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Has your church gone to the dogs — or pot-bellied pigs? Then celebrate!

By Darby Jones

There are 79.7 million pet-owning households in the U.S. and it is estimated that animal lovers will spend $60.59 billion on their furry friends this year.

Does your church welcome pets?

For the Rev. Gene Martino, Jr., “shepherd” of Lambuth Memorial United Methodist Church in Gallatin, Tennessee, including pets in a service is a way to honor the bond we share with other living creatures. “Many people do not think of them as animals, but as friends and even family. And, they are part of God's creation -- made before humans – which we have a responsibility for.”

And a pet blessing is not only a way to connect with church members, it’s a great way to reach out to the unchurched. “One of our ladies joined Lambuth because she figured if we loved her dog, we would love her.”

The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination. Here are some tips.

Host an annual event. 
Plan one day each year for a pet blessing. Opt for a separate blessing or incorporate into your regular services. Try not to change the date annually. Choose the first Sunday in June or the first Saturday in October, for example. Select a date that works with your church calendar as well as your region’s weather.

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A girl waits her turn with her pet goat at Blessing of the Animals at Lambuth Memorial United Methodist Church in Gallatin, Tennessee.

Expect all varieties. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, snails, fish, turtles, snakes and more may show up. The Rev. Martino brings along his two thousand pound Percheron and delivers the sermon from horseback. “Jacques is such a tremendous example of strength and gentleness, of teamwork and interdependence, that some of the message teaches itself! I love my horse. And I know he loves me by how we interact. A lot like God!” Martino recommends considering holding your service out of doors for easy post-blessing cleanup.

Plan for chaos and noise
Involving animals in the service can bring challenges. Plan the service around the blessing, understanding that pets can’t be shushed or lulled into being quiet. At Peace United Methodist Church, Shoreview, Minn., a sense of humor is a necessity. As its newsletter author writes, “I need volunteer Scripture readers for the services this Sunday.  Since it is ‘Pet Sunday,’ a talking parrot would be fun.”

Bring a treat. 
Bring pets on a leash or in a cage/container, advises McCordsville United Methodist Church in Indiana. It hosts its second pet blessing this fall and offers another suggestion for the congregation: bring a treat for the pastor to give to the pet after the prayer is offered.

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The Rev. Gene Martino, Jr, comforts a woman holding a picture of her terminally ill pet.

Allow for pictures. 
It may be difficult to transport or to care for their pet in church so let families know they can bring photos and have their animals blessed that way. As Rev. Martino says, “I am always touched by those who want to have their aged pets receive a last blessing, or people who come with a tattered photograph of a pet that has died and they want someone to acknowledge their life -- and death.”

Publicize efforts. 
Pets at church are a great photo or video opportunity for local media. Send a notice to media and invite them to capture the moments at your church. Don’t forget pre-event publicity. Spread the word and invite non-members to participate. Reach out to pet groups in your area, distribute fliers at the pet store and distribute invitations at the dog park.

Make it a bigger event
Christ Church United Methodist Church, Louisville, Ky., features a pet festival with pet products and services, including a mobile groomer, trainer, animal communicator and others.

It is a Pet Community Fall Family Affair at Grace United Methodist Church, Houston. The event includes obstacle courses, training demonstrations, cuisine, a fashion show, and vaccine and health information, plus some people snacks and children’s activities.

Grace Lutheran Church, Oak Ridge, Tenn., says member Audrey Elam, has various pet groups set up booths. The humane society sells food and has information packets. Several pet-rescue groups come with dogs and cats available for adoption. A vet is on hand to microchip. A photographer takes free pictures.  The proceeds go to two rescue groups, different ones each year. 

“Because our property joins an elementary school,” Elam continues, “the children do art work of their pets or other animals. The church gives a ‘goody bag’ to each child. In past years, we had llamas, and a horse and buggy ride was available. Pet Fest is a big deal.” 

Start a ministry.
In Biloxi, Miss., First United Methodist Church has a year-round pet ministry. The team takes their small dogs to visit patients in hospice care, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities. “The pets bring much joy to those who no longer have their pets with them,” team leaders say.

Deb Sypersma, a dog lover from Sioux City, Iowa, concludes, “Pets are a very important part of many households – we certainly treat Harley like family. I think an annual blessing of the pets is nice, and I would definitely do it outdoors, perhaps at a park. The K9 STARS, our pet-therapy group, has had a clergyperson come and bless the dogs on occasion, and they invite the K9 police dogs. That might be another option – to send the clergy to the pets for another event already occurring.

“Reaching out to pets is a great way to reach out to the community. If you want a church to be ‘seeker friendly,’ including some pet activities may be one way to approach that.”

*Images are from Lambuth Memorial United Methodist Church's annual Blessing of the Animals. Additional reporting and photos by Laurens Glass, United Methodist Communications.