The question of “professional” Pagan clergy (1 of 2)
Do we need professional clergy?
This question has been asked so often as to be almost cliche. Any group of enough Pagans gathering around arguing religion will eventually devolve into this very argument. And it is a quite heated one at that, with emotions high and opinions held tighter than for almost any other question in the community.
But are we asking the right question? Are we examining our definitions of these terms and actually speaking about the same thing? And are we really looking at community need or are we simply looking at biases about the topic itself?
The Pagan Fish in Christian Water: Defining Our Worldview
There’s a joke that often floats around nicknamed “The Water Parable.” Told by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, it addresses our unconscious bias. For those who are unfamiliar it goes like this:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” (via The New Yorker)
Just like the fish, neopagans constantly swim in the water of western Christian norms.
Chris Godwin addresses this in a post discussing colonial worldviews influencing neopagan practice wherein he argues that the broader culture we live in influences how we think of and practice our Paganism, often causing us to slip into only practicing what is “safe” to the broader culture and avoiding natural Pagan practices because of their “foreignness” to the culture we grew up in.
It is a problem both in practice and in study, as addressed by professor Jordan Paper of York University whose book The Deities are Many (sponsored link) attempts to address monotheistic assumptions in the academic study of polytheistic religions.
In short, when we talk about “professional clergy” we have a tendency to cite Christian clergy as our examples, because this is the common example we are exposed to and the water we swim in.
But to properly have the conversation of professional Pagan clergy, instead of relying on our assumptions of what that means we instead have to look at the whole picture. How do non-Christian religions handle clergy and their training? What should we really be discussing here: paid priests or community ministers? Is payment the mark of a profession? And if so, then what does out leadership’s income say about our community? And if not professional clergy, then who do we look to in times of need?
Experience versus Education
The Association of Professional Chaplains’ Board of Chaplaincy Certification tackled this issue when trying to understand how to evaluate Buddhist candidates for Chaplaincy. In a publication addressing equivalency issues they state:
“Buddhist education and training varies widely between schools (denominations) of Buddhism, and even within schools, between lineages of teachers. (A lineage comprises teachers who can trace their tradition back to the historical Buddha, and who have developed distinctive practices and training styles.) Variations pertinent to the Commission on Certification range from an anti-intellectualism that favors monastic spiritual experience over academic study, to westernized degree programs.”
In this description we can see similarities to Pagan priests / high priests (and of course priestesses and high priestesses). Leaders in Paganism may have wildly different training, views on academia, and even standards for being considered clergy (ranging from a year and a day to multiple years and coven degree trainings).
In fact, I would posit that the fundamental argument happening between Pagans regarding clergy boils down to this same Buddhist argument (“anti-intellectualism that favors monastic spiritual experience over academic study, to westernized degree programs”); ie: “experience versus education.”
Those firmly in the camp of experience point to the highly individualized nature of Paganism and insist Pagan paths are just too divergent to be able to have a reasonably standard set of academic trainings. As such, our Pagans who could be considered clergy may be little more than a year into their personal practice and have little more theological knowledge than that provided by Scott Cunningham’s Guide to the Solitary Practitioner (sponsored link) or by Harmony Nice’s Wicca: A modern guide to witchcraft and magick (sponsored link). Or, just as likely, they might have thousands of man hours teaching and leading covens, multiple public rituals, a library of well worn academic discussions on paleopagan and neopagan practices, and initiations into several different paths of Paganism. We as Pagans have little system to measure the strengths of those we meet other than their word or the word of others who know them within the community.
By contrast, those in the education camp argue for a standard similar to that of Christian clergy (namely 72-90 credit hours of graduate studies after 120 credit hours of undergraduate coursework). But between the rising costs of education, the $1.2 trillion student debt crisis the massively lowered value of degrees, and a modern age of instant information, this can seem like a tall order for a mostly volunteer job. And while the BCCi’s solution for Buddhists of requiring “…7,200 hours of education (class time, required study time, mentored practice time, face-to-face interview time, etc.)” is noble for paid chaplaincy, it is likely overkill for regular Pagan priesthood as it can be easily argued that our numbers don’t support the structure to ensure that training has been completed.
Do We Need Dedicated Pagan Ministry?
As a part of the water we swim in, the term Clergy encompasses so much, and we fish hear it and often assume “Priest.” This is a natural cultural assumption. As discussed above Christian Clergy are all priests, with the Catholic model employing priests as intermediaries between man and God, and the Protestant model employing priests as leaders of worship. Yet our ancient pagan forbears saw their priests more as specialists to individual gods and guides of sacrifice and practice. The pre-Christian Greeks and Romans served their household gods, and consulted the priests dedicated to cults of specific gods when they needed to appease those specific deities.
And what modern Paganism has currently in abundance is priesthoods. Druids, Priests, High Priests, OTO Bishops, etc etc. We are well versed in serving the gods, and similar to the followers of ancient Hellenism, individual Pagans serve as priests at the home altars of their personal gods, and often consult each other for advise regarding those deities.
Let me be incredibly clear: We Do Not Need Professional Priests. Priests are specialists to their gods, and all Pagans are priests in this regards.
Yet what we don’t have is an abundance of guides for those home priests. We don’t have an abundance of members trained in Spiritual Care (a discipline akin in many ways to counseling). We don’t have an abundance of leaders who are specifically trained in interpersonal conflict. And above all what we don’t have is an abundance of members who are trained to serve people other than those within their own coven.
As Dr. Sam Webster (and my thanks to him for consulting on parts of this article) argues:
“Ministry is fundamentally about serving the ‘congregation’ in contrast to being primarily about serving the Gods, as in Priesthood… The result is a professional servant of the religious population or ‘congregation’ who is knowledgeable and skilled in liturgy, institutional and community development, and pastoral care, as well as sensitive to the critical or ‘prophetic’ leadership role they are in.”
This is what ministers typically do. A minister, from the Latin for “servant,” serves the community. A minister is not meant to speak for God/gods, or to perform community sacrifices (this is historically the job of a priest, though the two jobs more often than not reside within one person). A minister should be a guide, a caregiver, a voice of reason, a servant.
What we as a Pagan community need are professionals trained to be able to advise the growing number of solitary practitioners. Spiritual caregivers trained in the philosophy and psychology of Pagan practice rather than only in the specifics of magickal technique. Clergymembers who are dedicated to the theological conversation that allows their faith to be taken seriously in interfaith settings.
In short: what we need are professional ministers.
Money Money Money, it’s All About Money
This sticking point is almost always the first out of the gate. Within western capitalist society we measure value in cash. “Professional” means full-time paid. And all social programs (feeding the needy, educating the masses, caring for the sick, guiding the spiritually lost) come with the same question: “But who’s going to pay for it?”
However, there are many cultures in which this is not the case. Jobs are done because they need to be done. Consider the discussion from Phil Borges who had the opportunity to interview members of in tribal societies for his documentary. In interviewing these indigenous cultures he discusses the “clergy” of those societies who (after going through a call, a spiritual awakening, personal training by a mentor, and a death-rebirth initiation), begin their new trade as shamans, healers, and priests. However, this does not supplant their old profession. The shaman he interviewed (John) continued to be a goat herder as well as now being a healer.
In small communities, who don’t have the collective resources to lose the original productive profession after their priest takes on their new job, this may be necessary. Even within rural Christian churches unpaid clergy is becoming the backbone of the spiritual experience.
“…as churches face declining numbers and look to new ministry models to make ends meet. Thumma sees more mainliners cutting back to halftime or one-quarter-time packages for clergy, who increasingly work second jobs.
The unpaid cleric model is gaining traction among Episcopalians. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming had few if any unpaid clergy serving its 49 congregations. Now, 20 priests in Wyoming – more than one-third – are unpaid.
Within a few years, the number of unpaid clergy is expected to reach 35, according to Lori Modesitt, ministry developer for the Wyoming diocese. All those unpaid clergy are fully ordained.
Modesitt sees unpaid ministry as ‘the future of the church’ – and a bright future at that. It empowers laypeople to become priests even if they can’t leave other careers, she said. And it ensures that ministry never becomes just a job.
…denominations expect more church leaders in years ahead to earn their livings in secular jobs. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, encourages new seminarians to plan for nonchurch employment so they can serve fledgling congregations that can’t afford a full-time salary plus benefits. ”Huffpost “Unpaid Pastors May Be ‘Future Of The Church’ For Protestant Congregations”
Paganism is a small community, made up of even smaller sub-communities, made up of even smaller spiritual practice groups as well as many many individuals. The ability to pay for full time clergy is not in the cards for most Pagan groups.
Are some Pagans paid for what they do? Absolutely. We’ll discuss a few of those in the next section.
However, being unpaid does not absolve Pagans from “the call.” Pagans are already doing clergy work as volunteers, the inability to pay them does not invalidate whether or not they are treated as “professional clergy.” The goat herder’s trade heading goats pays the bills, while his Shamanism supports the community.