What We Need from Pagan Clergy

One of the recurring debates that comes up in pagan blogs and forums is the question of pagan clergy. Do we even need a distinction between clergy and laypeople, and if so, what would their roles be?

Well, I’m a layperson who really wishes there were some good pagan clergy available, but what are clergy for anyway? Why can’t we all be our own priests and priestesses? One common thing I see is that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is that clergy can “hear the gods” and laypeople can’t.

Personally, I think the distinction between mystics and everyone else is on a completely different axis than the distinction between clergy and laypeople. There are plenty of people who have mystical experiences who I wouldn’t consider to be clergy (like myself for example), and you can probably be a good priest without ever having mystical experiences (though they might help).

I know this is sometimes used as a slur, but you know what I think we primarily need good pagan priests for? Marrying and burying!

Yes, there are other things for priests to do, but those two rites are really, really important rites of passage that don’t occur in a person’s life very often, and when they do happen, it’s especially important to “get it right.” That’s where we laypeople really need a professional with a lot of experience handling these sorts of things. These rites are so important, such a primal need, that many atheists still have weddings and funerals.

And so far in my life, the pagan community has completely failed me in this regard. For example, when my husband and I got married, we got a liberal Christian minister to officiate even though neither of us are Christians and it wasn’t a Christian wedding. Why? Because of all the people we knew, he seemed to be the best man for the job, and that had nothing to do with which deity he worships.

Oh, when the local pagans found out that we were getting married, I had plenty of offers from people who wanted to officiate. But leading a ritual is a skill. It’s hard work to get it right. And frankly, I have been to some of the rituals some of these other self-proclaimed “priests” and “priestesses” have led, and they really weren’t very good. But I’d been to another wedding this Christian minister officated, and it was excellent, so I was confident he knew how to run a good ritual. His church is welcoming to GLBT folks, they believe in “creation spirituality” (not Creationism, but a type of nature-based Christianity), and the local ADF grove sometimes uses his church to hold events.

We wanted something that looked like a proper wedding, even if it wasn’t going to be Christian. We would have pagan guests there, but also Unitarian Universalists, atheists, and Christians. We needed something that would be pagan enough to stay true to ourselves, but not so strange as to freak out my husband’s elderly aunt. When we went to meet with the minister, he knew exactly what we meant! He seemed excited to be doing a wedding that wasn’t in a typical Protestant Christian style, and pulled out a notebook he had with scripts from lots of previous weddings he’d performed, including ones with pagan elements. We spent a couple of hours with him planning how we wanted the ritual to go, and it was the least stressful part of the whole wedding planning experience.

And that’s because he’s good at his job! He’s done non-traditional weddings before, he understood all of our concerns, and he understood what his role was in all this. He said when he performs rituals like this, he sees himself as ferryman steering the boat to the spirit world, while we’re the passengers. His job is to get us to our destination safely and back again, but he’s not the focus of the ritual, just the one who steers the boat.

This is something a lot of self-proclaimed “pagan clergy” DO NOT understand. When you lead a ritual, it’s not about you. If it’s a wedding, it’s about the people getting married. If it’s a funeral, it’s about the deceased and the mourners. If it’s a ritual in honor of a god, it’s about the god and the people trying to get in touch with the god’s presence. I actually can’t think of any type of ritual where the priest would be the center of attention rather than a guide.

But I’ve been to plenty of pagan rituals where it did seem to be mostly about the priest or priestess showing off how great they are. Months after my wedding, when the subject of gay marriage came up on Facebook, and people started saying things about how they don’t understand why it’s such a big deal since it’s just a legal contract, I found myself commenting about how important I think the marriage rite is, and how there’s a lot more to it than just signing a contract. Then this “high priestess” asked me, “If you think marriage is so important and meaningful, why did you have a Christian perform yours when neither of you are Christians?” I’m not sure what exactly she was getting at, but she was one of the people who offered to officiate, and I turned her down, so maybe she was still offended. My husband ended up jumping in saying we chose him because we already knew him, and since it was so important we wanted to make sure we chose someone who would do a good job.

When I got married, I didn’t want a ritual where people would show up in jeans and t-shirts, or topless, or in sarongs and bare feet, and I didn’t want the person leading the ritual to be reading off sheets of paper. Yes, our wedding had a couple of small mishaps, but the minister was skilled enough to not let those completely throw the whole thing off. And since a wedding is an important occasion, yes I requested that people dress nicely and not act like slobs, which made it a lot different than a lot of pagan rituals I’ve been to.

To me, marriage is more than just a legal contract. When you marry someone, you are entangling your thread of Wyrd with theirs. That’s why I liked doing the handfasting ritual where our arms were literally tied together with different colored chords (each chord represented one of our vows). Yes, there is a legal contract involved, but since I am a religious person, there is a spiritual component as well. We invoked the spirits of nature (it was an outdoor wedding) and the Ancestors (since weddings are important to them since we’re combining our family lines together), but didn’t name any specific gods. I figured ancestors and nature spirits were generic enough to not offend the Christians present (it’s not like there were any fundies, just some older, more traditional folks) while still keeping true to my own beliefs.

My husband and I both came away from our wedding very satisfied that we got a good ritual to mark such an important spiritual binding, and everything was done properly.

Contrast that with when my dad died. He didn’t get a funeral. He died in a hospice and was cremated immediately. His ashes were divided in thirds, and his brother got some, I got some, and my sister got some. He wanted to be scattered on Pikes Peak, but there was so much family turmoil after he died, that we certainly won’t do that all together like he suggested. I still have my portion, and am still planning to fulfill his request. I’m just not sure when I’ll get the chance. Maybe I can do it on the anniversary of his death.

But it still seems wrong to me that there was no funeral. I know that’s what he requested, but I still feel like something is missing. I felt like I need a ritual to mark something this important. Ideally there would be priests or shamans to perform some sort of funeral rite. Funeral rites are found in all cultures. You need something that not only helps the soul of the deceased get to the afterlife safely, but also allows the mourners to express how important this person was to them, and to honor their memory, and to help them find some kind of closure.

It felt like as soon as my dad died, he was more or less “disposed of” and it was time to move on with our lives right away, get that paperwork done, sign that death certificate, work out the will and split up the inheritance, pick up his ashes in a Ziplock bag in a cardboard box with his name printed on top.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I still feel like something’s missing. My mother-in-law kindly bought us a tree to plant in our yard by our ritual circle and sprinkle some of his ashes in the hole, which we did on Father’s Day. In my previous post I already talked about the Samhain ritual I did a couple of weeks ago to honor him.

But here’s the problem with that. In both those occasions, I basically had to be my own priestess. And that’s hard to do when you’re the one who’s so emotionally wrapped up in the occasion the ritual is for.

Doing your own devotions to your patron deities and spirits isn’t that difficult. Neither is doing your own seasonal holiday celebrations for Yule or Midsummer. But if you’re the one getting married, or you’re mourning the death of a person close to you, it’s hard to do those rituals all by yourself without help. It’s like trying to perform surgery on yourself. It’s easy to perform simple first aid on yourself, but if you need surgery, you want someone else to help, preferably a professional.

But I basically had to perform the rites all by myself. I’ve led rituals before, and I learned really quickly that when you’re leading a ritual, you really can’t get that emotionally involved in it yourself. You’re too busy making sure everyone else is OK. If you’re the one steering the boat, you have to concentrate on that, while everyone else gets to have the profound spiritual experiences.

So I’m left feeling like my dad didn’t get a proper sendoff. I was too upset about his death to do it properly myself, so nothing got done, because like with so many pagan things in my life lately, if I don’t do it, no one will.

I’ve seen self-proclaimed pagan priests say they don’t serve people, they serve the gods. A lot of them seem to not really like people at all. Well, I don’t like people either, but I think that withdrawing from humans and focusing all your attention on communing with your deity isn’t actually being a priest. It’s more like being a monk or nun. And the monastic life is perfectly fine if that’s your calling, but being a priest is about serving humans AND the gods by helping humans connect with the spirit world. And that requires priests to be compassionate and trustworthy individuals who are really good with people.

We need more people we can trust to steer the boat while we’re too emotionally caught up in the journey to steer it ourselves. We need someone to safely get us to the other side and home again without crashing or capsizing us or getting us lost.

Paganism needs more people who are good at marrying and burying, and other rites of passage, so that I don’t have to call on a Christian to do it or it doesn’t get done. And yes, priests can be handy to celebrate seasonal holidays and do divination and oracular work, but that seems to already be fairly commonplace with pagans (though with varying levels of competence). I mean, I’ve done seasonal rituals and done rune readings for people myself, with quite satisfying results. That stuff is pretty entry-level as priestly functions go. If you mess up Yule, there’s always next Yule, but your dad only dies once.

We need priests who can take care of people’s spiritual needs when they’re getting married (a very stressful time, even if it is a happy occasion) or have had a death in the family, or are seriously ill, or having a baby, or in some other type of crisis. So called “priests” who hate people and only serve the gods can’t do that.

Being clergy is a job that requires skill and practice and experience. I just wish pagans had more people like that, instead of all these people calling themselves a “High Priestess” to mainly make themselves sound important, or people who blog about spending all their time with the gods while shunning humans. Because when something really important and life-changing is happening to you, those are not the kind of people you want to call for spiritual support.

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12 thoughts on “What We Need from Pagan Clergy

  1. I touched on this briefly in another post I made earlier last year, in which I sort of misused the idea of “Lay Paganism” as a word for non-mystical/non-woo individuals that sometimes gets people to think that EVERYONE has to have a “special friend”.

    I agree with you entirely here. Christian theology has the concept of “secular clergy”, that is, non-mendicant ordered clergy that ministered and provided spiritual succor to the populations. I wish Pagans weren’t so adverse to the same.

    • Maybe there should be a different word for people who aren’t mystical (and something that’s not disparaging, like “cement-head”).

      Wicca is probably to blame for the conflation of these two concepts. Wicca was never meant to be a religion that just anybody can participate in; it’s an initiatory mystery cult. So in Wicca everyone is expected to be a priest(ess) and everyone is expected to be mystical.

      Most religions have niches for people at varying levels of participation. A few people devote their lives to full-time priesthood (and there can be different kinds of spiritual specialists too), but most are going to be the equivalents of Christians who just go to church every Sunday, and some are going to be the Christians who only go church on Easter and Christmas. And I think that’s OK.

      Alas, the situation I’m in now is that if I don’t do the ritual myself for some occasion, it won’t get done. Now I’m getting sucked into doing something for Yule. At least, since I am an educator, I get a lot of time off for Yule, so it won’t be much of a burden on me.

      But ideally, I’d be a member of a religious community where I didn’t have to do a ritual for every single holiday or else there would be nothing. It’s really nice to just go to a ritual and just enjoy it while someone else takes care of all the stressful parts.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Even as someone who identifies as a naturalist first and Pagan second, I think there’s a huge need for trained (possibly full-time) clergy. The first public ritual I attended involved the person leading reading off of a script. I have no idea if she was a priestess or not, but the image always stuck with me. While this is not limited to Paganism (I’ve been to two Christian weddings in the past year in which the officiants also read from scripts), my impression is that it is a bit more commonplace here than in other religions. I’m all for everyone having a turn at participating in rituals, but not everyone has the knack for (or interest in) guiding them. Heck, if I were part of a long-term, functional religious community, I would have no qualms paying for a priest/ess’s services*, but that’s just me. I imagine it’s difficult to focus on your clerical duties if you have to work a day job.

    *A caveat: I feel like paying at the gate is a bit gauche, but maybe a system like dues? It still strikes me as a bit tacky, but it’s a little better. But then, I was raised Catholic, and the appearance of a collection basket every now and then isn’t terribly striking (though I’d like to know how my money is being spent).

    • Reading off a script can be done right, though. At my wedding, the minister put the script into a nice-looking notebook and read from that, so it still looked good. And he rehearsed so that he would only have to glance at it every now and then.

      But I’ve also been to rituals where the person leading fumbled with multiple loose sheets of paper, or read of an iPhone. Then when he lost his place, it kind of threw the whole thing off.

      Leading a good group ritual is a skill. As you say, some people have a natural knack for it, and I would say that for everyone it takes some practice to become really good at it.

      As for getting paid, I was happy to pay the Christian who officiated my wedding because he did such a good job. A few days after the wedding, we just went by his house with a check. We even gave him a bit extra as a donation to his church. If there were any pagan priests that acted as professionally as he did, I’d be happy to pay them as well. But it goes both ways. If a pagan priest wants money for their services, they’d better do a good job, take it seriously, and really put some effort into it.

      For a pagan group that meets regularly, I don’t see the problem with passing a collection plate around either. You can’t get something for nothing.

      • I imagine that use of a script could be done well. Also, the guy who officiated your wedding sounds great (both as a priest and a person). I hope I can find someone that awesome when I get married.

    • I find the dues system works well (esp. if there’s an option for sliding scales) Most Pagan orgs have annual dues (especially since a lot of us are solitary) In UU churches members pledge an amount annually (like PBS) works better when there is a lot of sporadic attendance.

  3. I ran across your blog from reddit.

    I am an ordained heathen clergy in ADF and I’ve sympathized with your viewpoint on occasion. In my local Grove I do not feel I have much of a role as clergy as there are plenty of capable individuals there. Heck in the state of Maryland you don’t need any credentials to marry someone.

    In my local kindred, however, they make me feel more useful because I am their liaison to the Gods and to the community. I am there to serve them in whatever way they need whether it is spiritual guidance or ceremony. At least that’s what I try to do.

    The most important aspect of clergy to me is the training. Anyone off the street could call themselves clergy, and that is dangerous because their ethics may be questionable and most people are sheep.

    • Here in Texas anyone can perform a legal marriage with just a little paperwork. Unfortunately, I’ve found that leads to some pagans doing that paperwork and then acting like it’s a big deal and we should all be impressed.

      I think your last paragraph is the heart of the issue. Anyone can call themselves clergy, so people with big egos and questionable ethics can use that title to push their own agendas.

      Of course there are good ones out there too, but the problem is that when one of us laypeople need one, how do we sort through all the bad ones to find a good one?

  4. Wow- it’s nice to see a *civil* discussion of this topic for once! So often I see people get hung up on whether we need clergy or not, getting stuck on assumptions of Wicca, Catholicism (priests as intermediaries) hangups of whatever their religious upbringing was. Definitely agreed about the need for training- both spiritual as well as crisis management- they have to be able to keep a cool head & deal with an emergency on a basic level, even if they are not the medical expert (examples- mental health crisis, abuse of various kinds etc) It should be about serving the community and Gods & spirits, not one’s ego!
    Here’s a post I wrote about diff functions that pagan clergy or leaders can fill in various combos, paid or unpaid. http://paganleft.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/functions-of-pagan-clergyleaders/

    • I like your list, and not just because Naturalist is on there. That’s me! (Though I haven’t yet written about nature on here as much as I had planned to when I started this blog.)

      When my dad was dying I really needed to talk to some kind of priest of the Dead (shucks, I still might benefit from it, since it hasn’t been that long). Someone like the last entry on your list. I’ll never forget sitting in that hospital with those nurses trying to convince me that taking him off life support was the right thing to do. One of those nurses actually said to me, “perhaps it’s time for you to accept that the Good Lord is calling him home.”

      I’m sure that might be a comforting thing to say to a Christian daughter about her dying Christian father, but to this pagan daughter facing the death of her non-religious father, ugh! I was so angry and upset and in shock at the time I just couldn’t speak. And the hospital did offer a supposedly non-denominational chaplain to talk with, but I assumed he’d probably be Christian too and would just upset me even further.

      And the only Heathen things I’ve been able to find online meant to comfort the grieving are people quoting that “cattle die, kinsmen die” Havamal verse. I’m not finding that very comforting either.

      I still wonder if taking him off life support was the right thing to do. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life. It sucks. (It also wasn’t really my decision, since my uncle was his power of attorney, but still, I wonder if I should have put up more of a fight.)

      • Heathenry isn’t big on emotional comforts. Not to be gender stereotypical, but it doesn’t help that a lot of the people involved in starting it up were guys that were into a real warrior macho mentality. I don’t care for that much. I’m starting to see more balance though.

  5. I became a professional Hypnotist to fulfill a role as a healer. I coach meditation in a similar purpose and to add depth to people’s lives. I spent years developing a modern Heathen inspired technique of Ancestral Healing to help people change their lives, relationships with the living and dead, and transform the shaping of their Wyrd. I’m skilled in divination, a great listener, and I do conduct my own rituals. All that said, I’m not so sure I would be a great Priest. I’m a good teacher and guide to individuals. I would love to see a professional priesthood for the same reasons you mention. I believe ADF has built one of the best models to get there. I may pursue it myself one day. I really enjoyed your points. I’m willing and able to talk to you about death and the dying. Yes cattle and kin die. Legacies do live on too. That’s but the surface being scratched on the deeper mysteries. Your father lives on in much more than your memories. May he be smiling upon you now.

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