The Danger in Being “Ministerial”

When I saw a headline on The Wild Hunt, “Wiccan Minister Kathryn Jones to Run for Office in Pennsylvania,” it stopped me in my tracks. Not because Ms. Jones is running for office, but the use of the term “minister.”

Immediately I thought of John Michael Greer’s recent column in Witches & Pagans 28, “A Bad Case of Methodist Envy: Copying Christian Models of Clergy is a Pagan Dead End.” Geer rightly points out that today’s concept of “clergy” is quite different from the Pagan past:

There were no seminaries or divinity schools for [ancient] Greek priests and priestesses, and the thought of asking a priest of priestess for moral of spiritual counseling would have seemed absurd to the ancient Greeks — you went to a philosopher for that, for Apollo’s sake! Nor, for that matter, did they perform wedding ceremonies. . . .  [in Egypt] being a priest or priestess was a career, one of the professions open to the literate . . . . this kind of priesthood included few or no “pastoral” functions as we know them.

The essence of priest/esshood is the relationship with the deity. You maintain a shrine, hold ceremonies, and otherwise put people into their own relationships with the deity. You may serve as a conduit of power — even today at some Japanese Shinto shrines (perhaps the nearest thing to Classical Paganism in a functional way), you can pay a small fee to have your new Toyota blessed by a priest.

At the other pole is the pastoral function. Pastor is Latin for “sheepherder” (as we say out West), and its is the function of nudging and exhorting and teaching and correcting the “flock” to  keep them living according to the commandments of the religion.

As Greer writes, in ancient Paganism those functions were usually not combined in one person — although here Thorn Coyle writes about how she combines them, together with her writing.

In my experience, the “clergy” issue emerged in American Paganism in the 1980s. Before that, the coven model was more clandestine.

A few “church” organizations existed before then, such as the Church of Wicca, and some Pagan groups signed up with the Universal Life Church. Such actions, in my recollection, were often at least partly about avoiding taxes, such as declaring the covenstead to be a “church” and hence exempt from property tax. The Covenant of the Goddess was formed as a credentialing and networking organization in 1975.

M. and I were married by our coven HP and HPS in 1977 in a ceremony that was both religious and legal, because Colorado does not require any sort of clergy credentials to perform a wedding. Perhaps because of the then-youthful Pagan demographic, performing legal weddings was a growing issue for Pagans, and many states do require some kind of organizational credentials.

Chaplaincy issues (hospital, prison, military) arose a little later, and in those cases, the bureaucratic monster had to be appeased. This issue Greer does not address, but it is a  big one. How do you keep governmental and social structures from turning you into their concept of a “religious minister,” i.e.,  service-provider?

This need for credentials to show to bureaucrats was an impetus for the founding of Cherry Hill Seminary. I was neutral about CHS for a while, but after attending one of their seminars in April 2013, I gained more appreciation of what they are doing.

Contrary to what some excitable voices have shouted, CHS is not trying to define Paganism for the outside world. Nor will they make you a witch or priestess; in fact, they say that their courses “[supplement]  existing ritual and magical skills with training for professional ministry and pastoral counseling.”

I expect that students should learn something about counseling, and the laws pertaining thereto, something about the academic study of religion, and something about the history of contemporary Paganism and its philosophy, for starters. And they will learn the suitable jargon to speak at interfaith luncheons and in meetings with prison administrators. (Just saying that you are Lord Moontoad from the Coven of the Sacred Toadstool is not enough.)

But we walk a knife’s edge. If we end up thinking that acting “ministerial” is all there is to it, then we Wiccans, for example, would be just Methodists with pentagrams. It’s not about counseling, it’s not about social programs, it’s not about “saving the Earth” (Unpack the hubris in that phrase, if you have the time!) — being Pagan is about a relationship with the deities at all levels. At least CHS is honest in saying that they cannot give you that. They might teach you how to talk about it in a polished way that other religious professionals can recognize.

Consider the issue of counseling. My first encounter in a Pagan context was hearing about Z Budapest’s unsuccessful attempt  in the 1970s (and she was not the only one) to beat an illegal-fortunetelling charge by saying that Tarot reading was “counseling.”

Historically speaking, she was right. When polytheists needed counseling, they asked Grandma, performed divination or had a specialist do it for them, or maybe (if they had the resources) consulted an oracle. Or perhaps they took sought visions or other supernatural guidance.

Monotheists, however, asked a Holy Book specialist to explain what the Book said, as modified by the commentaries of generations of specialists (hadith, Talmud, etc.). Drop the Holy Book component, and you have the modern counselor, a 20th-century phenomenon.

That is the ministerial/pastoral function, focusing on people’s needs, as opposed to the priestly function, focusing on the cults of the gods — our relationships and how we acknowledge them.

I think this is a bigger issue than “Shouldn’t we have paid clergy?” (Consider the Mormons, who have a worldwide religion administered mostly by non-paid clergy, albeit within a tight, top-down hierarchy.) I have argued before for the “tent, not a cathedral” model — set up structure for a limited time and purpose, then collapse it.

In the long run, how can Pagan religions function as “religions” in the generally accepted sense, while resisting cultural pressures to turn them into “Methodists”?

POSTSCRIPT: A follow-up post is here.

One Comment

  1. Moma Fauna says:

    Whoah nelly! You can make this a lecture topic too if you wish — we’ve run into a major political quagmire/upset around this one recently. Those cathedrals go down hard & fast — I’ve seen it.

    And how can I get in on that “Coven of the Sacred Toadstool”?