Try this at home: RN&R’s guide to starting your own church
Always wanted to lead your own flock, but you don’t have theological training? No denomination? No building with a steeple? No problem! It’s not that hard to become a legally recognized spiritual leader in Washoe County.
Last summer, some friends of Reno jazz musician and metal sculptor Greg Adams asked if he’d conduct their wedding ceremony. He looked into getting certified to perform marriages and found it eminently feasible. A year later, he and his wife, Mary Jo, a retired nurse, are the proprietors of the all-denominational Church of Harmonic Resonance.
They offer no Sunday services or church picnics. The hymn books, rows of pews and iconography from the Adams’ Catholic upbringings are nowhere to be found. They don’t even have a facility. But they’re both legally ordained ministers, and Greg, 44, is certified to marry people. So far, he’s done six weddings (and one funeral).
Starting your own church takes some legwork and persistence.
“It’s something that you need to approach with the attitude of following through,” says Greg. “There are quite a few hoops to jump through.” But just about anyone with a clean legal background can do it. Here’s how:
Step 1: Get ordained
Gone are the days when a doctor of divinity degree was the only way to get ordained. Induction into the clergy can now be purchased online.
The Universal Life Church, based in Modesto, Calif., issues legally recognized ordination credentials—about 5,000 of them a month. The only requirements to becoming a minister in the multi-denominational church, says ULC board member and office manager Andre Hensley, are that you must be “a breathing human being and want to be ordained.” You also need to fill out a brief form, available at www.ulc.net, and pay a $30 fee. Further certifications are available for an additional $29. Some, such as the Doctor of Immortality, depend on a passing test grade. Others, like the Doctor of Metaphysics, are “honorary.” Optional study materials are included with the degree.
“I thought online ordination would be kind of cheesy, but it’s not,” says Mary Jo. She and Greg are heartened by ULC’s one ministerial requirement: “Do only that which is right.”
The ULC’s mission is “a fuller life for everyone.” Hensley says weekly services at the church’s Modesto facility draw Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, New-Agers and everyone in between. He estimates that about 90 percent of online applicants are Christian. But, he says, “We don’t ask.”
Step 2: Get authorization from the County
If you want to perform a marriage in California, which is 12 miles away, you could skip Step 1. The Deputy County Clerk-for-a-Day program allows anyone to apply for authorization to conduct a legal wedding ceremony. Nevada’s requirements, however, are slightly more stringent. If you have an ordination certificate, and you’re in good standing with the church that issued it, you need to submit a “Request for Authorization to Perform a Marriage” form, available on the Washoe County Clerk’s Web site, www.washoecounty.us/clerks.
Just like the ULC, the county will not ask about your denomination—or lack thereof.
“We don’t discriminate against whichever church it is,” says county clerk Amy Harvey. She says some county clerks in other parts of Nevada are concerned about authorizing members of what they consider to be bogus churches, but Harvey has a more live-and-let-live attitude.
“That’s not the government’s job,” she says. “We just check their credentials. During Burning Man, we have witches come in who want to be ordained so they can perform ceremonies. We have a lot of those outside the mainstream. You can’t have the government decide who’s bogus and who’s not.”
Harvey estimates that the county issues about 120 “one-shot” permits a year and 30 for ministers wanting to perform ceremonies on a regular basis. There’s no charge for either authorization.
If you only want to perform five or fewer marriages a year, stop at the end of Step 2. If you’d like to perform more than five (It can be lucrative, about $200-$300 per service.), you must be affiliated with an in-state church. The ULC has no Nevada counterpart, so proceed to Step 3 if you wish to establish your own church.
Step 3: Incorporate with the state
Establishing the Church of Harmonic Resonance as a non-profit Nevada corporation was the most demanding part of the process, says Mary Jo, 53. It took a few months and a few trips to the Secretary of State’s office in Carson City. She estimates that anyone who can file their own taxes is mentally equipped to form a non-profit corporation.
Forms and instructions are available at www.secretaryofstate.biz. The application fee is $50, and expedited filing is available for an additional $125. After the application is approved, fingerprinting ($30) and a background search (complimentary) are required. Mary Jo says each of the church’s congregants (who don’t necessarily have to congregate) received a letter from the district attorney to confirm their membership.
Step 4: Improvise
Greg had no formal training in conducting ceremonies, but he felt he had the requisite skills to do the job.
“I can orate,” he says. That’s a good start. The position seems to have two main criteria: a finesse for coordination (like fielding questions about where to stand and when to sit) and a knack for improvisation.
“It’s generally acting,” he says of conducting ceremonies. “Your voice is important. Your posture’s important. I get into my reverend suit and my reverend attitude. It’s your presence and your self-assurance that they’re counting on.”
Mary Jo adds, “It can be very emotional. People start crying. You have to be cool.”
It’s almost always necessary, they say, to comfort the mother of the bride, who will likely be nervous.
“It’s not for everybody. You have to kind of be prepared for anything,” Greg advises.
Mary Jo, the church’s office manager, says it’s crucial to keep on top of the minute details. Make sure you can pronounce the bride’s and groom’s names correctly. She writes them phonetically in the book Greg reads from, just in case. Keep well-organized records. If a client’s marriage documents are lost, you’ll be responsible for providing a backup.
Though the Adamses recount the process of forming their church with an eager lightheartedness, they take their (mostly) secular work seriously. Greg says he’s filling a need for people who aren’t religious or don’t have an affiliation with a church but for whom a wedding is a meaningful rite of passage.
“Ceremony and ritual are still important,” he says.
Greg and Mary Jo also sometimes offer marriage advice to their clients—the distilled wisdom of their nine years as a married couple: “Try to be nice. Try to stay fit. Above all, be friends.”