The question of “professional” Pagan clergy (2 of 2)
We Already Have “Professional” Paid Clergy, but their profession isn’t Clergy
With spiritual guides, leaders, and community servants, still needing a regular job, we as a community tend to look for our guides from within those professions we consider to be “related” to Paganism. We look to our New Age shop owners, our writers, and bloggers, and podcasters. These are the people we quote, invite to speak, listen to, ask for advice, defer to in discussions, and cite in arguments.
Yet, while many of these individuals do have training, and some may even have advanced degrees (Thorn Mooney who holds an MA in religious studies, Sam Webster who holds both an MDiv and PhD, as well as many others), this is neither required nor expected.
Indeed, if the primary measure of Pagan leadership is shopkeeping and writing, then the primary skill of Pagan leaders isn’t religious or theological (or hierological) knowledge, traditional training, skills in spiritual care, or even ability to help others. If we find our advice and leadership solely from writers and shopkeepers, then the skills we measure our Pagan leadership by are the skills of writing (specifically sell-able writing) and business.
The commodification of our spiritual leadership means that our clergy must all be salespeople in one form or another.
A Community of Hobbyists
The alternative of course is non-professional leadership. Hobbyist leaders. These are those Pagans who look around and see no professional leaders opening up their covens to outsiders or offering to advise newcomers, so they take the duty upon themselves.
This is incredibly noble. It is the backbone of our small group Paganism. But it does run us into a small dilemma.
I was speaking with a Pagan friend not too long ago who decried the fact that she had been Pagan for years but never knew where to go, had no local covens, never knew how to find someone to explain anything to her, and was so lost in the sea of books and resources that she didn’t know how to sort good material from rubbish. When I asked where her training came from she explained that she primarily learned bits and pieces from a friend. The friend happened to be mutual so I inquired and learned that she too had no idea where to find good resources and has been (in her own words) “winging it.” She decried a lack of direction and said she was sharing what little she knew.
This is not an uncommon situation. In Rev. Holli Emore’s MDiv thesis study she found that when asked to whom Pagan respondents “would primarily turn for spiritual support” the responses ranged from “friend or family member” to “I don’t know.” A full 46.5% of Pagans have no support structure for spiritual issues (unless their family members happen to also be trained spiritual caregivers), and well over that likely have no trained support at all as we can not be certain of the training or experience of the online resources, or fellow group members they report going to in times of need. These resources may be primarily trained in magic and ritual but not in counseling, spiritual emergency, theology, or many other areas which a spiritually healthy Pagan may have need of.
In fact, more respondents chose “another member of my group” than did “my group leader” or “a leader or teacher in another group.” This speaks to the lack of confidence Pagans have in their group leaders, who in many cases are themselves simply ill equipped for bigger spiritual issues and are untrained for anything more than personal magickal training or small group ritual.
Simply put: without any kind of academic or professional training, the sources these Pagans are getting their answers from may have little historical, philosophical, theological, or ethical understanding, a state commonly known as “the blind leading the blind.”
So What then is Professional Pagan Clergy
Firstly, lets reassess some terminology to more clearly answer this question.
As “professional” assumes certain status of pay or a specific level of degree I will change this to “dedicated.” By this I mean clergy who devotes themselves to the practice of, and education in, religious study and community leadership or service.
Dedicated pagan clergy.
By allowing for this we are talking about a more clearly defined thing; ie: what is gained by having members of the community devoted wholly to the community? This is, in essence, the proverbial baby I think we tend to throw out with the bathwater of “pay” and “control” and other aspects of Christian clergy that Pagan writers are afraid of falling into.
So what skills do these clergymembers bring to the community? Well for this I refer back to Rev. Dr. Webster’s article (and credit should be given to him, as all I’m doing is translating here, while adding very small amounts from my own training):
This is an understanding of how to discuss the luminous. We so often lack the language as a culture to describe our beliefs, our practices, and our experiences. Dedicated clergy learn how to translate these experiences, and how to identify them in the context of other spiritualities so as to see a pattern and path that a person can be guided down. As Webster puts it “to develop a mature theology as time advances and culture changes, and so be more adaptive and helpful.”
Too often I see modern Pagans continue to quote debunked history. Too often we as a community have to keep chasing down misremembered origins, or outright misinformation in the name of “tradition.” clergymembers enjoy the history of Pagans (both ancient and modern) and can be relied upon to help square away questions of accuracy.
Webster calls this “Tempering the Soul,” but the basic idea is that clergymembers dedicate time to reflecting on their process, on their practices, on how they help others, and on stripping away the tendency to have uninformed opinions or to impress upon other community members personal biases. Moreso, it includes continued conversation with other ministers/clergy (both within and outside of Paganism) to learn from their mistakes and triumphs and build a more refined art.
We all need help. Pagans, just like any others, need to talk about their failures, cry about their struggles, and be heard when they are sick and dying.
Untrained helpers want to fix. They want to tell others how to be better. They want to give advice to help others through trying times.
Dedicated clergymembers are taught to remove themselves from care and instead focus on the other. Their need to fix is removed, and they are taught methods of “non-anxious presence,” of “unconditional acceptance,” and of removing their ego from the equation so they don’t cause more damage in times of crisis.
Webster calls this “Prophetic Ministry,” but essentially it means being the bad guy. It means reminding people when they are letting ferver take them away from reason. It means pointing out when history is not on their side. It means challenging people to better themselves, to challenge their practice, and to grow through hard work. And I will add that I fully agree with Webster when he asserts that “We need to be as good at this, even better than Christian and other ministers because we are fighting an uphill battle for acceptance.” When we see statements from Pagans that are blatantly wrong or harmful it is the job of clergy to cite sources, to lead people back to accuracy, and to provide a voice of reason.
Service to Everyone
This one is my addition. Over 3/4 of Pagans are solitary according to Helen Berger’s Census. In my own ministry I have come across the same story over and over again. They’re solitary because every group they tried was either unyielding or uninformed. Local groups were Asatru not Druid, or local covens demanded skyclad, or whatever the case may be. These growing number of Pagans have nowhere to turn. No one to help them find their path. No one to talk to in need. Dedicated clergymembers are those willing not only to help members of their own path or coven, but willing to guide and aid Pagans of different paths (or who are still finding their paths). This is going to be the future of Paganism, and if we refuse to care for it then we will have a majority membership with no training whatsoever, calling themselves Pagan with no standard understanding of what that means, and with nowhere to turn during crisis or need.
There are of course many other benefits. Having people who have multiple weddings and funerals under their belt means these are done by professionals. Having people who dedicate themselves to continuing their education means we have better and more informative discussions and resources. Hell, having people who are trained in ministry means that we gain a seat at the interfaith table and come across as people of a mature religion rather than lost children as we seem to be depicted in media and in religious discussions. But the above are the important ones, I think. My credit to Webster for laying the foundation for this section. He’s a big proponent of Academic Seminary, and while we both disagree on some finer points we heavily agree on the why’s of Pagan clergy.
I think in the end the problem is that we are asking two completely separate questions under the guise of the same wording.
Some of us are asking “why shouldn’t we have dedicated educated spiritual supporters”, while the others are asking “do we really want to pay people to sit around and tell us how to be Pagans.”
This article will not serve to fix the terminology of the conversation unfortunately, nor will it even answer the question definitively.
But if there is any takeaway to my position in this conversation then it is this:
If our community lacks a sufficient number of people who have dedicated themselves to the skills of Ministry then we will always be a culture constantly lost and unable to find competent aid. However, we are also a niche sub group, and therefore cannot and should not model ourselves after much larger organizations.
But if we can evolve into having dedicated clergymembers who serve their community regularly (not just when their own covenmembers need it, but when members of the broader community need it), and can train them and support their efforts, then we establish a base of strong individuals to carry the burden in a trained and professional manner. Pagan ministers who have performed enough funerals/weddings/blessings, developed enough training courses, cultivated enough book lists and resources, and shared those methods with enough coven leaders and fellow clergymembers, then we will no longer be a community of hobbyists but a growing spiritually mature culture.
“There is a particular set of values commonly associated with being professional. Experience, expertise, trustworthiness, wisdom, and good judgement are all attributes aspired to by senior professional people, be they doctors, engineers, lawyers, civil servants, or the clergy.”Mark Walport
This conversation will keep going, I have no doubt. I hope however we can all remember that when we are having this argument we are very likely forgetting to define our terms and not realizing that we are having very separate arguments with each other.
And in the end each side has valid concerns which should be respected as we would respect any conversation about differences in practice, theology, or belief.