In the Christian faith tradition, ordination is the act by which the community of the faithful calls on God to set apart a person for the office of Servant/Leader. Depending on the denomination, Ordination empowers a person to perform certain sacramental acts. Usually, this means that the person ordained now has the authority to administer the Sacraments, to marry people, and to preach the Gospel. Each faith group though has a slightly different understanding of ordination. For some groups, the only thing that an ordained person can do that others within their denomination cannot do is perform a marriage ceremony. For some, any sort of sacramental authority is reserved for those who are ordained by their church. Each denomination also sets different educational and experiential standards for perspective ordinands.
In the United Methodist Church, it can take on the average 7 years for a person to go through all the things required by our “Book of Discipline” before they are ordained an Elder and Full Member of the Annual Conference. This includes a year or two of working with a Counseling Elder to determine if you even have a true calling for the ordained Ministry; three or four years of Seminary (depending on the school you go to) and at least three years of essentially being a minister on Probation. It is, to be blunt, a monumental pain in the behind. But this is the way the United Methodist system works. If I really was called by God to be a United Methodist Pastor, I had to do it. So I did. And now I’m glad for it.
Most mainline Christian denominations require some variation of what we in the UMC call “the Process” before they will ordain anyone. This helps ensure that the candidates are qualified to Pastor a church, that they have the basic essentials of knowledge and skills, and that they have been thoroughly indoctrinated in that denominations polity.
Between you and me though, a lot of that isn’t really necessary. As proof, I would point out that many denominations, including my own, have provisions for appointing laity to positions of Pastoral leadership with just a few months of training. In our denomination, these people are called “Licensed Local Pastors.” Even though they are not ordained, they are given full sacramental rights, including the authority to conduct weddings and consecrate and administer the Sacrament of Holy Communion within the church that they are assigned to Pastor. Within the State of Wisconsin, the laws allow for someone who has been licensed by any denomination to perform a wedding ceremony, as long as that denominations rules allow them to do so.
It also has to be remembered that for an ordination to be valid, it does not have to be from an established church or denomination. Any group of people can band together as a church, and select anyone they want by whatever criteria they see fit, and declare that person to be ordained by them, to perform the duties as they understand them to be of a ordained minister.
In all honesty, there are only two reasons that a person who feels called by God to serve in the ministry should want to be ordained for:
First: because the denomination they are affiliated with requires it if a person is to serve one of their churches. Not all denominations do require this. And if they do, you have to be ordained according to their rules. Just having an ordination from the ULC will not make it possible for to serve in the United Methodists or any of the other mainline churches. In fact, ordination by the ULC or any online ordination group may disqualify you from being ordained by many Christian churches, as they often have rules prohibiting a candidate for ordination holding an ordination in any church other than theirs
Secondly: because they want the ability to perform a marriage ceremony.
If you want to have an independent ministry, and be able to perform baptisms, Holy Communion, funerals, etc. you DON’T need to be ordained by anyone (save of course God). There is no law anywhere in America that I am aware of that says you need to be ordained to do these acts. Marriage though is different because it has both secular and religious significance. You are, as an officiant, representing BOTH God and State when you solomize a marriage ceremony, so the state has, for better or worse, taken the authority to say who is qualified to officiate. So if you have a ministry where you want to be able to perform a marriage ceremony, you either need to be ordained or licensed by a religious organization that authorizes those who they license to perform marriages.
What Church/Organization Should I Be Ordained By?
This is actually a difficult question to answer, because there are a lot of variables.
First, if you want to serve in a Pastoral role in a mainline Christian denomination, (ie United Methodist, Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Presbyterian, etc) you will have to go through their ordination process. As I stated earlier, this will involve many years of schooling, as well as a period of supervised ministry before you are fully ordained. Except in cases where the denomination you wish to serve offers an alternative means of being in ministry, (such as the Licensed Local Pastors of the United Methodist Church), there is no way around it.
There are Christian Churches, such as the Assemblies of God, where the ordination requirements are not so rigid. And some, like the Church of God in Christ, do not even require a college degree of their ministers. Generally, churches that follow a strict, congregational polity (that is, a church where the congregation is totally autonomous and can make their own rules) are very flexible in what they require of their pastors as to schooling. Churches that are part of the Community Church movement very often fall into this category.
And of course, as stated earlier in this post, any group that has gathered together to be a church can ordain anyone they want as a minister using their own criteria.
But, and here is the rub, if you are hoping to be a full-time Pastor, and would like to get a living wage out of the Pastoral Ministry, you have to keep in mind that most churches that require little in the way of training for their pastors as often as not are also not big enough to support a full-time pastor. If you are happy to be in what is referred to as a tent-making or bi-vocational ministry, these churches and their ordination may be right for you. If you want to be in ministry as a full-time vocation though, you will probably have to find a denomination to serve in where the congregations are large enough to support a full-time pastor, and then be willing to get the training that you will need to achieve ordination with them.
There are of course many different church organizations that are not part of the mainstream of American religious groups. Organizations such as the Universal Life Church, World Christianship Ministries, Universal Ministries, First International Church of the Web, and many others, offer a very simple process of becoming ordained, and indeed many offer free, almost instant ordination online to anyone who asks. Some of these groups even offer (for a fee) training for the people that they ordain.
If you are planning on starting your own church, or just want to be ordained so that you can perform weddings, ordination in these groups may be all you really need. Legally, an ordination by the Universal Life Church and others like them are recognized as valid by the United States Government.
HOWEVER – while the government might recognize them as valid, and indeed many other churches might recognize them as valid orders, they will NOT qualify you to serve in a mainstream Christian Church. It is NOT (as I have seen it said on some forums) an issue of jealousy by clergy who went the seminary route for ordination, and it is not a matter that ordination by mail order or internet ministries are not valid or theologically sound. The issue will be that you do NOT have the training or experience that is required by that particular denomination.
Now some people will offer the argument that Christ’s disciples didn’t have seminary training either. This is correct, but Christ’s first disciples spent a great deal of time with him learning the Gospel before they were sent out on their own to minister to the people. Saint Paul was highly trained in the Torah, and had been chosen by Christ for his ministry before he was sent out. And even then, before Paul’s ministry was recognized as valid by the early church, he had to appear before the Council in Jerusalem and be validated by James and Peter.
Even if you get the training (and degrees) from groups like Universal Ministries and the Universal Life Church, you will still find that these are not very well respected by the mainline churches. Quite frankly, the training they offer doesn’t come even close to what you would experience in a Seminary setting. Most of it, sad to say, is laughable. For example, the training materials offered by one of these groups consists of four to five-page papers that are written at a high school Sunday School level. Most of the training offered by other mail order ordination ministries are just as simple and are in no way college or graduate school level courses.
In some of these groups, they do not even go through the pretense of offering any form of coursework, allowing you to even get a Doctorate or Masters degree by merely sending in what they refer to as a “free-will donation.” THESE DEGREES ARE MEANINGLESS IN THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY AND WILL COUNT FOR NOTHING IN THE REAL WORLD. IN FACT, TRYING TO USE THEM IS ILLEGAL IN SOME STATES (SUCH AS OREGON).
So, what church should you be ordained by? Well, if you plan on starting an independent ministry, it may not really matter all that much where your ordination is from. If you are planning on a ministry that is strictly Christian, you may find it easier to get the respect and develop a working relationship with other Christian clergies if your ordination is from a purely Christian group such as the First International Church of the Web. If you are planning on ministering to people who may or may not be Christian, or if you yourself are not planning on doing ministry in a Christian context, the Universal Life Church or Universal Ministries may be the right one for you. And of course, if you are already leading a local fellowship of believers, they can in point and fact ordain you themselves.
If on the other hand, you feel called to minister within a mainline Christian denomination, you will need to go through their process for ordination or licensure. There are no shortcuts. Remember, if you are really called by God to a particular ministry, God will want you to have the appropriate skills and training. It can be a pain in the bottom, but if you are really called to a particular ministry, God will help you and make a way for you to do the tasks God calls you to do.