Paying Pagan Clergy – An Organic Approach

Over on Pagan Square, David Oliver Kling has a long essay advocating for full-time paid Pagan clergy.  Though as I write this the essay itself has no comments, it’s generated quite a bit of discussion on social media.  Most of it falls into two camps:  those who say Pagan priests perform valuable services for which they should be compensated, and those whose sense of egalitarianism is threatened by anything resembling ecclesial hierarchy.  Both camps have valid points, but I think both are missing the big picture.

Kling’s essay is a rebuttal of John Michael Greer’s Witches & Pagans column titled “A Bad Case of Methodist Envy: Copying Christian Models of Clergy is a Pagan Dead End.”  I studied with John Michael Greer for three years and he ordained me as a Gnostic priest.  This topic came up in my studies and we discussed it, though not in great detail.  While I agree with Kling’s point that we should not reject something just because Christians do it, Greer’s argument that Pagans should take care to avoid mindlessly copying mainline Protestants (because they’re the primary religious model many of us are accustomed to) is a valid concern.

I have a lot of family and friends who are Methodists – they’re good people doing some good work, they just need to get their church on the right side of the marriage equality debate.  But like the rest of the mainline Protestant denominations, they’ve been declining numerically since the 1950s with no end in sight.  Copying their structures just because they’re familiar is not likely to be a successful strategy.

This is harder than you might think.  Fellow Patheos Pagan blogger Niki Whiting describes the difficulty of reimagining religion in her excellent essay on narrative theology, where she says “I’m still sailing in a monotheistic boat, only with polytheist paint.  Paganism, of any kind, ought to be like diving in to the waters and swimming.”

That’s the situation where we find ourselves.  Rather than going point to point like Kling’s essay, I’d rather talk about where we are and where we’re headed.

Voluntary Association

I wish it was unnecessary to say this, but every time this issue comes up someone goes on a rant about how every Pagan is a priest or priestess and clergy only exists to take people’s money and tell them what to do.  So let me start by saying that if you’re happy with your back yard coven where everything is done by consensus, then I’m happy for you.  If you’re happy being a solitary Druid and you have no need for a grove or an order, I’m happy for you.

But as Brendan Myers made clear in The Earth, The Gods and The Soul, Pagan ideas need Pagan institutions in order to flourish:  “Without organizational support, ideas tend to take the form of strongly and/or poetically expressed propositions, and rather little else.”  Those of us who are trying to grow that organizational support are doing so on a voluntary basis.  If you don’t like it, you don’t have to participate and you can keep right on doing what you’re doing.

Define Priesthood

The only full-time “professional Pagans” I know are the handful of people who manage to make a very modest living with some combination of writing books, teaching classes, providing spiritual direction, and making personal appearances.  While some of those folks are priests, I certainly wouldn’t use that mix of activities as a model for priesthood.

Last month I blogged about priesthood in a modern, Pagan, polytheistic setting.  I said there are three main things priests do:  serve the Gods, act as mediators for the Gods, and serve their communities.  It’s been a popular post and if you haven’t read it I think it’s worth your time to do so, but for our purposes today what’s important is that none of those three things require a full-time commitment.  Plenty of priests support their non-paying Pagan work with paying secular work.

That’s not the only way or even the best way.  Obviously, if I didn’t have a regular job I’d have more time for my priestly work.  Obviously, those who work demanding jobs or multiple jobs may not have much time and energy for any priestly work.

But the role of a priest is determined by the call of the Gods and the needs of the community, not by the community’s ability or willingness to support full-time religious professionals.

Who’s Going To Pay?

We can talk all we want about full-time paid Pagan clergy, but at this point all we can do is talk.  From our mainline Protestant friends, we know it takes a congregation of about a hundred to be able to afford a full-time minister.  Maybe a few less, if other expenses are low and the congregation has several high givers, but maybe a lot more, if the congregation has other priorities or if a significant percentage of its members are very young or very old.

How many local Pagan groups have a hundred members?  We can’t copy the clergy model of the Methodists because we don’t have their numbers or their tradition of pledging and we aren’t going to have either any time soon.

It’s worth remembering that Gerald Gardner was living on a British civil service pension when he started promoting Wicca.  OBOD founder Ross Nichols worked his entire life as an educator.

Reciprocity, Reciprocity, Reciprocity

The fact that our communities can’t pay for full-time priests doesn’t mean we should never pay our priests.  If a priest performs a professional service for you, you should expect to pay for it, the same as you pay your doctor, plumber, or hair stylist.  Creating and leading handfastings, child naming ceremonies, funerals and other rites of passage requires work.

If you’re a member of Denton CUUPS or one of my OBOD groups, I’ll be happy to officiate your wedding at no charge.  You’re part of my community, you support the same institutions and events I support, and you’ve probably done favors for me over the years.  But if you’re a more distant friend or acquaintance we don’t have that pre-established reciprocity.  Show me you value my time as much as the time of the florist and the cake decorator.

My priestly friends know I’m not shy about pestering them with questions.  Conversations with colleagues is one of the ways we’re advancing the general levels of skill, knowledge and competency within our various priesthoods.  But if I ask one of them to do a service for me – divination, ritual work, counseling – then I expect to pay them for their time.

Likewise, I answer almost every e-mail I receive.  If someone is looking for suggestions on how to get started in Druidry or how to discern which spiritual path they should follow or how to form a CUUPS group, I’ll do my best to help them find the right direction.  But if you want my professional services in one-on-one spiritual direction or coaching or ritual work, expect to compensate me for my time. (I’ve also found that those with no financial investment tend to have significantly less commitment to their studies and practice, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Growing Organic Structures

I love temples.  I’d love to see paid Pagan clergy, even if I never draw a single paycheck from the local Assembly of the Old Gods.  But permanent temples and paid clergy represent a huge investment in infrastructure, an investment that virtually no contemporary Pagan group can afford.  The storefront Pagan community center model has been a resounding failure.  There are many reasons for these failures (some general, some specific to each attempt), but the core problem is that they put means ahead of ends.

The primary goals of a priest are to honor the Gods and to serve the community.  Making a living at priestcraft is different goal.  It’s a valid goal, but it’s secondary to honoring the Gods and serving the community.

I believe the first sustainable full-time priesthood will emerge from a group that does an outstanding job of honoring the gods and serving the community.

Anyone can set up a shrine in their house.  And if what is most important is honoring the Gods, then honoring Them at a household shrine you can afford is far better than overextending yourself for a temple you can’t afford.

When a priesthood grows to a certain point it will have the resources to expand its shrine.  “You keep the statues and I’ll keep the wall hangings and someone else will keep the tables and on the high days we’ll rent a city park or a UU church and hold public services.”

We’re starting to see this now on a small scale – priesthoods devoted to specific deities or groups of deities are being formed.  They’re developing devotional practices and establishing shrines:  the Coru Cathubodua (dedicated to the Morrigan) and the rebuilding of the priesthood of Hermes are two examples.  There are others I know of and I’m certain there are many more I know nothing about.

Some of these priesthoods will fail – they’ll misplace their priorities or misread the desires of their patron or never develop a critical mass to survive the death of their founders.

But some will succeed.  Some will expand beyond the sworn priests to include lay followers – people with a devotion to the patron deity and Their goals but whose calling does not include priestly duties.  Shrines will outgrow living rooms and back yards and find spaces of their own.  Some of those dedicated spaces will become temples.

Eventually, the temples will grow to the point they’ll need a full-time priest or two, and their supporters will decide it’s important enough to make the kind of offerings necessary to make it possible.

Will those priests do the kind of officiating, counseling and advocacy work that Protestant ministers do today?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe the polytheistic priesthoods of the Pagan future will split the roles of celebrant and sacrificer.  Maybe advocacy and activism will be seen as a lay function rather than a priestly one.  Maybe the priests and priestesses of 2114 will resemble Buddhist monks more than Methodist ministers.

I don’t know – I can’t see that far into the future.

What I do know is that paid Pagan clergy is a means, not an end.

The ends, the goals of Pagan priesthood, are to serve the Gods, to mediate for the Gods, and to serve the community.  Let’s focus on the ends and let the means sort themselves out.

the Beaumaris Gorsedd Circle, Anglesey, Wales – an old concept rebuilt for the present

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Merri-Todd Webster

    I pretty much agree with Greer on the futility of copying mainstream Protestant Christian models of priesthood. But I think you make an excellent point: Paying someone to be clergy and run a building and administer activities for a group of people is something that is not feasible for pagans right now, and may never be, but yes, if a priest does something for you as a specialist, because they have the knowledge and expertise of their commitment to the gods, they deserve to be paid for it, just like your doctor or your auto mechanic does.

    • Rory

      A doctor or mechanic (or lawyer or accountant) has a salable skill, however, and not everyone who graduates from law or medical school gets a job doing those things. “If dogs won’t eat it,” as an old business saying has it, “then it isn’t dog food.”

      If people won’t pay for something then it is obvious to me that it is not something they are willing to pay for. Why on earth do some clergy think that what they offer is worth paying for, yet still give it away and then resent not being paid? At some point our self-identifed pagan “clergy” need to do a simple, market-based reality check.

      Sincere loves and fantasies are not necessarily, in the absence of a solid business model, economically viable. Not everyone who gets a degree in something gets a job in it, and mostly people are paid to do things which are tedious or difficult or unpleasant.

  • Rory

    I have some serious thinking to do before I make stronger statements on this subject, and am still waiting to receive my copy of Witches & Pagans to read John Michael Greer’s original article, but a key sentence that Kling (who seems to have been associated with two seminaries himself) pulls from Greer’s original article is worth noting.

    “The first issue is that the only people that I’ve ever heard insisting that there ought to be paid full-time Pagan clergy are the people who want to become full-time Pagan clergy.”

    This is notable to me because of other issues, which include

    #2 Most modern pagan clergy are not very good, certainly not worth paying.

    Not everyone who can play the guitar merits being paid as a serious studio magician and not everyone who can cook has any business opening a restaurant. The standards for quality among most Pagan clergy are much less solid than I would expect of almost any other paid professional, and those clergy tend to want to pick and choose what they do, rather than come up with quality products that people will want to pay for. Even seminaries such as Cherry Hill which are aiming to create economically-viable products seem to focus on social-work skills such as counseling or chaplaincy, where religious sensitivity is desired but not crucial to the paid work on offer.

    #3 There is little evidence for paid Pagan clergy in the historical lore.

    Wealthy hobbyists and sponsors seem to have been the standard model for Attic Greece, where pagan festivals were “sponsored” as civic events, similar in many ways to our modern stadium or parade sponsorships. Mystery cults such as Mithraism seem to have been organized more along the lines of Masonic lodges, with degrees mostly available to men of leisure. In cases where specific druids are mentioned within the Celtic lore I seem to recall that these were almost always referenced as retainers to a given chieftain, much as we might reference “Rory’s doctor” or “Janet’s lawyer.” State-sponsored priesthoods such as in Rome were also mainly for the wealthy, as the history of the vestal virgins demonstrates. Christian priesthood was derived from an Imperial civil-service model and so the Roman Catholic church inherited a governmental function and infrastructure. Medieval parishes and religious orders were often much closer to a clear retainer model when reliant on local warlord support and funding.

    #4 Priesthood is the least valuable clerical skill on offer.

    Most self-identified pagan “clergy” seem obsessed with “priesthood” or interaction with deities on behalf of someone else, and very few Pagans particularly want that. This focus on being a “priest” is often to the detriment of “ministry” skills that are more immediately helpful to the people, to “contemplative” skills which deepen the soul or “shamanic” skills which strengthen magical power. Very few Pagans I’ve met *want* anyone else to be their priest or step between themselves and the gods.

    Many secular “life coaches” offer lower-cost and higher-quality counseling advice than many pagan “priests” and various “professional celebrants” do a better job of working with people to create personally meaningful weddings, funerals and other rites of passage. Unless aspirant clergy can do a better job at these tasks, why on earth do they believe they deserve to be paid?

    In answer to Kling’s question: Yes. It is noble to pay clergy.

    In answer to another question: Yes. It is noble to serve as clergy.

    If one wants to be PAID as clergy, however, then one had better get about creating a product that people are willing to pay for, or accept that one will not be paid and stop giving away things that do not feed one’s soul.

    The belief that everyone should be able to make money at doing what they enjoy is delusional entitlement, as has been discussed in various critiques of “do-what-you-love” philosophy.

    Any clergy who want to be paid should look hard at what they offer, why they think they deserve payment, and if this is really the fight for them.

    I have a pagan ministry for which I shall not be paid, and do not want to create the infrastructure and economic models that would make it pay. I am fine with this and believe it is more in accordance with historic practice around community and household worship. I have no Methodist envy and am frankly suspicious of those who do. If one cannot produce enough to subsidize one’s magic, it seems unlikely that one’s magic is anything worth selling.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      You raise some fair points, Rory – blunt, but fair.

      One of the things I like about my current arrangement is that I’m not dependent on my Pagan work to pay the bills. I can work on the things that appeal to me and that my Gods want me to do and I don’t have to worry about whether anyone wants to buy it or not.

      I charge for professional work because my time is limited, and if I’m working on a handfasting for you I’m not reading the stack of books on my shelf or working on a ritual for CUUPS or just kicking back for the evening. If you want me to work for you, show me you value my time.

      I also know there are religious professionals who DO need this kind of work to pay their bills, and I don’t want to undercut them just because I can.

      If you’re in a financial bind we’ll work something out, but if you can pay the florist you can pay the Druid.

      • Rory

        Blunt, eh? I can live with blunt.

        “We are men of action, lies do not become us.”

        There is a strong tradition of paid clergy within the UU, and I hope that Reverend Kling may find a position there.

      • kenofken

        I agree on this point completely. Nobody should expect something for nothing when people have to go out of their way to provide a service and their time.

        On the other hand, I agree with Rory on the larger point. I don’t accept the idea that we need to replicate mainstream Christian congregational/clergy models. I don’t think it’s “us” at this point in time and I’m not sure it even serves them well anymore.

        I’ve said before that those who want full-time paid clergy and temples need to bring the discussion down to the individual level, not the collective level. The conversation always puts forth the idea that “WE”, the pagan community, need to step up and buy/buy into these things. The real question is whether YOU are willing to pay $200 a month, every month, in perpetuity to make these things happen. In the tradition of bluntness, if you’re not, and you still expect to find a paid priest and temple, you’re talking out of the wrong end of the digestive tract!

    • yewtree

      Regarding your point 2 – many Pagan leaders / clergy ARE getting qualified at Cherry Hill – and then maybe they will have a “product” worth paying for.

      If people put in the effort to get trained and up to professional standards, then I think they are entitled to charge for their services.

      The exception to this is the pay-it-forward model of coven training. I got trained for free, so I train others for free, and hope they will train others in their turn. (The terminology of pay-it-forward in this context comes from Judy Harrow.)

  • yewtree

    Good discussion.

    One big difference that I have noticed is that Pagans are not especially keen on being a congregation (with the possible exception of Druid groves, where some members just want to be members and not necessarily progress beyond that).

    Initiatory Wicca and witchcraft is not set up for a congregational model.

    I do think that people should pay for handfastings and other big public ceremonies, and for services such as counselling, divination, etc.

    Recently I led a Pagan ritual in the garden of a Unitarian church in Lewisham, UK. I was offered a preaching fee and turned it down, though I did accept expenses. They offered to donate my preaching fee to a charity, so I suggested the Cats Protection League. It just felt wrong to accept money for a Pagan ritual. Wrong for me – if anyone else feels differently, that’s fine.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      > Initiatory Wicca and witchcraft is not set up for a congregational model.

      That’s true, but I know many Wiccan covens where there is no obligation to go beyond 1*. You’re expected to participate in the ritual, memorize it, and do officer parts, but never teach or lead — and I know a number of Wiccans who don’t want to commit further than that. So, that’s not exactly a laity, but it does create a dynamic more like being a member of a congregation, where the main obligation is to show up. I think it’s a good thing, actually; it allows for slightly larger covens, because more members are content not to be in charge. There’s a big difference between a coven with a dozen members and a temple with hundreds of members, though.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    “Don’t put new wine in old wineskins.”

  • https://undertheowlswing.wordpress.com/ Conor O’Bryan Warren

    I know for a fact that the local Hindu priests charge for their services *and* accept donations from worshipers: http://dfwhindutemple.org/services/priest-services/

    And they aren’t the only temple that operates on such a model just in the DFW metroplex. Most of the temples I’m aware of offer services and charge for them, as well as accept donations.

    But unlike what Rory is saying, someone’s willingness to pay for your services is not an indication of the quality of your services. I know a metric shit ton of wonderful musicians who can’t get a break and yet I’m hearing more shitty generic pop than ever. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson keeps getting acting gigs and I know a lot of awfully good actors who are waiting tables. . .whether or not someone is willing to “purchase” your services is not an indication of quality or skill. I notice that often it is an indication of luck+marketing.

    The market is by no means an indicator of quality.

    • Rory

      Perhaps looking at other clergy-support models would be a good way to move beyond “Methodist envy.” Hindu temples are one possibility, as are Shinto and various Native American traditions. I’ve never known Asatru or Heathens to manifest it. It comes from somewhere and seems stronger among some groups than others.

    • http://www.celestinetarot.com/ Celestine Angel

      The Hindu temple local to me operates on basically the same model.

  • JasonMankey

    When I read Greer’s article the line: “The first issue is that the only people that I’ve ever heard insisting that there ought to be paid full-time Pagan clergy are the people who want to become full-time Pagan clergy.” really resonated with me. I feel pretty close to the definition of “Pagan Clergy.” I run a large local group, I do weddings and funerals. When the wedding is for someone I don’t know I expect some sort of compensation for my time (usually fifty bucks, which never covers having to buy a new suit or whatever for the occasion), not because I want or need the money, it’s more an acknowledgement that what I’m doing has value. (I usually end up “in the hole” after such things.)

    I do think there’s a need for “good” Pagan Clergy, but at this point I think it’s pie-in-the-sky to believe that such positions could or should be full time. Officiating a wedding or memorial service requires a certain set of skills, skills that most people just don’t have. They are services that people need, and individuals should be compensated for doing them. However there’s no way to turn that into a full-time job. Anyone expecting it to become a full time job most likely has delusions of grandeur.

    • AnantaAndroscoggin

      And then there’s folks like the enterprising Christians who run the drive-thru wedding chapels in Las Vegas.

      • kenofken

        Much of Christianity is nothing if not “enterprising.” Creating and franchising Licensed Retailers of Salvation is probably the most profitable and enduring scams ever created. It’s also one of the reasons things like modern paganism took shape, and why we’re going to be deeply suspicious of copying their institutional models for a long time to come.

  • Julia Traver

    In Hellenic tradition, the priest/priestess only functioned as the sacrificial intermediary with the Gods. Rites of Passage were done within the home as many of them had miasma associated, especially death and birth. Whole families participated in them. The father was the priest of his oikos (household). Today, as there are licenses, I can see a family sitting down with a priest/ess to plan the ceremony, then invite the priest/ess as a guest who will later sign the license. This is why I think the idea of a stable “demos” (community) is important. Religious education can be done, which will ease the nerves of “new arrivals.”

  • Taryt

    As a shemsu-ankh in the Kemetic Orthodox faith, I’d like to think that we’re one example of a polytheistic religion that has thrived (we define ourselves as African Traditional religion as opposed to Pagan, but it’s a very similar concept). As far as I’m aware, we do not have paid clergy, but we do have government recognized reverends, state shrines, and a physical temple. We also have a rather substantial number of members, though I don’t believe we have a current count right now (definitely in the hundreds and possibly a thousand over the whole globe). Now, I am not advocating that everyone join our temple (though if you’re interested, kemet.org is a good place to check out), but it’s one example of a large scale system with organized clergy and a physical temple as well as official state-shrines. If we can do this as successfully as we have (and we’ve been around over 20 years now), I think that more Pagan temples will spring up over time and thrive as we have.

    We depend on a donation system and fund raising–we are not required to pay tithes. While we do pay for certain services (Rite of Parent divination, for one), this cost is for the ritual implements and not for profit. This means that the temple exists purely out of our collective voluntary contributions. If we can do it, so can you all! I pray for the day when we have more Pagan/Polytheist temples. When that happens, I look forward to all of the interfaith work :)

    Also of note, this is kind of being discussed at the Polytheist Leadership Conference in NY this coming weekend. (see link: http://nblo.gs/YjcQ7)

  • http://www.rendingtheveil.com Christopher

    I wanted to throw an extra idea into the mix, one touched on here as historical, but not developed for the present: if we want to get Pagan organizations off the ground, we’re going to want patrons.

    That means, at least to me, that we’re going to need to support pagans in their mundane professional development. Do we want temples?

    Let’s take the long view, and support the studies of pagan doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs.

    Let’s take the long view and work on creating endowments, and the managers to handle them.

    Maybe this is too mainstream for some. But if we have institutional goals, we need professional institutional skills. Developing those in our communities isn’t going to hurt anyone.

  • Brenda Caudill

    Thank You I enjoy your wisdom.

  • Lycaeus

    In the US it would be difficult. First, having a Temple of Athena would be great, but how many people are that dedicated to Athena to show up? Perhaps a Temple that allows worship of all the Greek gods, but that’s still a pretty low part of the population. Among the Germanics and Celts, for the most part, spiritual activities were led by the chief or landowner that it was taking place on. There wasn’t necessarily a dedicated priestly caste (yes there were Ovates and Druids, but it still seems that most ritual style work, offerings, etc., were done by the landowners). Also, places of worship tended to be springs, groves, etc. There are a few of these in the US. and Canada. Yet, the clergy would just be the people responsible for tending to these sites, to make them available for people to come and do their worship. As for clergy to help people through life’s problems, or be an intermediary between the person (who doesn’t have the time for a spiritual practice) and the God’s, I don’t know if enough people want that. The farthest I’ve seen this happen is probably with Andre Jacob’s (formerly Drew Jacob) efforts in Minnesota. It seemed to work, until he decided to move on from it. Perhaps that is a model worth repeating.

  • Beth

    I strongly urge against an organization in the united states, once formed they will want the 501 c3 religious exemption to taxes which suddenly makes the group responsible to the government including tattling on their members.
    Appreciating a priest is one thing (and with monetary compensation is great) but make him the equal of a catholic priest or methodist minister and one is heading for trouble with the government.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I’ve seen a few times when non-Christian groups had trouble getting a 501(c)3 approved or accepted (usually at the state or local level), but I’ve NEVER seen government interference in operations.

  • Martha Pearce-Smith

    Taken in historical context, before Christianity, were not priests and priestesses supported by the community? Housed, fed, and clothed by those who followed that particular path?


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