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Is Your Ordination Legal?

By Raul Rivera

What steps should a minister take to become ordained?

If you search “how to become an ordained minister” on Google, you will find more than seven million search results. While there is a lot of good information online about ordination, there is also a lot of misinformation. 

How do you know what information you should pay attention to?

The answer to that question depends on what you want to know regarding ordination. What many pastors do not realize about ordination is that there is both a spiritual and legal aspect to consider. While spiritual ordination is important, this blog will focus on legal ordination.

Perhaps you have heard of legal ordination, but you are not sure what it means nor of the implications it has on you as a minister. In this blog, I want to explain why legal ordination is necessary for every pastor and provide ten steps you can implement in your church's ordination program to ensure that your ordination, and the ordination of those ordained by your church, meet the requirements of legal ordination.

First, let’s look at what it means to become legally ordained.

A common unknown truth about ordination

Most ministers are under the impression that in order for their ordination to be considered “valid” they can only become ordained through a more established church. In addition, many ministers buy into the myth that they “cannot be ordained through their own church.”

We often hear similar sentiments from pastors and ministry leaders, but the fact of the matter is that both of these notions are incorrect.

In reality, you are able to start a church, establish it on a solid legal foundation, and then become legally ordained through the very church you started. (Find out how here.)

Now, you may be thinking, “Getting ordained through my own church sounds great, but can’t I just get ordained online?”

You can indeed be ordained online; however, please think twice before doing so. Let me explain.

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Are online ordinations considered valid?

If you were to search the web for online ordination programs, you would find no shortage of available options.

Although online ordinations are easy and convenient to obtain, the important question to ask is, “Are online ordinations valid for legal purposes?”

In recent years, Congress and state governments have expressed concern over the proliferation of online and mail-order ordinations. Those concerns are not regarding the ordination of ministers as a whole, but whether the people who receive an online ordination are authorized to solemnize marriages.

In Cramer v. Commonwealth, a group of ministers ordained by the Universal Life Church (ULC) had their right to conduct marriage ceremonies revoked by the Circuit Court of Richmond, Virginia. 

This group of ministers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The ministers asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to rule that a minister who provides documentation proving his or her ordination from a religious organization be allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies in the state of Virginia.

The Supreme Court of Virginia heard the appeal from the ministers of ULC in order to decide whether it was truly a religious organization. Below are three highlights from the case:

  1. It was determined that the relationships between the ministers of ULC and ULC itself were nearly nonexistent. 
  2. It was also revealed that ULC’s ordained ministers had few meetings with a congregation. In some instances, there were no meetings or gatherings at all.
  3. The meetings or gatherings that did occur usually were at one's home or at public locations (such as restaurants). Moreover, the topics discussed during the gatherings were not often of a religious nature.

The lower court denied the officiants the right to perform weddings on the premise that ordained ministers conducting such ceremonies should be in the ministry full-time. 

However, the Supreme Court of Virginia disagreed with the lower court’s ruling and stated that in Virginia, there were plenty of good ministers that served their congregations well while also maintaining other employment.

This, however, was not enough for the Supreme Court of Virginia to rule in favor of the appellants.

Why legal ordination is necessary

The Supreme Court of Virginia made certain that this particular case had nothing to do with religious freedom. Due to the legal nature of marriage, the need for a legally ordained minister is necessary.

The Supreme Court of Virginia recognized the "necessity that the marriage contract itself be memorialized in writing and by a person of responsibility and integrity and by one possessed of some educational qualifications.”

Essentially, there are two things we can take away from this ruling:

  1. The Supreme Court of Virginia looked for a formal process, and it held that the selection or election of an ordained minister “must be a considered, deliberate, and responsible act.”
  2. The states cannot give preference to more established churches. In other words, you can become legally ordained through the very church that you start. Now that is some good news!

How to create an ordination program in your church

As we have seen, the courts have determined that to be legally ordained, it does not matter how long your church has been in existence nor how large your church is. But, how can you be sure that the ordination you receive from your church and the ordinations that others receive from your church are legal in the eyes of the courts?

It is necessary that your church create an ordination program. This fulfills the requirement that all ordinations “be a considered, deliberate, and responsible act.”

To help fulfill this requirement, your church should create a licensing and ordination program that is comprised of the ten components shown below:

  1. Make sure your corporate documents, such as the articles of incorporation, bylaws, and board meeting minutes, contain language stating that your church intends on having or already has a licensing and ordination program. 
  2. Require a certain set of criteria to be met by the applicant, such as classes, on-the-job training, volunteer work at the church, or involvement in the local ministry. Keep a good record of all ministers that are licensed or serving under the apprenticeship of a pastor.
  3. Require an application with a fee.
  4. Require an exam to be taken and passed with a minimum required score.
  5. Establish a formal process of commissioning.
  6. Assign the ordination an expiration and renewal date.
  7. Require a renewal process by either application or written letter requesting a renewal.
  8. Keep a good record of all ministers that are commissioned, licensed, ordained, active, inactive, and revoked.
  9. Make sure that his/her role as a minister is conveying your church’s message and mission.
  10. Require that the minister maintain a meaningful relationship with the ordaining church by attending conferences or services at least once a year.

To learn more about how to create an ordination program for your church (or ministry), I encourage you to check out our new video course, Equipped to Ordain.

At StartCHURCH, we believe every church and ministry should be equipped with the tools they need to create ordination programs that are true to their values and produce faithful shepherds while abiding by government standards. That is why we created the Equipped to Ordain video course for church planters, pastors, and ministry leaders. With Equipped to Ordain, you can create legal, compliant, and proven strategies for ordaining men and women through your ministry.

Click the button below to learn more and gain access to the video course. 

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