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By Erin Strybis ELCA pastor Denise Gundersen was at a church


meeting when a dog wandered into the room. She wondered aloud where it came from, and the host pastor replied, “He’s a church dog so he goes wherever he wants. Every church needs a dog.” That advice stuck with Gundersen, who was still


grieving the death of her 17-year-old dog. She soon began to search for her first church dog, a bearded collie she would name Salty Dog Gundersen who would spend 12 years alongside her in ministry. This October many ELCA congregations will host


pet blessings in conjunction with the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. These blessings are one of the few times four-legged creatures roam the building—unless a dedicated church dog is on the premises. What blessings can a holy hound bestow on its pastor and congregation? A look at the life and ministry of Salty, who passed away in June, offers insight. Gundersen and her husband, Barton, adopted Salty


at 5 months. “From the day he came home he was being trained to be a public minister,” she said. They named


36 OCTOBER 2017


the certified therapy dog for that purpose as well, drawing inspiration from Matthew 5:13. Right away Salty got involved in Gundersen’s


call at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Tawas, Mich. He accompanied her to office hours and committee meetings and helped in “encouraging the choir” at weekly practices. He could also be found resting at the feet of then church secretary Cheryl Frank. She witnessed the dog’s gift for evangelism: “Salty really made everybody feel welcome. He was known throughout town as ‘the dog from Grace.’ ”


The dog made all the difference Popular among the old and young, Salty was known to comfort crying children and play hide-and-seek with the confirmation kids. A frequent companion on visits to nursing homes and homebound members, he was so well loved that his absence was unacceptable to some. “If pastor went out to visit my [homebound] aunt, she would be very angry if she didn’t take Salty with her,” Frank said. “Pastor almost didn’t get in the door without him.”


CONGREGATIONAL LIFE


Illustration: Sherry Scharschmidt/catsdogswords.com


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