Christ Church in Stamford has a new and unusual member of its congregation and he’s helping to spread a message of love to the community.
Bear, an Airedale Terrier dog, was commissioned last month to be the church’s prayer dog as part of a new initiative called Paws for Prayer.
His owner Lel Nicholls, the church’s new children and youth minister, believes Bear is the first prayer dog in the country - and is definitely a first for the Lincoln Diocese.
The idea is that Bear and Lel go for a prayer walk every Wednesday morning in the Christ Church parish area at the northern end of Stamford, covering the “parish with a blanket of prayer”.
She said Bear’s good looks draw people to stop and talk to them when they are out walking, regardless of their religious beliefs, and now when Bear and Lel, along with the Rev Nikki Bates, go on a prayer walk, Bear’s new coat Paws for Prayer also draws intrigue.
And of course, Bear loves the fuss he’s been getting.
Lel said: “Bear’s gorgeous looks draw many people to stop and talk to us, regardless of their faith beliefs. Even walking through town with him at the weekends when we are not walking as Paws for Prayer, he will turn heads and he receives some lovely comments. He’s always been a sociable chap.
“That is part of the engagement that we are hoping for in Paws for Prayer as he is a handsome lad and people do like to stop and say hello to him. It’s well documented that stroking an animal is beneficial and having a pat or a cuddle always puts a smile on our faces.”
The idea initially came to Lel on a walk back in September and Rev Bates was happy to run with it but it has taken a few months to establish .
Lel and Rev Nikki Bates, along with Bear, wear jackets bearing the logo thanks to the support of Tim Morris at Stamford Engraving.
As well as taking his prayer walks, Bear stays with Lel to see people at Christ Church’s day centre and they enjoy petting him and recounting their own pet stories.
Bear also regularly attends church and the congregation enjoy seeing an unusual face in the pews.
And he made his first big public appearance at Stamford’s Walk of Witness on Good Friday and dealt with the large crowds very well.
He has also visited Bluecoat Primary School, where he proved a hit with pupils.
Lel said: “It was a privilege in the first month of this new ministry to visit Bluecoat Primary School and introduce Bear to all the children.
“We talked about why and how Christians pray and Bear was very popular and well-behaved.”
Bear shared his commissioning with Lel, who was newly appointed to the role of children and youth minister, having previously worked with both adults and children with special needs for more than 27 years.
Lel, who is 46 and also a mum to three human children, said it was “great fun” sharing her commissioning with her “affectionate and playful dog”.
Since they were commissioned, the inseparable duo have been happy to connect with people across the town, spreading love.
Lel, who bought Bear as a puppy in September 2015, said: “We pray for certain situations and people along with giving thanks for God’s provision. We have only been out for a few weeks so far but every Wednesday morning we can all be found stepping out in faith, in every sense.
“Connecting with people via Bear the Prayer Dog is exciting, wonderful , and reaffirms the message that we are loved and valued by God whoever we are.
“It isn’t about evangelism, it’s about showing care and love for our community. Christ Church desires to be at the heart of the community and draw everyone together cohesively in the sense of belonging and Bear can do his little bit by being a ‘smile starter’!
“It’s all about giving people time - in this day and age people shouldn’t be lonely and if we can listen, care and help in any way then that strengthens our community.”
If a spoken prayer doesn’t suit people, Bear also glady offers himself up to be stroked.
Lel explained: “We all have different ways of praying so if a spoken prayer doesn’t suit, we offer ‘every pat of Bear is a prayer’ so just stroking him and connecting silently is all that is needed.”
Lel said not only does it serve her church community and support her pastoral ministry, but has benefits for Bear too. He’s even learned to shake hands in return for a treat!
She hopes that eventually with time and maturity for Bear, who turns two in July, that he will be able to be trained as a Pets as Therapy dog, assisting children and vulnerable adults, or even visiting hospitals. But for now, Lel says “he seems content to be bathed in affection and cuddles!”