Pet ministry offers hope and healing to all

Por Laura Buchanan, IMU

The majority of households in the U.S. (70%) have at least one pet, and many people feel their pets are family members. At Pinnacle View United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, pets are a part of the church family as well. “It increases the empathy factor. Our society needs that right now. Pets are bipartisan. People can come together because of their pets,” shares the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, Pinnacle View UMC’s pastor.

What began as a class to train therapy dogs for nursing home visits has become a multifaceted Community Pet Ministry. Gayle Fiser helped to establish the ministry in 2007 and has seen God at work as it has grown. She explains, “The most important thing for pet parents is to know that they are supported…and so we made it a part of our ministry. God directed us to make that happen.”

Support for pets and their parents

An abandoned dog found a new home and he was gifted a prayer blanket. He is now a therapy dog and takes his blanket everywhere he goes! Photo courtesy of the Community Pet Ministry at Pinnacle View UMC.

Ministering to pet parents has become an intrinsic part of the congregation. Church members sew and pray over blankets for new pets, sick animals or people who’ve just said goodbye to a pet. People might receive one at a local emergency veterinarian clinic or from a Pinnacle View UMC member.

The pet ministry also offers an emergency fund for animals in need, microchipping and vaccination events for the community, Blessing of the Animals worship services and classes on everything from behavioral training to taking excellent pet photos.

Therapy dogs bring comfort to the community

“There are therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support dogs, and our experiences are with therapy dogs. Their job is just to comfort you and be petted,” Fiser explains. “We have a big poster that says ‘This is a certified therapy dog, and you can pet me.’”

To become a therapy dog, handlers and their dogs must complete training before taking a certification exam. Pinnacle View UMC offers essential training classes to anyone in the community who would like to take part. After the therapy dogs pass their exam, they have many opportunities to serve.

Therapy dogs attend the Blue Christmas worship service every year to offer comfort to those who are grieving. Photo courtesy of the Community Pet Ministry at Pinnacle View UMC.

One popular option is serving as a greeter before Pinnacle View UMC’s worship services. Fiser says, “Some of [the handlers] were not religious. Some of them were other denominations, some of them had no faith at all, but they all signed up to greet. And so we said, ‘Well, if you’re greeting, you’re welcome to come, stay for worship.’ And they did, and so our church got to where they were used to seeing a tail under the pew.”

One of the therapy dogs’ most meaningful volunteer opportunities is during the annual Blue Christmas service, during which people gather to grieve if they are facing a challenging holiday season. The dogs offer comfort, warmth, love and hope to those seeking a balm for their pain.

The program extends into the community as well. Organizations invite the therapy dogs to attend events and handlers can choose to answer the call. Wherever the dogs go, people find a deep connection with their new furry friends.

A therapy dog station was set up at the Arkansas Annual Conference to offer comfort and joy to delegates and attendees. Photo courtesy of the Community Pet Ministry at Pinnacle View UMC.

Connections with new people

An unexpected highlight of the pet ministry is its outreach to spiritual seekers. The vast majority of therapy dog training students are not church members, and most are young people. The ministry has learned that 70% of Gen Zs would rather have a pet than a child and that 73% of Millennials have at least one pet.

As therapy dogs are certified, they are invited to join the ministry’s team, where they can meet and connect with other therapy dogs and their handlers. They establish friendships as they learn from each other. Fiser shares, “We are building community. And this is one way that we feel like we’re extending the church to this whole set of people who would not have been in church.”

The ministry team sees endless potential in connecting with people who love animals. Their latest outreach effort was an outdoor service for World Pet Memorial Day. Fifty people from the area attended to remember a beloved pet, share photos and find peace.

Singleton Snyder encourages churches to establish their own pet ministry, “[Churches put] all these resources into recognizing families that have children, but zero resources into recognizing the four-footed or scaly, or whatever, children that people really believe are their family.

“John Wesley really loved his horse. He believed his horse was going to heaven with him. Methodism would not exist if it weren’t for horses. There would have been no way to get around to the circuits efficiently.”

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