Let’s Talk About On-Line “Ordinations”

It has come to my attention that some of the people in our United Methodist family have gone on the internet and purchased ordination certificates from a number of websites.  Lay people as well as local pastors with limited sacramental privileges are getting these certificates.  Some have performed weddings and consecrated communion using the authority of these ordaining bodies.  Some have seen it as a way to qualify for tax exemptions. The process is very simple and it requires no seminary training, interviews or screening.  Literally anyone can become ordained and hold ministerial credentials using this method and some sites do not even charge for this service.

This is not in any way condoned by the United Methodist Church, the Philadelphia Area, the bishop or the cabinets.(emphasis added) – UM Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area, “Ordinations Online?”, Bishop’s Blog, Oct. 10, 2013

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Getting an online ordination separates you from the UMC. Not oppression or injustice. Just is. Blog post from 2013 before a dust up this year in Michigan.(emphasis added) – Rev. John Meunier, “Bishop’s Blog: Ordinations Online?”, Sep 5, 2015

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When you unite with another denomination, you are by that very action forfeiting your official membership within the UMC . . .

To read the response that came out from RMN, you would think that Ms. Mikita was excommunicated from the UMC. In fact, the response uses that very term more than once. . . .

This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in the complaint against Ms. Mikita. But the fact of the matter is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.

Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, Sep. 4, 2015

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I am the local pastor of the woman whose case hit you so hard (and rightfully so!). I have *not* written “withdrawn” on her membership record and I *have had* very close communication with her throughout all that has transpired. Not all relevant voices have been heard; this story is still in progress. – Rev. Robert Eckert, blog comment

No one feels as successful as the person who catches another making a mistake

No one feels as successful as the person who catches another making a mistake

Four years of Seminary. Several more in local church ministry. Papers and interviews with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. More papers and interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry. Continuing Education. To become an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church was expensive, intellectually and emotionally taxing, providing ups and downs and more hoops through which to jump than the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Watching and supporting Lisa go through this gave me so much admiration not only for those who made it through (and I know many who didn’t); it gave me a great deal of respect for our denomination, that it took the special vocation of ordination that seriously.

Yet we live in a place and time when both church membership and ordination just aren’t all that valuable. Indeed, ordination has become a commodity, obtainable online with a credit card. As a wedding disc jockey, I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve worked at which a family member or friend purchased one of these ordination certificates in order to perform the ceremony. I must admit when I first learned about it all, I was a little taken aback. Then it occurred to me that in our capitalist society everything has a price, and the worth of all things comes down to what others are willing to pay for it. We in the United Methodist Church may well hold ordination in high esteem. That doesn’t mean everyone else does.

The matter of Ginny Mikita receiving an online “ordination” from The Universal Life Church has become the focal point of much of the discussion surrounding what John Meunier understatedly describes as “a dust up”. Supporters of Ms. Mikita’s excommunication insist action was taken, from writing a letter to the actual expulsion, because she obtained an online ordination in violation of our Book of Disipline. They point to a blog post by Bishop Peggy Johnson (because we all know how authoritative blog posts are, especially from United Methodist Bishops) in which she writes that such “ordinations” are “not condoned” by our denomination.

Except, of course, we don’t really know that. Just how relevant to church membership is it if a person, having been asked by a friend to perform a wedding, buys one of these pieces of paper, does the wedding, and continues attending worship and participating in the ministries of the local church? Has membership been forfeit? Did Ms. Mikita’s actions mean she expelled herself from her church?

That, it seems, would be an interesting question of church law. What I find fascinating in all this is that these online ordinations and their use has been around for a long time; before that were mail-order ordinations for people to do much the same thing. I haven’t seen any big stories of the United Methodist Church polling their members to see who has done this. I can’t imagine, what with all the Sturm und Drang about church membership decline, the summary expulsion of all those who have done so. Indeed, I would like to know if anyone, anywhere, can find a few actual stories from the past five years or so in which a member of a local UM Church was so treated.

What those writing in support of Ms. Mikitia’s excommunication forget is that even if the matter of her online ordination were front and center the Book of Discipline  calls for specific actions to be taken by specific people. None of them include either her Bishop or District Superintendent. For Meunier to say no injustice was done is to ignore the way the Discipline violated in this case. For Watson to say that Ms. Mikita expelled herself ignores the fact that she continued as an active member of her local congregation. Is this matter of online ordinations such a threat to the integrity of United Methodist congregations that the processes set out in the Book of Discipline can be set aside in order to uphold another part of the same BoD?

That Ms. Mikita took the action she did to officiate at a same-sex wedding of a former West Michigan Conference clergy member looms more and more as the real reason she was excommunicatedSome folks want anyone who defies our denomination’s stance on sexual minorities and same-sex marriage punished. Driven out. If it takes mass trials, some Bishops are willing to go that far. To sit around and pretend this is about the threat of extraordinary ordinations, a practice that’s existed for decades in different forms, s to play games. The obfuscation and dishonesty is appalling. When one of those participating in such nonsense insists that “honesty” is one of the key intellectual virtues he tries to instill in his students, I just shake my head. If we’re going to talk about online ordinations, let’s do some surveys of local churches. All those who have them get kicked out. Period.

Otherwise, can we talk about what’s really going on?

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.

4 responses to “Let’s Talk About On-Line “Ordinations””

  1. Captain Dave says :

    Geoffrey, I am an ordained Elder of the UMC. I am supportive of gay rights and same-sex marriage; have been for a long time despite my / our denomination’s reluctance to go there. I support those who have taken the bold step to perform same-sex marriages at the risk of the Church’s wrath. The issue here for me is not about the wedding Ginny Mikita presided at, it is about the meaning of church membership and ordination. She effectively joined another denomination and accepted ordination in it in order to accomplish her goal. I don’t give a whole lot of credence to online ordination certificates (or self-ordination), but apparently she does (or else the wedding was performed under fraudulent pretext). From my perspective she is now a member of the Universal Life Church. And since we don’t allow dual memberships in the UMC, she has necessarily surrendered her UM membership and pursuit of ordination. I wonder if you would be so generous toward her had she accepted ordination in a Southern Baptist or other mainline church?

  2. Ray Stilwell says :

    Dave: I am just plain Laity (but with lifetime attendance going back to TMC and two sets of Certified Lay Speaker credentials earned almost 40 years apart), but I do possess the generosity toward her ordination that you posit. Her “ordination in a Southern Baptist or other mainline church” might indeed present doctrinal problems on account of conflicts in belief. This does not; the ULC has no stated beliefs, not even recommendations or options, and there is therefore nothing to conflict with. I see Ginny’s actions as the fundamental equivalent of healing on the Sabbath, and we both know how Jesus resolved THAT doctrinal conflict.

  3. jaltman81 says :

    We are, of course, taking our lessons in “honesty” from a man who wrote and published a plan for schism then acted wounded when he was called a “schismatic.”

  4. gksafford says :

    Dave – I shall repeat myself only for the sake of emphasis: Were the gentlemen who wrote the letter and the DS and Bishop who tossed Ginny our of the Church so concerned about the pending disaster to our church because of online ordinations, we would see or have seen (a) an ongoing purge of all members across the country who have done this, going back years to the days of mail-order ordinations; and (b) the DS and Bishop attending to the actual content of the BoD would have referred the matter to her pastor; they did not. On this the Discipline is clear – the local pastor is the one to remove anyone from the rolls (or Charge Conference action) but only after through research in to the matter is done.

    Do we become so defensive about the special charism of ordination that we forget it only exists within the context of God’s grace and love? Do we forget that extending grace to others is part of that charism? Do we be come so zealous in punishing people that we set to one side what our church law actually says is to be done? This is what troubles me.

Howdy! Thanks for reading. Really. Be nice and remember - I'm like Roz from Monster's Inc. I'm always watching.

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