Pastor Dobbins’s questions about Betty Andress began the Sunday morning he looked at the choir and didn’t see her. It’s not that she was the glue that held the harmony. She was a fairly substantial alto, but she was far from the star. From the front of the church, he checked the praise team—no Betty. Just behind the piano sat the drama people, but she wasn’t there either. His eyes swept through the sanctuary. Let’s see, he asked himself, where do the Andresses normally sit?
And then he saw them—Betty, Glen, their three kids, all of them left side, towards the back, eyes up at the overhead, hands raised in praise.
That very Sunday afternoon Betty’s high school kids weren’t in youth group. He’d heard the news from Evie Donohue, who hadn’t mentioned it until Wednesday or Thursday, when she’d complained that the discussion had been a humongous flop.
In Worship Committee the next week, Pastor Dobbins noted that Betty didn’t have her usual spark. She didn’t look angry, even when the committee discussed dropping the sermon altogether in lieu of a big drama spectacular. Betty had opinions—that much he knew. But she sat back in her chair and doodled on the minutes sheet. And that was unlike her.
Two weeks later, she didn’t show up for Leadership Council. She didn’t even make an appearance, and the next time he saw her—it was the night the Retreat Committee was finishing up last-minute planning—he asked her if she was all right. “You okay, Betty?” he said. “Missed you at Leadership Council a couple nights ago.”
She raised her fingers to her lips. “I knew there was something I’d forgotten,” she told him, “but I just couldn’t remember what it was.” And then she fell back into silence the whole night long. She was too young for Alzheimers, Pastor Dobbins thought.
“Get-Away with God” came and went, and the whole Andress family showed up but didn’t stay. Friday night they were there for the Hallelujah Hootenanny, and they came again on Saturday morning—but they didn’t stay overnight in the cabins. They hadn’t come early enough for the barbeque, either, or stayed late enough for the Late-Night Live Happenin’ the kids put on Friday night. Nor were they there for Breakfast at Dawn. They didn’t show up that morning until well after nine, when the Glad Groups were already sharing fervently. By noon they were gone. It was very unlike her—or them.
Smile-wise, Betty didn’t appear to miss a step. Every time Pastor Dobbins saw her and her family, they looked positively gleeful. But he had been in the business long enough to know that real sorrows often hid behind smiley faces. One afternoon, he thought he’d give her a call.
“Just checking up,” he told her.
She said she’d come home from work early to get some exercise.
“Sometimes we forget about the people who do most around here,” he told her. “I just want to make sure that you’re still whistlin’.” He stumbled around a bit, told her he’d noticed she wasn’t in choir and thought maybe she had some dreary, lingering, summer cold.
“Nothing like that,” Betty told him. “Nobody here’s been at the doctor for almost a year now—knock on wood.”
“Knock on wood,” he repeated.
“Kids looking forward to the Lock-Up?” he asked.
“I don’t think they’re going,” she told him.
“But they worked hard on the Potato Roast . . . ”
“I know—but they’re busy at school, and I just gave them the choice.” And then she said something strange. “You know, Jack,” she said. “I don’t think choice is such a bad thing.”
He let that one go because he had no idea what she meant.
“I told them that if they didn’t want to go, they didn’t have to. They’re busy—they’re terribly busy. We’re all busy, aren’t we?”
Weekend Lock-Up, an all-nighter, had been planned for months—the kids would get the run of the YMCA, plus videos galore, an exercise room turned into a dance studio, so many prizes from local merchants that Jeopardy would be jealous—giveaways galore. “I thought they were all looking forward to it,” he said.
“My college son’s been reading Thoreau,” she said, giggling. “He’s convinced we’re all living lives of quiet desperation? It’s from Walden or something, you know?—ah, ‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’—I don’t know how it goes exactly.”
“Quiet desperation?” he asked. He wondered whether Christian kids should be reading such things. “Certainly not with faith,” he told her.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“Certainly not with faith in the Lord,” he repeated. “Surely we aren’t living in ‘quiet desperation’ when we’re in Christ?” It was almost offensive. “You’re telling him that, aren’t you? Betty, tell Aaron that in the Lord there’s no desperation at all.”
Once more, she giggled. “Wait till your kids get to be teenagers,” she said. “I got to go exercise now. I’m okay—all right?”
And that was it.
Then, Sunday night, Betty and Glen cancelled Fellowship Disciples, which was supposed to meet at their place that week. When she called Sharon Blankesdyk to tell her it was off, Betty gave no reason. “We can’t—okay?” she said. Sharon told Pastor Dobbins that if Betty hadn’t sounded so upbeat, Sharon would have asked what was going on because Betty Andress simply doesn’t shrug responsibilities. It’s not like her.
It was time for a visit. He planned it well, pulling up at her door, unannounced, just after she got home from work. Her car was in the driveway, and no one else seemed to be home. Glen, he knew, didn’t get back from the Avery Building until six, because he could never make Afternoon Men’s Prayer Partners.
He rang the bell—twice, three times—then opened the screen and knocked on the door. Nothing happened. She had to be home. He pounded, used the back of his hand. Maybe she had the TV on. He put his hand up to the window, cupped it, and looked inside but saw nothing, no lights. And that’s when he heard her voice behind him.
“The last window-peeker in this neighborhood got tossed in the jug,” she said.
He turned around quickly, and saw her coming up the driveway in a wetsuit, of all things, matching tank-top and pants, bare midriff, her hair a mess of tangles, a towel draped around her neck.
She motioned behind her. “I’ve taken up kayaking,” she said. “I know it sounds trendy, but I like it.”
“Okay,” he said.
“What am I missing?” she said. “There was something on the calendar again, wasn’t there? I’m supposed to be somewhere now—or is it tonight?”
“I just thought I’d drop in,” he said.
“That’s a lie,” she told him. “I’ve been around preachers my whole life, you know—my dad was one. Preachers don’t just ‘drop in.’”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I thought I’d see how you’re doing.”
“You’re concerned, aren’t you?” she said, shaking out her hair.
It was slightly disconcerting to be talking to her in that wetsuit, even though she was at least a decade older than he was.
“I’ve decided to take up kayaking religiously,” she said, laughing, as if it were a joke. “Call it midlife crisis—call it what you want. But I decided I’m not missing an hour on the lake.” She pointed behind her at Lake Burlein. “You want to know what’s wrong with me, Jack? It’s really quite simple. I haven’t stopped to smell the roses. I haven’t spent enough time in peace. I haven’t actually watched the loons, even though I’ve lived only a block away.” She picked the towel off her shoulders and rubbed at her short hair. “I haven’t even looked at that lake for far too long. I haven’t let silence come over me like a blanket, like a rich quilt. I’ve been in church forever, but I’ve almost never listened to a God of peace.” There she stood on her driveway, still dripping.
“I’m just fine,” she told him, “and so is the whole family.” She peeled some thin gloves off her hands and stuck them in the edge of her pants. “We love the Lord,” she said, “but sometimes—and don’t take this personally, Jack—but sometimes we just get tired of the church. Does that make any sense?”
The church, Pastor Dobbins told himself, was the bride of Christ.
“Maybe it’s just a phase,” she said. “Don’t get all creepy about it, because maybe it’ll pass—like a kidney stone,” she told him, giggling. “But right now I’m feeling no pain.”
“If there’s anything I can do,” he said.
“I’m overchurched, Jack,” she said. “Glen and I have talked about it a lot, and we’re just plain overchurched—that’s what we’re calling it. At Fellowship, we’ve got all kinds of programs for the unchurched, and we’ve got activities galore for the underchurched, but Glen and me—we’re overchurched, okay?” She pointed out at the lake. “What I need is the loons, all right?”
That one kept zinging through Pastor Dobbins’ mind, like a golf ball in a tile bathroom—overchurched. In all the magazines he’d been reading, all the programs he’d been going to on church growth, on Generation X, on seeker fellowships, he’d never seen that word—overchurched. “Where’d you hear that?” he said. “Where’d you pick up that word?”
She pointed at her temple. “It just came to me, like handwriting on the wall. It’s a word that belongs to us—Glen and me—but you can use it.” She smiled, turned her head slightly, and wrinkled her nose. “I got a meal to fix, or else I’m going to be in hot water,” she told him, and he got out of her way.
“I’m okay,” she told him. “I really am.”
Pastor Dobbins couldn’t sleep well that night. He couldn’t get that word out of his mind—overchurched. He kept telling himself there had to be a ministry there. There had to be something the church could do for people like Betty Andress—there had to be programs. He started making mental notes to himself, then jotted down the word on the little notebook he kept beside his computer, circled it several times, starting drawing lines that radiated out from it for ideas that might come in a brainstorm.
There was a ministry here, a forgotten ministry. There were seminars waiting to happen, activities to be planned, liturgies to be written. They could go kayaking—of course. Glen and Betty were absolutely right. Unchurched, underchurched—and now overchurched. It was an idea whose time had come.
He decided to call a meeting. He thought it might be a good idea to start a committee. After all, there were things to be done.