A Professional Priesthood?

Wendy GriffinPeriodically, the Pagan community gets caught up in a discussion about whether or not we should have professional clergy. This is significant in a religion where the Divine may manifest itself differently to each of us and we resist external religious authority. We often tend to argue about the topic of professionalization without defining our terms. Exactly what do we mean by professional and to whom would these professionals minister?

We know we don’t want them ministering to our own group; we demand more spiritual autonomy than that. And with no centralized authority, an anathema to many of us, we probably will not have a cadre of traveling professional priests and priestesses ministering to our spiritual needs.

But there are situations where our own spiritual group or practices simply are not enough, situations where a professional ministry might be welcomed: among the troubled, the sick and dying, in hospitals, prisons, interfaith, the military and so on. As a community we have been very fortunate to have individuals out there who currently devote themselves to serving in these areas that might be considered professional ministry. Some of these people have been wonderful and their work extremely valuable. But not everyone who does this work does it successfully–or even ethically.

To me, whether or not to have professional ministry is the wrong question. We have one even if we don’t call it that. The real question is, do we want an educated ministry? Do we want Pagans who will serve in these ministerial situations who have been trained in things like ethics and boundaries, family dynamics, substance abuse, social justice issues, interfaith dealings, counseling techniques – all from a Pagan perspective?

As Paganism continues to grow and more Pagans feel safe to practice their religion openly, I don’t think we can afford not to have a professional priesthood, and by that, I mean men and women who have been systematically educated to minister to Pagans in need. I believe we owe that to ourselves and to our gods.

Cherry Hill Seminary Scholarship FundThat is why I support Cherry Hill Seminary, the only seminary that offers a Master’s of Divinity, 72 hours of academic study, focusing on Paganism and Earth-based Spiritualities. Right now there is a donor who will match contributions up to $10,000 for endowed scholarships. For every $20 given by an individual, Cherry Hill will receive $40, for every $100, $200. I may never want or need the services of professional Pagan ministry, but I’ve made my pledge. I think of it as a tax-deductible gift to the community, my offering to the gods.

Now it is your turn.

Wendy Griffin, PhD is Professor Emerita from California State University, Long Beach and currently serves as Academic Dean at Cherry Hill Seminary. She was the founding co-chair of the Pagan Studies group at the American Academy of Religion and the co-editor of the first academic series in Pagan Studies. She has published academic and popular books, chapters,  and articles, and her occasional blog posts can be found at www.wendygriffinonline.com.

  • JennyHegemony

    I’m really troubled by some of the assumptions here about who ministry is for. You confidently say that “we know we don’t want them ministering to our own group” and immediately write off the idea of priests and priestesses who travel in order to “meet our spiritual needs.” But then you list several ministerial functions you do consider legitimate and welcome, and what I notice about them is that, with the exception of interfaith work, they all serve people in what we might consider vulnerable circumstances — the sick, the dying, the imprisoned, the “troubled.”

    What I take from your arguments is that consulting trained professionals is a mark of weakness, something that “we” don’t want in “our own group,” but we admit might be useful to people who are less capable than we are. That strikes me as wrong on so many levels, creating an implicit divide between the strong (who can handle absolutely everything on their own, because they value “autonomy”) and the weak (who need special assistance). It’s not only paternalistic, but it’s the same kind of attitude that prevents people from seeking out professional help for psychological trouble, ported over into the spiritual world — the assumption that asking for qualified assistance means you’re broken and weak.

    Almost everyone who has any sort of active spiritual life at one point or another has questions or frustrations or needs the perspective of someone who has expertise that they don’t have. Ministry isn’t something to be provided as charity for the vulnerable, but a legitimate service to a religious community. Right now, the functions that ministers serve in other religions are being fulfilled in paganism largely by the authors of books, and occasionally of blogs. That’s who we go to when we don’t know something and we want to know. All well and good, yay books and blogs, but it means that spiritual development and counseling happens completely outside of human relationships, as we jury-rig our research by hand and with no experience to guide us, unable to ask anyone for help because asking for help implies that we have a desire to cede our “autonomy.” It’s not a great system, and we need to talk about that, not just accept it as The Way Pagans Are.

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