2008-03-06 / Faith

Church reaches out to pet lovers

Support groups for those caring for an ailing family member or grieving after the loss of a loved one are not unusual.

But recognizing the strong bond between people and their pets, members of North United Methodist Church in Madison, Ind., go a step further- reaching out to those dealing with the illness or death of four-legged friends.

"They need somebody to talk to," said Bob Schultz, a church volunteer who started the Pet Caretakers' Ministry. "They're coming in and they want prayer for their pets. And they want prayer for themselves, taking care of them."

Schultz and his wife, Karen, have an 11-year-old boxer, Scooby, who has cancer.

"Scooby's been a very close friend, and he's always been with me," said Karen Schultz. "And I just was finding it hard to imagine life without him."

Karen Schultz, a retired nurse, considers her pets members of the family. A recent addition to her home is a 6monthold dog, Abbie, who was abandoned and taken to a vet clinic for treatment of an injured leg.

"They do give us that unconditional love," she said. "I can remember losing my cat, and it was just like somebody had ripped a part of me apart."

Bob Schultz came up with the idea for the ministry after seeing an upset pet owner at a local veterinary clinic.

"This young man was crying, and so we were sitting there talking and said a little prayer," he said. "And they just didn't expect for his dog to live."

Soon after that meeting, the Pet Caretakers' Ministry was launched, meeting once a month at the church. North United Methodist has also expanded its 24-hour prayer line at (812) 493-4487 to include prayers for pets and their owners.

"Sometimes we fail to be sensitive, I think, to individuals who are very, very, very attached to their pets, and then they lose one of their pets," said the Rev. Randy Jungkurth, pastor of the 140-member congregation. "And then that ends up being even as much grief as a person who loses a family member."

Jungkurth welcomed the idea of the Pet Caretakers' Ministry, which began as a community outreach in September 2007.

"One woman in particular had lost her dog three years ago, and she still is grieving that dog," Jungkurth said. "Her grief is real, and being a part of the pet caregivers' ministry, she's had the opportunity to talk about her loss and her grief."

One meeting of the Pet Caretakers' Ministry included a discussion by Margo Watkins, an animal behaviorist. She suggests writing a journal or indulging in a favorite hobby to help deal with the loss of a pet.

"I think a support group like this helps people understand that there are other people out there who have lost a pet or are facing the inevitable death of a pet," Watkins said. "I think it helps them go through the grief process. Some people never get over that loss."

Watkins' 10yearold daughter Gillian said the loss of a pet cat "hurt my heart." She said writing a poem about her pet helped. "After I accepted, I can still feel his love because he'll always be in my heart," she said.

Karen Schultz finds it hard to imagine a world without pets. "I think it would be a much lonelier place," she said. "I'm not sure that there would be as much compassion in the world. I just don't think it would be right."

Bob Schultz is hoping the idea of a support group for pet owners will spread. He sees the love of animals as a "special blessing" and a two-way street. "We think we're taking care of the pets," he said. "But in reality, the pets are taking care of us."

This story was written by John Gordon and provided by Worldwide Faith News.

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