Dogs days of summer: All welcomed for services at Wisconsin church

By Kali Thiel The Associated Press - Published: June 23, 2013 | 2:00 pm 0

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - Some pastors will say there is no biblical support that all dogs go to heaven.

But the Rev. Ann Bullis, pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, said she believes the faithful pets will have a future heavenly home.

"Dogs go to heaven," Bullis said. "What would (heaven) be without our dogs? Heaven is supposed to be a happy place."

Not only do the animals have a place in heaven, she said, but they now also have a place among Wesley congregants on Sunday mornings.

The southside Sheboygan church allows congregants to bring their pets to the 9 a.m. Sunday church service and, so far, a handful of congregants have chosen to bring their dogs to worship, Bullis said.

"About two months ago, (some congregants) came up to me and said, 'Boy, I wish I could bring my pet to church. Can we bring our pets to church?'?" Bullis said. "And we said, 'Why not?' We couldn't come up with a reason why not."

When she introduced the concept to the congregation, Bullis said no one had any qualms with the idea. Even the couple of congregants who have allergies weren't bothered by it, she said, since the dog owners sit in the back of the church.

Louise Hansen, 62, one of the congregants who made the initial request of Bullis, said she and her husband have brought their Bichon Fris?, Libby and Dolly, to church on a couple of occasions.

"They're very much a part of my life, and I consider them family members," Hansen said. "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."

Todd Hueppchen, 49, said his Golden Retriever, Diego, is like a family member to him as well and, for that reason, he was happy to be able to bring him to church.

"He pretty much goes everywhere with me," Hueppchen said. "I take him to the nursing home. We go on walks together every day and I work from home, so he's with me there, too. . Now I can actually bring my dog (to church) and I don't have to have him sit at home alone and he can be part of the whole thing."

So far, Hueppchen said he has brought Diego to two church services.

"From what I've seen from the two times I've been there, it tends to bring smiles to people's faces," Hueppchen said. "The majority of the people, they all like to see him and (Diego) loves being around people."

Both owners said their dogs weren't disruptive during the service.

"We weren't quite sure how this was going to work," Hansen said. "Was there going to be a lot of barking? Were there going to be accidents? Things like that. So far there haven't been, but there could be and we are prepared for that. But just like children make noise in a service, babies cry, animals might make noise, too."

The pet-friendly service is one of a few changes the church has seen in the past couple of years.

Two years ago, when Bullis first began serving at the church, attendance was down to 11 people, she said, but in the past two years, it has started to grow. The congregation is now at about 35 members, she said.

Bullis credits the church's growth to a change in philosophy. Their approach now is more casual, she said, and the goal is to foster an open and welcoming environment, while doing more outreach within the community.

That includes a meal with open mic the church hosts once a month that is open to the Sheboygan community, Bullis said.

That event has grown to include about 60 people, she said.

The church also has loosened some of its normal church etiquette in an attempt to welcome new members, Bullis said. Congregants are allowed to bring coffee into church to drink during the service, for example, she said.

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