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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Pastor's Best Friend (?) Edition

So...this week's question is brief and to the point:

Do you bring your dog to work?

From Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart:

I have an eighteen month old golden retriever, who came to work with me as a puppy, because she was recovering from heart surgery at the age of eleven weeks. I kept her confined to my office.

Lucy makes small appearances now and then, and only outdoors at work. I do not bring her to work because a.)she is not well behaved enough and b.) we have staff and church members who are allergic to dogs.

I think bringing one’s dog to work depends upon the breed of dog, his or her good manners, and the feelings of those with whom I work and serve.

From Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness,

Dear Dog lover:
I am NOT a dog lover and those clergy I have met who do bring their dogs to the office often convey a "love me; love my dog" message, IMHO. One sister cleric allowed her dog to pee on the carpet--totally poor form! And it was a point of contention in her parish. I find that there are more women who take their animals to the office than men. If it is for protection, that is another matter--or if you are taking a service dog on visits at the retirement home.

Since I am a cat lover and I know that there are many out there who are allergic to cats, I did not bring my cats to the office--except when my office was in my home in my first parish. But the cat was banished from my office during those times when parishioners were present. And if your dog is providing protection, I would suggest that it be trained to protect outside of your office when doing counseling or administration work with parishioners.

I think that bringing your pet to the office takes away from the clear one-on-one relationship that a parishioner desires with their pastor / priest. It means that all too often your attention is drawn to your pet rather than the single mindedness you want to have when giving pastoral care, or adminstering your parish. It also provides a way to avoid entering fully into the discussion with parishioners. Constantly having to worry about your dog's needs takes your attention from the work at hand.

There is something about boundaries that I have not quite thought through in this question, and it is something that perhaps you need to think on. Beasties tend to be a part of my home life that I really don't feel is a part of my parishioners' privy.

In my experience, it is off-putting to have to deal with another person's animals. And while I am not afraid of dogs, I don't appreciate much of doggy behavior. Some people are afraid of dogs and would not come to visit if they knew your dog was with you. I don't think it is a good idea.

And Sharon, blogging at Tidings of Comfort and Joy, writes that she does not have a dog, and would not bring a dog to work.

Do you have a bone to pick with our matriarchs? Join in the conversation by posting a comment below.

With prayers for all those facing the aftermath of this Spring's vicious storms,

rev honey


  1. Wow, Muthah+! That's a pretty harsh and sweeping indictment. Of course letting a dog pee on the carpet would be a point of contention, as it should be.
    As in so many other areas of ministry, bringing a dog to work is a question of context. I serve a country church. I have an old, gentle dog. My church folk bring *their* dogs into the office to visit. My previous dogs had training for visiting at home and in nursing homes, but even then I never assumed all situations were good for them. I've worked in churches where the dog really wasn't welcome, and I didn't take the dog. But in another church, Molly especially came along often, and the attendance counter included Molly and Sam in her count of the church family.
    My point is not that my experience is universal, and nor is anyone else's. And my answer is, yes, under certain circumstances, I do. I'm in a low church tradition. Molly made numerous appearances as part of a Children's message (teaching resistance to distraction, for instance) and Hoagie did the same just this Sunday. She played the lost sheep in a play on a children's Sunday, but always under the control of a family member.
    So while it might not be appropriate in some, or even many settings, a dog in church is not the worst thing that ever happened.

  2. Songbird has the word: Context. And the other word is: training. I'm constantly astounded at how many people don't train their dogs, adequately or at all. That's especially true in my part of the country, where people often have hunting or yard dogs who roam free (!) and are never allowed indoors.

    I think dogs can be very important therapy and ministry partners, and a pastor whose dog is part of her work would likely mention this in the course of a call process. Norms and boundaries for the parish could easily be worked out.

    Dogs who are well trained and well behaved are a joy to dog lovers and not a worry to the rest.

    Dogs who are not...are, I suspect, the kinds Muthah+ has met.

  3. Context. Context. Context. And responsible dog ownership will go a long way on this one.

    I previously worked in a country church and my well-behaved Golden Retriever was in the office with me in the afternoons when there was rarely anyone else. Folks brought their dog to meet my dog. In their mind it made me (a city slicker) more accessible.

    I am now in a suburban church setting and made sure I had the lay of the land before I began to bring my now old man dog to work with me on Friday mornings. This is a low traffic day in the office when nothing official is usually scheduled. If someone does make an appointment to see me then I ask them if it is ok.

    I cannot remember the phrase from seminary, but there is a word/phrase around pastoral care where someone uses a secondary item to help them bridge to the thing that is really on their mind.

    It has been amazing to watch how many folks who 'just came by to pet the dog' end up telling me about something about themselves or that is going on in their lives that would not have come out otherwise.

    All of that said, I would NOT bring our 1 year old yellow lab. She is just not ready and quite frankly she may never be.

    To sum up: context is key, get the lay of the land, your dog MUST behave, and the parishioners come first.

  4. I also agree that context is important. And I appreciate the care that sensitive dog owners show to scope out what is good and what might not be.

    Let me say more about the "no" side of this, though. I have known parishioners who had a thing about birds to the point that they take extreme measures to avoid a bird feeder on church property. A bird in a cage in the worship service would seem wonderful to many but would be really difficult for them in a way I can't imagine.

    The reason my "matriarch" answer was so short on this one is that I know that I am on a far end of this question. I have a visceral reaction to dogs. I'm not saying it's rational and certainly is not a disapproval of dog owners or their love for dogs or how well behaved or adorable the dog is. I think of myself as someone who loves all God's critters, but dogs are just very difficult for me. I have felt very alone when everyone assumed that it was a great thing to have a dog around and have felt like a "project" when people wanted so badly for me to love their dog. When I go to parishioners' homes where there is a dog, I make the best of it, and it's very hard, because that's their turf. They can tell though; I can't hide it no matter how much I want to.

    I am in awe of people who can be around dogs and who love them so much. It's just a thing for me, so I decided I should probably put that out there as part of the conversation. Since I know I am on a fringe end of the dog tolerant bell curve, I don't think my perspective should be normative for a pastor or a congregation. Still, I probably should have said all of this to begin with.

    I love hearing about other people's beloved dogs, though!

  5. My mentor actually cited being able to bring a dog to church as a reason for me to get a dog (when I was considering it). He took his dog to work consistently, and believed it to be a really good thing and often helpful pastorally as others have mentioned.

    Of course I agree with all the others who've said context is everything. But I cite my mentor b/c he worked in two different big city churches and was able to take his dog, so it's not just country churches where it might work. I think training and temperament are crucial.

    And in response to Sharon, he always had a place for the dog to be sequestered (another room for example) for situations in which people were uncomfortable.

    I've also known churches that have "church cats" in residence. FWIW

  6. kathrynzj, I think it's called "transitional object"--but it's been a long time since I took a pastoral care class!

  7. At the church I serve our children's minister brings her dog to the church. I've heard a few complaints, some kids being scared of him even though he is gentle, and when she is in worship he tends to bark during prayer and song.

    Personally, I am not a fan of dogs in general and find it frustrating that this dog comes to every single church related function/meeting/worship, etc. I don't like having to watch my shoeslaces under the table because he likes to nibble them.

    On the other hand, during the spring festival more people wanted to talk with her than the people standing at our booth with brochures. I think the answer is context.

    Also, it is hard when dog lovers are surprised that not all of us share their joy and love of animals that are unpredictable and make some of us uncomfortable. I've learned to tolerate visits at home with dogs, but still have an underlying fear of them that I find distracting if I am trying to be fully present to a parishioner's need while visiting.

    True service dogs are the exception to my reservations about dogs because they are so well trained and the boundary makes me comfortable. I'm not expected and encouraged to pet and express admiration for service dogs like people do for their pets.

  8. Context, training and adaptability. I used to bring my dog with me during the summer because I was frequently the only person in a largish church building that gets a lot of foot traffic from a homeless camp. If someone came by from the congregation, I would just take a minute to put Ivan back in the car. I ran it by the council before the first time I did it. He's a yellow Lab, mostly dangerous in that he could beat you with his tail, but he provided a good measure of mental comfort when I was pregnant and alone in the church (Holy Spirit notwithstanding). Feel it out and remember some people who say they are okay with the situation may be trying to be polite or respect the pastor, but are actually uncomfortable.

  9. I am (unabashedly) a cat person. That said, I don't mind a dog when they understand basic commands and don't up and/or lick every visitor. When I counsel people in my home, I always ask if they are allergic to animal dander. If they are, then we go to a local establishment (Starbucks or Panera Bread) to meet. I don't mind visiting with another's dog at their home and it's not my first choice to be "welcomed" by a dog... but I try to see it as a means of caring and responding to a member of their family.

    Since I'm hospital-based at the moment, it's a moot point. But in churches where I was on staff, I didn't mind the visiting staff dogs as long as they followed the "house rules" for eating and peeing. Just like their owners. :)

  10. Julia hit a home run on this one, context, training and adaptability. My dog Gus is a miniature schnauzer and very much a terrier. I attempted to train him as a very young puppy to behave at church but found that his temperament is just not suitable for people who don't like dogs. What this means is that I keep him at home unless I'm pretty sure that no one will come by. When he was younger, even this didn't work out really well because I was constantly distracted by the worry about what he was getting into. Now that he is older he is more content to just curl up at my feet and wait for me to finish my work.

    My other experience with dogs and ministry happened when I was an interim in an inner city parish. My Bishop suggested that a "large" dog might be helpful, for safety purposes so I borrowed my daughter's bull mastiff. Even though he was only a year old, he was quiet and well behaved. I found him to be a wonderful ministry tool; the girls on the street loved him to bits and would get down on their knees and wrap their arms around him, and burrow their faces into his neck. This was often the start of relationships and conversations that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.

    He also opened up conversations with all sorts of people. Bull mastiffs aren't noted for their looks and he was particularly homely. He had a large underbite and a tongue that tended to fall out of his mouth, I think that many of the people on the street who were marginalized saw him as "one of them", and by extension, I became approachable. After all anyone who could love such an ugly dog, just might be able to love them too. For some reason he didn't scare anyone even the kids and we had many marvellous conversations about "why yer dog looks like that". Al in all, he was a great asset to my ministry.

    I continue to let the dog do the talking for me, although Gus isn't quite so adept at it. I take what some of my parishioners call "double collar" walks (mine and the dogs) and I find that I've met many people in the neighbourhood because of him.

  11. Depends on the dog, depends on whether there is safe non-dog space for those who are uncomfortable around dogs, depends on the tone and history of the place.

    I love dogs, although I don't currently own one. In the place I now serve, I could bring my dog if I so chose, but I doubt that I would, simply because I don't multitask all that well, and I wouldn't want my pup to distract me.

    This is surely a YMMV kind of thing, I think.

  12. I have a 4 y.o. Lab who has been coming to the office with me since he was about 4 mos. old; he's there once or twice a week. He is extremely well crate-trained, and he stays in his crate (door closed) in my private office except when I'm taking him out for a walk. He's so quiet that I and those with whom I work often forget he's there. If someone comes to meet me, I always ask if they would like to be in another room, generally putting it in terms of allergies so they have an easy option.

    I work in a parish and preschool/elementary setting. My dog has been an invaluable tool in connecting with both students and parents. He has even spent the day (in his crate or on lead) in a few classrooms when teachers were doing units on pets. I know who on the staff and among the students is not comfortable around dogs and I go to great lengths to keep him clear of those folks; they should not be worrying about an unwelcome encounter with him.

    I agree that context is everything!

  13. This is a great discussion and I am glad to have eavesdropped upon it in advance of acquiring the "dream dog". I, too, have been told by my bishop that a woman in solo/solitary ministry MUST have a dog on the premises for personal safety. (I thought about just buying a very large dog dish and labelling it "KILLER" and setting it next to the front door...)

    But I value what I'm hearing about context, and flexibility, and TRAINING.

    My coach in all dogly matters is my current HOS, and her big ol' dog is trained to a fare-thee-well, a great advertisement for the "Church Hound" on the premises...

    Much to think about! Thank you!

  14. I have brought my dog for the pet blessing, and briefly for "show and tell." Otherwise, no. she sheds a lot. she did not used to be well-behaved. the council here actually also made a policy that they did not want to have dogs, I think because of another staff person.

    I agree with the people who say "context." there are some contexts in which it would be actually helpful. Scout is good at helping shy children. but others where it would be terribly inappropriate.

  15. Songbird, I knew you would take exception to what I was going to say. But I have had more experience with some of my sisters foisting their animals on their parishioners than I have of those who are more sensitive to the needs of their parishioners.

    Most of the time when there is criticism of a cleric, it never gets to the clergy. It just sits in the dynamics of the congregation and festers. And then it is part of what a suceeding pastor must deal with.

    I have been in parishes where the pastor has put more emphasis on their pets than they have the people they serve. It was hard to serve there and it was hard to be supportive of the senior pastor.

    I am not saying that this is always true, but I have just seen it. One of the way that a pastor can avoid such critique is by not taking their animal with them. But I do agree that context is the critical thing.

  16. I have a four pound chihuahua who will accompany me to the church on occasion now when I expect I will be in the office by myself for a few hours, but she was a regular fixture at my divinity school. I didn't intend for that to happen, I brought her one day in her little "purse" so that my friends could see her after class. She sat there the whole time and slept, nobody being the wiser. Everyone enjoyed her presence so much that I was requested to keep bringing her, even by professors! Whenever anyone needed a little extra TLC, she was happy to be held and petted (she got an A+ in Pastoral Care!) One professor was highly disappointed that I didn't carry her to our graduation because he said that she deserved an M.Div as much as the rest of us!

    When taking her to church, my rule has always been that she has to be in her carrier, on her leash, or close in the office. I've never had anyone have a problem with her presence, but if they did I'm always prepared to put her elsewhere (closed in her crate or in another room) and I try to avoid taking her in the sanctuary, but if I do she's either in her carrier or being held, just to avoid the potential of any "accidents"

  17. I'm always a day late to these questions, but I want to echo an idea that Pastor Julia and Crimson Rambler raised: personal safety.

    As a solo pastor in an otherwise-unstaffed small rural church, I will admit I've brought my dog with me when called back to dispense food from the food pantry or to meet with a stranger seeking pastoral care. A better solution would be to require the Session to ensure my safety, but there's no very workable way to do that, and my husband is not always available. The dog does provide some measure of protection without interfering in a budding pastoral relationship.

  18. Hi All,
    I'm coming out as the question-er here.I knew I was being vague-ish, but wow! did not expect this much comment! thanks for all the food for thought.

    Just adopted a second dog, and I've had him with me at work for the last few weeks. He's pretty well behaved, and also hypoallergenic, and mostly just snoozes on the couch in my office, which has a moderate amount of traffic but is mostly pretty quiet during the day. I dont think this is a problem, but I did not ask for anyone's permission. I guess that would be a good idea.

    I can really see both sides of this though. We had an offfice volunteer who would sometimes bring a dog and I had to ask him to stop because of some bad behavior.

    I dont think anyone has come in recently who has a real horror of dogs, but I so appreciate your sharing your feelings, Sharon, as it gives me a lot more compassion and understanding for those I meet who do feel that way.

    I also heard of a pastor who let her dog soil the carpet of her chruch, and it was a lot of work for the one who came after her to clean up the damage done. But my understandng was that it was as much a symptom of a larger issue of disregard as it was the action itself that was upsetting to folks. Which is what it sounds like you are saying, Muthah?

    I guess with my lil 12-pounder I was not really counting on a dog for safety, but that is an issue I had not considered, so thanks.

    And thanks again for all these comments - I really appreciate these ideas.


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