Revisiting the Idea of Pagan Clergy

Over ten years ago, just a few years into my journey I felt the calling to become a Pagan Priestess. That impulse is still as strong today as it was then. It led me to self dedicate to my Gods, to focus and study harder, to reach out and join in my local Pagan community and to start a web page which in turn has led to this blog. But I did not become a Pagan Priestess; not in the sense of being clergy. I am not Pagan Clergy. I am instead a Pagan Blogger and perhaps this is the true form of my calling.

I don’t assume that I am different from other Pagans who have felt a calling to become clergy. I was excited and in love with what I was learning and experiencing. My enthusiasm was overflowing. I wanted to share this wonderful thing I had with everyone. “What better way is there to do that, than to become clergy and live a life in service to the Gods?” Actually there are other ways but that’s beside the point of this article. My search on what being a Priestess means had begun.

Ten years ago and perhaps a bit longer than that it was a common argument than anyone could become a Pagan Priest or Priestess and that declaring oneself as such was sufficient. Hot debates started on whether or not this is true or should even be true. Enough disagreement was raised that self declared clergy was eyed with suspicion, accused of being scam artists, accused of being phony, derided for a lack of education and the inability to receive legal recognition as clergy. This environment had a major impact on how I chose to answer that extremely personal call. I didn’t feel I had enough stuff not to mention experience to become a Priestess so I decided to focus more on my Pagan education. As a virtue, education is the foundation for clergy. But there were no clear cut requirements for what should be known or what was needed beyond the basic creation of a coven.

I noticed as a religious movement Paganism don’t have many common elements of agreement to what makes our clergy; clergy. It’s a calling, a sacred duty and a whole lot of work. There are still long debates on the subject hammering out the need for a standard in what makes our clergy what they are. And yet there isn’t a lot of people most would be recognise as bona fide clergy. The Elders are often the closest to what could be considered clergy. They did not become honoured Elders by attending a seminary. Most have worked within the community; some founding churches and traditions, others writing books and giving lectures. They are held in high esteem by the community and are well know to either their local community or the greater community of Pagans.

Is service to the community the first prerequisite or the first test or a little of both? I feel this is the first qualifier for who should become clergy. Without passion for the Gods and community, without love for both, motives and actions are suspect for anyone seeking a powerful status that has often been abused across all religions and cultures. Paganism is not immune to human nature.

The Clergy Question

I came across an article about an 11 year old preacher that was an ordained minister. While watching the video of his interview and clips of his preaching I couldn’t help but shake my head at this idea. But good sense got the better of me and I wanted to know if that was even possible for his religion and to answer the question of if he could perform his duties with any degree of competency. Turns out he isn’t the first young child to become a minister. A quick web search shows children as young as 4 years old preaching but not ordained. For me, the idea of child clergy took me by surprise.

 Reading the commentaries from the article has been an eye opener. It seams that the vocal majority disagrees on the coulds and shoulds of a child minister. Various reasons were offered as to the reasons for this nonacceptance; a lack of maturity, a lack of education, disagreement on the doctrine of who is qualified to be ordained, a questioning of his calling, a wondering if this was scam and or an abuse of child labor laws. Most of these reasoning’s could be applied to an adult, except for the child labor laws. What is it that created such a visceral reaction to a child minister? Is it the idea of a lost childhood or perhaps having a child in spiritual authority over an adult that creates this reaction? I’m not sure what the reasons are even though I feel a vague “wrongness” to the whole idea.

I thought I knew how clergy became clergy; one graduates divinity school, receive confirmation and ordination from the religious authority one serves and become registered with the state as a minister. I didn’t see how any of that was possible for an 11 year old child. I had to look up this topic on the web. Just what does it mean to be ordained? What does it mean legally? How does one become ordained?

“To be ordained means;

In general religious use, ordination is the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies. The process and ceremonies of ordination itself varies by religion and denomination. One who is in preparation for, or who is undergoing the process of, ordination is sometimes called an ordinand.” 1

“Legally, ordination means that;

To become ordained, from a legal perspective, means only that the individual may officiate marriages. That is the only sacerdotal (priestly) duty with which the states have any legal concern. Each of the states has it’s own state wedding law, which are enacted by the state legislature to specify which individuals may officiate marriages. Most states make broad definitions to include anyone that any church, denomination, society or religious organization deems qualified or designated to officiate marriages.”  2

To become ordained in the United States means that a religious tradition has agreed and set one apart as clergy. However, this is not a legal based ordination, insomuch as there is no legal body in the US government that regulates who may or may not become clergy. There is no way to register with the government as clergy. It is confusing to have two different meanings for the same word, especially so when one definition is religious and the other is legal. There are laws in the US regulating religious organisations and religious practice, including the rite of matrimony. Most can be argued as necessary for everyone to enjoy a level of civil harmony. But the laws surrounding marriage sets forth guidelines as to who may officiate marriage. Being authorised to perform legal marriage is not in any way ordaining a minister.

It turns out that it is totally possible to have an 11 year old ordained minister. The religious organisation he belongs to agreed that he was indeed a minister and set him apart as one. I don’t know what their requirements are for their ministers and I’m not sure that it really matters as I’m not a member of that organisation. I don’t know if this young child is authorised to perform legal marriages. But I can see that it is possible for him to legally do so.

Not knowing what all is required of him in the role of minister, I am unwilling to form an opinion  about his ability perform his duties with competency. But as a mother, I feel he’s capable of preaching as it’s not that much different than acting. I don’t feel he has the life experience to counsel adults with adult issues. I’m not sure I’d trust him to be able to counsel his peer group without guidance either. At the bare minimum, I could consider this as an apprenticeship for life long ministry.

Assume Nothing, Not in Law or Religion

I’m still following the news about Literata‘s struggles in becoming licenced to perform marriages in Virginia. The latest bit of wild weather had knocked out her power over the last few days so hopeful the blogosphere will hear from her once it’s been restored. Hecate over at hecatedemeter has summarised the relevant issues surrounding Literata’s quest to become an marriage officiant. Her explanation was clear and straight to the heart of the matter. Her insight into the marriage issues in Virginia is invaluable to Pagan clergy serving in Virginia.

My research into the topic of Pagan clergy is still ongoing. Part of my troubles is with the way I learn. I tend to absorb large amounts of data before I can make sense of the smallest pieces. I’m learning a lot of things that has surprised me and have turned old beliefs on it’s head. I’m having to readjust my stance on several issues and revisit other ones.

I had not realised that most churches have a 501c3 corporate structure. I had assumed, I know I should never assume, that the 501c3 non-profit status was a work around in becoming a recognised church. So far I have not seen anything in the law that can unchuch a church. To gain the tax exempt status and to prudently limit liability for the members, incorporation as a 501c3 is the most common structure used by churches. But it is not the only structure a church can take. The pros and cons to each form of structure vary.

I had no idea that wedding officiants are performing a duty of the state and not a duty of religion when they become lawful wedding officiants with the ability to sign the wedding licence. The idea that the state lays claim on marriage as a part of government process and yet denying same sex couples the rights of marriage is extremely troublesome.

I see similarities in the Wiccan coven structure, home churches, small group ministry and to some degree cell churches. All of which have limited membership, around 6 to 15 members and all focus on participation of members. A good deal of the problems arising from ministering to small groups have been covered by Christian and Interfaith ministers. Sometimes I wonder if the Pagan movement is trying to reinvent the wheel at times when all that’s needed is to look at other faiths and adapt what they have already learned.

I am flabbergasted by the amount of book keeping that is necessary to prove the 501c3 status in case of an audit by IRS. Reading though the tax law, I started getting flash backs to Robert’s Rules of Order. I don’t see how such a meeting conducted according to Robert’s Rules is very religious or inspirational. Utilitarian and functional indeed but not religious but necessary for the ongoing functioning and survival of the church. I wonder if this is an area of weakness with Pagan clergy and in the overall creation of Pagan churches.

The burden placed upon Clergy by the tax law is astonishing. They sit between being self employed and an employee of the church. It also seams that rarely is the minister also the President of the church. My eyes crossed while reading all the do’s, don’ts, restrictions and qualifications for clergy, their pay, their tax’s and their benefits. They don’t have employer provided retirement plans or health insurance as a matter of being clergy. All of that is either by the generosity of the church or by their own planning and prudence.

I didn’t know that a church could fire it’s minister. I know this is a failing from my childhood, from being raised that a “man of God” was to be obeyed and the head of the church is just as a man is the head of the household. Depending on the by-laws of the church, they can fire, hire or even dissolve the church. It never would have occurred to me that a church has that kind of power. I had assumed that those powers were reserved for it’s minister. But it’s the by-laws that contains the powers of the church. If it’s not in the by-laws, it doesn’t exist for the church. How many people have ever taken a look at the by-laws of their church? I was clueless on just how important those by-laws really are.

I’ve come to a few conclusions so far. One, you have to be called by the Gods or be just plain crazy to become a minister and deal with all that the government puts on you in the execution of your calling. Bless you all for being both!!

Two, Paganism needs well informed clergy but more so needs church administration. It isn’t the lack of clergy or even lack of clergy training that’s going to hamper the movement but the total lack of qualified church administrators!

Three, any problem a church has in the legal realm, no matter what the religion is, impacts all churches. We are far more interconnect and interdependent that I have previously thought.

Support Your Pagan Clergy

I’ve been working on a series of posts on the topic of pagan clergy. It’s a weighty topic and some days I think I’ve bit off more than I can chew. So I think it’s quite timely that this piece of news has hit the bloggerverse, ”Virginia refuses to recognize me as clergy.” This posting was picked up by several blogs and cross posted in it’s entirety.

The Wild HuntWiccan Denied Clergy Status in Virginia
The SlacktiverseUnequal Rites

I came across this as a shared link on Facebook which had already crossed several hands before it reached me. Behold the power of social networking. I’m not going to cross post her article here but please visit her blog and the others to contribute to the ongoing discussion.