Legal and legitimate?

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Several years ago, my eldest son, Jason, and I were active members of the Iron Order Motorcycle Club, a three-piece patch, law-abiding MC (motorcycle club).

We are now retired members but at an open house some time ago, held by one of the local chapters west of Atlanta, I was standing with a member of the Newnan Chapter when an IOMC member came in and announced to the other man, “Hey, guess what? I’m a minister now. So, if you know anybody who needs to be married, I’m your man.”

“How did you get to be a minister?” the Newnan patch holder asked.

“I sent in my $35 and filled out an online application and now I’m ordained!”

My fellow biker said, “We have a real minister in our chapter.”

“Who?”

“Him,” as he pointed his thumb at me.

The new “minister” said, “Are you a pastor?” “Priest, actually,” I replied.

“No @*#%?,” he asked.

“No @*#%,” I responded.

He was certainly not the first person I knew that had obtained online “ordination” for a token fee. In fact, the Universal Life Church Monastery boasts that 20,000,000 people have been “ordained” through them. I have attended a number of weddings through the years and, when I talked with the officiant afterward and asked which church they served, it wasn’t a completely rare thing for them to hem and haw and finally admit they were an “internet minister.”

In the past, the Universal Life Church would “ordain” dogs, cats, children, and would offer to “ordain” people a bishop, archbishop, abbot, priest, and a literal plethora of other titles. Supposedly, they have reformed the practices and one has to attest that applicants are 18 or older and, presumably, are human.

They now apparently will “ordain” one for free but, surprise, have things to sell to help one be a better “minister.” I tried to find how much this merchandise costs but, apparently, one must be “ordained” first before the prices can be viewed.

The ULCM boasts that many celebrities have become “ordained,” including comedian and late-night talk host Conan O’Brien. They even feature a video of him filling out the ULCM application on his TV show. However, if one watches the video, it is obvious that he is doing this as a joke.

Father Jonathon K. Landon, retired Army Chaplain (Major) and a legitimately ordained priest, shared the following experience with me and gave me permission to share it here:

“When I was on active duty in the Army, I was traveling in uniform on business. While awaiting my flight in the gate area of the airport, a man struck up a conversation with me. His garb was more “biker classic” than that of an educated professional. On discovering that I am a chaplain, he said, “I’m a minister, too.”

“Oh?” I said, inviting him to expand on the story as he obviously wanted to do.

“I signed up with Universal Life Church so I could ‘do’ my friend’s wedding,” he continued.

I honestly don’t remember what I said next, but I remember what I thought. I have a four-year bachelor’s degree, a four-year master’s degree, and a full year of clinical pastoral education, including doctoral coursework. I followed a process that took seven years of discernment, counsel, training, education, and formation from the beginning of my candidacy to ordination as a Priest. I pastored a church for a year before becoming an Army chaplain and had been serving as a chaplain — a full-time, professional ministry — for about nine years by the time of our encounter.

Did this man seriously expect me to acknowledge him as a professional colleague? He registered with ULC so he could preside at a wedding, having no training at all in the spiritual, emotional and behavioral principles of healthy relationships.

He joined a couple in what is supposed to be a life-long covenant. I can’t imagine that he made any effort to ensure they had premarital counseling or had the knowledge, skills and commitment to weather the hard times while sustaining and growing their marriage throughout their lives. And let’s not even try to describe the potential harm to the couple’s future children, if any.

I was appalled by the ignorance of and disregard for the harm that an untrained and unqualified clergy person can do. I was appalled that so many in our community think this is a fine way to support your friends’ future health and happiness.

I wonder what he would have thought and felt, if I had said, “I’m a mechanic. I watched a YouTube video once about motorcycle repair. How about I work on your bike? Oh, it never occurred to me that your life and the lives of others could be in danger if your bike breaks down at freeway speeds. Is that REALLY important?”

I was NOT appalled that there is no law establishing qualifications for clergy. In the United States there cannot be any such laws, as they would contravene the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Though the harm that untrained, uninformed, undisciplined, unaccountable clergy can do is bad indeed, it would be worse to have a church that is governed by the state. It would be worse to have the government deciding how clergy should be prepared, what they should know, what they should believe, what they should teach, how they should lead worship.”

One doesn’t even have to be a Christian to be “ordained.” Here’s a direct quote: “We have made it our mission to actualize these tenets in the world by empowering millions of ministers, whether they come to us from a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Shinto, Agnostic, Atheist, Pagan, Wiccan, or Druid tradition, to speak their own truth to power.”

Imagine entrusting your heating and air conditioning system to such a person to get it repaired says, “Oh, I have no training. I got certified online in five minutes as a mechanic.” Imagine it’s a lawyer, a doctor, a plumber, an electrician, pest control, Realtor, or ANY other skill or profession.

Some 20,000,000 souls have thus been “ordained.” Is it “Legal?” in America, sadly, yes. It is. Is it “legitimate?” Well, all I can say is that the truly legitimate clergy I know either feel sorry for, or shake their heads at, these “clergy.”

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

4 COMMENTS

  1. Father Epps, my dad faithfully served the Presbyterian Church for 40 years as an ordained minister after an undergrad then divinity school. Years of study, ministry, preaching, prayer, and, yes, he performed weddings, too, and insisted on pastoral counseling before doing them. I completely understand the point of your article!

  2. We have watered-down everything now, it’s become all about the fee for a piece of paper. The same is true about “affirmative action” that reflects highly qualified applicants (med school, law school, flight school, large corporations) because of their skin color, while accepting unqualified applicants because of their skin color. This is insane! Everything should be based on MERIT!