(Our friend Angie Ward is a writer, mentor, and ministry leader in North Carolina. She is the founder of Forward Leadership, a ministry coaching ministry. She is also a regular contributor to Leadership journal and our e-newsletter, Leadership Weekly.)
When I worked at a camp in northern Wisconsin, my fellow staff members often told a story about a cat that had lived on the campgrounds for many years. When the cat died, one prankster decided to have the cat stuffed, then placed it in strategic locations to startle other staff members and visitors. (I swear I am not making this up.)
Apparently, the cat appeared serenely napping on a car dashboard, cuddled at the feet of a secretary, and propped up with a sign directing visitors to the camp office before it was kidnapped (or should I say cat-napped?), never to be seen again.
I was reminded of this story when I read that actor Alan Alda, most famously of the TV show "M*A*S*H" and more recently of "The West Wing," recently wrote a book entitled, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned. In it, Alda talks about how he had a beloved pet dog when he was eight years old. When the dog died, Alda was so sad about burying it that his father decided to have the dog stuffed instead.
"We kept it on the porch and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries," Alda recalled in an interview with Newsweek. He then continued, "There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that's passed."
Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward "stuffing the dog," maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it's sometimes much easier to stuff a church's pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.
Like Alda's dog and the camp cat, stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren't familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it's a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something's not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.
One of the key tasks of a good leader is to acknowledge reality. Sometimes, that means burying a beloved pet, rather than propping it up in denial of its passing, even if it's your pet.
For the ministry leader, a potential danger is to bury the ministerial dog without telling anyone that it died, or worse, without even acknowledging that it existed. Burying a dead dog does not diminish its significance to the church family. On the contrary, a proper burial should include celebration of the metaphorical pet's impact, as well as acknowledgement that some people will need to grieve the loss over a period of time. Even when everyone agrees that an animal is dead, a wise leader will allow time to process the loss, instead of just bringing home a new pet.
This is especially true for young leaders like me, who can be quick to implement change without fully understanding the history of an organization or acknowledging the emotional and spiritual impact - both positive and negative - of past pets. Whether a church's "pet" is significant to you personally, you need to realize that there may be a lot of emotion stirred up by its passing. Recognize the loss, but celebrate the life, as well.
But keeping your dog's picture on your desk is much different than keeping the actual dead dog on your desk, at your feet, or propped up in your leadership meetings or even the church foyer. In a healthy church, only the nursery will have stuffed animals.