In three minutes, David Pletcher left the flock and became the shepherd. “A click, some typing and an e-mail later, I became a reverend,” the 21-year-old Ball State junior said. His friend Destiny Shafer suggested Pletcher should become a reverend in time to officiate over her wedding to Joe Stephens. The idea prompted Pletcher to locate the California-based Universal Life Church online.
David Pletcher signs the marriage license for the friends he just wed.
Pletcher joined the 400,000 people the non-denominational Universal Life Church says it has ordained on its Web site since 1995. The church claims to have ordained 20 million people worldwide since Kirby James Hensley founded it in 1959. Hensley also started the Universal Life Law School, ran for governor of California in 1970 and was a presidential candidate three times for the Universal Life Party, which he founded. During the war in Vietnam, Universal Life Church reverends were using their title for more than religious purposes. Political activist Abbie Hoffman advocated the quick ordination as a way to avoid the draft. Hensley appeared at demonstrations during the Vietnam War and performed mass ordination ceremonies for crowds of people. But now, years after the draft, thousands continue to use the ULC for many different reasons. Twenty-year-old University of Indianapolis student Evan Shearin was ordained during his senior year at Westfield High School through the Universal Life Church. In part, he did it as a joke, he said, but his other motive was to lend credence to his beliefs. “It either adds some credibility to my argument, or it makes the point of how little being a member of the clergy really means,” Shearin said. Shearin is an atheist, which can take people off guard when they discover he’s an ordained minister. Due to that reaction, Shearin decided to become part of the ULC church, he said, as he wanted people to re-think some of their conceptions. “At the time, I was very strident in my religious beliefs and was preaching them to anyone I could stop and I wanted to be able to legitimately claim that I was a minister,” Shearin said. Now in college, Shearin says his religious beliefs don’t come up in conversation as often as they used to, but he does still use them to find peace. When his roommate’s girlfriend is visiting and they’re making too much noise, Shearin will threaten to marry them if they don’t settle down. “Doing it online is a means to an end, for me, so that Joe and Destiny can get married,” Pletcher said. Such reasoning is similar to pop star Robbie Williams’ use of online ordination through the online Universal Ministries, based in Illinois, to marry two friends. Joey on the TV show Friends was Internet-ordained for the same reason.
Helping out a friend
There are a variety of reasons to use free online ordination. A Universal Life Church reverend in Champaign, Ill., marries couples through Nifty Nuptials, a business that handles all the details of the wedding day, from flowers to limos. At Brigham Young University, three students were caught violating the honor code when they ordained themselves online so they could host a party in 2001. The students were trying to get around a local law that required extra security at public dances unless the event was church-based. And it’s not uncommon for people to ordain their pets through the Internet. Highly publicized instances of dog and cat owners using the Universal Life Church to ordain their pets motivated the Utah Legislature when they banned the use of online ordination to officiate marriage. Another reason Pletcher is using the ULC’s free Internet service is that Stephens and Shafer would otherwise have to pay to be wed, an important consideration for the couple. “I know some people aren’t comfortable with the idea because they feel I wasn’t called to it by God,” Pletcher said. “But the reason I’m doing it is to help out a friend.” Marriage by a justice of the peace is another frugal option for the couple, but they agree they would like a more personal ceremony. “My parents wouldn’t care if I elope, but Destiny and her mom are the ones who really want a wedding, and I think it’ll be pretty cool,” Stephens said. Stephens, 22, is a member of a National Guard infantry unit now based in Bosnia. Trying to start a family with such a commitment ahead may be difficult for the couple financially. “I don’t want Joe and Destiny to have to say, ‘Look son, here’s our wedding photos! Here’s where, after going through the metal detectors in the county building, we got married by the justice of the peace, next to the ’70s décor and the sign with the donkey and the elephant shaking hands that says, ‘We’re both taxpayers,’” Pletcher said. Pletcher can describe the Delaware County building after his visit there to ask if he would be legally qualified in Indiana to sign a marriage license. Two county clerk office employees told him his online ordination is enough to officiate a marriage. The only condition in Indiana is that the church recognizes the officiant. The Universal Life Church mails a certificate to its newly ordained ministers as an official recognition. Pletcher also called two randomly selected clerk’s offices in other Indiana counties, and employees told him the same thing.
Thou shall not get thy degree by mail
Online ordination has not always been accepted. Until 2002, Utah law made it illegal for people ordained online to perform marriages. That year, a federal judge ruled the state law unconstitutional, citing that ordinations through fax or mail were legal, so the Internet could not be singled out. Although ordination is legally accepted in most states, are there moral difficulties to the practice? “I couldn’t point to a passage from the Bible that says, ‘Thou shall not get thy degree by mail,’” Brian Kinney said. Kinney is an associate pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Muncie. Most faiths have their own conditions for whom they will ordain. Three out of every four clergy members have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the Department of Labor. With these standards in place, Kinney said he is not very concerned about the practice of online ordination. “They can put their shingle on the wall, but anybody who has it would always know it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” he said. “If someone was doing it to pastor a church, their shortcomings in education would be obvious.” Kinney holds a master’s degree in divinity. Besides instant gratification, like a degree-by-e-mail, it seems the Internet offers a self-serve approach to nearly anything. Stephens and Shafer met last January through the Internet. Their marriage ceremony is straight from a Web site, where couples can choose from pre-written vows. In the midst of all this bliss, however, the Internet is being blamed for higher divorce rates. Lawyers and marriage counselors reported this year that marital infidelity in the form of cyber affairs is one of the leading causes of divorce. Still, savvy Internet users can find out what their spouse is up to with do-it-yourself Internet tools like spyware. And if the cheating spouse wishes to be forgiven, the Universal Life Church offers online absolution. Click a button, and all sin is deleted. Pletcher and Stephens got together to discuss the upcoming wedding, and out of curiosity, Stephens accessed the ULC site as Pletcher watched. “‘ULC’s ordination does not make you a minister or pastor,’” Stephens read aloud from the Web site. “‘You do.’” “Are you going to sign up?” Pletcher asked him. “No, no way. Not now,” Stephens responded, sipping from his can of Old Style. “Only if I ever needed to.” Cheyanne Ritz is a graduate student in journalism at Ball State University.