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” I take “planning” to mean preparation, analysis, skill-building, and discernment.

This improv stuff is also a pastoral thing. When I arrived at Tiny, there was some discussion of making a five- or ten-year plan. It just didn’t seem right. Especially in a small church, where deaths and departures of just a few key leaders can fundamentally alter the makeup of the church. Plus I think the world is changing too fast. You have to know your values and your purpose, but a ten-year plan? Makes no sense to me.

And all of this has theological dimensions. As I’ve written here before, the idea of God’s Plan doesn’t work for me. It really never has. And it doesn’t work for a great many people. But an improvising God… that’s a God that intrigues me. And I think we see some of that God in scripture.

I’ll be thinking and writing about these things a lot in 2013. (I’m also trying to figure out how to get myself into an improv class, which will take some MacGyvering of my schedule.) In the meantime, I began work on some of these ideas at the NEXT Church regional gathering in Rochester last November. Click here to get to the audio of that presentation.

Incidentally, my friend Ashley Goff is also doing some work with improv as it relates to liturgy. She will be speaking about this at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte in March. She rocks, and the conference will rock.

Friday Link Love

And they’re off!

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Blind Runner’s Despair Turns to Joy at Paralympics — NBC

After suffering a devastating loss in the 400M, Brazilian runner Terezinha Guilhermina and her guide Guilherme Soares de Santana win the Women’s 100m at the Paralympics. Great photos there including this one:

So much to love about this. The guide had fallen in the 400 which cost them the victory, and you can see the joy here! Also love that this year, guides are also receiving medals.

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Gym-Pact — RunKeeper

I have joked about there needing to be a system that penalizes you financially for not keeping your fitness goals, and here it is, from the good people at RunKeeper!

Earn real money for making your workouts — paid for by those who missed theirs! With cash on the line, you’ll find it easier than ever to get to the gym and see real results.

Somebody try it and let me know how it goes. Although, so far I have been able to keep myself motivated because of…

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The Benefits of Middle Age Fitness — New York Times

What [researchers] found was that those adults who had been the least fit at the time of their middle-age checkup also were the most likely to have developed any of eight serious or chronic conditions early in the aging process. These include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and colon or lung cancer.

The adults who’d been the most fit in their 40s and 50s often developed many of the same conditions, but notably their maladies appeared significantly later in life than for the less fit. Typically, the most aerobically fit people lived with chronic illnesses in the final five years of their lives, instead of the final 10, 15 or even 20 years.

There’s some insightful discussion in the comments about whether the study says what it claims to say. An example:

What if those middle-fit people had been fit their whole lives and it was their youthful fitness that gave them the real benefit?

I’m going to keep being fit, just in case the article is right, and because nobody has invented a time machine yet. And also because I feel much, much better in every measurable way.

~

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet — Vimeo

Got this video about these two inventors from Brene Brown, who said, “I love these women’s daring!” Yes indeed.

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet | Fredrik Gertten from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

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The Pleasure Of… — Vimeo

Already shared this early in the week but it bears repeating. It will make you feel good. What pleasures would you add?

The pleasure of from Vitùc on Vimeo.

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On Christian Platitudes — Captain Sacrament

During the FB discussion about “God has a plan” (which helped inform this) a friend shared this blog post. I appreciate this critique from someone within the church:

It may not be immediately obvious, but when people offer these phases, these stock answers, it sends a clear and demoralizing message: “I don’t take your struggles seriously, and I’m not prepared to muster the theological depth to share them with you.”

This might be a harsh assessment, but this is a great problem, and worthy of such consideration. If you use these Christian platitudes, these unholy clichés in your care for your brothers and sisters, I urge you to carefully consider dropping them. If you find your friends using them on you, forgive them, then challenge them. Muster some courage and tell them you find those words to be theologically empty and pastorally cold. It’s the only way we’re going to grow and learn to struggle together.

I think there can be another, more benign message in these platitudes: I love you so much, and am so hurt that you are hurting, that I will seek to reduce the hurt any way I can. It’s just that platitudes aren’t effective in reducing the hurt and in fact can make things worse.

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A Chronological New Testament — Marcus Borg

Not really new stuff here, but it’s good to be reminded (and help people who didn’t go to seminary to understand) that the New Testament we have is organized by genre rather than chronologically. And Paul’s letters were written earliest, before the gospels.

Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:

  • Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

More at the link.

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Prayer for the Nation — Jena Nardella

The benediction from night 1 of the Democratic National Convention. This has been shared widely but it’s here in case you missed it. Excerpt:

Give us, oh Lord, humility to listen to our sisters and brothers across the political spectrum, because your kingdom is not divided into Red States and Blue States. Equip us with moral imagination to have real discourse. Knit us, oh God, as one country even as we wrestle over the complexity of how we ought to live and govern. Give us gratitude for our right to dissent and disagree. For we know that we are bound up in one another and have been given the tremendous opportunity to extend humanity and grace when others voice their deeply held convictions even when they differ from our own.

~

And my last link is especially for you church folk…

A Growing Church is a Dying Church — Street Pastor

So much to love here.

Whenever a congregation goes looking for a new pastor, the first question on their minds when the committee interviews a new candidate is: Will this pastor grow our church?

I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not.

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.

Read the whole thing.

 

The Gospel in Seven Words

The Christian Century has a series going called “the gospel in seven words.” Here’s a link to the summary and to the various responses. I like Beverly Gaventa’s: In Christ, God’s “yes” defeats our “no.”

I also like that Walter Brueggemann used only six words, and rested on the seventh. Touché.

I am home this evening from a very short trip to Minnesota to visit little Jacob, a member of our church and someone I wrote about here. You can read the family’s CaringBridge site here. Jake is in the fight of his life. Thankfully he has some brilliant medical minds in his corner, as well as loving and dedicated parents, and the wonder of mesenchymal stem cells.

I don’t know what God’s yes means for Jacob. I have a tangle of complicated and fervent hopes, but I just don’t know where we’re headed. All I know is that the stubborn, fierce determination of so many people to support, heal and love Jacob and his family takes my breath away.

I’m curious how others would summarize the Christian message in seven words. Here’s what I’m working on. A bit Bill McKibben-ish perhaps, but hey, I’ve always liked Uncle Bill*:

Christ loved everyone. Now it’s our turn.

~

*Not my real uncle.

Holy As a Weekend Is Spent

Meet Jacob, a special friend and member of my church whom I visited this past weekend in Minnesota. Jacob, age 7, had a bone marrow transplant 180 days ago. That’s a milestone, but the celebration was rather low-key—we played some Wii (he kicked my butt) and I took his mom out for beers and pub food.

At this point, it appears that the BMT has halted the spread of the ALD, which is cause for rejoicing in heaven and earth. I am so thankful to the as-yet-unnamed guy in his mid-40s who was a perfect match, who gave Jacob a second chance. We will be having a bone marrow registry drive at Tiny Church in November, near the one-year anniversary of Jake’s transplant.

Unfortunately, Jacob has been in the hospital since day 60 or so. He’s had a whole host of issues to deal with since transplant, including graft v. host disease and all kinds of other stuff. You know those drug commercials where they list all the weird, random side effects? And when you ask the doctor she says, “Eh, I have never seen that happen.” Jake seems to have a talent for being the one who gets the weird complication or side effect. He is, to borrow a phrase, the 1%.

You can read his incredible story here, although the latest entry is about me and how I came to be called to Tiny. So let me return the favor by telling you a little of what I saw this weekend.

I saw a kid who was clearly feeling crummy but who complained exactly twice. Who doesn’t like physical therapy but who does it. (Sadly, I missed his 2 laps around the floor on the bike on Sunday.) Who speaks up for himself, who’s assertive to say what he needs or wants. Who swallows handfuls of pills each day, and pillcams the width of a Sharpie.

Who was stronger on Sunday than he was on Saturday.

I also saw a mother whose frustration and fatigue with the situation has gotta be out of this world but who responded with patience, love and attentiveness to her son. Who spends every day and night with him but who takes time away each day because that’s the healthy, faithful thing to do. Who is very plugged into what’s happening with her daughter back home in Virginia and who can’t wait until she comes out for the summer, even though that means an increase in logistics.

Who went shopping for a wedding shower gift, for heaven’s sake.

It’s a cliche to call people like this brave. I’m not even sure that’s the right word. Because they would answer, What choice do we have?

They do have a choice, though. They can become bitter and defeated and curved into themselves—and who would blame them?—or they can write a journal entry that says, “Enough about us—another family here needs our prayers and thoughts right now.”

One of my articles of faith is that people going through hard times are under no obligation to be inspiring to the rest of us. They have every right to be cranky and imperfect, to shake their fist at the heavens.

And when the opposite happens—when grace happens—well, there’s nothing for a pastor, or a person, to do but to notice it and name it. To breathe, bask and behold.

~

Title is a riff on a Carrie Newcomer song (video). “Redemption everywhere I look.”

UPDATE: Fixed the link to the family’s CaringBridge site.

What To Expect… Grandparents’ Edition

My video on “What to Expect When Your Church is Expecting” has hit 4,000 views/pages and counting. I’m humbled and honored by the attention.

It also makes me cringe since I hate watching myself on video.

A few folks have countered that there are places in which the church is not pregnant, but really and truly dying. I agree. One person rightly pointed out that the symptoms for pregnancy that I named are not unlike the symptoms of a cancer patient. Also true. As I’ve said, this video/post offers a metaphor. To the extent that the metaphor helps, great. If it gets in the way of the hard work of dying that must take place in many specific places, disregard.

May my words be faithful or may they slip harmlessly away.

The inimitable Jan Edmiston riffed on the metaphor in a wonderful way today. The church is graying. So what is our responsibility as grandparents to this new church that is coming into being?

It occurs to me that those in my and older generations need to keep something in the forefront of our minds as the church we love is pregnant:

The Next Church Will Not Be Our Baby.

We will have great ideas for how to care for it and treasure it.  We might even be able to help pay for its nurture and its future.  But it’s not our baby.

 This is not to say we will not be ideal grandparents.  But it’s possible that we could overstep our bounds.  We could chuckle at the disciplines the younger generations have chosen to follow. We might want to talk incessantly about the way we did it.  But let’s not.

She ends by saying that the church of the future will be a lot browner than it is now. That’s also true. And yet the Presbyterian Church is very white. So what’s going on there? Adoption is another metaphor that might help us. I wonder if there’s someone out there that might riff on that in some creative ways. Susan? Alex?

Let’s all keep dreaming and spinning generative metaphors.

What to Expect When Your Church Is Expecting

A few months ago I recorded a video for Bruce Reyes-Chow’s We Are Presbyterian project. It was fun, and I learned a lot in the process.

In the video I suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not “gravely ill,” as some have suggested.

Instead we are… well… take it away Barbie:

We’re not terminal. We’re just pregnant.

Apparently the video has hopped the Presbyterian fence and is wandering around other backyards, specifically Lutheran and Episcopal ones. It’s been fun to hear from friends and colleagues who’ve spotted it. I’m glad it resonates with others too… is there a baby boom happening in the mainline?

The video appears at the end of this post, but for those who prefer to read, here is essentially what I said:

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Recently a group of pastors wrote a letter to the PCUSA, expressing concern about where we’re headed as a denomination. According to the letter, we are “deathly ill”.

The group has facts and figures to back up this–lots of numbers related to membership loss, the declining number of baptisms we do, and so forth.

Well look… the numbers are what they are.
I can’t argue with the statistics.
I only argue with the diagnosis.

We are not deathly ill. We’re…
well…
we’re pregnant.

That’s right folks.
We’re Pregnant!
Expecting!
On the nest!
Knocked up!
Preggers!
With child!
Bun in the oven!

The symptoms are there, if you know what you’re looking for.

First, there’s the fatigue. I see a lot of tired people out there, trying to keep life going, keep ministries going, keep the sermons coming, the nursery staffed, the money flowing in, the furnace in good repair… often with fewer people–less energy–than before. It’s tiring!

I see some bad queasiness too: morning sickness, which folks will tell you doesn’t just come in the morning, but sometimes round the clock. There’s a sense that the world has changed right out from under our feet, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it. What is this “emergent” stuff? How do we deal with the internet and social media? What about this younger generation? How do we respond to the culture without being coopted by it? Not to mention our new Form of Government, the passage of amendment 10A, and on and on. It’s to be expected that we’d be feeling a little woozy, a little green, a little sick.

And there’s a lot of anxiety too… that question every prospective parent asks: Can we do this? Are we ready? Do we have what it takes to step into this new chapter of life?

So here’s a bit of motherly wisdom, a guide, if you will: “what to expect when your church is expecting.”

I offer these reflections knowing that the metaphor is complicated. Not everyone who’s pregnant wants to be pregnant. And there are many who struggle to become pregnant, or who grieve the loss of a child. So I just acknowledge that and tread as lightly as I can.

But here’s what pregnancy offers us that “deathly ill” doesn’t.

1. It’s deeply biblical. Scripture is full of images of pregnancy. The whole creation groans in labor pains, Paul writes in Romans 8, and he uses the image again in I Thess 5. Even Jesus couldn’t resist using the metaphor: “When a woman is in labour, she has pain. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy.”

(That’s not true, by the way.)

The Bible is also full of women that society had written off as barren, women who thought their time had passed. And similarly, some say this whole PCUSA thing doesn’t have much life left in it. And that may even be true on some level. Maybe we are in our declining years. But guess what? Sarah and Elizabeth were in their declining years too, and yet God used both of them to grow new life and give birth to a whole new world.

2. Another way pregnancy connects with our church right now: Pregnancy ain’t pretty. As much as we talk about women glowing, it is not a glamorous time. Your face breaks out. Your joints go slack. You get gas. You can’t sleep at night. You have to pee every 10 minutes. And let’s not even talk about the dreaded “cankles”:

It’s a bit of a freak show, to be honest.

And yeah, this period we’re in right now as a church? It ain’t pretty. We’re cranky and itching for a fight with one another. We used to be young and fresh, the belle of the ball. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we were thriving. People were flocking to our doors. But we’re not there anymore.

Now we’re in tremendous upheaval as a denomination. It seems like almost everything is on the table–our practices, our polity, our way of worshiping, our music, our structure…
But what’s not on the table for us is whether God is working.
What’s not on the table is what kind of God we serve: a living God, an incarnate God.
God is capable of doing a new thing: it springs forth, now, in nine months, in nine years, over a lifetime.
New life is what it’s all about. It’s the business we’re in.

3. Your sense of time is all messed up in pregnancy. On the one hand, it’s a quiet, slow, lumbering time. The nine months pass slowly. You can’t move as fast as you did. I had sciatica that would act up whenever I was walking too quickly; I finally decided it was God saying, “Slow down! Don’t go through this time at a breakneck pace. Stop, look, listen and feel.”

Even mental processes seem to slow down. Nouns and verbs come more slowly: “Honey bring me that, that… what is that? That thing! Beside the doohickey?” And maybe we as a church need to move beyond words for a while. Maybe we need to just be silent for a while, stop making so many pronouncements about the church. Sure, Mary sang, but she also pondered in her heart. Maybe it’s OK to shut up and let God do what God’s gonna do.

The time goes slowly… but it’s also an incredibly busy time. There’s a lot to learn, and pregnancy is a great time to do research. Hospital or birth center? Epidural? C-section? Breast or bottle? Stroller or sling? Pacifiers or thumb-sucking, cloth diapers or disposable? Television: harmless, or idiot box that will keep your kid out of Stanford?

And we’re doing the same research in the church. Every week I hear about a new group that’s meeting, a new conference to attend, a new website to keep track of. And the books! Oh, the books! Each one promising to give you that just-right approach to ministry, promising to grow your church, keep session meetings joyful and productive, and so on and so forth.

And any parent will tell you, that research is all well and good. But then the child is born. And it all comes down to that child’s personality, that child’s gifts, what that child needs. The books, ultimately, don’t tell you what you need to know. Your child does. So we in the PCUSA need to learn flexibility. We need to learn to respond to this thing being birthed, whatever it might be, instead of some idealized notion of what it might be. Is it a bunch of new churches? Ministries beyond the traditional church? Who knows, but as any parent will tell you, our kids are not carbon copies of us. They are their own people and they deserve to be treated as such. What is being born in the PCUSA is going to look different everywhere. We’re not all going to win beautiful baby contests. We are not birthing many 1950s Presbyterian churches anymore. No more perfect Gerber babies.

5. The final and, I think, most important parallel is this: Pregnancy, labor and parenthood are all embodied experiences–blood, sweat, tears, vomit… and poop. Once that labor starts, you can’t think your way out of it. You don’t do the work up in your head. You’ve got to participate in it with every bit of your being.

And that’s what this new phase of our Church is going to require too. It’s not enough to think about stuff. It’s not enough to talk about mission. It’s not enough to claim to value diversity. It’s not enough to give lip service to evangelism. We’re going to have to practice these things that we believe. To jump in, body and soul.

But I think the best thing pregnancy offers us as a metaphor is this: it’s hopeful. It’s a great big crazy leap into the unknown. It’s a vision for the future. It’s something you grow into. Nobody’s “ready.”

The question is, what are we going to do during this time of gestation?

Thanks for listening, and a special thanks to my friend and colleague Elizabeth Goodrich for the pregnancy metaphor.

We Are Presbyterian 2011 — A New “Diagnosis” for the Church from MaryAnn McKibben Dana on Vimeo.