More and more people are leaving the church, but many still want a minister to speak at their wedding. 'Rent-a-pastor' hopes to fill this gap in the market.
Andrea wanted her wedding to be not just a big day, but a special, personalized one, too. "Even though we don't go to church regularly, we didn't want our wedding just to be a standardized ceremony," she says. She spoke to Mickey Wiese, a certified theologian who describes himself as an "event pastor." Wiese offers Christian weddings to couples who aren't members of the church.
Wiese, who is in his early fifties, wears his long gray hair in a ponytail and works as a freelance lecturer. His "unique selling point" is that he is happy to officiate in unusual locations. He has already spoken at weddings in a vineyard and in a market garden, for example. This fall, he will don a monk's habit for a ceremony at a medieval castle. Couples who want to get in touch with Wiese can find him on a website set up specially for the purpose.
From unconventional to multicultural
On "rent-a-pastor," people can look for a theologian anywhere in Germany. There's a wide variety of offers: Apart from Wiese, you can also hire an "unconventional speaker" who is known from "numerous talkshow appearances," or a Brazilian pastor specializing in multicultural weddings. There are some 20 speakers registered on the site, and the going rate is about 50 euros (66 dollars) an hour. The pastors can also be booked for funerals.
The page was started by Samuel Diekmann, a certified pastor with the fundamentalist Free Evangelical Church in Hessen. He developed the idea four years ago, and initially offered his services on his own homepage to earn a little extra money. At the end of last year, some other colleagues approached him about joining the business. That's when the "rent-a-pastor" website came into being.
The target group for rent-a-pastor is people who don't have many dealings with the church, but who still believe in God or want a professional speaker at their wedding. "Freelance speakers are a dime a dozen," Diekmann says. "But it's hard for couples to find out what kind of person is behind the shiny façade. That's why we use our professional ethics as an advertisement." Diekmann has already officiated at theme weddings, too: He wore a flower necklace for an elderly couple's hippie wedding. "The couple's happiness is what counts," Diekmann says.
But Volker Lehnert, a member of the Church Council, views this new market with suspicion. A theologian with the Protestant Church in the Rhineland, to him this is all Hollywood's fault. "The good thing is that faith in God is still mentioned in these ceremonies," Lehnert says. "That's in the church's interest, of course. But the bad thing is that this sends out a negative signal: You can still have all the churchy stuff without actually being a member of the church. If everyone did this, it would mean the end of the church."
The Church is shrinking
More and more people today are already leaving the Catholic and Protestant churches. Revelations about numerous abuse scandals in Christian schools have resulted in a particularly steep decline in membership: Around 180,000 Catholics and 145,000 Protestants left the Church in 2010. That leaves less than 60 percent of the German population who are members of one of the two large Christian churches.
And these numbers are set to become even more critical. One million Christians in Germany are planning to leave their church. Together with those who are at least considering it, the churches are facing "a potential loss of more than five and a half million," according to the German magazine called "Christ and World," which quoted the head of the Sinus research institute.
However, rent-a-pastor founder Samuel Diekmann doesn't see his service as an anti-church business. On the contrary: He believes that his offer may bring some wayward sheep back to God. "If you have a car accident and you aren't a member of the automobile association, you can still call them and they'll come and help you," Diekmann explains. "But once they've had an experience like that, many people think about becoming a member." The theologian is hoping that his religious service will have a similar effect: "Through good work, kindness and humor we can really score points with some people."
At the mostly traditional wedding of Andrea and her husband, pastor Mickey Wiese was able to do a little self-promotion. A couple of their friends loved the ceremony and wanted to hire Wiese for their own wedding. "I don't want to judge and say that other pastors can't do this," Wiese says. "But it's definitely different when you're offering it as a service, when people are hiring you for a specific event. That's a whole other obligation."