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If you are a pet lover, who heals your emotional and spiritual wounds when that pet is ill, out-of-sorts, or dying? So many people think of animals as beloved friends and family members, yet our culture and religions offer little support for nurturing pet relationships or for mourning animal loss. Nancy Schluntz recognized these needs were unmet and made them the focus of her chaplaincy.
“People sometimes feel more joy with the unconditional love of an animal friend, and more pain and grief over their loss, than they do with their human counterpart,” Nancy says. Nancy felt this experience herself when she lost both her mother and her dog within a month of each other. “My dog was a wolf-bear shaman wrapped in dog fur and my daily companion. She saw me for who I truly was. The depth of grief for my dog was stronger than for my mother, who had not been part of my daily life for many years. Nobody understood my grief.”
The seeds for Nancy’s calling, and her intuitive connection to animals and nature, were planted in a jungle oil camp in Colombia where she was born. Growing up as an “oil brat,” she also lived in Peru and Argentina for many years before returning to the United States. Living in foreign lands broadened and deepened her perspective and cultural understanding. “I learned to observe and listen, with many animal and human teachers to guide me over the years.”
After 25 years working as an editor/technical writer and real-estate financier, Nancy served for thirteen years as Executive Director of the Family Emergency Shelter Coalition (FESCO), a mid-sized faith-based human services agency providing shelter, supportive services, counseling, life skills education, transitional housing and aftercare for homeless families with children.
“My work at the agency was sponsored by a coalition of interdenominational churches. But when I visited the churches to speak or meet with church leaders, I was struck by how they often put God in the box of their four walls. I wondered, how can all these splinters come from the same cross?”
Not long after her mother and dog died, Nancy started training in animal communication. “I felt an internal push that got stronger and stronger. Ultimately I decided it was time to leave the agency to find out how I was being called. I also discovered labyrinths and started walking all over the Bay Area. In a labyrinth, you walk an individual journey in the presence of people who are also on their own journey.”
During one such walk in a Hayward Hills labyrinth, Nancy met a Chaplaincy Institute ordinate and became intrigued. When she later visited a ChI module, she says, “It fit like a glove. Finding that there are many ways to see God and that ministry could be something other than what preachers do, those were real openings to me.”
Ordained as an Interfaith Minister in 2007, Nancy now provides a compassionate grounded presence to help people and animals navigate the bumps in life’s path, using intuitive deep listening, meditation practice, animal Reiki, grief counseling, dream work, labyrinth walks, and listening for messages from nature. “Working with animals is an underserved field. It’s relatively new to recognize animals as sentient beings with thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We need to give animals back their voice and promote them to full family members.”
Often when clients call Nancy for consultation, they are in a crisis situation. Sometimes the animal has resorted to extreme behavior to get attention. In these cases, Nancy provides environmental mediation to make the situation better for everyone in the house. “If animals don’t understand the reasons for a change in their environment, they make up their own. I serve as a bridge to help the animal and the person communicate about what’s happening and to find resolution.”
Nancy also directs a monthly pet-loss group for people grieving the death of a pet. “It’s a lovely thing when you can help someone feel better after this tremendous loss.” To broaden her outreach, she maintains a blog and offers a monthly ezine from her website, www.nancyshluntz.com.
“Ministry is an everyday mission and happens everywhere you go: robes are worn from the inside out. Sometimes it’s a Facebook post that resonates with someone. Often when I pull attention to something in a blog or ezine, I get responses like ‘I really needed to read that or to hear that,’ or ‘that was a good suggestion, I’ll try it.’ People who read my ezine and blog aren’t necessarily the same people who call me as clients. They are seekers like me and mystics. I loved finding out that I can call myself a mystic. ”
Regardless of the medium, Nancy believes the most important services she provides are to offer a fully present, compassionate container for clients; to help people work their own process; and to honor the depth of attachment and the role the animal played in a person’s life. “People have to be self-directed about their own grief process, but sometimes it helps to have someone who can hold your hand through it. I enjoy walking with a person through that path of discovery about their own feelings.”
The biggest challenges in her work stem from working independently, outside of an organization, and from blazing a new path. “My community ministry is on the fringes, it’s a new field. I’m also on my own, so I must create my own support network. Anyone who does anything new faces that prospect. “
Nancy credits the Chaplaincy Institute for giving her a great toolkit for ministry. “Ordination isn’t the endpoint; it’s just another gateway in the journey of faith. It’s not like taking job training, where you learn a task and go do it. It’s an expression of the divine moving through you. That changes as we become more receptive to letting it happen.”
For those considering pursuing chaplaincy, Nancy offers this encouragement and advice:
“Don’t set expectations about where support is going to come from or what it looks like, but find a group that works for you. Also, since ministry is a continuing unfolding path, spiritual direction in whatever form it takes is critically important. Finally, you have to trust that you did this for a reason, and you’re still doing this for a reason. The work is secondary to the internal unfolding process. You’re always walking through the void, jumping off the cliff, and finding whether you have wings. Once on the path, you can’t go backwards.”
Nancy has written a book about her journey to ministry, and the role her cat played in it. “It’s like going through the whole program over again.” Her book is entitled Hand in Paw: A Journey of Trust and Discovery.