Universal Life Church creates ‘instant ministers’ for weddings

Judi Ketteler and Allen Raines’ August wedding will not be traditional by any stretch of the imagination.

The Madeira couple’s ceremony will take place at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal rather than a church. They won’t have bridesmaids or groomsmen because they didn’t want to choose among many family members and friends and risk making someone feel left out.

And performing the ceremony will be their friend Tim Linneman, a 35-year-old market researcher from Glendale who recently became an ordained minister through the Modesto, Calif.-based Universal Life Church with little more than a click of a mouse.

“We’re not religious at all, and we didn’t want to do the wedding in a church,” said 32-year-old Ketteler, a freelance writer and editor. “And we didn’t really want to go to a courthouse and have a judge do it. We wanted someone who knows us.”

The Universal Life Church will ordain just about anyone, free of charge, after they fill out a form on any of the church’s Web sites and click “Ordain me.”

It sounds like a joke, but the church is real – and growing fast.

The Universal Life Church has more active, registered ministers in Greater Cincinnati – more than 230 – than any other denomination except the Catholic Church, according to the Ohio Secretary of State. That number is triple what it was in 2003. (Kentucky does not maintain a registry of ministers, but 65 Universal Life Church ministers in Kentucky have asked to be listed on the church’s Web site.) About 70 percent of people who become ordained through the Universal Life Church do so for the same reason Linneman did – to officiate at weddings, said Universal Life Church President Andre Hensley.

Ketteler and Raines asked Linneman, Raines’ friend of 15 years, to do the honors after attending Linneman’s own wedding last year. Linneman and his wife, Erin, used a friend who is a Universal Life Church minister and a friend who was a seminary student to perform their ceremony.

“I thought it went great. I loved having our friends involved,” Tim Linneman said. “My family is mainly Catholic and so are most of my friends, so I’ve been to a lot of very long weddings. I think people appreciated that it was pretty short.”

Ketteler and Raines said their families understand their decision.

“No one freaked out,” Ketteler said. “My family might be happier if we were doing it a little bit differently, but they also respect that this is what we want to do.”

Andre Hensley’s late father, Kirby Hensley, officially incorporated the Universal Life Church with the state of California in 1962, offering free, lifetime ordainments with no questions asked. The Web site launched in 1995, and today there are about 18 million ordained Universal Life Church ministers worldwide, Hensley said.

The church ordains 8,000-10,000 ministers every month through several different Web sites and the mail, advertising itself largely through word of mouth.

“Couples just want to have it their own way, rather than go to a minister they don’t already know,” Hensley said.

Church staff members have denied ordainment requests, if they believe someone has submitted a false name or has filled out the form on a lark, Hensley said. But they approve most applications.

“We’re like every other church,” Hensley said. “We have to take things on faith.”

People seek ordination through the Universal Life Church for all different reasons. Vicki Whitewolf-Marsh, who recently moved from Cincinnati to Alabama, became a Universal Life Church minister so she could pray with other Native Americans in Cincinnati-area hospitals and perform smudging ceremonies, which involve burning herbs for purification purposes.

Whitewolf-Marsh, 50, said some hospitals told her that she couldn’t perform the ceremony unless she was a clergyperson.

“This way, I can hold my head up and say I’m with a religious community and I’m a minister,” said Whitewolf-Marsh, who also has performed weddings and a funeral.

Some Universal Life Church ministers have turned their new titles into part-time jobs.

Joyce Engelman of Union, Ky., who operates the Big Bone Landing, Marina & Campground, has performed about 40 weddings at the marina since she got ordained about two years ago because she thought it would be fun to officiate at weddings.

“Usually people I marry, they’re older, or they’re younger and pregnant,” said Engelman, 57, who charges $50 per wedding. “And a lot of people been married a couple of times and they’ve already had the frills, so honestly they don’t care.”

Sam Lapin, a speech communication professor at Northern Kentucky University, became ordained five years ago for the same reason.

The 43-year-old Burlington resident markets himself by leaving business cards at county clerks’ offices and popular ceremony locations. Lapin, whose fees start at $100 per ceremony, has performed more than 40 weddings in the past two years for couples who aren’t part of any organized religion or who are planning nontraditional ceremonies.

That’s why 40-year-old Melissa Sibert and 43-year-old Steve Huber of Amelia contacted Lapin. Sibert says they struggled to find a minister for their July 7 wedding on the 18th hole of the golf course at Belterra Casino Resort & Spa, where they’ve celebrated birthdays and other special occasions, until the casino gave them Lapin’s name. It will be the third marriage for each.

“A lot of people won’t give someone a chance if they don’t know you,” Sibert said. “(Lapin) put together the whole ceremony and e-mailed it to me, and I cried. It was really special.”

Lapin hopes there will be more unique weddings.

“I do have an Elvis outfit,” said Lapin, who also teaches a course on the history of rock ‘n’ roll. “I’m hoping to make use of that some day.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 14, 2007.
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