March 4, 2011

Pet Evangelism

Growing up, Woody, Minnie, Widgy, and Bambi were part of the family. Our dogs were willing playmates and provided unconditional love when we were lonely or sad. Family stories include the kitchen remodel brought about after Bambi chewed all the woodwork and the time Woody and his two siblings knocked over the Christmas tree.

Today, Edelweiss and Francisca are the four-legged members of my family. Nicknamed the ‘interns’ for their frequent assistance in our home office, these cats enrich my life. I love them, as I loved the dogs I grew up with.

I’m not alone. According to the 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey, 62% of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 71.4 millions homes.

Pets and churches have been on my mind. An article in Thursday’s, Boston Globe, “Danvers church finds connection with pet owners,” was the third article I’d seen this week linking churches and pets.

What struck me while reading these articles was how the congregations that welcome pets into the life of the parish celebrate the strong bonds between pets and their owners. In addition to welcoming pets to regular or special pet services, congregations also offer pet bereavement groups, support to the owner when a pet is sick, and/or pet food pantries.

By opening their doors to pets, these congregations open doors to people who may not be regular churchgoers. They also may make it possible for people with a pet who cannot be left home alone, to continue to attend services.

Thea Keith-Lucas, rector of Calvery Episcopal Church in Danvers sees this ministry as a way to provide a spiritual community for people who care about animals. “I didn’t expect how quickly and deeply we would begin to connect with people and their real spiritual needs. The pet ministry is a place not to just bring their dog, but to bring the concerns of their heart.”

St. Stephen’s Church in Whittier, Calif., began their “Sixth Day Service” for pets last October. It soon became apparent that the tough economic times were even tougher for people’s pets, with people having to choose between feeding themselves or their pets. To meet this need, St. Stephen’s recently opened a pet food bank. In response to a question related to why a pet food bank when there is so much human need, Mary Trainer, St. Stephen’s vicar replied, “We actually believe this is meeting human needs. If we keep companion animals in a home we keep that home feeling more like home for people. It’s just another thing they don’t have to lose and so is for the spiritual building up of the human family.”

I’m interested in learning more about what congregations are doing related to welcoming pets and pet owners into the life of the congregation. Do you agree with the idea of welcoming pets into your worship space? Does your congregation have a ministry for pets? Has your congregation considered starting one? Do you think offering a special pet ministry might help your congregation grow?

I invite readers to share their thoughts in the comments space below and I welcome congregations with pet ministries to share their worship services, best practices, and other resources in the Your Turn section of ECF Vital Practices.