Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bare Essentials for Ministry

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.

11 comments:

Mother Julie said...

sigh...did it have to be Modesto, my home town? I could have stopped there instead of being tons of dollars in debt? God had other ideas...instead I was sent to a holy mountain to meet some of the most poor in stuff people who were rich in faith and taught me much about what is truly important and let me see Jesus up close and personal.

bluestockingsrs said...

I am from Modesto, CA and an ordained minister of the ULC. I became ordained so that I could marry my friends who are interested in shaping their own ceremony, but still have it be legal and binding.

I am baptized as an Episcopalian though... I like the idea of the fight ULC made to prevent the government from deciding what a church is or is not.

But it is funny all at the same time.

Pastor Joelle said...

I just want a press pass!

jevcat said...

Thank you, as always, for your words and insights. As I feel my own way in the dark (sometimes blogging as I go), I found especially meaningful: "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."

Mary Anne said...

Remind me why the church is in the marriage business?

Mary O'Shaughnessy said...

I distrust on-line ordinations, interfaith, non-denominational certificates--anything issued outside a living, breathing, face-to-face community. My immediate reaction is that someone who skips long, hard encounters with a community over an extendend period of time, is avoiding accountability. Maybe it's unfair, but that is my reaction.

Rev. Dr. Laura said...

My first ordination was with the ULC. At the time, I had a B.A., M.A., and everything but the dissertation for my Ph.D.--all in theology. Plus a semester of Episcopal seminary. Plus a certificate in spiritual direction. Plus twenty+ years in lay ministry as a Roman Catholic and Episcopalian and affirmation of the call by many people in many communities I served--ordination however being denied for many years due to my gender in the first church and thrown off kilter indefinitely when spouse's job forced a move from a hospitable to an inhospitable diocese.

I took the step after much prayer and being invited into the sacred ministry of witnessing the life commitments of good, loving, spiritual but not religious people who were not welcome or honored in conventional churches. I did so knowing I would face the kind of scorn and judgment evident in this article and these comments, and that this would be the deathblow to any hopes of conventional ordination. I spent a year in that transforming ministry, being paid very little (like most wedding ministers) and had the privilege of performing many legal gay marriages when this became an option in my state--the mainline clergy, except for the UCCers, did not because of fear of their denominations. Happily, God continued to make a way out of no way, and I am now ordained in the Independent Catholic movement, which has seen enough people denied ministry in the mainline churches for gender, sexual orientation, and that it honored that first stage of my call and ministry instead of attacking it. (My ministry is still pretty much volunteer/at a cost to my family, like that of the first disciples of Jesus, but it is fruitful for me and the people I serve so I am very grateful). Please consider my experience, and that of others, as you speak to and about those who have taken a different path to ministry than yours.

Dirty Sexy Ministry said...

Laura, thank you for sharing your experience. Actually, the post was written EXACTLY to speak of experiences like yours, where the real essentials of ministry of service and holy listening are diminished by titles and certificate and power-wielded by groups who "protect" ministry from those who aren't falling in line, so to speak. As you have so eloquently said, ministry is much more than a title or diploma; it is the offering of one's self to God's service, even when said offering is challenging and costly.

Rev. Dr. Laura said...

Thank you for the kind words about my comment and my ministry.

You might want to work on clarity, however, as it is difficult to understand how a post whose clear thesis was that unconventional churches and those ordained by them are worthy of shame and mockery, with the implied converse that conventional ones and those ordained by them are worthy of honor and respect, was intended to speak of experiences like mine where it was the mainline church that diminished and power-wielded and etc.

Titles and certificates--which is what mainline ordination involves as well--do not in themselves make ministry, nor do they necessarily diminish it. When they function well they are ways of identifying people's gifts, call and training for those who need these as well as giving some affirmation to those exercising ministry.

I presume you wrote not knowing anyone who had been ordained by the ULC, and assuming that everyone who had was glory-seeking and unqualified. I can tell from your supportive comment that you learned otherwise from the sharing of my experience...But I would also have really appreciated--and still would--1) an apology for the hurtful, mocking tone of the post, even though this was no doubt thoughtless rather than intentional and 2) an acknowledgment that you learned something from my sharing of my experience rather than co-opting it (not to mention minimizing my feelings) by claiming to have written to honor it/make the same point.

Thanks very much for listening, and considering these requests.

Dirty Sexy Ministry said...

Laura, we were pointing out that the essentials of ministry are willingness to serve, to love, to engage in growth and learning; and that certificates were NOT essentials to ministry, whether these certificates were from the ULC, the Episcopal, the Methodist, or any other faith tradition. That you did not experience the essay this way is clear. If you would like further e-conversation, please email at dirtysexyministry (at) gmail (dot) com.

Dixie said...

I like the whole online ordination thing. Hell, they even let me a minister (I'm a stripper too). I actually didn't see the Jedi Knight option. LOL. a bit too nerdy for me, but each to their own! Hope you don't mind I threw a link on my blogroll to you. I like your writing. I'm at theycallmedixie.blogspot.com