Pagan Priests, Pagan Ministers

Sam Webster had an interesting essay on Saturday’s Wild Hunt titled Ministry and Duty to Report. In it, he used the legal mandate for clergy to report suspected abuse to call for Pagan educational and accreditation institutions. Sam said:

A minster … has a legally-mandated duty to report sexual abuse of minors, abuse of elders, as well as reporting responsibilities with respect to harm to self (suicide) and harm to others (assault, murder). This is founded on the presumption that the minister is trained in the ability to recognize abuse and has been given the responsibility to observe, counsel, and correct the community they serve. Without that training, the identification of the problem may produce unacceptable numbers of false positives and negatives. Without the community’s mandate, what right does the minister or person have to speak up?

Pompeii BasilicaComplying with the law is important, and doing so in a distinctively Pagan way helps insure our very young religions and cultures retain their essential Pagan nature. Building Pagan institutions is important. As Brendan Myers has shown, Pagan ideas need Pagan institutions in order to flourish.

But I fear Sam is putting the ends before the means.

I can’t speak for all states, but here in Texas everyone has a legal duty to report suspected child abuse. Professionals have a stricter duty – they must report within 48 hours, and failure to do so carries criminal penalties. Certainly, those with formal training are better able to recognize abuse and will be able to make more useful reports to law enforcement. But is providing such training and accreditation the best use of the limited resources our wider Pagan community has at this time? Are these the institutions we need most?

Sam briefly explained that there is a difference between priesthood and ministry. That’s not always clear, because in our mainstream society – and especially within mainline Protestantism – the two roles are usually filled by the same person. And that person is almost always trained in a seminary – an accredited graduate school offering masters and sometimes doctoral degrees.

Full disclosure – at several points in my life I seriously considered going to seminary. If money and time were no object, I’d still like to do it – I think I’d enjoy the experience and I know I’d benefit from the learning, whether I attended Cherry Hill (a Pagan seminary), Starr-King or Meadville Lombard (UU seminaries), or even one of the liberal Christian seminaries.

But money and time are objects. Seminaries are graduate schools and they’re expensive. A Presbyterian or a Unitarian Universalist who graduates from seminary has a reasonable expectation of finding a ministerial position that will pay something resembling a living wage. A Pagan does not.

Further, seminaries don’t train priests – they train ministers. Read their degree requirements: they’re heavy on the foundations of their traditions, pastoral counseling, and community activism.

But priestcraft? Cherry Hill has two required courses on ritual (“Understanding Ritual Experience” and one elective course) and Meadville Lombard has one on preaching. Perkins School of Theology (a Methodist seminary) requires only one course in preaching and another titled “Word and Worship.” Considering a typical M.Div. requires about 72 credit hours, the importance seminaries place on leading worship is pretty clear – and pretty low.

Perhaps if mainline Protestants put more emphasis on teaching good priestcraft they might not be in such perpetual decline, but that’s another rant for another time.

I’m glad Cherry Hill Seminary exists. I’m thankful for those who contribute to its support, and I’m happy for those who are studying there. Cherry Hill helps legitimize Paganism among mainstream institutions and within the interfaith community and while those are not critical things they are helpful things. There are Pagans whose calling and career goals are furthered by the education Cherry Hill provides. Cherry Hill represents an institutional investment in the future of Paganism.

But neither Cherry Hill nor other seminaries are training priests, and seminaries are not the most effective way to deal with our legal and moral requirements to report suspected abuse.

When I wrote about paying Pagan clergy, I advocated growing organic structures: building priesthoods from the ground up:

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.

It will be decades if not centuries before Paganism is big enough and established enough to make paid Pagan clergy a common thing, and that’s assuming we decide to have paid clergy in the first place. Let’s let our priesthoods start small and grow on their own. Those that do a good job of serving the Gods, mediating for the Gods, and serving their communities will grow. Those that don’t, won’t. That much I’m sure of. What I’m not sure of is what those successful priesthoods will look like and how they’ll be organized.

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.

Right now if you want to learn to be a good Pagan priest your best approach is to apprentice with someone who’s already doing it and doing it well. Your second-best approach is to figure it out yourself through reading, study, practice, and personal experience of the Gods.

Don’t discount the second approach. Our wider culture has the idea that if you want to do and be anything, you have to start by going to school for it. While I’m a strong proponent of formal education and it’s helped me greatly in both my paying career and my spiritual life, it’s not the only way to learn. Sometimes if you want to do or be something you just have to dive in and figure it out as you go.

The main downside is that this requires the ability and willingness for honest self-criticism. Those who think they never do anything wrong and those who need constant outside reinforcement are both unsuited for this approach.

Whenever the subject of Pagan priesthood comes up there are always those who scream “we don’t need clergy – every Pagan is a priest!” Certainly every Pagan can approach the Gods for themselves, but those with greater experience and closer relationships with the deities they serve can do it better and more reliably than ordinary folks.

But I’d like to see our wider community adopt the idea that every Pagan is a minister. It isn’t the minister’s responsibility to report suspected abuse – or the high priestess’s or the chief Druid’s – it’s everyone’s responsibility. You see signs of abuse, you report it. The law requires it, but more importantly it’s the right thing to do.

It isn’t the minister’s responsibility to work for social justice – however you define it – it’s everyone’s. It isn’t the minister’s responsibility to pick up trash on the side of the road, or to make sure our elders have transportation, or to demonstrate and advocate for green living, it’s yours. And mine. If we run into a situation that exceeds our capabilities we can refer people to secular professionals, just as UUs and Methodists and other ministers do today when someone’s need for counseling or other social services exceeds the ministers’ capacities.

Will we do these things as well as seminary-trained ministers? Probably not. But until we have an infrastructure that supports professional Pagan ministers, the vast majority of us will never have such a minister in our communities anyway. Better to accept that ministry is the responsibility of those of us who are here.

There is an old saying that if something is everyone’s responsibility then everyone will assume someone else will do it and it won’t get done. There is a sad truth to that. But there’s an equally sad truth that many religious folks in our mainstream society prefer to outsource their community service. They want to be a part of a church that does great things in the community, not so they have the opportunity to contribute, but so they can claim credit by association: “see the great stuff my church is doing!”

Let’s not copy this as we develop our own religious institutions.

While I respect those whose idea of Paganism is a witch living by herself in a cottage deep in a forest, we need Pagan institutions. Institutions enable multi-generational continuity. They provide support for individuals, for groups, and perhaps most importantly, for ideas.

But let’s grow our institutions organically, supporting those that prove to be most suitable for promoting Pagan ideas and practices.

I don’t think we need institutions to train ministers. I think we need to institutionalize the idea that all Pagans are ministers.

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.


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