What Does It Mean To Be Clergy?

There’s a long standing joke among Wiccans:

“How can you tell which is the High Priestess in a coven of witches?”

“She’s the one with the broom!”

It’s only funny if you get the unspoken visual of said broom being used to physically clean out the space before and after the ritual takes place. In other words, you can tell who the clergy are by who is getting the mundane work done.

When I tell people I’m clergy, they almost never ask me what that means in my case or tradition. They tend to assume they know. And much of the time, their assumptions work well enough, really. But not always. Even within a single tradition, there can be many kinds of clergy, and we don’t all do the same things.

Some folks hear “clergy” and think “Person who wants to tell me what I am and am not allowed to think.” or “Person who is infinitely available to help me for free.” or “Person who defines our moral standards.” none of which work very well, for what I had hoped were obvious reasons. (For the record: Nobody can do your thinking for you, no resource is infinite, nor without cost, and no single source is infallible.)

I’m well aware that other people consider me an authority figure, and in certain contexts, I have to accept and work with that. I wield authority, whether I ever wanted to or not, especially when interpersonal and ethical conflicts arise within the groups I organize. Still, I mostly consider myself an expert, not an authority.

What’s the difference?

  • An Authority tells you what to do, and can inflict consequences if you don’t obey.
  • An Expert gives you informed advice so you can make your own choices, and while it might be foolish to ignore their experience, it’s not their place to inflict consequences.

I believe that clergy serve best when we serve mostly as experts, rather than authorities. Some traditions argue that clergy aren’t needed at all, because everyone can connect directly with the Divine without an intercessor. Even so, they have those who step up to serve the rest of the group, or those outside their immediate group, when the need arises. Even Wicca, which designates all practitioners priests, has individuals who step up to serve as chaplains and hospice ministers where needed.

While I agree that intercessors are not absolutely necessary, I don’t agree that this means we shouldn’t have any. Every community needs a variety of experts and specialists. Clergy are simply one category of service people, whose job is to provide spiritual aid to those who need it. Everyone needs to eat and use lights and follow the law, but few are moved to become a chef, or an electrician, or a lawyer. Similarly, everyone needs their own spiritual relationships, but not everyone will feel called to ordination.

Aside from religious community organizing, which anyone can do, but which most often falls to ordained and lay clergy, the main role of a clergyperson is that of relationship counselors for spiritual contexts. Obviously no amount of seeing a counselor replaces having your own relationship, but if you hit a snag it’s often more functional to get some help than to muddle through indefinitely on your own. As with other forms of counseling, whether group activities are sufficient, or one-on-one focus is needed, spirituality is often aided by not having to go it alone. Much of what I do as clergy is help people with their own connections, rather than teaching them to depend on mine. In fact, I strongly prefer people NOT depend on mine, or me, when they are functional adults who should be making their own decisions. But if they want to borrow mine for reality checks, or clarity, or just getting past a block, I’m here to help.

In the end, help is all I can do. Not only can I not make my clients drink, I can’t even make them follow me to the water. I can only point the way towards the waters I know of, and hope that’s enough to keep them from dehydrating. Sometimes it turns out the waters I know are too far away, and what they really need to do is just dig really deep right where they are.

In RedWood Vanatru, we have four types of commitment that people can ask to take up, none of which are required of anyone who just want to honor the Vanir:

  • Membership to a group of human practitioners, if there is a group that suits them available.
  • Dedication to serve one or more of the gods as a priest, with no obligation of service to humans.
  • Initiation to the mysteries, such as we have been able to build them.
  • Ordination to all the Vanir and the human community as a minister.

Ordination is the only level that requires a willingness and ability to serve humans, and it’s the last for a reason: Mistakes are inevitable and painful at every level, but at this level, your mistakes can not be contained to only personal consequences.

It’s hard to accept that mistakes are both inevitable, and impossible to contain when you take on a mantle of leadership. We want to be able to control the effects we have on the world, to limit our influence to only the desired results, to limit our reputations to only what we wish people to see and believe. But we can’t. And in the latter case, we really shouldn’t, because if reputation was limited to only what we can directly control, it wouldn’t be worth anything.

Being a leader doesn’t mean having superhuman power, it doesn’t mean being perfect, it just means taking responsibility and doing work so that others can have more of what they need. It’s nice when it comes with comparable credit, and it only functions when it comes with comparable social power, but neither are guaranteed at any given time. People will always remember what you did, or what they think you did, but they rarely remember what was done to you.

This is why I’d rather just be an expert. As an authority, I have to struggle with the ethical implications of not only everything I do (as all adults should), but everything done by the people to whom I am sworn as Gythia. If one of those people makes a serious transgression, I have a whole pile of questions to confront, and I can’t just rely on my gut reaction to guide me.

What is my responsibility to my other congregants? To my transgressing congregant? To their specific victim[s], if any? To the extended community? To the rest of the world? Is my goal to prevent further harm? To whom? To my congregants? To all? Is my goal to punish the guilty? Punish how? For how long? Is my goal to protect the innocent? How much? How do we define innocence?

What if I quite literally can’t be fair by an acceptable standard to all involved? What if what is deemed fair is impractical, unenforceable, or even illegal? What if what would protect the innocents in my care has a side effect of potentially harming others who are not in my care?

Dear Gods, what if there’s no right answer?

I am not absolved of the responsibility for sorting these questions out just by being overwhelmed by them. If I handle it wrong, it’s still my problem. If I wash my hands, the mess remains. Even if make myself no longer oathbound to the transgressor, somehow, I still have the rest of my community to consider, including the extended, secular community around us.

Frankly, I still have a duty to the transgressor – they’re still people, and there’s no “away” to throw them where that stops being true. Why else would we even have things like Miranda Rights and jail ministry if that were not so?

And all of this assumes I even know about it in the first place! What am I supposed to do about transgressions that nobody will tell me about? And I know there’s probably at least two problems I don’t know about for every problem I am aware of.

The work is never done. It’s never enough. There’s always something we could have done better, should have done faster, need to do more. There’s always things we overlooked or never knew. There’s always problems we failed to solve, or sometimes to even notice. Awareness of these limitations and flaws doesn’t stop people from blaming us for the failures, but worse, it doesn’t stop ourselves from feeling the guilt and the shame for failing. Most of us at least try to hide it, for the sake of getting more work done and presenting a strong front so that others can feel confident in our work. (Unfortunately, part of leadership is presenting the illusion of confidence regardless of how you actually feel.)

A leader who doesn’t feel that guilt, that shame, is either incredibly, impressively at peace with their personal limitations (in which case I envy them), or there is something deeply wrong with their ethical perception and empathy (in which case run away). Unfortunately, it can be quite challenging to tell from the outside which of the three is happening: hidden pain, equanimity, or sociopathy.

Anyone who has been burned by the latter is likely to be quite suspicious of the former, and can we blame them? The consequences of guessing wrong are potentially dire. In fringe movements, like our Pagan and Polytheist communities, more people are there because of bad experiences they had in the mainstream. So more people are understandably spooked and wary of revisiting their pains than you’d find in a comparable mainstream group. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but that does mean it’s a nearly inevitable obstacle that leaders within these communities face. It certainly keeps those of us who care on our toes!

So please, when you see a working leader, especially in a fringe community, give us the benefit of a doubt? Not infinitely, of course, but past that first flush of knee-jerk mistrust? Our work is primarily thankless, our efforts are mostly hidden, and we are held to a higher standard than is often reasonable to expect of a fellow human being. But we keep trying. Sometimes out of pride, yes, but mostly out of feeling obliged, whether by calling, or training, or just sheer stubbornness, to keep it going.

We can’t promise to be flawless. We’re not the gods, we just serve Them.

And you.

–Ember–

About the Author

I am Gythia of the Vanic Conspiracy, founded in 2004. We are building the RedWood Vanatru tradition, a path of devotional polytheism centered on Freyja, Freyr, and Their kin. I have trained with various Pagan groups, including Hrafnar, Thiasos Bakkheios, and the American Magic Umbanda House. I present and/or staff at events such as PantheaCon, the Bay Area Tarot Symposium, and Many Gods West. I volunteer as a jail chaplain for alternative religions, and hold a BA with honors in religious studies, which I hope to expand towards a Ph.D. in the future. My personal interests include folklore, feminism, nonbinary gender, polyamory, art, music, and gaming. I am seasonally affective and have neuro-atypical sensory processing, both of which significantly influence my perception of the world, and my spiritual experience. I have lived all my life in the south San Francisco Bay Area.

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11 Comments

    1. Yay for learning!

      I’m okay with difficult-to-articulate, if you want to try and talk your way three sides ’round the square on it, but no worries if you’d rather not 😉

      -E-

  1. “The work is never done.” Gods, yes. On another note, I like how your group is structured.

    1. Thank you!

      To be fair, we’re still only just implementing that structure, as we’re expanding past the first group of practice.

      The structure itself is just what made sense in the process, but my Mom has commented that it’s somewhat similar to the Episcopalian structure I was raised with.

      IMHO, if it works, I’m not entirely sure I care where the inspiration came from 😉

      -E-

      1. I think a good part of our ambivalence and struggles around clergy in Pagan paths stems from the fact that clerical roles and identities have largely been lifted whole cloth from Christian traditions. Certainly that was the case in traditional Wicca, which tried to assert legitimacy on the Christian terms of apostolic succession (aka “lineage”). Even while nominally considering all practitioners to be priests or priestess, they still felt the need for ordained clergy to serve in the bishop role of transmitting ordination from some ancient (and demonstrably false) past.

        Many mainstream eclectic Pagan traditions ape liberal Christian styles of worship and structure because it offers suburbanites a plug and play way to “do church” but with more elements of the divine feminine or polytheism. They have clergy because…that’s how it’s always been done. There is also a yearning by some Pagans to be “taken seriously” or to be able to feel like a full member of the club at interfaith events, and they figure they have to have the title of “Rev.” to do so. Some have even taken to wearing the Roman collar, which makes me want to retch a little…With this model in front of us, Pagans tend to go one of two ways with it. Those who accept this model of clergy tend to fall into the well worn tracks of religion as a spectator sport. They want a place that will be there to drop in for a little spirituality and a lot of affirmation run by someone else and somehow magically for little to no money.

        On the other hand you have people like me who have developed a deep-seated aversion to the whole idea of clergy. I suspect we won’t be able to develop truly healthy and productive models of ordained clergy until we get past our baggage as Christian refugees and into a generation or two who were raised Pagan from the start. Along with that, we will need to do some deeper work on theology.

        Once you’re able to answer some fundamental questions about the gods, our proper relation to them and our modes of interaction with them, then roles of clergy will arise organically, or not from that. I would expect we would find some traditions with full time temple priests, others where the role devolved to the individual or family head, and still others which might have no all-around ordained minister but may have very specialized roles for oracles, diviners, healers, ritualists, lore-keepers and so forth.

        1. > Certainly that was the case in traditional Wicca, which tried to assert legitimacy on the Christian terms of apostolic succession (aka “lineage”).

          Eh, that concept existed long before Christianity, including in the various mystery traditions of the Hellenic world.

          It’s not safe to assume that because something was prominent in Christianity, it was exclusive to, or invented by Christianity, nor is it functional to discard anything just because Christianity used it.

          I agree that there are plenty of roles that could be defined as “clergy” that do not lend themselves to ordination.

          Some of the difference depends on your goals. The two goals I have in mind are: Keeping an established tradition alive by passing it on to others, and making sure that people who seek to perform certain services are actually qualified to provide them.

          Those are not the only two potential goals, however, and what else one comes up with will depend, of course, on what the goals actually are.

          -E-

        2. > Those who accept this model of clergy tend to fall into the well worn tracks of religion as a spectator sport. They want a place that will be there to drop in for a little spirituality and a lot of affirmation run by someone else and somehow magically for little to no money.

          Heh, well yes, but I think that’s overlooking a core reason for wanting it: Community.

          A lot of that church model is around building and maintaining human groups, and the relationships with the gods are often a secondary or side effect.

          -E-

  2. I have a somewhat jaundiced view of clergy, but at the same time, I try to reserve judgement on the individual level to let their deeds reveal them. I come from a Wiccan background, and to me, the concept of clergy was absurd because there is no such thing as laity in Wicca. Not really. At the same time, traditional Wicca is big on hierarchy and “clergy” was something the ordained loved to throw in everyone’s faces. They were very big on the “High Priestess” title, and they were, on the whole, among the most dishonorable, conniving and narcissistic people I ever knew inside or out of Pagandom.

    I gained some useful technical skills in those coven years, but I will never again be part of someone’s “flock” or congregation. I work solitary, or with one or more partners as equals or attend larger public rituals. I see priest or priestess as a ritual role, and one that everyone should become at least competent at performing.

    I think there are valid roles in specific types of pastoral work such as chaplaincy or counseling, but I see those as the products of specific training and not ordination. With all of that said, I have encountered some very good ritualists and pastoral workers who happen to be ordained. Someone’s ordination or self identity as “clergy” mean less than nothing to me. It doesn’t impress me, and if it’s something they wave around a lot in the first five minutes of discussion, they start off in a 20-foot deep hole of skepticism with me. But this is where I generally try to let deeds speak for themselves. With or without title, If they’re the real deal as a priest or healer or chaplain or whatever, that makes itself apparent pretty quickly, and likewise if they are not.

    1. I think a lot of people feel the way you do about it, really, especially in the Pagan community. I tried to touch on that towards the end of the post.

      To me, clergy, ordained, whatever, they’re just job titles. Not everyone who does tech support is equally skilled, or equally invested in doing a good job, but it helps to know that they are “tech support” as opposed to, say, “accounts payable”. I don’t tell people I’m clergy so they’ll afford me extra honors, I tell them so they’ll have some idea what I’m trying to get done, and what kinds of things they can ask me for help doing. Most of the time, that works out more or less as expected.

      But yeah, some folks have had really bad experiences with people who happen to be both clergy and assholes. There will always be exceptions.

      -E-

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