Local Churches Use Canines to Help Minister to Members and the Community
Jeannie is not your typical member of the congregation. She doesn't do any cooking for potluck dinners, she doesn't decorate wreaths for the holiday fair, and she can't play a hymn on the church organ. She can, however, make someone smile just by walking into a room.
Jeannie is a 60-pound chocolate poodle who serves as a Ministry Dog for Edwards Church in Framingham. Jeannie's owner, the Rev. Dr. Debbie Clark who is pastor at the church, said that Jeannie brings a gentle, caring, light-hearted presence to the congregation.
"Whether it's offering herself to be patted and loved by those who may not have that type of presence in their lives, or simply strolling into a meeting with a toy in her mouth and reminding us not to take ourselves seriously, Jeannie has made a great difference in the church," said Clark.
"There's a lot about church life that is complicated, that needs difficult decisions about living our faith. But this is so simple. Her job is to be patted. Children and adults of all ages find comfort, healing, and joy just by being with her. Her presence conveys that sense of God's gentleness and love."
Jeanne was trained by NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, a nonprofit organization that provides independence to people who are deaf or have a disability through the use of canine assistance. Most people are familiar with search dogs and assistance dogs for the blind, but now it is not uncommon to see other types of service dogs. In fact, NEADS trains canines for combat veterans, children with autism, and people with hearing loss and physical disabilities, as well as dogs for the classroom, for therapy and for ministry.
Jeannie joined the Edwards staff in September 2011 as a ministry dog. She is a beloved addition to the church's monthly services at two nursing homes and an alzheimers unit. "Jeannie can have a calming effect and help make a difference in a person's blood pressure, and how they feel and heal," Clark said. "Sometimes, just having a dog come up to a person and sit by their feet can make a difference in their day."
Clark learned about the program from a fellow clergyperson, Rev. Dr. Cynthia Crosson-Harrington. Crosson-Harrington, pastor at the First Congregational Church in Whately, received her ministry dog during a difficult time in her life. Crosson-Harrington credits Dandi, a 13-pound blue shih tzu, with helping her to heal after her son in the military returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and later died tragically. Now Crosson-Harrington is heavily involved in the NEADS program, having developed a program to place dogs with veterans returning from combat with PTSD.
There are certainly some people at church who have no interest in dogs, or other animals, and that is perfectly fine with Clark. Early on she asked the church deacons to be aware of any concerns in the congregation with having the animal in church, but so far there have been no issues. In fact, members and families have volunteered to hold Jeannie's leash during services or take care of her when Debbie is on vacation. The only issue that has come up is the recent discovery that Jeannie's nose fits perfectly on the coffee hour table -- although being a well-trained NEADS dog, she knows not to touch.
Likewise,the Whately congregation has welcomed Dandi into their lives and has taken the NEADS program on as a mission of the church, raising funds to help train dogs and place them with veterans. Crosson-Harrington thinks Dandi is a great ice-breaker and helps make people more comfortable, which is an aid to ministry.
"Having a beloved creature, a child of God -- who just wants to see you and be around you -- affirms the easy part of our faith," Clark said. "It's knowing that we are loved."
Debbie Clark can be reached at the church office at (508) 877-2050 or email@example.com.
There are several ministry dogs involved in MACUCC local churches. For more information about NEADS or how you can benefit from a ministry dog, contact Cynthia Crosson-Harrington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 665-3537.