Written by: Carl McColman
With influences as diverse as ancient mystery religions, shamanism and indigenous spirituality, 19th-century occultism, and the anti-authoritarian ethos of the 1960s counterculture, many Pagan communities today feature a priesthood that is unpaid, relatively easy to enter, and collaborative in its leadership style. Few, if any, groups concentrate authority and leadership in a small number of clergypersons who minister to a large community of laypersons. Instead, Pagan communities typically will ordain many - if not most or all - active and committed members to positions of ritual, educational, and/or organizational leadership.
Not only are both men and women eligible for clergy positions within Paganism, but many groups actually favor women. Many Wiccan communities regard their High Priestess as first among equals, and organize both new and existing covens around the leadership of the High Priestess. Generally the only groups that prohibit one gender or the other from assuming leadership positions are those that limit membership in general to just one gender. Likewise, groups rarely if ever limit ordination on account of sexual preference or relationship status.
Few Pagan seminaries exist; most local covens and groups provide their own training for future clergy. The largest pagan seminary is Cherry Hill Seminary, an online educational institution. Otherwise, in keeping with the non-professional status of most Pagan clergy, training typically does not involve traditional academic coursework (although some groups might require candidates to complete university-level coursework in clinical pastoral education or counseling). Rather, training is provided in a small-group or in a one-on-one format, focusing on oral instruction rather than the study of assigned texts. Groups generally provide instruction with a strong practical component, with students engaging in ritual leadership, ritual design, the development of psychic skills, organizational or administrative classes, and teaching of newcomers as part of their overall training.
Some Wiccan and other Pagan communities feature a rite of passage or initiation ceremony to mark progress in the spiritual life as well as attainment of priesthood or leadership responsibility. Not all groups equate initiation with ordination. One common structure within Wicca is a three-degree initiation process, with new students receiving training and instruction culminating in three separate levels or degrees of initiation (often spaced a year or more apart). Some groups regard first-degree initiates as priests or priestesses, while others consider only second- or third-degree initiates to be ordained clergy.
Since clergy and spiritual leadership is generally a social function, solitary adherents of Paganism may feel no need to regard themselves as priests or clergy. Solitaries may receive training from a mentor, or may be self-taught through books or personal intuition. Some solitaries may function as clergy in relation to society at large - for example, engaging in prison ministry or performing weddings - even though they are not members of an established religious or spiritual community.