Sunday afternoon, five o’clock sharp. The organ hums while I set refreshments on the front table and walk to the pulpit. I’m the pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in North Weymouth, Massachusetts, and my parishioners are my second family. I look out at my regulars. There’s Lucy, an older gal with a spring in her step and perfectly coiffed blonde curls. Sam, in his usual seat in the front pew, gazes back at me with his soulful brown eyes. Chloe, a rambunctious youngster, fidgets a little, but she’ll settle down when the choir begins.
Oh, there’s something I should mention. Lucy is a terrier, Sam is a pug, and Chloe is a Bernese mountain dog.
Our service for people and their pets started last October. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the seed wasn’t planted earlier. Growing up, I’d wanted to be a vet, but in my twenties I felt called to seminary. After seven years at Pilgrim Congregational, I still loved coming to work.
But folks just weren’t coming to church as much anymore. Too many sporting events on Sundays and too little faith. I looked out at the half-empty sanctuary one Sunday and thought, Lord, what can I do to get people as excited as I am about coming to church?
A few days later, I got an email from an old friend who needed some extra prayers. I bowed my head. That’s when my gaze fell on my two apricot cockapoos, Tugger and Indy, curled up at my feet. One of my favorite verses, Psalm 148, suddenly came to mind: “Let all wild animals and small creatures and flying birds praise the Lord.” All animals praise the Lord.
Something about those words gave me a charge. Plenty of people loved bringing their dogs to our town dog park. What if those folks could bring their dogs to church?
“Honey, I have an idea,” I said to my husband, Peter, that evening. “People should be able to bring their dogs to church. Dogs give unconditional love and support. I mean, it just makes sense … or does it?”
“Bring … their dogs … to church,” he said slowly, then paused. “Actually, Rachel, that’s so wild, it just might work.”
That week I mentioned the idea to my fellow pastors, hoping they wouldn’t think I’d lost it. They didn’t. They loved it! We advertised a Sunday afternoon service. It would be like our more formal one, but after worship we’d serve biscuits and toss tennis balls with our dogs in the side yard. All breeds, as long as they were leashed, were welcome. We decided on a name: Woof ‘n’ Worship.
That first Sunday I was nervous. Maybe I hadn’t thought things through. What if the dogs didn’t get along? Lord, is this too crazy? I wondered, walking Tugger and Indy to the pulpit with me.
I looked up. The sea of furry faces, and the smiling people in the pews beside them, made me smile too. Before long we had 150 people—150! The dogs got along famously. I giggled when, during my first reading, a handsome German shepherd with a clownish grin licked a tiny Chihuahua’s ears.
Later, the choir sang “Amazing Grace.” Everyone roared when Pee Wee, a schnauzer, began howling along. He was almost in key!
The best perk of all is that people are reaching out to each other more. The dogs are a great icebreaker. “Sometimes I feel out of place among all the families here,” a single college student told me. “But with Chewy, I fit right in.”
One woman who’s battling breast cancer confided, “Whenever I’m tempted to stay in bed, I remember my responsibility to Diego. We’ve made so many new friends from bringing him to church.”
I peer out from my pulpit and take another look at my regulars. Yup, it’s true, my church is going to the dogs—and that’s just fine with me. Sometimes, when we ask God for a solution to a problem, his answer is far better (and crazier!) than we could ever imagine on our own.
By Rachel Bickford, North Weymouth, Massachusetts
Originally published on Guideposts.org