Spiritual fulfillment inspires many people to seek ordination in the ministry. Me? I’m mostly in it for the fun.
Just the other day in Minneapolis I presided at my sixth wedding — each of them, scattered from Minnesota to California to Georgia, a joyful, heart-warming hoot. This is possible because, naturally, I gave $40 to a guy who runs an ordination mill called the American Fellowship Church. My money buys me a plastic, wallet-sized Ordained Minister’s License.
For Minnesota ceremonies, I pay him an additional $10 for notarized Credentials of Ordination, which I file with my local county clerk. This, by law, gives me all of the administrative ministerial authority of the Twin Cities' current (interim) Archbishop.
Full-immersion baptisms, anyone, before the lakes get too cold?
This privilege places me among the millions of amateur celebrants who these days are performing marriages for their friends, relatives and passing acquaintances. The Universal Life Church, another online ordination mill, claims to have sold credentials for do-it-yourself marriages to more than 20 million people. I am part of a proud, even pious, movement, inspired by America’s families, who have not been happy with the administrative marriage traditions imposed on them. They are now grabbing virtually anyone — I am Exhibit A — who will help them create the ceremonies they want.
I think we need to acknowledge, in other words, what has been a wholesale flight of the marriage business from the brick-and-mortar denominations.
My experience suggests two reasons for this trend: First, given the option, people prefer to entrust their wedding ceremony to someone they know. This was how I got my first wedding gig five years ago. With no close ties to a church in a new city, and little interest in hiring a random judge or justice of the peace, my nephew in San Diego asked if I would get myself ordained and officiate at his wedding.
I since have been honored, delighted and ultimately amazed by both the complexities and the rewards of working with families to create these weddings. My key to successful ceremonies: Listen to the bride, her mother and the wedding planner, in that precise order.
Second, the conventional clerical community once had a monopoly in these matters, and they became, in my opinion, too comfortable and a little judge-y.
A few years ago a friend called in a panic. Her cousin was supposed to be married the next weekend in St. Paul. Hundreds of people were coming. But they were in crisis. During pre-marital counseling, the couple let it slip that they’d moved in together, to save money before the wedding. Awkward pause. The minister then announced that he would not perform the marriage of people who were living in sin. My friend asked: Would I perform the marriage of people who were living in sin? Of course I would. We're all sinners, right?
It’s another problem that my clerical colleagues have too often viewed weddings — and funerals, another of the big shows — as irresistible marketing opportunities.
Church leaders long ago realized that these events hold captive audiences with two key demographics: 1) casual church-goers who might be edging toward crises of faith; and 2) visitors who represent potential new congregants. And ministers and priests — subject to temptation just like the rest of us — occasionally can’t help themselves.
I was once in a rehearsal as a member of the wedding party, and the presiding minister said in passing that he would “say a few words” in advance of the vows. What he did in the middle of the ceremony was deliver a dour, 20-minute sermon on church doctrine, little of which involved the wedding, the bride and groom, or the intended beauty of the moment. The family was furious.
Another example: Some years ago I attended a funeral mass in the Twin Cities during which the priest summoned the glories of the church but 1) made only passing mention of my deceased friend’s name, and 2) ignored the stories and remembrances the family and friends had given him for the mass ahead of time. Lots of people were furious.
These are the kinds of incidents that people don’t forget, and drive them, by the millions, to more ecclesiastically accommodating members of the clergy, such as myself.
I have used my pastoral privileges to officiate at ceremonies that embraced traditions of Lutherans and Jews, Hmong and Methodists, and even Norwegians and Slovenians. Why? Because, on a day of days, that’s what the families wanted.
And I cannot tell you the depth of the delight I feel when I see tears in the eyes of people I love, and I can say, “By the power vested in me ... I pronounce you husband and wife.”
Spread the joy. You can’t campaign for a privileged job like this. If asked, embrace a request from a friend or family member, get yourself ordained, and join the movement to make weddings the wonderful events the gods intended them to be.
Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, working primarily in journalism and nonprofit development. He authored the Star Tribune's popular Pedaling America blog earlier this year during a successful cross-country bike tour.
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