Paul Soderquist, the interim pastor at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in George, Iowa, is making moves to change the way that people grieve and celebrate their animal companions within his congregation.
A new trend has risen in animal chaplaincy, a ministry that is designed to provide care and comfort to families whose animals may be sick or dying. Animal chaplaincy aims to counter the norm of repressing the hurt of losing an animal.
Soderquist went before the session of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church last summer, laying out the plan for his continuing education for the year. His request was to take an animal chaplaincy class to become certified, acknowledging that it was more expensive than they normally allowed and warning that if he did the class, there would be a project that would involve the congregation.
“When I asked the session for permission to do this course of study as my continuing education for the year, I described the course and none of them had ever heard of anything like that. They had never heard of animal chaplains before, and I knew that it was a reach for them,” Soderquist said. “I laid it out there and I stopped talking and I took a breath. I had given them an out.”
But the session surprised Soderquist and accepted his proposal. With that cue to move on with his study, Soderquist began his project: “The Animals We Love.”
Soderquist put together a questionnaire with questions such as how the pet came into the life of the member or family, things that the pet accomplished, a funny story about the pet and, if applicable, how the pet passed away.
After a few drafts of the questionnaire, Soderquist printed it out in bulk and presented it to the congregation as a whole, requesting that the forms be filled out and returned to him. The members of Ebenezer met his query with enthusiasm, with one member of the congregation taking eight of the forms.
“Man, those questionnaires flew out the door,” Soderquist said.
In the end, Soderquist had 45 animal biographies to compile into his book. Animals that were submitted included dogs, cats, horses and even a chinchilla. Soderquist sat down with the questionnaires, reworking them into little stories about each animal and its family. Each biography was accompanied by a photograph of the animal.
Special attention was paid to the animals that attended the Blessing of the Animals that Soderquist held at the church this past fall, a first-time event at Ebenezer.
When Soderquist presented his book to his peers in the animal chaplaincy class, they were thrilled by the idea, suggesting that the church make it a normal thing to compile, even after he has left. Soderquist is excited by this idea, thinking that the book can serve as a sort of directory of the church’s various pets even after he leaves.
“I just see it as a continuation of my ministry, really — my ministry with people and the animals they love,” Soderquist said.