With the Web, $5 and five minutes makes a minister

Pastor Jack J. Stahl bombards Lucifer and his minions with horror-movie shouts, hollers and diabolical cackles.

He barks a bit of Latin, fires thunderclaps of words thatdontmakemuchsense since they crash into each other like renegade bumper cars.

But the ordained-by-mail minister's 24-hour exorcist hot line kicks Beelzebub's butt in kitschy style. To perform his little demon laundering, he spins the sing-along tunes of crooner Tom Jones, famous for "What's New, Pussycat?"

The 1981 Clayton Valley High School graduate became an ordained minister in the Modesto, Calif.-based Universal Life Church, the 40-year heavy hitter in mail-order ministry.

Anyone with a computer can become a man or woman of the cloth. An online form at Universal Life requires the most basic information. Within 5 minutes, a "Rev." can be attached to your name for free. A paper certificate sets you back $5.

With the credential you can preach the Word, marry, bury and baptize. But the offers don't stop there. Internet ministries certify saints, divinity or pastoral counselors.

More lofty titles creep up in price, with some packages in the $200 range.

Stahl went out on his own, creating the Progressive Universal Life Church. The Sacramento, Calif., resident now ordains others.

Mainline pastors cringe at the get-it-quick certificates. They say speaking for a higher being requires more brain exertion and study, especially since counseling skills are a must.

"The bottom line is it's a commitment," said Ann Murphy, spokeswoman at the San Francisco Theology Seminary in San Anselmo, Calif.

The Presbyterian institution's degree-program requires three years of study, a year internship at a church or local service agency and, in some cases, a six-month chaplaincy. Tuition climbs into the $10,000 range.

David Sammons of Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, Calif., regards Universal Life Church as a joke: "Universal Life Church isn't a church."

He views the nonprofit operation as a business selling certificates without proper learning, respect or care for the vocation.

Since the Universal Life Church opened in 1959, 18 million people worldwide have become ordained, said Andre Hensley, son of the late founder Kirby Hensley.

He estimated up to 4,000 a month register, including celebrities. Troubled-wildcat singer Courtney Love could now be addressed as the Rev. Ms. Love.

Hensley acknowledges that some treat such operations as flukes or tax dodges.

"We have to take everything by faith just like every other church."

The IRS exorcised the ministry's tax-exempt status in 1984, but the church regained it.

The IRS is aware of some improprieties in mail-order ministries, said Jesse Weller, a California IRS spokesman.

"Over the years, some mail-order ministers have tried to avoid taxes by deducting personal expenses, such as claiming that a personal vacation was a religious retreat. One went to a football game, stood up in the crowd, preached a few minutes, then deducted the cost of tickets as a proselytizing event."

Those using the service as a tax shelter should beware.

"Being ordained doesn't make your income nontaxable. Real ministers pay taxes, and if you work at a regular job the income doesn't become nontaxable just because you're a minister, mail-order or not."

Because of the separation of church and state, the Attorney General's Office rarely acts except in egregious situations.

"Our regulatory and law enforcement purview over religious nonprofits is close to nonexistent," said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

Interest remains steady in Universal Life ordinations, with spikes during national events. Hensley saw a surge when same-sex couples rushed to San Francisco and Portland, Ore., to wed. They needed officiants fast.

He estimates Christians take 90 to 95 percent of certificates.

Those seeking a certificate often want to perform marriages for family or friends, Hensley said.

David Reed of Oakland, Calif., got his mail-order certificate about 25 years ago.

"I was sort of attracted by the aspect of being a significant person in other people's lives," he said.

Reed has officiated at three or four weddings.

His sister's commitment ceremony to her lesbian partner solidified his desire to become a minister.

"It helped me realize how important it is for people who feel like they're not comfortable with formalized church or if it's not legally recognizable."

Two years ago, he officiated at his son's wedding. "Marrying my son was special to me."

Others say they received a calling and contacted Universal Life Church.

That's the case for demon-buster Stahl. The former karaoke singer and ex-member of a comedic traffic-school troupe in San Francisco awoke one day and decided his life needed to change.

"It was a definite calling where God had spoken to me. I just woke up and knew that was what I needed to do."

Not everyone takes him seriously, he acknowledges.

"The exorcism is pretty popular. There are some people who laugh at it."

The church does serve a higher purpose, he said.

"Our purpose is to help people live a more abundant life through God. Since the PULC was founded, we have helped thousands of people live a more abundant life."

And to hog-tie Satan.