The other day I was asked to be the back-up wedding officiant for someone who had obtained their certificate of ordination off the Internet. Another person in the conversation had chimed in that she had once officiated at a wedding, thanks to this same booming online trade in ministerial credentials- at which point, an “Ooh, I want to do that, too!” chorus chimed in from among these un-churched and at best dubiously Christian friends.
I was intrigued. As a minister in the Reformed tradition, I had bought hook, line and sinker the whole concept of a priesthood of all believers: the term, first coined in the sixteenth century by the great Reformer, Martin Luther, meant that all baptized Christians regardless of their job or vocation were divinely called and gifted and therefore accountable to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ in word and deed. A few years in ministry had turned up a different truth: that we tend in our congregations only to pay lip service to the concept, insofar as a minister still is the professional pray-er, pastoral caregiver, preacher, missionary, and even occasionally in small congregations, janitor.
But the enthusiasm of my conversation partners around the concept of an online priesthood of unbelievers elicited my curiosity. I decided to learn a bit more. A quick Google search turned up a host of resources. “Universal Ministries,” headquartered in Milford, Illinois, is a “nondenominational church” with all of the bells and whistles of a statement of faith, bishops, a school of theology, chapel, and at least one congregation. The only assertion they make with great dogmatism is everyone’s right to believe anything they want to believe and still be ordained. Which means in practice that anyone regardless of faith or lack thereof can obtain a certificate of ordination.
Another site, “Open Ministry,” specializes exclusively in free ordinations for the purpose of wedding ceremonies, while “Rose Ministries” boasts a broader selection of options for the more ambitious: “you can start your own church, officiate at weddings, or conduct any religious ceremony.” For all women in denominations that do not ordain women, Rose Ministries is also the place. They even cite Scripture, the book of Judges, as evidence that “women have the same right to be ordained as as men.” (I couldn’t agree more.)
My favorite was a free, online ordination as a “Dudeist” minister (a.k.a. the religion of “The Big Lebowski”). All you have to do is fill out a few empty fields, hit “Ordain me,” and voila- you have your official document ready for printing. Strikingly, more than 8,000 people “liked” this ordination process and nother nearly 40,000 people have joined the Dudeist community on Facebook.
The fact that business is booming for these online sites has me wondering if in all this ludicrousness there might be a lesson for us pastors and the church. I mean, why is it that those of us in ordained leadership still find it so hard to motivate our lay people with their biblical calling to minister to their world when all around us, outside our church walls, there are plenty of people who would never step into a church building but are quick to seize the opportunity to become ordained (even if only as a Dudeist minister)? Is there something to learn here for those of us who were dumb enough to spend three years in seminary and crazy enough to lead God’s people?
I think there is. Maybe the lesson is as simple as the fact that those of us who for a long time have been trying to let out the big secret that all of God’s people by virtue of baptism are called to be ministers haven’t done a good enough job selling the concept. Or living it, for that matter. Maybe we can make the concept more fun, inviting and even exciting.
Maybe we can be more generous with it, too. By this I mean that maybe we need to let go of our sacred cows that only ministers get to dress up in important robes and preach every Sunday (even if we seminary-trained ministers are convinced that we’re the best at this sort of thing and have a right to it); or, that only ministers get to perform wedding ceremonies or administer the Sacraments (even if these things give us ministers pride of place or a little extra spending money). Maybe we need to ritualize a process of discipleship that at the end culminates in a new lay minister’s official “ordination” (certificate included!) to a “priesthood of all believers.”
Maybe we need to stop thinking “in the box” and think out of it for a while. We might do this best by returning to our charter document, the Bible (as opposed to The Book of Dudes) and asking for God’s Holy Spirit to free us from the ways in which we ministers, elders and leaders in the church have allowed our insecurities and desires for control to become institutionalized across centuries of church history. Until then- or at least until we begin to rethink how we talk about and live out a “priesthood of all believers,” the secret that there really is supposed to be a whole priesthood of all believers somewhere out there will remain boring and unpalatable when compared to the alternatives. Who, after all, would want to be among an unrecognized, unofficial bunch of believers whose claims to priesthood are at best nominal, when you can become an official priest, with all of the perks included, without having to put up with God’s people or believe those old creeds? Ladies, who among us would want to keep on putting up with all of the same, old institutional sins of patriarchy that have kept us in our place for centuries, when we can be “Reverends” with one click of a mouse?
Yes, I suspect there is much to be learned from the online priesthood of all unbelievers.