On more than one occasion, I've noticed that couples who announce their weddings in the New York Times have been legally wed by ordained ministers of the Universal Life Church. Yes, I read wedding announcements without a care as to what the bride wore or who the groom's parents are; I am interested in who married them. Often, I know the priest. It's a weird clergy thing. But I finally had to investigate this Universal Life Church phenomenon for myself.
For those not in the know, the Universal Life Church (ULC) is a legitimate church (and by that I mean the IRS says they are legal) that offers free and easy online ordination, complete with credentials and degree options. Everything you need to get started as a real minister: deluxe wallet credentials, a certificate (suitable for framing - and what, exactly, is unsuitable for framing?), your choice of official honorary degree (including, but not limited to, a Doctorate in Metaphysics or a Doctorate in Motivation), your choice of title (Mystic Warrior and Jedi Knight are my personal favorites, but you can invent your own), and a press pass. Ordinations are conducted several times a week, after your name and information are reviewed by pastoral staff. Computers do not ordain, according to the site, which must mean there is someone in Modesto, California, praying over the names submitted via email. You won't be rejected for faith beliefs, but submitting your pet for ordination or your spiritual name are frowned upon.
Oh, were ministry this easy. We imagine it is, that ministry, ordained and lay, is about getting some validation for ourselves - a role we can claim, a collar we can wear, or a program that is "ours." That part about ministry the ULC gets exactly right. The Mini Clergy Package, which gives the bare essentials for new ministers, gets you a certificate suitable for framing, a card to carry around to prove you are ordained, and an instruction book. More elaborate and expensive packages, called Complete Ministry Packages, get you titles and doctorate degrees, even a sticker for your car so EVERYONE will know you're ordained.
We might laugh at this whole online ordination (and believe me, I've laughed), but it reminds us of the shadow side of ministry - that we are more interested in being ordained than we are interested in truly serving as ministers. A shadow side is that we grasp at the essentials for ministry because we need certificates of external validation: how big and/or rich our churches are, what successful programs we can take full credit for, or how many weddings or baptisms or ordinations we've done. We recount our successes with joy and add titles to our names or talk about how l-o-n-g we've been involved in some particular ministry, making sure everyone knows our presence in said ministry is essential to its success. Oh yes, we human beings embrace these certificates of validation of our ministry.
Not all of these certificates are bad or wrong. Like everything in human existence, it has a good side and a shadow side. Ministry, lay and ordained, isn't instantaneous - even ULC recognizes this. The deep, grounded ministries take time and effort and blood, sweat, and tears and laughter. In a word - work. So yes, validation keeps us working through the desert times. Hearing we've done a good job or getting a diploma when we complete a course affirms us and gives us something suitable for framing. Seeing the fruits of labor are a cool drinks of water that give us sustenance. And in many traditions, having the external sign such as laying on of hands, reflects the internal grace of a call to ordained ministry. Having the externals, in the best way, reflect our internal selves or give others a sure way to identify your ministry, at least in a surface way. I display my seminary diploma (which takes up half a wall). I wear a clergy collar at times. I have my parish's bumper sticker on my car. So yes, I have a few certificates of validation. We all do.
But those certificates, mine or anyone's, are not the essentials of ministry, and when we make them the essentials, we get ourselves stuck (and we all get stuck, too). Essentials have nothing to do with externals. The best ministry often occurs in ways that can't be added to our resumes or discussed in an nominating committee's interviews. The deepest, holiest ministry, the essentials, are not certificates, credentials, or honorifics. They go directly to the teachings and ministry of Jesus, who does not seem to be an alumni of any institution of higher education, but he did eventually get an honorific. I suppose, however, if you are betrayed, crucified, and rise again, you get to add Christ to your name.
What would Jesus say the essentials of ministry are? What are the most important parts of our ministries? Are they the number of things we've done? Or are do we instead value the quality of things God has invited us to do? Do we find validation in the size of things, meticulously measuring how big or how many? Or do we see the essentials in small gatherings with people who have very little, but who are willing to share their stories and experiences with you. Perhaps an essential for ministry is the ability to sit quietly in the storms of human lives and just not know, resisting the seduction of usefulness (not my line - from my Bishop) and the violence of unsolicited advice. Perhaps an essential for ministry is recognizing that none of us have any real idea what God is calling us to do as we fumble and stumble into the abyss of love and service with God anyway. Perhaps an essential is being willing to fail and admitting our failures, as much as we're willing to claim and announce our success.
Maybe, just maybe, the essential of ministry is to spend our lives, however we may serve the people of God, by allowing God's grace to shine through us, letting those we meet on this pilgrimage of life know that they matter and are loved. No. Matter. What.
That seems to be the essential of Jesus's ministry.
But I'm still pretty envious of that press pass, and I think the Rev. Laurie Brock, Jedi Knight, has a particular ring to it.