Some churches allow dogs — and other pets — at regular weekly services. Does yours?
In my church visits over the years, I've met up with many churches that have quite an effective ministry with dogs. Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church, Montgomery, AL, for example, has a PAWS ministry (Pets Are Working Saints), where people and their pets go together into hospitals and convalescent homes. Church members love involving their pets in ministry, and the people they visit seem to love it as well.
Mariners Church, Irvine, CA, likewise has an outreach called Ministry Dogs. Ministry Dogs are experienced therapy dogs that serve along side existing ministries to help people feel welcome, to encourage participation and to help people experience unconditional love.
Last year I visited New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, HI. They rent a local high school auditorium for services, and they also set up a tent and large projection screen just outside. One reason they do so is that people like to bring their animals, and they feel freer to do so in an outdoor setting. The week I was there I saw three dogs, but none were very cooperative in letting me take their photo, so I got the outdoor service itself instead.
USA Today recently ran an article about a dog-friendly worship service every Thursday at Underwood Hills Presbyterian Church, Omaha, NE. The weekly “Paws and Prayers” service started in December and currently draws 50-60 people and an estimated 50 dogs. Further, the vast majority of the people who come are not members. In comparison, the 85-member church has an average attendance of 71 for its Sunday morning service.
The article quotes one woman saying, “I hadn't been to church in many, many years, and this gave me a reason to come back with my friend” — her dog. She told USA Today that hasn't attended any church regularly since about 1988. “To go to church by yourself is really lonely, and if you bring your dog, you're not alone,” according to Becky Balestri, the pastor at Underwood Hills.
The article explained that some dogs take seats on pews and sit upright while others lie on the floor, preferring a spot under the pews. The minister likens it to having kids in church. When the offering plate is passed, people place their gifts inside and take squares of cheese for the dogs.
I've heard of other churches that do so. For example, in New York City, for about 10 years Church of the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal congregation, has welcomed dogs at its weekly services. Also the Pilgrim Congregational Church in the Boston suburb of Weymouth, MA, as a Sunday evening worship, started September 2008. It's called the “Woof and Worship” service and it typically attracts about 20 to 50 dogs, plus owners.
In October — Blessing of the Animals
While few churches have a regular weekly service for dogs and their owners, many (as Underwood Hills) do sponsor an annual “blessing of the animals,” in honor of the feast day for St. Francis of Assisi, which in 2009 falls on October 4th.
My wife is sponsoring a Seeing Eye puppy, and we plan to visit a church this October to ask God's blessing on our dog, as she, upon “graduation,” will make it possible for a blind person to get around — and maybe even to get to church!
Will your church do a blessing of the animals or other outreach to dog owners?
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 19 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.