Land Of Drugged Out Doggies: Ministry To Animals And Their People

Aloha, noodles!

I am currently nursing a post-surgical beagle and finding it to be much more all-consuming than I had anticipated.

I knew I’d have to carefully help him around. I knew I’d have to do med management and find creative ways to get him to drink water (serve him warm, diluted chicken broth, as it turns out). I knew I’d have to SACRIFICE MY GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP and move downstairs to an inflatable mattress because the bedroom is up 13 steps and he’s not doing that until late October, and he’ll cry and bark all night if I abandon him. I’ve tried.

What I did not consider was that he would need constant supervision for the first few days as he figures out how to maneuver himself around on his little foam mattress pallet, and that he would need to have his cone put on and taken off multiple times a day, and that he would still want to check every rustling sound in the kitchen because it MIGHT BE A FOOD SITUATION.

He is my love and my darling and my dear, and he and the cat are my Guardians of the Galaxy, the A Team, the Cute Squad, Love and Beauty incarnate. The cat is Beauty, the dog is Love, although occasionally they switch. But I tell you what: I ain’t never putting this poor hound through something this major again. As I always say, animals don’t have a bucket list. Same goes for the kitty. I love her a million trillion hearts but I wouldn’t dream of causing her to endure something as upsetting as this.

This led me to wonder how much ministry you do around animals and pets (or, for the more earnest, “animal companions”).

I remember in seminary I took an Ethics class and we were talking about pastoral care and boundaries therein, and one seminarian arrogantly bragged that he coldly rejected the request to visit a member of his parish whose dog was dying. “Give me a break,” he said, or something like that, and I said, “Give you what break? What the hell is wrong with you? If people want to have pastoral support for their loss of a pet, you get your butt over there!” I immediately judged him to be a terrible person and unfit for the ministry. I did. I don’t care. It’s one thing to say, “I declined to visit the home of parishioners whose dog was dying because I had too much going on and I felt that they would be fine with a phone call or a visit at a later time,” but this guy was straight up contemptuous about the parishioners’ relationship with “just a dog.”

This was not cultural. I know that the American pet thing is crazy to a lot of people around the globe and I understand how some may struggle with understanding why and how Americans can spend so much money and energy on domesticated animals, but this was an American. Frankly, if you’re not into animals, that’s fine, but if you’re going to be a pastor you better learn to respect the very real love that people feel for their pets!

Someone called the church once and asked me to do a private blessing for her recently adopted dog. She prefaced her request by saying, “I know you will think this is ridiculous, but…” I said, “Try me.” She explained what she wanted and why, and I said to her, “I dunno. It sounds like a very sweet and respectful ritual you have in mind and actually not ridiculous. I’d be happy to do it.”

I did not wear a robe or stole. I think there’s a time when you’re representing the Church and a time when you’re designing and performing a creative ritual that is spiritual but not religious. By that I mean that you are providing something personal and not institutional– not legitimized by any community of faith — although certainly not harmful or disgraceful. We bring our full pastoral gravitas and affection to these rituals, I think, to honor love and to serve as bridges between the unchurched and traditional religious practice and sacrament. And also because dogs are awesome.

(I know this post is in desperate need of editing but I’m too tired to care. I’ve been nursing a beagle for the past 48 hours, people).

We do a Blessing of the Animals service at my church on St. Francis Sunday (or thereabouts), and I do vest for that because we are blessing the critters within the context of the worship of a covenanted community.

One of my colleagues has an animal chaplaincy and a quick Google search revealed a number of animal chaplaincy mentions. How about you, pigeons?

I’m interested in what you have to say! Meanwhile, let me get this pooch out to do his potty business.

P.S. That picture of me is a thousand years old!

6 Replies to “Land Of Drugged Out Doggies: Ministry To Animals And Their People”

  1. We are doing a blessing of the veterinarians this fall at our blessing of the animals. We are personally inviting vets of our parishioners to come. You can borrow that idea. :-). I understand the nothing-major idea. We have had, for a long time, a line in the sand about what we would not put our old man cat through.

    I really see animal care as a pastoral enterprise.

    Have you seen doggy church school yet?

  2. Thanks for this post. I used to feel very superior to people who cared so passionately about their pets…I’d been living in Latin America, where it was easy to identify with “the American pet thing is crazy.” But then my sister, a crazy dog person, said to me once,”You know what, love is love,” and that was the Word, and it changed me. Yeah, people with wildly different life circumstances can make different choices about medical issues or how and on whom to spend their time or money or whatever…but love is love.

  3. Are you automatically getting the poll results? Or do we have to tweet them or post on FB? I want to be sure you know that I’ve done an animal blessing (many of them, actually) in the context of Sunday worship, and I have included animals in a pastoral prayer. I did a sermon/service once on “ambiguous loss” which included the death of a pet, the loss of a partner to dementia, reproductive loss (infertility, miscarriage, abortion), and the death of a friend. It got a LOT of response!

  4. In addition to Sara’s reminder that “love is love”, I would throw in the theological perspective that our animal brothers and sisters (as St Francis called them) were also created by God and are part of the creation God called good. Thus tending to them and those who care for them as an aspect of ministry seems quite appropriate. To coldly decline to provide pastoral care to a parishioner whose pet is dying shows distain for the animal – one of God’s creatures – as well as the parishioner – one created in God’s image. Hard to know how he justified that – ethically, theologically, or on the grounds of simple human kindness.

  5. While we’re at it, a prayer for Max:

    Dear Lord, you created Leviathan “for the sport of it”, for the sheer joy of creating such a creature. Grant, we ask, your blessing on Max, so that his days may be filled with the comfort of a loving guardian, the excitement of food things in the kitchen, the warmth of the sun, and the mysterious purr of a beautiful cat. Give your gift of healing to his veterinarians and to all who care for him. Give your gift of wisdom to all of us making hard decisions about the dear animals we love. Give your gift of compassion to those who minister to animals and their families. And give us all the sure faith that, as you have promised to make all creation new, you will renew our beloved pets in that land where there is no pain, and You will wipe away all tears from our eyes. Amen

  6. I do an annual memorial service / blessing at the local vet. Theologically, we pay attention to the way that our relationship with our pets connects us to God’s love for all creation. Pastorally – much more important – the loss of a pet is an emotional and spiritual struggle that people often think they are not supposed to have. Funerals and all the other required activity around the death of a person help us make sense of grief. We don’t generally have anything to help us make sense of our grief when we lose that pet love.
    Plus, this is huge for the vets and staff at that practice. They do some serious pastoral care for the people who lose their pets, and it means so much to them that we come to them to bless and pray and celebrate, and that we bless and affirm their work.
    So I’ve prayed with people over the ashes of their pets, blessed dying pets (people don’t forget that), offered adoption blessings, and the usual. (And done home visits for pet death, and – thanks to the leadership of the congregation’s children – included pets in the prayers.)

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