Dog slobber: an aid to ministry

By Susan Fawcett

Sometimes I take the dog to church.

This is a big treat for him, obviously, since otherwise he’d be at home staring out the window, waiting for us to come home. But at church, where I work full time, there are constant distractions: phones ringing, folding machines clacking away, people chatting. It’s a decent gig for a dog. He gets leashed to a knob on my desk chair so that he can’t bowl over any Church Ladies. He observes the comings and goings in the hallway with a great deal of interest. And he gets attention. A lot of it.

Becket (the dog, not the martyred Archbishop. We chose his name partly because we could say, “Will no one rid us of this turbulent dog?,” which, I admit, reveals a great deal about how much of a church dork I am) is a seventy-five pound black Labrador retriever. He wears a collar with the Episcopal shield on it. My hope is that this might win him some brownie points with skeptical office volunteers who find him scary.

Part of my argument for bringing him is that the dog himself is an entrée into people’s lives. Folks who would otherwise just nod at me through the door on their way elsewhere will stop, do a double take, and come in and chat for a few minutes so that they can pet him. I get to hear about their favorite animals. Because of Becket, I’ve been invited to parishioners’ homes to help commit the ashes of their beloved dogs to the earth.

More importantly, though, a friendly dog brings people’s guard down. For example, he comes to youth group events and makes the rounds, meeting all the kids, soaking up the attention. And it’s fairly miraculous to watch that very quiet, reserved young person play with a dog-all of a sudden we see another side of that young man. You can’t be cool with a Labrador; there’s a

little too much slobber and tail involved.

With adults, having a dog in the office breaks down the idea that church is like a corporate office. It is entirely unprofessional, at least in the Washington, D. C. area, to bring a pet to work. And because they spend so much time in a work environment with all those unspoken rules about professionalism, many folks come into our church office expecting, I suppose, a certain amount of decorum and propriety. They expect the priests here to be wearing suits and

clergy collars. They expect this to be a Well-Run Office. And, my friends, that is fairly contrary to what I understand the Church to be. We are not a corporation; I, as a priest, am not a CEO. And the parishioner who visits and gets an unexpected hello from a waggy dog may have to dispense with the pretense of being professional herself. Having Becket around means that I

get to see who people are in the midst of delight, rather than in the midst of Doing Business. It’s a gift.

All of this is a long way of saying that I’m deeply uncomfortable with this paradigm the church has inherited of trying to operate like a Corporation. Yes, there are all kinds of professional standards we need to meet. Priests need to conform to a certain amount of vocational and professional principles. Our parishes need to be adequately administrated and our ministries need to be effective. This takes people who are willing to work hard, it takes an organized group of office staff and volunteers, and it takes a great deal of teamwork.

All of that is lost effort, though, if we aren’t becoming a community that has some of the best characteristics of healthy families: people who laugh together, take care of each other, challenge each other to grow, and pray for and with each other. Unless I am mistaken, churches are called to be groups of people who are journeying together toward and through the call of Jesus Christ, to be God’s hands and feet and heart in the world. None of those things have anything to do with ‘being professional.’ They have to do with love.

And if a dog in the office helps remind people of that, well, be prepared to be welcomed by a happy, slobbery Labrador when you come in.

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

Past Posts