Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Explaining the Split in the Universal Life Church

At some point in the past several months you might have heard about the schism taking place in the United Methodist Church. Really, this isn't anything new for Protestantism. We didn't get to the point of having thousands of Protestant denominations by everyone getting along! Did you know, though, that there have been splits in the oldest denomination offering ordination to anyone for life and for free? The Universal Life tradition currently has two major divisions, and possibly a handful of smaller spin-off groups.

It's hard to say how many smaller organizations claim the Universal Life Church name without being affiliated with the headquarters in Modesto, California. Some may have started out as chartered congregations and then decided to do their own thing. Internet searches turn up little branches of the church, but it's hard to quantify them, as it's unclear how many are still active, and there's currently no centralized list with which I'm familiar. There is, however, a very strong competitor in the space, and that's the ULC Monastery.

In 1995 a ULC minister named Dan Zimmerman started a website for his congregation, which was called Universal Life Church/ULC Monastery, Inc. It was based out of Tucson Arizona. Rev. Zimmerman requested to be authorized to accept and forward to the ULC HQ any ordination requests received on his site, so that people could be ordained by our church through that method. Authorization was granted, and it's my understanding that at that time the ULC HQ didn't have a site of its own, so it made sense to open up that channel. Besides, Rev. Kirby Hensely always emphasized that one of the most important duties of ULC ministers was to ordain others on their request.

In 2005 Zimmerman asked one of his members to assist with operating part of the site from Seattle Washington. In 2006 they had an internal management dispute, so Brother Dan did the responsible thing and closed his site on 08/01/06. At that time the ULC HQ authorization for them them to take ordination requests online was revoked. after that, the Seattle people carried out a sort of hostile takeover of the Monastery website and changed it to be themonastery.org. They proceeded to call themselves the Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse, Inc. This church continues to this day, and seems to be operating under the name "Universal Life Church Ministries," although you'll still see the Monastery name in use. They are a separate organization that is not affiliated with the original Universal Life Church with headquarters in Modesto, California.

If you were ordained by the Universal Life Church prior to 2006 and contact the Monastery, they will tell you that due to a database change they don't have access to ordinations prior to that year. However, they will issue you a replacement credential with the date you provide, and it includes a notation at the bottom with a date that the ordination was allegedly 'renewed.' In legal terms, that's the actual ordination date for the Universal Life Church Ministries, as they did not have the Modesto-ordained minister on record prior to that date. Anyone familiar with the Universal Life Church as Rev. Kirby J. Hensley presented it would know that ordination is 'for life,' and therefore no 'renewal' is needed.

Technically, I suppose there was a database change in 2006. It was a brand new database for a new organization not affiliated with the original Universal Life Church. However, it seems deceitful to me for the ULCM not to be transparent about what's going on. Further, the Monastery when on a buying spree over the intervening years and has obtained and put to use numerous domains bearing the Universal Life Church name in some form, as well as domains like 'getordained.com.' Some of those domains are attached to stand-alone websites that communicate on the backend with the Monastery but look a little different up front, while others simply redirect to one of the ULCM sites. Meanwhile, the only domain connected directly with the ULC HQ is ulchq.com.

Now, to be clear, the ordinations offered through the Universal Life Church Ministries/Universal Life Church Monastery are perfectly valid for officiating legally-recognized weddings. If you were ordained through that denomination of Universal Life, you are still ordained...just not by the Universal Life Church that Rev. Kirby J. Hensley founded. In practice this shouldn't ever matter to to you. However, it might be worth asking whether you want to support such an organization. That's entirely up to you.

The Universal Life Church international headquarters is definitely lost in the online shuffle, and not only because the Monastery owns and uses so many domains, dominating search results. So far as I have seen, the Universal Life Church in Modesto doesn't do any online advertising. Further, the official website is badly outdated and broken. The store shows items out of

stock which are not, and there's no new information about current happenings listed. The page navigator at the top also behaves very oddly, making it necessary to use the page links in the footer to get around the site.

There is a page at ULC.net which was previously authorized to carry official ULC courses, but that is no longer the case. There are other materials available through that website, but unfortunately these are reportedly not being fulfilled. The ULC HQ has been receiving calls from people who have ordered through that site and never received their orders, even after months of waiting. Since it's a separate site and the store is not connected to ULC HQ, there's really nothing they can do.

So there you have it. Religious division takes place even among the mail order ministry/online ordination denominations. As is often the case, in my experience, it's less about doctrine and beliefs, and more about personalities and control. More's the pity.

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