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Mail-order ministers horn in on the wedding business

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A couple exchanges wedding vows. (Courtesy of Geoff Kellar)

It was a sun-splashed afternoon on the Oregon coast in July 2006 when Rick Barde gazed at the crowd spread out before him and took a deep breath. He was just moments away from completing his first wedding ceremony. Then he uttered the fateful words that will forever be the hallmark of his short "rabbinical" career: "By the power vested in me by the Internet, I now pronounce you husband and wife."

Barde, 46, is a third-grade teacher in Portland, Ore., and has no formal religious training. Still, when Becca Lann and Dan Reynolds of Bellingham, Wash., found themselves struggling to find the right person to officiate at their wedding, the bride-to-be turned to her longtime friend, Barde. All he needed to do was become an ordained clergyman.

"After laughing for a while, I told her absolutely I'd do it," Barde said. "I'm always up for new challenges and adventures."

So Barde fired up his computer and started what he thought might be a lengthy effort - getting ordained by the Universal Life Church. "The whole process was ridiculously easy," he said. "I went to the website and filled out the info, and boom, I'm ordained."

More and more couples are following the example of Lann and Reynolds and turning to close friends or relatives to officiate at their weddings rather than traditional clergy. Many say that having a friend administer the vows actually makes the ceremony more meaningful.

"Neither of us was raised in a particularly religious household, and we would've felt a little disingenuous having a traditional ceremony," said Amanda Petrusich, 28, of Brooklyn, N.Y., regarding her 2005 wedding to Breton Stetka. "And it would've felt weird to have a justice of the peace do it. So we had a best friend do it, and it was amazing."

Numerous websites now offer instant ordination online, including some that charge a fee, but none comes close to matching the success of the Universal Life Church, which has ordained more than 20 million people since its founding in 1959. The church now receives approximately 10,000 applications each month, most of which are submitted online, said Rev. Andre Hensley, the church's president.

"This is about freedom of religion," said Hensley, whose father founded the church on the belief that people should minister to each other. The church encourages people of all faiths to become ordained. "And we stand firm that our ordinations are legal and valid in all 50 states," he added.

That point is in some dispute in at least a half-dozen states. In fact, four--Connecticut, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia-–prohibit weddings performed by ministers without active ministries. But in most of the country there is no obstacle to being married by a mail-order minister as long as the couple meets the local legal requirements.

The Universal Life Church does not charge a fee for ordainment, but they do offer an online store where new "clergy" can buy an array of goodies, ranging from ID cards to T-shirts. That is where they roped in Seth Faison, 48, a media consultant living in New York.

"When my friends first approached me about this, they said it'd cost $5 and take me ten minutes to do," Faison said, laughing. "Well, actually, it's free. So, I went for the $19.95 package, and that gave me all kinds of info on conducting the service. They also sent me a card that said 'member of the clergy,' which I thought was great."

But Faison was not satisfied with the $19.95 sermon. He thought it was stiff and trite. He recalled his own wedding, which was performed by a Unitarian minister who was also a longtime family friend, and trolled the Internet for other ideas as well. Faison's sermon was so moving that the bride and groom wept. Nevertheless, the marriage lasted less than a month--precisely the outcome traditionalists and religious leaders point to when they decry the rising popularity of mail-order ministers.

"These marriages are a symptom of the kind of do-it yourself purchase of marriage where people have the idea that a union is about their own desires and needs," said W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and a defender of traditional marriage. "Family life and marriage are institutions that require people to abide by certain norms. If they think it can be done by their own particular desires, they're in for a rude awakening, or divorce."

Additionally, some couples may be glossing over some of the challenges of interfaith marriages, contended Rev. Robert Kaslyn, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "Hiding differences doesn't necessarily resolve differences," he said. "Eventually there will be a question of the children and which religion they'll be raised in. Starting a marriage this way doesn't help answer that question."

There are no reliable statistics regarding the success of marriages performed by online ministers. But with the national divorce rate hovering near 50 percent, the anecdotal evidence appears to be that their record for success is not much worse than that of their full-time counterparts.

More than 18 months later, the first marriage performed by Rick Barde is still going strong. "I'd tell people considering doing what we did to go for it," said Lann, 28, the no-longer blushing bride. "It's a wonderful way to get people you know and who are part of your life to be involved in your ceremony."

For his part, Barde enjoyed the experience so much that he officiated at a second wedding last year. This time it was a more formal affair. He even had to work with a wedding planner.

"I didn't do it for the money, that's for sure," Barde said. "I'm a people person, and I like to see people happy. Plus, I get a free meal."

E-mail: jez2104@columbia.edu