Hitched for life by 'minister for a day'

September 17, 2006|By Jennifer Garza | Jennifer Garza,McClatchy-Tribune

Of all the decisions Liz Gillingham had to make for her wedding, one was easy. She did not want to be married by a member of the clergy.

Her fiance, Keith Daily, felt the same way.

"We're not religious people, so it didn't feel right to have one," Gillingham says.

Two weeks ago, surrounded by family and friends on a bright afternoon, the couple had the wedding they wanted, on a beach at Lake Tahoe. They wrote their own vows. And instead of a minister, Gillingham's cousin -- a San Francisco teacher -- performed the ceremony.

"We wanted it done by someone who knew us," Gillingham says, "not by a stranger from a church we found in the Yellow Pages."

A growing number of brides and grooms are recruiting relatives, college roommates or childhood friends to help them tie the knot. Web sites advertising inexpensive ordination kits and "deputy for a day" programs offered by several counties have made weddings with do-it-yourself ministers increasingly popular.

These personalized weddings particularly appeal to those unaffiliated with a faith.

"We're not involved with a church, and my uncle has a lot of spiritual qualities, so we want him do it," says Ron Vrilakas, who is getting married in October. Vrilakas' 88-year-old great-uncle will perform the wedding ceremony. "Everyone I've talked to thought it was a great idea."

Several online sites offer ordinations, but the most popular is the Universal Life Church, based in Modesto, Calif. Officials there ordain more ministers than perhaps any other church in the world -- about 4,000 every month, according to Andre Hensley, the pastor of the church. Most of those ordinations are used to perform weddings.

For traditionalists, having a friend or relative receive a quickie ordination to perform a wedding ceremony may seem sacrilegious. Some wonder about the legalities. But many couples say having a friend or relative stand in as minister makes the ceremony more memorable.

Need county approval

Sarah Hobart officiated at her daughter's wedding two years ago. The wedding, in Sacramento, Calif., was such a success that she officiated at her son's wedding last year.

But not all weddings go off without a hitch.

Last month, K.D. Vartanian and Joshua Timmons had a beachfront wedding on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. A longtime family friend, a minister with the Universal Life Church who had officiated at K.D's sister's wedding, performed their ceremony as well. Afterward, the bride's parents took the marriage license to the county clerk's office, and were told the marriage wasn't valid.

"We paid $10,000 for a wedding and they weren't married," says Denise Godfrey, the mother of the bride. Godfrey says the representative from the county clerk's office told them that they had to have a minister approved by the county. She also was told that the minister had to have a congregation. Godfrey says the whole family was stunned.

"Nobody mentioned these requirements when we picked up the marriage license," she says.

Godfrey called the bridal couple, then on a carriage ride, and informed them that they had to have a justice of the peace marry them. The couple hurried to the county clerk's office and exchanged vows again.

"We were all pretty upset because we didn't know, and the person they wanted to marry them -- didn't," Godfrey says. "We certainly don't want anyone else to go through this."

Laws about who can perform marriages vary from state to state, and organizations such as the Universal Life Church say they remind ministers to check state laws.

Customized wedding

Getting a do-it-yourself minister's license is not new. Hensley's father, who founded the Universal Life Church, began ordaining almost anyone who applied in the 1960s, when many celebrities got their minister's license. It became more popular after word spread that the military gave deferments to clergy.

Eventually, the law changed -- and so did interest in becoming an overnight clergyman.

"It became popular with the free-love movement and it became kind of a joke," says Hensley, whose church fought and won a battle with the Internal Revenue Service over its status as a church.

That has changed. Demand for a do-it-yourself license has jumped dramatically, thanks to the Internet and the desire of couples to customize their weddings, Hensley says.

And once again, celebrities are on the ordination bandwagon -- Jeff Probst of Survivor recently got ordained for his parents' ceremony to renew their vows, and Carson Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy recently married a couple on the show. "Celebrities do it for the same reason anybody else does. ... Plus, it's easy," Hensley says.

To become ordained, applicants fill out a brief form on the church's Web site. The request is reviewed at church headquarters, where officials look over the application to make sure the names aren't obviously made up, obscene or appear to be a name of a pet. "People have tried all kinds of things," Hensley says. Applicants are notified by e-mail.

Ordination is free, but applicants pay anywhere from $10 for a basic ordination kit that includes a minister's certificate to $124 for kits that have a minister's ceremony manual, an official church title certificate and a placard for their car that reads "Minister Official Business."

By far, most of the people who get ordained do so to perform one wedding for a close friend or relative. Many have performed multiple weddings. Some do-it-yourself ministers are using their certificates to perform services at funerals or baptisms.

"Basically, they're getting them to do anything a minister does," Hensley says.

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