Saturday, July 2, 2022

Humanist Ministry Designations

Religious groups have their polity. These are systems of government and ways of organizing ministry, and they can vary widely. Even The Humanist Society has different designations, though they are more functional than a matter of 'status.' 

Since the 2nd century CE the form of Christianity that has come to be considered orthodox has had a very well-defined organization. There are three levels, which from bottom up are deacons, priests/presbyters, and bishops. Deacons work in parishes under the guidance of priests, while priests are accountable to their bishops. It has become more complex over time, with the addition of sub-deacons, archbishops, and so forth, but the foundation is laid with those three primary categories. This will be found in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican bodies.

Baptists, on the other hand, hold to congregational government with each church freely associating with others in a denominational structure if they so choose. Church officers tend to be the board of deacons and the pastor, who may be considered an elder. In some the board is composed of elders and perhaps deacons, and the minister is simply the pastor or preacher. 

The perspective I held to for most of the time I was of evangelical faith held that churches should ideally be governed by elected elders, served by deacons, and led by an evangelist/preacher.

In the Universal Life Church, popular for offering free ordination online to anyone, every ordained minister is considered a member, and there is no hierarchy. The headquarters for whichever ULC body is involved (there are a few, in reality) is responsible for record-keeping and fulfilling orders for documents and supplies, but that's pretty much it. If someone were to organize a ULC congregation, whether chartered by headquarters or not, the internal polity would depend on what those starting the church want, not any other external consideration.

The model currently in use by The Humanist Society bears some resemblance to that of the ULC, in that there isn't a hierarchy of authority as such. The board of the Society is responsible for the continuation of the organization, and they review the qualifications of candidates for endorsement before deciding whether to proceed with them. The types of endorsement available are not exactly 'levels,' and more like 'designations.' Each role has a part to play, as defined by the Society. The current designations are as follows, and also note that membership in the American Humanist Association is a prerequisite for them all. 

First, there is the Associate Celebrant. Valid for only 90 days, this is good for someone who has been asked to officiate for friends, but has no plans to continue officiating long-term. The fee for this one is lower than that of Celebrant, and is perhaps a bit easier to obtain.

Second, the Celebrant is someone who is initially endorsed for two years, and can renew thereafter for five years at a time if they qualify. The key qualification is having officiated at least one ceremony of any kind for each year of their endorsement. If someone stops officiating ceremonies, then their endorsement will lapse. Legally, Celebrants are the same as ministers/priests of the various religions, and as such "are expected and required to abide by all applicable laws and regulations regarding confidentiality, reporting, marriage officiating, and other issues" (The Humanist Society) . 

Third, the Humanist Lay Leader is a designation intended for people in military chaplaincy programs. To be clear, these are not chaplains, but are auxiliaries who must hold this designation in order to perform their roles.

Fourth, the Chaplain is a person who has prepared for service to both Humanists and non-Humanists, usually in an interfaith, institutional setting. This could include military (although at present there are no Humanist military chaplains), hospitals, rehab centers, and other facilities or programs. The Chaplain is an advocate not for Humanism itself, but rather for those they work with, whatever their faith background. A Chaplain in The Humanist Society is not considered clergy, although of course any Chaplain can also apply for and receive endorsement as Celebrant at the same time. 

Fifth and finally, we arrive at the Invocator. It is customary in many, if not most, public meetings in the United States to have a guest minister from the community say a prayer before getting started on the agenda. When I served a church in New Mexico many years ago I did this once or twice for the town council where I lived. This invocation, calling on a deity to bless the proceedings, is reserved of course for those who believe in such things. Automatically, non-theists are left out. That does not have to be the case. Humanist Invocators are people who say a few words in the place of a prayer that reminds those gathered of their responsibility and their collective ability to solve problems and lead. While not a prayer, it is intended to be inspirational and aspirational. People endorsed as Invocators are to be deemed of equal standing with anyone who would be called on to lead public prayer. Invocators do not have other ministerial capacities.

As I've already indicated, these are not levels, and there is no hierarchy. One is not 'better' than the others. It's a matter of the purpose intended for the designation. None are permanent endorsements, and all have basic requirements that must be met to receive and maintain the credential. Unlike hidebound systems found in churches, these designations can be updated and new ones created if the board of The Humanist Society sees an unmet need that should be filled.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone. If you plan to get married in New Jersey and would like to have a Humanist Celebrant officiate, I would be glad to oblige. I have the training, experience, and endorsement needed for weddings and other types of ceremonies. Simply contact me to get the ball rolling.