Universal Life Church Still Churning Out Ministers

Its founder is dead, but after nearly 40 years the controversial church still offers ordination for the asking -- and a fee.

MODESTO, Calif., Feb. 4 -- On a recent sunny afternoon in west Modesto, five women were hard at work at the Universal Life Church's world headquarters. They opened mail from Utah, Virginia, North Carolina, Switzerland, England. Much of it was from people wanting the church's famous free ministerial credentials -- anyone can get them, no strings attached.

It's business as usual at the controversial church, despite the loss of its eccentric founder, the Rev. Kirby Hensley, who died last March at age 87.

Hensley's 76-year-old widow, Lida, now serves as church president, and their youngest son, Andre, 43, is office manager, overseeing a staff of about 10 workers.

"The activities haven't changed," Andre Hensley said. "It's just as strong now as it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago."

Since its founding in 1962, the Universal Life Church has ordained an estimated 18 million ministers around the globe, prompting critics to label it a license mill. To become a Universal Life minister, a person simply has to make a written request. Today, officials say, the church is ordaining 3,000 to 5,000 people a month.

The church's questionable nature brought founder Hensley widespread fame; he appeared on such shows as "60 Minutes" and "Inside Edition." It also brought him years of legal battles with the Internal Revenue Service, which yanked the church's tax-exempt status in 1984.

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Born in a poor, rural area of North Carolina, Hensley never learned to read or write, yet he still authored numerous study materials and religious books by dictating them to others.

The church creed is "Do that which is right." Hensley left it up to members to decide what was right for them. The church's followers include Christians, pagans, Wiccans, Buddhists and atheists. "Every living person is part of Universal Life," Hensley once said.

For donations of $20 to $100, members can take correspondence courses he began, as well as receive doctoral degrees on everything from immortality to motivation and biblical studies. Certificates of marriage, baptism and "affirmation of love" -- for couples living together -- are available for donations of $3.

The church finally settled with the IRS last year for an undisclosed amount, but it never admitted liability and still contends that it should receive the same tax status as any other religious group. Universal Life's attorney, Ed Ord of San Francisco, is preparing a request to have the church's exempt status restored. He does not anticipate a fight this time.

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