The Limits of Accessibility for Pagan Clergy

The Limits of Accessibility for Pagan Clergy April 25, 2019

A few days ago a Pagan clergy friend posted a straightforward but complicated question: “How accessible do you think someone who is clergy should be?”

My response was basically “we all have to decide for ourselves.” If you’re never accessible you aren’t serving as clergy. If you’re always accessible you’ll do nothing else. The boundaries lie somewhere in between, and they’re different for everyone. But there are some guidelines that can help some of you draw your own boundaries as clergy, and can help others understand why your favorite Pagan clergyperson isn’t as accessible as you’d like them to be.

I covered some of this in “Self-care for Priests and Other Pagan Leaders” at Sacred Space, I workshop I’ll give again at Mystic South in Atlanta in July (come to Mystic South – it’s awesome!).

Who is Pagan clergy?

Titles like “priest” “priestess” and “clergy” are not always well understood in the Pagan community. Some people claim them who don’t deserve them, while others reject them even though they’re doing the work. In 2014 I wrote a fairly detailed explanation of my views on Pagan priesthood. Priesthood and clergy often go together, but not always.

In the context of the original question and in my own practice, the clergy are the people who care for a religious community. In particular, they provide pastoral care, especially counseling. And that’s where questions of boundaries and accessibility come in. If you’re serving as clergy – regardless of your title – do you have to be available 24/7?

That question has a simple answer: no.

Our ministry isn’t our livelihood

The only model most of us have for clergy is what we see in other religions: Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, and such. Many of us assume that Pagan religious leaders should do more or less the same things in more or less the same ways.

That wasn’t the case in ancient times – you didn’t go to a temple priest for counseling. Their job was to care for the shrines and to perform necessary rites, not to provide pastoral care. Whether modern Pagans should return to that model is an interesting question, but one for another time.

The problem with comparing ourselves to, say, UU ministers, is that their congregations are paying them to provide pastoral care (among many other things). Nobody is paying us – that means we have to make a living doing something else. If you call me at 3:00 AM, that’s going to impact my ability to do my paying job the next day. If you want an hour of my time every week, that’s an hour I can’t spend writing blogs or books or resting up from my paying job.

I’m always happy to answer brief questions or to make recommendations free of charge. If you want more lengthy services, you should expect to pay for it – whether you come to me or any other Pagan clergy.

The limits of expertise

I’m a Druid and a priest who makes his living as an engineer. I’m not a psychologist. I can provide basic pastoral counseling and spiritual care. I cannot provide therapy. It’s not a question of licensing so much as it’s a question of expertise – I don’t know how to provide mental health care.

Spiritual issues and mental health issues are often intertwined. But spiritual treatment is no substitute for proper mental health care. If I think someone has mental health issues, or if their needs simply exceed my skills, I’ll refer them to a mental health professional.

The same is true for spiritual matters. If you need a major magical working, I’m probably going to refer you do someone who does that kind of work on a regular basis.

If you’re serving as clergy is it essential that you know your skills and your limitations. When someone’s needs exceeds what you can provide, the only ethical option is to refer them to someone with greater skills in that area.

Emergencies vs. regular occurrences

We all intuitively understand that extraordinary situations call for extraordinary responses. If a friend is critically injured in a wreck, that calls for a different level of response than if someone scratches the paint on their new car. Part of being in community is being available for people in their hour of need. When emergencies happen, we go.

But with some people, emergencies can become regular occurrences. Maybe that’s legitimate: some medical or psychological conditions have flare-ups that can happen at any time. Or maybe it’s not, and they’re trying to take advantage of your generosity.

We need not judge who is worthy of our help and who is not (unless they’re being manipulative, in which case judge away). Just as expertise is a limitation, so is bandwidth. Doing something once or twice in what we think is an emergency does not obligate us to do it on an on-going basis. If someone needs more from you than you can provide, refer them to social services or other professionals.

Family, community, and acquaintances

We may all be created equal, but everyone is not equal when it comes to providing pastoral care. Reciprocity matters. Ties of blood, sweat, and tears matter.

I have my family, some of blood and others of choice. These people have always been there for me and so I’ll always be there for them. They can call on me any time, for any reason, and I’ll respond. I know they’ll do the same for me.

Then there’s my community, the people I know and work with (in person or on-line) on a regular basis. People who share my beliefs and practices, who share my goals to build a better world here and now. They may not have done me any personal favors, but we’re part of the same movements and the same organizations. We’re neighbors (regardless of physical distance) and so I’m going to respond in an neighborly fashion. My boundaries here are tighter than they are with family, but they’re still pretty generous.

Then there are acquaintances, people I barely know, or who know me from my writing even though I don’t know them. Here there is no reciprocity, no past favors I’m obligated to return. But there is hospitality – welcoming those in need and doing your best to be a good host. I’ll do what I can for acquaintances, but my boundaries are pretty firm.

In practice, though, what is within my boundaries has almost always been enough.

Set your boundaries now

Clergy work has a way of finding the people who can do it. Build a strong practice of your own, demonstrate good listening skills, show you’ve got a bit of wisdom about yourself and people will find you. Some of them just need to be heard. Some need help with discernment. Some need professional assistance. If you can do any of that they’ll find you, no matter your titles, certifications, or lack thereof.

But whatever you can do, you can’t do everything. You can’t be everything for everyone, and you can’t be available to anyone at all times. Setting boundaries is not only proper, it’s necessary – otherwise you’ll burn yourself out and you won’t be able to help anyone.

I can tell you how I’ve set my boundaries, but I can’t tell you how to set yours – you have to do it yourself.

If you’re functioning as Pagan clergy, you probably know that many times people don’t need advice so much as they need affirmation. They need someone to tell them they’re doing the right thing and to help them find the confidence to do what they know they need to do, even though it’s not easy.

Consider this your affirmation. Boundaries are necessary. Limits on accessibility are necessary. Drawing and enforcing them will help you to serve as clergy effectively for a long time while still living a healthy life.

Blessings to you as you do the sacred work you’re called to do.

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