Rev Betsy Blessing

(creator: Beth Pattillo)


Beth Pattillo
Rev Betsy Blessing,who tells the story throughout, is the thirty-year-old Associate Minister, then temporary Senior Pastor, at the Church of the Shepherd, Nashville, which she describes as "your typical graying, dying downtown congregation." The author does not identify her denomination because, as she explains, "I wanted readers from a variety of church backgrounds to identify with her, though I would say that her church's denomination is loosely modelled on my own, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)."

Before going to Nashville, she had served for five years in a small town church where she had had a lonely and frustrating time, and from where she had been sacked because "I wasn't good enough. No, I wasn't male enough. Or was it the same thing?" She had previously gone straight from college to Vanderbilt Divinity School (where she was awarded a Master of Divinity degree). She "chose div school by process of elimination. Nothing else felt right .... Since my parents split up when I was 15, Church has been my refuge. I found comfort, affirmation, opportunities for leadership. When I was a senior, the pastor told me I should think about ministry. The seed seemed to grow of its own accord, and until the day my first church fired me, it always felt like the right thing."

She is a large lady who admits to carrying an "an extra fifteen pounds". Her saving grace is her sense of humor.

Beth Pattillo is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). After twelve years in parish ministry, serving churches in Missouri and Tennessee, she founded, and is now executive director of, Faith Leader, a spiritual leadership development program, in Nashville, Tennessee. She has written a number of novels, including romance novels under the name of Bethany Brooks, and is a contributor to the Mystery and the Minister's Wife series. She is married to a university administrator and is the mother of two children. She says that having a good sense of humor is the biggest blessing of all.

Heavens to Betsy (2005)
Heavens to Betsy starts with Rev Betsy Blessing hoping to leave the ministry and take up a place that she has been offered at law school. She has had enough of being an associate minister, a sort of general dogsbody. "I had a professor in divinity school who taught us that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it's fear .... Don't get me wrong; I have my doubts. But they're nothing compared to my fears .... Conflict. Loneliness. Rejection." And she is not helped by critical, if not downright hostile, members of her congregation, and all the opposition and scorn that she finds can still be poured on a female minister.

But then she is offered the temporary post of senior pastor, and has to make up her mind about her future. She is certainly less than happy to be offered no increase in salary, no full responsibility and the job only on a short-term basis until somebody else can be appointed. And when she leaves the committee that appointed her, she is still asked by a particularly aggressive woman member, "Oh, Betsy, would you be a dear and brew us some coffee before you go?". Betsy dutifully, if resentfully, does what she is asked: "You see, in the ministry there's a fine line between the leader and servant. The minute you stand up for yourself, a parishioner is quick to remind you that Jesus washed the disciples' feet. But nowhere in the Scripture does it say the disciples asked him for a pedicure while he was down there."

Aged 30, and still single, she also has to sort out her relationship with her long-time friend, fellow seminarian, and verbal sparring partner, Rev Dr David Swensen, the minister of St Helga's Lutheran church in the same town. She finds herself strangely excited by the way his hand rests for a moment on her thigh when they are sharing popcorn in the local cinema - but they go on keeping up a jokey relationship with neither of them liking to tell the other what they really feel. But it is all enlivened by Betsy's sense of humor, as when she describes a pastor's wife as "disarmingly kind, has a lovely singing voice, and is a tiger when it comes to protecting her husband. I wish I could have a wife, but that probably wouldn't go over well with the congregation, huh?"

It is all very Romantic (with a capital R) - and sometimes even rather silly, as when Betsy allows herself to be given a complete makeover, complete with new clothes and hair-do, and startling makeup, for a "Holy to Hottie" item for a TV show, in the hope that it will impress David. Needless to say, it doesn't.

However, when helping him fix up a closed circuit TV camera, she falls and braces herself for a head-on collision with the floor but "David scoops me into his arms like a groom about to carry his bride across his threshold. I'm shocked he's not collapsing under my weight, but he holds steady, unlike my heart rate. 'Thanks,' I say with a breathlessness usually reserved for preteen girls and asthmatics.
It's dark. I'm in David's arms. I can feel his breath on my face, and it's the movie theatre all over again. .... Slowly, he slides me to the ground. I'm still clinging to him for support. It's so clichéd, and still so intimate. No wonder it's a stock device in all my favourite romance novels."
It's good that Betsy can laugh at herself - but, as she disarmingly admits, it is still a cliché.

Then, when she eventually gets to dance with him, she says she is "content to rest in his embrace, moving gently around the dance floor, my breath slowing to match his until it feels as if we are one person lost in the music and the moment. This is what Heaven must be like. At least I hope that's what it will be like. Because I could spend eternity doing what I'm doing right now .... I will spare you the blow-by-blow of every dance we dance this evening. Suffice it to say that it just gets yummier as the night goes along." Yummier indeed!

A pity, as Betsy's accounts of her church life and her relationship with her difficult congregation are very down-to-earth and convincing, and described with real gusto. But then, one suspects, some of these may well have been based on incidents that really happened, such as when she mislaid her sermon notes and had to improvise without them, or when she thinks that a man has collapsed from a heart attack during a service, only to discover he had simply fallen asleep during her sermon. And there is the moving account of the death of a very old lady, who had always wanted to live to be 100, so Betsy, unable to do anything else for her, pretends, "You're 100 today, Dotty. Congratulations."

David has some useful advice to offer her about how to be a success as a senior pastor. There are three secrets: "At least once during each sermon, hold the Bible up in the air and wave it around .... Congregations want someone who will 'preach the Scripture'. If you give them the image of you holding your Bible up in the air, they'll think that's what you're doing .... Visit anyone who goes into the hospital within twenty-four hours .... Never drive a better car than your parishioners .... Then there's one more thing .... don't date a parishioner."

Betsy continues to be confronted with discrimination because of her gender, and there's even a Mrs Longworth who threatens to sue the church over what had been a perfectly conducted wedding. Apparently, Betsy is told, she "is upset there was a lady minister in all the wedding pictures. Says it ruins the whole thing. She wants money for pain and suffering." It would be difficult to make his up!

There is even an occasion when Betsy dutifully turns up to attend the funeral of a particularly objectionable number of her congregation and suddenly finds that she is expected to take the service. But what could she say in the eulogy? She can think of no way in which she could fill in the expected ten minutes talking about "a woman who didn't like anyone and who wasn't liked by anyone in return .... So instead of the eulogy, I say what I know to be true. I talk about the gifts God gives to us when we find a community of faith. How much it means to be part of one, even under the worst of circumstances. How we struggle. How we fail. How we shine. .... I say everything I've always wanted to say about church life. How we mistake showing up for being faithful. How power in church should be used to build one another up, not tear one another down. And how life together in churches ought to be measured by a standard of love, not a standard of condemnation." It sounds very like wishful thinking - what the author herself would have liked to have said.

Betsy is confronted with three situations that do require some detective work: someone is sending her dead roses, she keeps on hearing heavy breathing down the phone, and someone is breaking into the safe and helping him/herself to the church collection. With the aid of her closed-circuit TV camera, she is able to identify the thief and solve all three mysteries. She then goes on to confront the culprit.

The story builds up her to a satisfying conclusion in which Betsy stands up to her critics, even if, as she admits, "I'd rather daydream about David than study Paul's letter to the Ephesians in the original Greek." And after arranging to be locked up in the church steeple with David (!), she sorts out her relationship with him too.

It makes an entertaining story which is apparently partly based on the author's own experiences. She herself describes the book as "the novel about my life and loves". It won the Rita Award from the Romance Writers of America for the Best Inspirational Romance of 2006 - but let's not hold that against it.

Earth to Betsy (2006)
Earth to Betsy starts just a few weeks after the previous story ends. Reverend Betsy Blessing, acting as temporary senior pastor, finds that she has to cope with a developer's surprise offer to buy the premises of her dying downtown church (thus enabling a move out to the suburbs where more people actually live) and also with an unexpected marriage proposal over dinner from Reverend David Swenson, accompanied by "the most hideous ring I've ever seen", that, it turns out, was bought on eBay. Then after the restaurant doors were thrown open, "wave after wave of familiar faces flow forth. My parishioners. David's parishioners. Friends from Divinity School. And my mother. My mother? And right behind her, my father. I'm stunned. I understand my parents haven't been in the same room since their divorce 15 years ago."

It turns out that it is a surprise engagement party, arranged by Dave's mother, Cecilia, who wants to feature the pair in a special Christmas edition of her magazine Budget Bride. This will enable them to get married sooner and will, they hope, save them a lot of money. But it means that Cecilia will be in charge of all the arrangements. And to fit in with the Budget Bride theme, they have to make all sorts of economies, such as searching a cheap store for possible wedding gifts to add to their wanted list, with both the mothers offering conflicting advice on Betsy's cell phone while she shops. It makes an amusing comedy situation.

The wedding is actually to take place in June, so Cecilia plans to get the Christmas photos she needs by "transforming the sanctuary of the Church of the Shepherd into a snow scene with the generous use of packing peanuts". And when it comes down to it, she arranges "at the end of each pew, a jaunty snowman in a spray of silver-painted leaves (that) holds a little sign that reads 'Mazel Tov on your Bat Mitzvah' ", words that Betsy supposes "will be Photoshopped out of the wedding picture". All this, however improbable, is entertaining to read, but when the author goes on to attempt a slapstick account of a wedding rehearsal dinner, the humor starts to get too strained and self-conscious. And Betsy having a make-over for the sake of the media is too reminiscent of the previous book.

There are some incidents, such as the death of a friendly down-and-out, and Betsy having to sack one of the church staff, that are handled sympathetically, but overall it is not as convincing a story as before - and this time Betsy doesn't do any detective work at all, beyond discovering the secret behind the developer's apparently too-generous offer.

Betsy is very preoccupied by her wedding - and the dress she is to wear for it. However, Judge Blount (who refuses to address her as Reverend) and other members of her congregation keep her on the run, and there is a good moment when a stranger (whose "greasy hair is matted to his thin skull") comes up to her at the down-and-out's funeral and thanks her for what she is doing. Betsy realises that she does not know his name and says, "Excuse me? I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself. I'm Reverend Blessing."
He smiles, a weary but peaceful expression, and nods at me. "Pleased to meet you properly."
"And you are?"
Oh. Sorry ma'am. I'm Jesus. Jesus Christ."
He was, Betsy reflects "not the first homeless person I've met who thinks he is Jesus, but is certainly the most calm about it. Since I've been at Church of the Shepherd, I've also encountered the apostle Paul, Mary Magdalene, and Noah. Given the percentage of homeless people who suffer from mental illness and how often that expresses itself in religious ways, that's not surprising. What does surprise me is that, the first time, I'm not entirely skeptical."

If only there had been a little more hard reality and just a little less fantastic nonsense, Betsy might have emerged as a more convincing character. But much of the book is fun to read - even if, after the inevitable major misunderstanding with her husband-to-be, she still insists on describing him as being "as scrumpdillyicious as ever".


The author has her own website.



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Heavens to Betsy cover
The covers suggest a sense of fun.
Earth to Betsy cover
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