GREEN TREE, Pa. (RNS) — Today, Aug. 26, is National Dog Day, a holiday designated since 2004 to celebrate dogs and encourage adoption.
It's a day that has special meaning for one of the pastors at Unity Presbyterian Church. Like many people of faith, Pastor Petey once was lost but now is found.
His journey to the church, however, began not in a Bible study or outreach ministry but in a pet rescue.
Associate Pastor Petey, as the congregation affectionately calls him, was a reactive dog when he was first rescued by the Faust family in 2018. Petey soon became a regular visitor to the church office, and through a combination of medication, training and exposure to people, Petey’s calling began to emerge.
“We began noticing him connect with people, and people connect with him … that to me is evangelism,” said Pastor Dennis Molnar, pastor at Unity Presbyterian. “It emerged that he had a definitive calling."
That calling led the church to honor Petey, a Beagle-Australian shepherd mix, on July 25, anointing and commissioning him as associate pastor for the pet ministry at Unity Presbyterian Church.
On a recent Tuesday, Associate Pastor Petey greeted a visiting Religion News Service journalist with a nuzzle during a meeting at the church. The multi-colored pup with warm, amber eyes then sat calmly at the feet of his owner, Bob Faust, until it was time to take his glamour shots.
One of Petey’s most important roles is to greet attendees at church, which he does outside Unity Presbyterian’s doors each Sunday. By drawing people together, Petey creates a common bond that Molnar says can “spark a depth of conversation you might not normally get to.”
Since 2018, the church has also offered a yearly pet-blessing event — adapted to become a drive-thru event during the pandemic — at which Molnar says 80% of the attendees are from the community.
“In my theology, all creatures, all living things are sacred, because God has created them,” said Molnar. “We're the ones, I think, who limit our connection of sacredness.”
Church pet ministries are surprisingly common. Some churches hold yearly blessings for pets in the congregation, while some have more extensive programs.
At Tree of Life Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the pet ministry is more than 20 years old. In addition to a yearly pet blessing, the church has a pet prayer chain, accompanies members to difficult veterinary visits and regularly takes up a collection for animal rescue organizations.
“I think the pet ministry has certainly contributed to the congregation’s theological imagination in terms of how we care for creation,” said Pastor Richard Geib. “It’s a small step between telling someone they should love their dog and telling someone they should also love the deer and care for water sources. That love for pets has a way of fostering our growth as lovers of creation.”
The pet ministry out of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Knoxville, Tennessee, is called LAMBS (Lovers of Animals, Ministry and Bible Study). The ministry donates pet food to the local food pantry and does visits and sends sympathy cards to people whose pets have died.
“I think it’s meaningful when someone else understands that pet was a family member to them,” said Lisa Cope, who leads the LAMBS ministry.
Gayle Fiser and Rev. Betsy Snyder have been leading pet ministries together for over a decade. The duo is currently leading the community pet ministry at Pinnacle View United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, which hosts webinars on everything from how to photograph pets to how to help pets cope with anxiety as their owners return to work.
The church also hosts therapy dog training, an eight-week program that allows dogs, once certified, to visit nursing homes, schools and, of course, churches. Dogs who have graduated from the program have participated in the church’s live nativity, as well as the annual Blue Christmas service for those who are grieving.
“Following the service, we serve hot cocoa and cookies,” said Fiser. “The people know that when they finish the service, the therapy dogs are there, and they rush in to hug the dogs — we need to learn from our pets how to practice unconditional love, because they point us to that.”
There are currently about 30 people on the waitlist for therapy dog training at Pinnacle View, and almost none of them are church members.
Fiser and Snyder are writing a book together called “New Tricks” to show other communities why they should consider pet ministries; they’ve already helped start pet ministries at four other churches in Arkansas.
“It seems a little strange, but (pet ministry) is mission, it's evangelism, it's education, it's hunger relief, it's pastoral care. All those things are part of the church,” said Snyder. “We are the church, we don’t go to church. And I’ve got a neighborhood full of people who walk dogs, and if that’s an introduction to talking about love and grace, we need to get on that.”
A new ministry, Operation Saint Francis, was recently founded by members of Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Derby, Kansas, who were concerned about how pets were being impacted by the pandemic.
“With COVID, everyone was excited to get pets, but when financial strain hit everyone, it took a toll,” said Carla Stroot. “Some of the elderly are trying to figure out, do I pay for my medicine? Or do I feed my dog?”
Stroot pulled together what she calls her “A Team” of vet techs, dog trainers and other professionals to try to address the problem of pets being returned to shelters. In June, Operation Saint Francis held its first event at Woodlawn UMC — an open-air market for pets and families. The market provided low-cost microchipping, baths and nail cutting for pets. The local Petco did free pet exams, and volunteers handed out treats, leashes and food bowls.
Operation Saint Francis will be hosting another event in the fall that will offer the same services, this time as part of a PAWlooza Trunk or Treat event.
“What we believe is what St. Francis believed,” said Stroot. “And that is to be the hearts and hands of those who have no voice. And that's our pets. We want to be those disciples to help those pet owners in need.”