SMITHSBURG, Md. - When the Rev. Al Deal stands in the pulpit of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church today, he might be preaching to one of the most unique groups of congregants to walk through his doors.
While some will never make a sound, others will be downright disruptive. A few will even prefer lying on the floor. And when the first notes of music begin, you might hear some off-key yelping instead of singing.
But that's to be expected when you put paws in the pews. It's a little woof-woof and worship.
An unusual breed of church-goer will be on hand when Deal invites his parishioners to bring their dogs to a pet-friendly service later this month.
An animal lover who comes from a family of dog and cat owners, Deal understands firsthand the loving connection between people and their pets.
He once had a chocolate tabby who trotted to the door to greet him every night when he came home from work and still remembers the heartbreak of having her euthanized when she became ill from Graves' Disease. His family also has opened their hearts and home to a Persian cat, as well as a white Dutch bunny and a gray shorthair feline rescued in a rain storm.
Today, a beagle named Holly "allows my family the privilege of her company," Deal shared. But Holly is 13 years old and has been having physical issues lately, he noted.
She currently is taking pain medication and muscle relaxants to help alleviate or lessen her ailments.
"We're hopeful," Deal said. "But we also realize that, like people, our pets only live for so long." So he, his wife, Pam, and their two children are preparing themselves for the devastation of one day soon telling Holly goodbye.
"For those who love their pets," Deal said, they're not just animals. "They are part of the family."
And if they are part of the family, he added, "why not invite them to church?"
The idea for a doggie worship service came about after the local pastor read a story about the Rev. Ann Bullis of Wesley United Methodist Church in Sheboygan, Wis., who encouraged her congregation to bring their canine friends to a 9 a.m. Sunday service.
"I thought, 'Hey, she's on the right track,'" Deal recalled.
Not only do many pet owners love their animals like children, he said, "there are some folks who don't like leaving their pets, especially dogs, at home alone. I thought it would be nice if they could be provided with a warm, welcoming and comforting place to worship with their canine companions. And Mt. Zion United Methodist Church is just the place. I refer to Mt. Zion as the little church with the big heart."
According to Deal, the church's weekly worship service begins at 8:30 a.m., followed by Sunday school. The canine service would be a separate service offered at 11 a.m. on the last Sunday of the month.
"Depending on how the service goes, I envision having a Sunday school for the folks with their dogs," he added.
Since coming up with the idea, Deal said he has received the approval of his district superintendent, the Rev. Edgardo Rivera, whose wife thought it was a great idea. The response from the congregation also has been positive.
"I believe the biggest concern is about cleanup duties after the service," he said. "I have promised to take care of that. I'm also thinking about providing bags so that owners can clean up after their dogs outside of the church."
"I did have two members ask if they could bring their cats to service," he noted. "In fairness to them, I have to consider that. But I asked them to wait and see how the Doggie Day service went first."
While some people might disagree, Deal believes "it is very important for the church to recognize the deep connection between people and their pets if they want to minister to the whole person and to what makes that person whole."
Deal quoted a member of Bullis' church in Wisconsin who brings her two Bichon Frises to Sunday service: "They're very much a part of my life and I consider them family members. They're a real blessing and God truly cares about animals. I always refer back to Noah and God saving his family and the animals from the flood. And I always feel that animals reflect the unconditional love that God has for his children."
"I could not say it any better than that," Deal noted.
Deal shared a story of a little girl who asked a minister if her recently deceased dog would go to heaven, to which the minister told her that dogs do not go to heaven.
"The little girl responded that if her dog didn't go to heaven, then she didn't want to go either," Deal said. "How sad. I would have told her that if she wanted to see her beloved pet in heaven, then God could make that happen. Theolo-gically correct or not, I believe we'll see our pets again. They, too, are God's creatures."
Deal said he is the middle of seven children and most members of his family have always had animals in their homes.
"I have a brother in Calif-ornia who currently owns three basset hounds - or they own him - and another brother in Delaware who has raised Labrador retrievers over the years," he said. "My parents recently lost their kitty, Tasha, who belonged to my deceased sister, Beth. Tasha served as a living reminder of Beth to them and it was quite hard on them when Tasha passed. Her remains were cremated and her ashes were buried at Beth's gravesite."
Deal works full time for the Agency for the U.S. Healthcare Research & Quality in Rockville and is a part-time pastor assigned to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. He hopes to retire in a few years from the federal government and become a full-time pastor with the United Methodist Church.
Meanwhile, he plans on continuing to minister to both people and their pets.
"Modern society recognizes how important pets are," he said. "I think it's very important for the church to recognize that connection."