From their creation in Genesis, God saw that animals were good and had a plan for them to be in our lives.
Animals have long been an important part of church life, from Christmas pageants to pet blessings. Wesley United Methodist Church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has taken their inclusion even further with pet-friendly services. Churches like Wesley UMC invite members’ four-legged companions into weekly Sunday worship.
Louise Hansen, a member of the church for 22 years, said animals play an important part in both our physical and our spiritual lives.
“They are a part of our family,” she said.
Hanson spoke with Faith & Leadership intern Esther Valle about being part of a pet-friendly congregation. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Can you tell me how your church became pet friendly?
Louise Hansen: There were a lot of us that were involved in animal rescue and humane work. Also, we were pet owners, so we were always talking about animals during our fellowship time. We had been doing our yearly pet blessing service, so we knew which pets belonged to everybody. And we were looking at ways to bring people into our church.
Our community is about 48,000 people, but we have three Methodist churches all within about a 2-mile radius, and we’re the smallest. The other two had a large membership roll and were thriving, and we were struggling.
On a Sunday during fellowship, I kind of laughingly said to our pastor, “We think our animals would like to come here.” Later in the week, she called me and said, “I think we should do it,” and I was like, “Do what?” She said, “Become pet friendly.”
She had done some research within those couple of days, and there were churches on the East Coast and the West Coast, primarily, that were welcoming pets into their sanctuaries. Not a lot of them were doing it every week; they would either have special services or just have the pet blessing thing, but we decided to go with it every week.
We had only one person that objected, but he was a dog owner, so it wasn’t allergies or anything like that. He just didn’t think it was an appropriate thing to do, but he was outvoted. We went ahead with it and did some preparation.
We have a bin in the back of our church with paper towels, plastic bags, spray rug cleaner and whatever. Then we have three designated pews on one side of our sanctuary, and we put paw-print fleece over the pew pads so the dogs wouldn’t get the pads dirty. We tried to anticipate everything that might happen, and we have some extra leashes and whatever. People started coming with their pets, and we got new people coming.
I think the pets are icebreakers, and even if you don’t have one of your own, if you’re a pet lover, you’ll go and approach people with pets, so it has really helped as far as bringing new people into our congregation. Not all of them have stayed, but we have several that have stayed and become members.
F&L: That’s awesome.
LH: We just feel that God saved animals during the time of the flood — he had a purpose for them — and they get us through so much in our lives in addition to our prayers and the presence of God. Those animals are there for us during the good times and the bad times and provide so much comfort and peace. It’s a joy when they come.
I used to have dogs. All my dogs have passed now. Sometimes I brought two of them; sometimes I brought one. I actually found that I concentrated better when I was there [with them], because I was at more peace. I could kind of block out all the other things in my world and just sit there with them at my side, petting them through the whole thing.
My dogs are gone now. I have a cat, and I don’t take her. We don’t have as many pets coming as we did several years ago because of the same thing; we’re an older congregation. Many of our pets have passed, and we haven’t gotten new ones. But it’s always just been wonderful knowing that they can come, that they are there on any given Sunday.
F&L: I love dogs. I even pray for my dog, because she’s my dog and I love her and need her to be protected.
LH: She’s part of your family. She is your family. We have some single people. We have elderly people that are single and have pets. Those pets are family members, and they’re important, and we just felt this was our calling. We have a front sign with pictures of cats and dogs, and pets are welcome every Sunday at our 9 a.m. service.
We have one whose favorite song is “Happy Birthday.” We typically sing “Happy Birthday” during our announcement times if we have someone that’s there that has a birthday that week, and he hoots and howls along. Two weeks ago, we didn’t have anyone with a birthday; however, we sang “Happy Birthday” just so D’Artagnan could hoot and howl.
We had a guest pastor that was awesome, had never been to our church before, and we wanted to show him how much joy the pets bring. It just started the service off on such a happy note to have D’Artagnan howling along, and his mom is so proud. He is her child, and she was so proud of him for singing for us, so the joy is really beyond measure.
When we started this, the word was getting out in our community. Our local newspaper did a big story on us as far as being pet friendly. I don’t think there’s another church in Sheboygan County that is pet friendly on a regular basis. Now, we only have that one service at 9 o’clock. We are up to about 35 people on our membership roll.
On any given Sunday, [our attendance] is usually around 25, and it isn’t all members. It’s what we call members and “friends” — people that haven’t officially joined but come on a very regular basis. It has brought new people into our church that I don’t think would have come if we weren’t pet friendly. Even if they don’t have pets of their own, I think just being open to all of this and experiencing the joy has been something that has increased our membership.
I started a monthly devotion. We would sit around and talk, drink coffee, eat cookies, and talk about our animals and different aspects of our life with our animals. The next month, I would try to have someone from our community come and talk about what they did as far as humane work.
I had a friend who did TNR — trap, neuter and return feral cats. She had her own organization, so she would come and talk about that. We had an animal massage therapist come and do a demonstration with our pastor’s dog on how she does animal massage. We had someone that was doing rabbit rescue that came and brought a rabbit. That group went on about three or four years.
The other thing that we started was called our Guardian Angel Project, and it is a fund that we started under our church umbrella to help people that are facing financial situations that are difficult for them with their pets. We worked with a veterinary clinic for some guidelines and started fundraising. We had some different things at church, and as word-of-mouth got out, people were donating in memory of someone, or if they had a pet that passed away, in memory of that pet. Information was sent out to all the veterinary clinics in Sheboygan County.
We stay within Sheboygan County as far as helping people, because the fund isn’t huge, and it isn’t endless, and we did set up guidelines. We don’t help with spays, neuters, or immunizations or things like that, because there are other resources in our community that do low-cost things like that. But if a situation comes up — an animal has been injured, an animal has gotten ill and needs medication — and the alternative might be for that owner to euthanize the pet or have to surrender it, we will help with the finances.
F&L: What do you see for the future of your church as far as being pet friendly?
LH: I don’t anticipate we’ll ever get rid of this as long as our core that started are still there. And the new people that have come are all on board with being pet friendly.
F&L: What do you think is in the future of Wesley UMC Sheboygan with the pet friendlies and having more people?
LH: [The current pastor] has been reassigned. We don’t have a replacement for her yet, but one of our criteria is that whoever comes has to be open to having pets in worship on a Sunday.
They don’t have to love them and go all overboard personally if they don’t want to, but they have to allow them to be there, because that’s who we are.