Pagan Studies

At times I am angry and other times overflowing with joy. Sometimes I'm confused and sometimes I have absolute clarity. This blog will explore our human condition through an investigation of spiritual pain and how to transcend our pain to find peace.

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In Support of our own: understanding Unitarian Universalist Idealization

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."  -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last year this time I responded to an essay written by John Michael Greer titled, "A Bad Case of Methodist Envy:  Copying Christian models of clergy is a Pagan dead end."  His essay argued against the notion of payed professional clergy and my response was to argue in favor of professional clergy -- at least having the option of professional clergy.  In this essay it is my hope to build upon the ideas I shared in last year's essay but also share further reflections on the subject of the evolving nature of Paganism in general and Pagan clergy in particular.

I would like to address a phenomenon that I will call "Unitarian Universalist Idealization."  In psychological terms idealization is the perception that something else is better than what evidence supports.  I understand this phenomenon.  Being involved as a volunteer Pagan leader can be exhausting work.  When I had the opportunity to serve a Unitarian Universalist congregation as religious education director I could start getting paid for my hard work.  This felt liberating and it felt good.  Years later those feelings would grow when I served a different Unitarian Universalist congregation as their consulting minister.  I was paid more and had more responsibility.  This felt very good.

If you're a Pagan and you feel the "call" to professional ministry where can you go?  How can you make that "call" come true?  Most people that I have encountered who are Pagan and who wish to pursue full time professional ministry end up turning to Unitarian Universalism.  

I remember back in the 90s a letter to the editor of Connections Magazine, a Wiccan magazine that is no longer being published.  That letter to the editor had a profound impact on me, and I will do my best to recall was was in the letter.  The writer of the letter was writing in because she wanted to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  She had been a High Priestess for many years but wanted to do "professional ministry."  The person who responded to this letter was Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, who is now the UU Executive Director for the Ohio-Meadville District.  Joan's advice to the letter writer was to complete a college degree and then go to seminary.  Joan mentioned Harvard as a viable option because of the ties Harvard has with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Then while in college and seminary start the ordination process with the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I have reflected on this "Letter to the Editor."  It has been about seventeen years since I first read it.  When I first read it it I thought, "Who the F&%! can afford Harvard!"  It bothered me because when I read the letter I was leading a Coven as High Priest and I too wanted to do "professional ministry."  Going back to school didn't seem like an option.

Eventually, I did make it back to school.  I did finish college and then seminary.  I put my trust and hope into the Unitarian Universalist system of things but my own sense of idealization had come to fruition.  When I was in seminary I took a course, "UU History and Polity."  I learned about the early roots of Congregationalism, the Puritans who came to the new world seeking religious freedom.  These Puritans eventually evolved into Congregationalists who became either Unitarian Universalists or what is now called the United Church of Christ.  I learned a lot about Emerson and the Transcendentalists.  I learned about the merger between the Universalist Church and the Unitarian Association.  I did not learn anything about Wicca, Paganism, or the depth of Earth Centered spirituality.  I discovered that I had been drinking the Kool-Aid of Unitarian Universalism ever since I received my first paycheck.  

When I applied for a Chaplain Residency, at St. Mary's Medical Center, in Huntington, WV I put down Unitarian Universalism as my "faith group" and denomination/religion.  Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a brutal system of self-discovery and self-awareness.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to remain associated with the Unitarian Universalist system of things because I no longer had the support of a local congregation while working on this residency program.  The ordination process within the Unitarian Universalist system is a byzantine process that seems to favor the liberal elite (i.e., think wealthy liberal) and I didn't seem to fit in with that system.  I felt no support from the district or from the Association and it felt very lonely trying to navigate through this system without deep roots within Unitarian Universalism.  My sojourn as a Chaplain Resident helped me to understand that Unitarian Universalism wasn't the answer.

I remember sitting in my supervisor's office during supervision (something that occurred weekly and an integral part of CPE).  He was taking an on-line course in comparative religion and I was looking through his text book.  I discovered a paragraph, just one paragraph, on Paganism within this book.  When I read this paragraph there was a glow about me.  We then had a long conversation about my past involvement in the Pagan community and he could sense I still had a love for Paganism and the Pagan community.  Eventually, at a different supervision session he would ask me, "How are you going to integrate this (i.e., Paganism) into your current sense of self."  It was at this point that I realized that I needed to be true to myself and instead of being eager to drink Kool-Aid made by someone else I was going to make my own Kool-Aid.  

Chaplains need to be endorsed for specialized ministry.  One cannot be a Ronin within the world of chaplaincy.  At this point I was without an endorser, without a faith group that agreed to sponsor me for ministry.  I had been assimilated into the UU Collective but I felt a need to break free from that bond.  I didn't know what to do, or where to turn.  I felt alone and isolated.

The Pastoral Care Department at the hospital I was at, St. Mary's Medical Center, was certified by an organization known as The Comiss Network.  I went to their website and scrolled through their member organizations looking for a sign, an omen, anything that would inspire me.  What did I find?  In the list of member organizations I stumbled upon Sacred Well Congregation.  When I read that I thought, "I've never heard of this one before."  I looked them up and discovered they are a Wiccan organization and my jaw dropped.  It was love at first site.

That was a couple of years ago.  I'm now ordained by Sacred Well Congregation, endorsed by them for specialized ministry, and working as a professional full time hospice chaplain.  I also teach at Cherry Hill Seminary and serve as the chair of the Ministry, Advocacy, and Leadership department.  Why is this important to me?  I felt that my Pagan identity was being eroded away during my time with the Unitarian Universalists.  I gained valuable ministry experience with them and encountered many lovely people who I still cherish in my life; however, the deep connection with Paganism was being lost.  

In order for Pagan clergy to have the option of entering professional ministry we, as clergy, need to support and sustain Pagan institutions.  When I was in CPE I told my supervisor that I needed him to change my faith affiliation from Unitarian Universalist to Sacred Well Congregation.  He had to list me as "Other" with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education because Pagan wasn't an established category.

Back in 2013 I traveled to Texas, a very costly journey, and interviewed at four different correctional facilities for the position of Chaplain.  At one interview the regional chaplain who interviewed me said, "I've worked with volunteers affiliated with Sacred Well Congregation who minister to our Wiccan offenders."  We need to move away from the mentality that volunteering is enough.  We need to get Pagan clergy into prisons, into hospitals, into VA Medical Centers as full time paid professional clergy.  We are not going to do this if everyone interested in professional ministry within our community runs off to join the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Building infrastructure is costly and time consuming.  It isn't easy.  As we build institutions within the Pagan community the culture of the community changes and many will resist those changes.  Pagans have been watering a tiny plot of land in the larger Unitarian Universalist farm.  It is time that we build our own farm and water our own land and become self-determined to make our own way in our modern world.

[Note:  I acknowledge the good work that CUUPS does within the community and feel there is room for Pagans who seek ordination within the Unitarian Universalist Association; however, I feel there should be more options for Pagans who seek professional ministry opportunities and those opportunities are not going to be viable unless more Pagans seek opportunities for professional ministry outside the auspices of the UUA.] 


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Rev. David Oliver Kling is a faculty member at Cherry Hill Seminary and a graduate of Wright State University holding a B.A. degree in Religious Studies and a B.A. degree in Philosophy. He has a Master of Divinity from Methodist Theological School in Ohio with a specialization in Black Church and African Diaspora Studies. While in college he worked as Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Yellow Springs and while in seminary he served the Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship as consulting minister. He recently finished a chaplain residency at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, WV resulting in four units of clinical pastoral education. In addition to teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary he currently works as a hospice chaplain in Northeast Ohio. He is ordained by Sacred Well Congregation and his religious background includes esoteric Christianity, Wicca, Druidry, Gnosticism, and Roman Paganism. His academic interests include Black Church studies, comparative theology, and spiritual/pastoral care.


  • Jenni West
    Jenni West Saturday, 04 July 2015

    With all due respect, if Paganism becomes clergy based, I will slip further from the public path.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Saturday, 04 July 2015

    Paganism has had clergy in both antiquity and in our modern world; therefore, I don't understand what you mean.

  • Jenni West
    Jenni West Sunday, 05 July 2015

    What benefit does a clergy based hierarchy provide for such a belief system? It opens the door to abuse of power and canonization and dogma. I can see nothing good coming from this.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Sunday, 05 July 2015

    Jenni, there have always been clergy within the Pagan movement and there has always been abuse of power within the community by some who claim to be clergy. This abuse of power is much more prevalent when there is no training or accountability for clergy. None the less, thank you for your comment and thank you for reading my blog.

  • Wendilyn Emrys
    Wendilyn Emrys Tuesday, 07 July 2015

    Ancient Egyptian priests most often donated their time and assets to the Temples. They might get to share in food offerings, and gifts from Pharaoh, but that was about it. They usually had side industries and lands that supported them. Many Ancient Greek Priests and Priestesses were appointed from among the wealthy in their cities, for both their skill at being Priests & Priestesses, and because their wealth was used to prop up the Temples. Skill and training was acquired over years of being in a Temple setting and moving up through the ranks. There are records from Mycenaean Kriti that show things being "given" to Priests and Priestesses, but are those income or are those donations to the Temple those Priests and Priestesses oversaw? I believe in Sumer, the Priests and Priestess were supported by the funds generated from lands and food offerings to the temple. I seem to remember records of a Priestess of Inanna running farms. More of a Gift in Kind situation than a 'Salary". I am a Priestess, and I do not want to be paid a salary. I devote my time and a portion of my personal wealth to my Temple, I do not expect it to support me. However, if we do a community project, I do expect people to pitch in. If I perform a ritual for someone, I do expect a small donation to the Temple to cover expenses for that ritual, but nothing for myself. I DO NOT expect a Salary, nor would I ever take one if offered. I do not expect to be a full time "Professional Priestess' in the I get a salary and don't do another job way, because I am following what I consider for my system, the Ancient Ways. Perhaps part of this comes from the fact that I have always been a Pagan, I am not a Converso, so "no calling" to be only a Priestess, as that never figured into my Paradigm for being a Priestess. As for formal training, one can make lists of suggested reading and courses to take in the various disciplines, but a Paid Pagan Divinity School, no I cannot buy into that. There are a few out there and they seem HIGHLY overpriced. Perhaps a Group of Pagan Clergy should get together and form a FREE ONLINE School for Pagans wishing to be Clergy. With classes in the things that are not often taught - what are one's legal responsibilities as a member of Clergy, or perhaps Counseling and Psych classes, the REAL History and Archaeology of Paganism, subjects like that.

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Tuesday, 07 July 2015

    It seems we all have different ideas of what "clergy" means, and I think people here are talking past each other a little bit because of that.
    One thing to keep in mind is that there are many traditions & paths of Paganism- Rev. Kling is talking about serving a wide range of Pagans and other people of faith in institutional settings as a chaplain, rather than a congregation. Also, in regards to cost- Cherry Hill Seminary is far cheaper than any conventional divinity school. If you want teaching to be free, someone has to be willing to do that- not likely if they have actual academic training. Invoking examples of ancient cultures is really comparing apples to oranges- we do not have an entire society worshipping the same set of gods. I recommend this essay here to better understand what needs some people have that our communities don't typically supply.

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