Traditionally, prospective ministers, pastors, priests and rabbi obtain education either through their respective religious institutions, or by the study of theology at an accredited university. They are then appointed by the church as a church leader and are given the authority to promote their religion by heading religious institutions and leading congregations. However, as the world shrinks and cultures and races merge, the traditional representative of the church, mosque or synagogue may find it difficult to accommodate the needs of a changing population. Bound by dogma and religious law, they are often prohibited to minister to those in need of interracial, interfaith or intercultural services. In evolutionary terms, this leaves a void and creates a need for an interfaith or independent approach to religion and spirituality.
The need for independent, interfaith and nondenominational ministers is becoming more and more evident as traditional churches continue to loose a large number of their members. An example can be found in the Protestant religion. In April and May of 2007, LifeWay Research performed a survey of 1,023 Protestants and found that 70% of Protestants between the ages of 23 to 30 dropped out of Church (margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points). Among other reasons, dropouts claimed they left the church because they needed a break, did not feel connected, found church members judgmental or hypocritical, were too busy with college, work or other friends outside of the church or disagreed with the political agenda of the church.
Various methods continue to develop in attempts to fill the need for interfaith and independent spiritual services. Its not surprising that the online ordained minister has become popular. Becoming an interfaith or independent minister can be accomplished by performing a simple Google search. Numerous organizations and churches now offer online and instant ordinations. Some offer education, training and study in the comparative religions with a residency requirement and a formal ordination upon completion. Some offer instant ordination with support, training and education available to those who choose to use it. These ordained ministers cater to the needs of the non-churchgoers who still get married, have children, become sick, loose loved ones through death and need spiritual counseling on a variety of life issues.
The definition of “minister” is evolving. No longer bound by dogma or creed, the independent and interfaith ministerial movement is growing and appears to profess a common belief—a nonjudgmental approach to ministering to those of different faiths, cultures and creeds by ministering according to the Golden Rule.
Interestingly, the word “nonjudgmental” can be threatening to the devout religious believer in spite of the fact that each great spiritual text teaches unconditional love and non-judgment as part of its major components. The Golden Rule, for example, can be found in the texts of all the world’s great religions:
“One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.”
Hinduism, from the Hitopadesa (3200 BC)
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Judaism, Leviticus 19:18 (1300 BC)
“Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.”
Buddhism, Udanavarga (560BC)
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
Confucianism, Analects (557 BC)
“No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”
Islam, Koran (620AD)
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain and your neighbor’s loss as your loss.”
Taoist, Tai-shang, Kang-ying P’ien (500 BC)
“Whatsoever ye would that others should do to you, do ye even so to them.”
Christianity, 7:12 – King James Version (30 AD)
An important question to consider regarding interfaith and independent ministers is, are they legitimate? According to dictionary.com, legitimate means:
1. according to law; lawful
If we look at the wording of the first amendment, (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”) it can be determined that any ordained minister, independent or traditional, must be legitimate. Yet, many states place restrictions upon what legitimizes a minister, as when it comes to solemnizing marriages. Take the state of Virginia for example. To register, you must appear in person in Arlington County and show your Certificate of Ordination, a picture ID, and pay a $16.00 fee. You will be asked some questions which may include asking if your organization is in alignment with the definition of a church as given by the IRS (namely, an established 501(c)3). But there is no law requiring a church or spiritual organization to be tax-exempt. The IRS definition only applies to those organizations that are seeking a tax-exempt status. Does that mean that all other spiritual and religious organizations that pay taxes are not legitimate? Or, has the first amendment been overlooked in this instance?
Concerns about the integrity and legitimacy of clerics seem valid. Clergy, as a whole, receive respect and admiration by the very nature of their calling and are often viewed as trusted mentors, teachers, role models and faithful leaders. Can the grass roots interfaith and independent ministry movement stand up to such expectations? Can they be trusted? Yet, the question begs—can traditionally ordained clergy be trusted as well.
When an internet search for interfaith minister and abuse is performed, the searcher finds the first page filled with links to sites that claim to care for the abused or to help those abusing drugs, etc. When a internet search for Catholic priest and abuse is performed, the entire first page is filled with links to pages about the recent scandal where priests sexually abused children.
It thus seems reasonable to conclude that a cleric as a member of an established world religion does not, by itself, demonstrate trustworthiness. Similarly, interfaith and independent ministries have little history upon which to base a qualified answer to these important questions.
Religions, by their very nature, profess a right/wrong philosophy through creed and dogma. Yet, sacred texts, creed and dogma are open to interpretation as to what constitutes right and wrong. Disagreements on interpretations abound. Indeed, current events attest to the tragic world events rooted in religious disagreements (September 11, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and our current state of affairs).
“When Religion Turns Evil” by Baptist Minister Dr. Charles Kimball, (2003) defines five signs of corruption in religions. They are: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the “ideal” time, the end justifies any means, and declaring holy war.” These attributes can be found in the Nazis, the Crusades and in the cults of Jim Jones and David Koresh.
Self-righteousness is a common trait found in the actions of the Nazis, the Crusaders and both the Jones and Koresh cults. The Golden Rule espoused by all the great religions was forgotten in each case. The world would benefit if all spiritual and religious organizations would take heed of the warning offered in Matthew 23:27-28:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
In conclusion, it appears that the major qualifications necessary for someone to become a legitimate cleric (either an independent clergy or a cleric with a major religion) and minister to the spiritual needs of others would be twofold: a deep desire to live a life free from self-righteous tendencies, and a life dedicated to the practice of the Golden Rule. The basic concept of love that is found in all of the great texts would then be practiced, promoting tolerance, understanding, compassion and peace.
Rev. Barbara S. Eberle obtained a BS in Human Behavior and Social Science from The University of Maryland System and an MA in Family Psychology through Vermont College of Norwich University. She obtained her OMC (Ordained Ministerial Counselor) through Pathways of Light, Kiel, WI, and combines her educational and spiritual background to provide a unique approach to promoting an Interfaith approach to spirituality. She is Managing Member of The Ministerial Seminary of America, LLC where ordinations, education, counseling and support are offered. www.ministerialseminary.com