Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
The theology of the Church Universal and Triumphant is a mixed bag of Christianity, Buddhism, New Age mysticism and astrology.
Add in beings called Ascended Masters, who speak through Elizabeth Clare Prophet, angels and "elementals," who embody earth, fire, water and wind.
Then there are events that can happen on the physical, astral or psychological plane, where they can't be seen but can be known.
There are forces of evil, too: fallen angels, space aliens, discarnates who do the devil's work. Watch out for them.
It's a challenging mix, one that current church president Gilbert Cleirbaut said is sometimes too complicated even for him.
That's why he is leading efforts to repackage the body of the church's teachings to make them more accessible to people.
"We have a lot of teachings, but we've never consistently organized our material into a coherent theology," said church vice president Murray Steinman in an interview. "What do you do first, second, third, 20th?"
The spiritual goal of church members is to achieve "ascension," to dwell in the cosmos with the Ascended Masters. To do this, you must balance your karma, the debt of your sins from this life and your past ones.
You do that, in part, by "decreeing' - offering long hours of specific oral prayer. Decrees can "mitigate" karma, the church says.
Decrees are used for other purposes as well. People gather in groups and decree to fend off war or catastrophe, to send "blue bolts of lightning" to illuminate journalists and critics, or to give judges the wisdom they need to make favorable rulings in cases affecting the church.
In 1988, when wildfires from Yellowstone National Park threatened church property, dozens of church members gathered in a parkside meadow and decreed for hours, facing the flames with outstretched hands.
"Roll back the tide," they intoned, over and over and over.
While on earth, the spiritual goal is to get in touch with the "spark of divinity" that is within each person. Some actions, like homosexuality or oral sex, can set you way back.
"You don't have to die to reunite with God," spokesman Christopher Kelley said. "You can reunite with him here on Earth."
Kelley said church officials still aren't sure how many members there are, because it has yet to define membership, but the members can be found all over the world.
Until recently, the church was run by Prophet, her husbands, her children and a handful of hand-picked members of the church hierarchy. Now it has bureaucratized, with a board of directors, an executive board and a council of elders. Plans call for "democratization" and "empowerment" of far-flung congregations, but progress has been slow.
Meetings of the church boards remain closed to the public and to members; no agendas are published in advance. Church members are required to tithe, with all money going to headquarters, which is now promising to send paid ministers to some congregations, or "study groups."
Church leadership has for years tried to gain acceptance as a mainstream organization, to be labeled a denomination rather than a sect or cult.
A 1994 book, The Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective, was an effort to move perceptions that way. The book said, in a nutshell, that the church was doing fine and that critics were blowing things out of proportion. But the book didn't end any debates.
Four years later, one of the book's writers, University of Montana sociologist Robert Balch, wrote, "The study's design virtually assured that if malfeasance existed within the church, it would not be discovered. Even church members noticed how superficial the investigation was.