I’m not exactly sure how or when the vision took hold of me, but when it did, it was undeniable, voracious. I could not let it go. Or maybe it refused to let me go. It was a vision cast from longing, from years of vocational confusion, from decades of sitting quietly in stifled sanctuaries and from a dream that the church could be nourished by art.
A surprise calling
In 2011, I entered seminary because I was offered a scholarship to try vocational ministry for one year, no strings attached. The scholarship, which took me by surprise, was granted by a committee that seeks graduating college seniors who are not planning to go to seminary but who exhibit gifts for ministry. So I entered Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, Georgia) that fall with classmates who all seemed to have three-year plans and divinely guided stories of being called. I was there because it seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) refuse.
Along the way, moments of clarity started to form a path, like breadcrumbs leading to a faraway feast.
Seminary was internally tumultuous for me. My love for learning propelled me forward in my classes, but I was directionless. It is hard to move theory into praxis if you have no clue what you are training for. Along the way, moments of clarity started to form a path, like breadcrumbs leading to a faraway feast. Every time I was invited to blend art with faith, I felt a spark of intuition, an internal yes that buoyed me in the storm of uncertainty that washed over me daily.
The breadcrumbs gave me reason to stay, so I did. My professors were gracious in letting me shift most of my assignments to an arts focus. I frequently turned in paintings alongside papers. As part of one final project, I threw a clay pot on a wheel to present ideas on eco-theology and creation care. (Many thanks to those who helped me heave that old pottery wheel up to a third-floor classroom.)
When I graduated, I had more letters after my name, including two master’s degrees. But I saw an institution that offered no job prospects for the vision stirring within me.
For a few months, I tried wholeheartedly to follow the Presbyterian path of finding a “call.” But each time I read a job description about pastoring a church, my heart would sink. It felt like a betrayal of the call I had actually discerned.
Breadcrumbs along the way
Around that time, a few invitations and conversations turned into additional breadcrumbs, and I followed them with a growing appetite for more. I was invited to lead arts retreats at churches, facilitating members of all ages to create large banners together over the course of a weekend. I led workshops on creativity and spirituality, exploring how our creative journeys shape our faith. I live-painted for worship, offering paint strokes as a visual meditation alongside the sermon and liturgy. I painted my own liturgical banners, filling sanctuaries with more color and imagery.
I quickly realized that the work I was doing was spiritual formation — providing safe spaces for communities to create together and to be shaped by the process.
As my schedule filled up, I discovered that my deep longing for a more creative, embodied spirituality was shared by many others, even if they couldn’t put it into words. But a few could.
I started to have what felt like the same conversation with three different women. Two were classmates at seminary: Sarah Are Speed and Lauren Wright Pittman. The third was my new sister-in-law, Hannah Garrity. Our conversations swirled around the topics of visual art, design, faith, creative identities and our desire for more creative expression in worship. Sarah was a lover of kinesthetic prayers and a writer with the rhythm of a poet. Hannah was a Cornell-trained painter who had landed in education but was finding her way back to the church. Lauren was a graphic designer and self-taught painter who believed Scripture deserved to be visually exegeted. We were all searching for ways to be artists in the church.
As I talked with each of them, the vision twirling within me accelerated. It began to take flight. One day, I brought each of the women together for a collective conversation and then pitched the vision to them: to collaborate to offer creative resources to churches. I didn’t know exactly what the resources would look like, but I imagined visual art, designs for communities to create their own liturgical banners, liturgies with embodied movement and prayers, and short films pairing time-lapse painting with poetry.
I talked a mile a minute. They listened with eyes and hearts growing wider.
To my great surprise and delight, they all said yes. And without skipping a beat, we got to work. It was early in 2016, so we decided to pull together a small bundle of resources for Pentecost. We created a website in a matter of weeks and negotiated payment structures and pricing. I think around 50 churches used that first little bundle, which awed us and fueled us to keep going — so we quickly began working on resources for the following Advent, and then for the next year’s Lent, and then we just kept going.
A vision realized
We have continued to create new types of resources based on feedback from our community. Our resources now include comprehensive materials for a full liturgical season (such as Advent through Epiphany) inspired by a theme. Those bundles now include devotionals, visual art, poetry, branding materials, sermon planning guides, liturgies, children’s curricula, theme songs and more. In 2019, we welcomed Anna Strickland as our first seminary intern, and we quickly hired her in 2020 for her gifts in curriculum design and hymn writing. In 2019, we also had the financial stability to pursue a long-lived dream: partnering with guest contributors. Each year, we now collaborate with as many as 10 guest writers, visual artists and musicians to bring our resources to life.
We now serve a global and ecumenical audience of worshipping communities. Our Facebook group is a splash of color and creativity. In the group, pastors and ministry leaders share photos of their sanctuaries adorned with banner art, visual installations and altar displays. Members collaborate with one another and discuss how they are implementing our resources within their varied contexts. Sometimes they share how a poem moved them, or how an art piece helped them see a familiar Scripture passage in a new way.
Each time I see our materials used, I remember when those resources began as simply a soft-spoken idea pitched into the flurry of a brainstorm. It awes me. These ideas are made manifest through the hands and
hearts of many.
Our principles and values
The vision for A Sanctified Art now has a collective body, a community. It is living and breathing and evolving. As we continue to create, here are some of the principles and values that guide our work.
We create art and resources for spiritual nourishment
When we create new resources, we believe we are passing them off to co-creators who will bring them to life in beautiful and meaningful ways. We are not interested in creating products for mindless consumption or in adding a consumer-culture mindset to our worship and faith practices.
Anyone who uses our resources knows that they require time, commitment and energy to implement. A special liturgy that weaves together poetry, a musical refrain, visio divina and prayer stations is going to take some time to plan and prepare. But in our resource bundles, the first steps of the process – the conceiving and creating – are complete already. This allows pastors to focus their time and energy on what they do best: preaching, teaching, facilitating and leading worship — all with rich and meaningful materials at their fingertips.
A pastor who regularly uses our resources once told us, “A Sanctified Art is my new spiritual practice.” When following one of our series, she begins her week by reading and absorbing all the materials: the poems, the art and artist statements, the sermon prompts, the commentary and so on. Then she journeys with those ideas for the week and lets them cross-pollinate into the message she feels called to preach for Sunday worship. This process is more than just sermon prep for her; it is spiritual formation. It is nourishment.
We need imaginative and expansive images
Art is inherently expansive. No one sees or feels the exact same things when they gaze upon an image. With every resource bundle we release, we create as many as 15 original pieces of art in a variety of media. We create the visuals alongside guest artists – such as T. Denise Anderson, Carmelle Beaugelin and Nicolette Peñaranda – so that many styles and artists are included in the collection.
I believe much of the deep longing for more creativity in our worship highlights the fact that most mainline Protestants have an underdeveloped visual theology.
I believe much of the deep longing for more creativity in our worship highlights the fact that most mainline Protestants have an underdeveloped visual theology. Many of us are devoted to the music in our worship, so when our words alone are not enough, we sing. How many hymns do you know by heart? Contrast this to visual art. When you think of your favorite story in Scripture, does an art piece come to mind? How many pieces of visual art have spiritual or theological significance for you? When you imagine concepts like heaven or Jesus or God, does your brain flood with images from cartoons or billboards or Google images? Do these images accurately represent your own sacred imagination?
One of the many ways in which White supremacy infiltrates the church is through visuals. In his 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi discusses how White American churches in the 1820s mass-produced and mass-marketed images of White Jesus to form a unified national identity of White superiority. The images were intended to coerce Black people into submission by equating Whiteness with holiness.
A few years ago, I was leading worship for a church. Throughout the service and sermon, I used an artwork, titled “Anointed,” by my colleague Lauren Wright Pittman. The painting is inspired by the scriptural account
of Mary washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. In the worship service I engaged the practice of visio divina, inviting worshipers to look closely at the image and imagine how God might be speaking to them through the art. After the service, an older White woman came up to me, her brow furrowed with concern. She said, “I have to admit that the whole time I was looking at the art, I didn’t see the foot. I thought it was part of the woman’s hand. I didn’t recognize that it was Jesus’ foot because I hadn’t thought of Jesus as having a darker skin tone.” Then her face softened as she said, “I’m going to sit with that. I’m going to be thinking about that for a long time.”
When we create art, we hope that our images serve as visual proclamation — as art that conveys a deeper meaning or provides new insights for our lives today.
When we create art, we hope that our images serve as visual proclamation — as art that conveys a deeper meaning or provides new insights for our lives today. We do so with the hope that our art will expand imagination, not limit it.
Art and commerce must be reimagined.
When we launched A Sanctified Art, we knew we would be pushing up against cultural assumptions that creative work is not real labor deserving of compensation. We had each experienced being expected to donate our creative time, energy and gifts.
I felt deep down that our funding structure needed to be entrepreneurial. We wanted the freedom to experiment and create without having to fundraise as a prerequisite. I also didn’t want the source of our revenue to be deeply tied to other institutional powers that might have certain expectations and limitations. So as we have experimented and adapted and responded to the needs of our community, we’ve arrived at a funding model based on an exchange: our patrons give us financial resources, and in return we give them creative resources.
This business structure has allowed us to grow and expand over the years so that now, as an organization, we try to pay our creators equitably, and we practice financial stewardship. For each resource bundle we launch, we have committed to giving away a portion of the revenue. Each guest contributor recommends an organization whose mission reflects their own ministry, values or hopes for the world, and we give donations in their honor. In this way, we hope our financial giving can be an extension of our creative partnership together.
Over the past few years, we have given away more than $57,000 to 34 different organizations doing good and important work across the globe. In other words, when you purchase art or resources from our site, your money also supports many other organizations doing meaningful and much-needed work in the world. It helps us all work toward collective flourishing.
As I look back on the beginning of our journey, I see how the twirling vision within me was not singular but collective. I was simply looking for partners to dance with. As I imagine the ever-changing landscape of the modern church, I hope and pray that more twirling visions will find their dance partners.