Paganism: No longer a ‘Religion of Clergy’
“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” – Charles F Kettering
I want to see Pagans have access to the same things other religions and spiritualities do. Chaplains, hospice-, child- and elder care, education, help for our homeless and jobless, counseling, spiritual and clergy training, etc.
In the past I actually believed that all of this was possible. Surely if we – solitaries, covens, circles, small groups, large groups – can stand together…
However, this is unlikely to happen without creating a contemporary mindset.
The thing that seems to hold contemporary Paganism back is the very same thing which has always held it back, except that it isn’t even real as in many ways the growth of Paganism as a “religion” has and is being held back by a self-fulfilling prophecy, a “communal myth”.
This “communal myth”, holds that contemporary Pagans are so independent that they can not, and will not, stand together to form a workable Pagan structure. I call it a “communal myth” because I firmly believe that the only reason Paganism has failed to become an organised and functioning entity is that Pagans tend to wallow in their inept independence, and simply refuse to recognise that there are structures that do not limit what individuals can believe or practice.
Mention the words structure, leadership and clergy, and Pagans cannot help but think of the “church model’, and reject any reference to it instantly. This model has, however, certain advantages: it offers consistent initial education as well as a measure for excellence; and presents a way that enables elders to offer their work as clergy members, teachers, organisers and community leaders in an organised and professional fashion. An organised structure would in fact also provide a more economical and sustainable way for people to study contemporary Paganism without spending huge amounts of hard-earned cash on books and ill-presented courses and classes.
But to get there, we need to rethink the existing structures, including Pagan elders, spiritual-, religious- and other leaders who seem to fail to grasp that with the rapid rate of growth of Paganism, change is inevitable.
It seems to me that all to often Pagan organizations, be they small or large, seek out leaders who are focused on maintaining the status quo. These leaders tend to engage in the perpetuation of the existing leadership dynamics and power structures, and more often than not fail to recognise the need for their organization to grow and evolve in order to be meaningful to successive generations of Pagans.
A major obstacle to transformation within contemporary Paganism is “founders’ syndrome” or “founderitis” – where leaders lack the foresight to establish a plan for organizational success beyond their own time. In fact it is a label normally used to refer to a pattern of behaviour on the part of the founder(s) of an organization that, over time, becomes maladaptive to the successful accomplishment of the organizational mission.
“An organisation faces founder’s syndrome as the scope of activities widen and number of stakeholders increase. Without an effective and inclusive decision making structure and process there is potential for conflict between newcomers, seeking effective involvement with organisational development and the founder(s) who seek to dominate the decision-making process. This can be very disruptive, both to the organisation and to the individuals concerned, and should be carefully and clearly diagnosed and addressed quickly and decisively.” – Wikipedia
Simply put, we cannot plan for the future because we are stuck in the past.
Coping with founder’ syndrome requires discussion of the problem, a plan of action, and interventions by all involved, and the objective should be to allow the organisation (in whatever form) to make a successful transition to a mature and contemporary organisational entity.
There is a saying: “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.” And I fear that as Pagans we may have become those who will wonder what happened.
A LEADERSHIP MODEL
“The real leader has no need to lead – he is content to point the way.” – Henry Miller
There are many models of leadership, yet the ability to effectively create, communicate and develop consensus for change within Pagan organisations depends on three main transformative principles (adapted from Peter Dybing’s “Pagan In Paradise: Transformative Pagan Leadership Revisited”):
Influence is not “power over”, but rather the power to inspire and motivate towards goals of mutual value. This can only be done by building consensus with respectful and meaningful communication, and the ability to articulate a clear path of action.
Leaders must demonstrate a powerful vision and focus by taking on new goals and defying expectations.
This is expressed through a leader’s spiritual, physical and emotional presence in a purposeful and ethical pursuit of organisational objectives. Leaders must be willing to look at their own abilities and weaknesses as this will empower them and others to take action and achieve necessary goals.
The key is to apply these principles when in leadership situations – often individuals become involved in the day-to-day workings of organisations and forget to apply what they know spiritually to the mundane world.
So, how should we identify these “transformative leaders”?
- They are publicly Pagan.
- They believe that change begins with them.
- They seek to include all community members in a collaborative process.
- They are focused on the future.
- They have organisational, logistical and public speaking skills.
- They are risk takers.
- They believe in the ability of the community to come together.
- They are not necessarily religious leaders.
I also believe that these “transformative leaders” are often (although not always) in the “middle generation”, not yet elders but well established in their communities, able to communicate between generations, and prepared to not only identify and recognise the need for change, but also able to affect and effect changes.
“There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.” – Alexandre Ledru-Rollin
Paganism has been a religion of priests and priestesses – Pagans believe that everyone is fully qualified to interact meaningfully with the Divine. This element is one that has set us apart from most other religions, making the definition of a Pagan clergy rather difficult. I believe, however, that there is a very distinct difference between what we currently term priests and priestesses and what I would term Priests and Priestesses or the Pagan Clergy.
It may be true that all contemporary Pagans can (and should) interact with the Divine on their own behalf, but being able to turn to another, a more experienced person, would be a huge advantage for most within Paganism, especially newcomers.
Congregational participants (laity)
Earlier in the history of contemporary Paganism, when there were few openly Pagan people around, these people truly were “clergy”- practicing their religion with a clarity and depth that today has been much diluted.
However, when Paganism, in all its forms, hit the mainstream, and became slightly more acceptable, an unrecognized and perhaps ignored division took place – thanks to the information glut of Pagan literature, the early Pagan clergy became outnumbered by the curiosity seekers, faddists, casual dabblers and the more serious newcomers.
These “newcomers” are the people who, for example, come to ritual, but do not participate past the calling and raising of energy, and these “congregational participants” will generally handle the ordinary, day-to-day, aspects of their spirituality, casting spells, maintaining an altar, etc, but that is where their involvement ends.
Pagan laity is now a reality – many of these people even identify themselves as Pagan agnostics and Pagan atheists, not because they question the Divine or Sacred as such, but because they want to live according to the values of Sacred Life and in harmony with nature without all the religious trappings – they are basically “once removed from ritual”, and as such do not identify as priests/priestesses.
They are the Pagan laity, and this group is the fastest growing group within Paganism, and with their arrival I think that Pagans must now face up to the fact that we are no longer a “religion of clergy”.
The lay clergy
Instead of a professional clergy, many Pagan groups have an egalitarian priesthood, open to most practitioners who assume ritual or organisational leadership positions. Many Pagan communities feature a priesthood that is unpaid and relatively easy to enter. 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 organisational leadership.
As few Pagan seminaries exist; most local covens and groups provide their own training for future non-professional/lay clergy. 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. However, being a priest/priestesses is not just a matter of being dedicated to a gods, it implies training, practice and the rendering of professional services.
Most people who come to Paganism fully embrace the spirituality that is the driving force behind it, and then never really move on to become a priest/priestesses. I think it is important to recognise that while many participants in the many paths of Paganism theoretically have the ability to become clergy, not all of them may in fact want or need to do this.
Priesthood in the historical sense (and in many different religious orders) is often a peer oriented- and ordained system – and ordination comes as a result of completing training/apprenticeship within a tradition or path or specific religion. The majority of priests/priestesses found in Paganism rarely have actual qualifications of any kind. They do not know how to dissipate dissension, lead a group constructively, counsel those who are ill, or are in an emotional or spiritual crisis; conduct weddings/handfastings, funerals, etc.
We have reached the stage where there are lay members who care nothing about the responsibilities of being a priest or priestess. And many of those who see themselves as the priests/priestesses are NOT necessarily the Pagan Clergy as such. Many of these people are indeed qualified in the theological, historical and metaphysical aspects of Pagans paths, but are not qualified at all to meet the needs of their “congregational participants”.
These priests and priestess are what I would call “Paganism’s lay clergy”.
The Clergy comes from a group of people who feel compelled to offer their skills in service to the community. And that is the key difference: their skills, the roles they take and the functions they perform have an underlying “purpose of service”.
When I think of clergy of any religion, I imagine people who are selfless in their service to others. They are the people who work in hopeless’ situations, bringing hope and support to people society would prefer to forget.
These are the people who do not chose or appoint themselves clergy, but who find they are in that position nonetheless, and who then become professional. They are called – chosen by the Divine (however such is defined) – with that calling being recognised by the people they serve. Being of the Priesthood or Clergy is not about individual needs, but purely about serving the spiritual and physical needs of others.
Clergy are a people of faith who truly, deeply, believe in the tenets of their belief. They live their faith daily and do not distinguish a time for the mundane and another for the spiritual. True, the role of the lay priest/priestess will frequently overlap with the ordained clergy, and to some degree, vice-versa, but we should not confuse the two.
Let’s look at what Pagan Clergy could perhaps include:
- Clergy serve both the gods and the communities in which they practice.
- Clergy are those who have advanced spiritual training, commitment, service and experience.
- Clergy are the spiritual leaders, teachers and interpreters of their traditions and faith.
- Clergy are those who find that their particular talents and temperaments incline them to assist, nurture and guide the religious and spiritual practice of others.
- Clergy administers and runs, on a day-to-day basis temple/coven/hearth/grove/organisations, etc business.
- Clergy provide a central point for communication and crisis intervention.
- Clergy act as the public face of the tradition or belief system; they invite interfaith dialogue and information sharing.
- Clergy guide those who are inspired to find their own path to the Divine.
- Clergy work with the gods directly, but they do not act as permanent intermediaries, but more like guides to help others until they know their way around.
Pagan Clergy should be able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills upon demand – after all, the clergy of almost every other religion can. Refusing to have “standards of qualification” for the Pagan Priesthood opens the gates to con-artists and incompetents. Competent Pagan Clergy are unlikely to seriously interfere with the religious freedom, since the immanence of our deities is a bedrock principle of Pagan beliefs.
In ancient Rome, for example, the “Clergy” were in charge of temples and larger civic shrines, they made sure the correct offerings were given on the right days, they did the public rituals – they were the Priesthood – but everyone else had a house altar and they talked to the gods, did their own family rituals, gave offerings and worked with deity as they saw fit, and, as a rule, I doubt of these people would have called themselves priests or priestesses.
In the lands of the Celts, society held a group of magico-religious specialists known as the Druids in high esteem.Their roles and responsibilities differed somewhat between the different accounts, but the Druids were according to some historians concerned with divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices, private or public, and the interpretation of ritual questions. Others say that the Druids were tribal priests, similar to the shamans of tribal societies. They also held the position of judge, doctor, mage, mystique, clerical scholar, etc.
The term Druid, as currently used within contemporary Paganism, is a good example of how contemporary Paganism often misunderstands and misinterprets what the priesthood is really all about.
The word Druid in ancient Celtic society applied only to the priestly caste or class, and it took several decades of study to attain to that level or profession. These days, however, people call themselves Druids when they mean that they practice Druidry – in the same way that a Christian is someone who practices Christianity. To think/claim that every contemporary Druid is up to the task of being a community leader, political analyst, academic scholar, musician, healer, poet, etc is rather unreasonable, if not plain silly. Also, there was a time when Wicca and other forms of Witchcraft were considered mystery traditions, but it is, for example, unlikely that every member can or will be a mystic.
We have the power to mould Pagan clergy into the shape of our choosing, but we have to do so with will and intent, energy and focus, or the next generation will become a faceless compilation of wannabe lay priests and priestesses further diluting Paganism into a free-for-all quasi-religion.
PASS THE PLATE AROUND
“I went back to work because someone had to pay for the groceries.” – Bette Davis
Another topic linked to the priesthood, is: “how do we pay for all this?” For a long time, the most common shape of a Pagan group was the smaller unit, such as the coven. Built within these groups was the “moral stricture” that Priests/Priestesses/clergy should not charge for what they are doing or teaching. However, with the growth of Paganism there are too many Pagans for this “coven model”, and a rethink is necessary.
Also, we are now faced with a capitalist model of Paganism – different schools, organisations, businesses; festivals, etc compete for “Pagan money”. In turn this capitalist model has enforce a kind of polarity – Pagans who can not afford the expensive classes, festivals, etc, complain that these should be free, while on the other side of the coin those Pagans who can afford to pay tend to gravitate towards closed communities/groups – the irony is that it is often those people who can afford it who are less likely to take actively part in their local community.
So should Pagans have to pay for services, lessons, etc? I believe that people who have learnt professional skills and are able to teach Pagan topics, facilitate workshops professionally, lead effective rituals, heal, counsel, etc should indeed be paid for their time – therapists get paid for their time, tarot readers and Reiki healers get paid for their time.
We need a better system to serve new Pagan seekers, adequately pay the leaders, teachers and clergy and ensure that spiritual services are available for seekers who have various abilities to pay. And this is only possible if our community accepts that its has a support function to provide for those who offer much needed professional services.
Success will, once again, depend largely on the Pagan community’s ability and willingness to look past interpersonal differences.
“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
The notion that we are all our own priest or priestess is inspiring, and perhaps even romantic, but it simply is no longer practical.
Within a religious community above a given size, there will inevitably be laity and clergy – there are those people who worship and practice regularly but who also have other careers and family lives not necessarily centred on their religion; and then there are people who are clergy, leaders, counselors and organisers who devote their time sustaining and supporting the Pagan community, often at the cost of their personal life.
The problem, one which will be with us for a while, is that we do not have a body to “qualify” the Pagan Priesthood, and we should take heed of the dangers of not been slightly more and better organised.
Currently, anyone can read a book, practice a few rituals, anoint themselves and set themselves up as priests and priestesses. If this goes on, it will erode the authority of even the most senior Pagans – something I fear which has already happened. But, we should not ignore that doing good ritual and giving good counsel and doing
“pastoral” work rely on different skills.
Perhaps it is time to start a dialogue leading towards a consolidation of credentials and an accrediting body for our Pagan Priesthood. Perhaps it is time realise that we need to have clergy to make clergy.
A new mindset is necessary, where existing assumptions held by single Pagans and groups, which for so long has created powerful incentives to accept and continue backing prior behaviours, must be updated to meet the needs of the 21st century contemporary Pagans, most of who are laity.
– What is Neo-Pagan Clergy? by Lisa Mc SherryCurrent