Theosis: Thou Art Becoming

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Is it Noble to pay your cleric? An exploration of full-time paid clergy.

“The very same people who “can’t afford” to donate to a Neopagan temple, community center, website, or other organization on a regular basis have no problem finding the money to buy science fiction books, videotapes, DVDs, game cartridges, music CDs, comics, beer, pizza, cigarettes, movie tickets, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, crystals, robes, capes, etc.  -- Isaac Bonewits.

     In issue #28 of Witches and Pagans magazine columnist John Michael Greer wrote an article titled, “A Bad Case of Methodist Envy: Copying Christian models of clergy is a Pagan dead end.” In this essay Greer recommends against Pagan clergy and specifically full time compensated clergy. I would like to note that I have admired many of Greer’s books especially Inside a Magical Lodge, A World Full of Gods, and Druidry Handbook; however, I can simultaneously admire his work and disagree with some of his thoughts. 

     In this essay I will be looking at several of the points Greer makes in his essay and will attempt to explore these claims and offer another perspective.  Initially in his essay Greer explains his title by providing the link to United Methodism,  

“…there’s a definite tendency in the Pagan scene to assume that the way mainstream American Christian churches do certain things is the only right way to do those things.  I’ve come to call this attitude “Methodist envy”…  “It’s surprisingly pervasive among Pagans, and often appears in the form of claims that if Paganism (or some specific Pagan group) wants to be a real religion, it has to copy the habits of the big mainstream Christian denominations.”

There are “certain” things that are done by mainstream American Christian churches that I believe are beneficial for Pagans to emulate. It is beneficial to have at least some within the ranks of Pagan clergy who are academically trained and able to stand side by side “Methodist” clergy and the clergy within other “mainstream American Christian churches” with the same educational and training standards; however, like United Methodism I think it is perfectly feasible and recommended to have different classifications of clergy.  In addition to licensed local pastors and elders in full connection there are also deacons within United Methodism who serve in specialized ministerial roles (e.g., chaplaincy, seminary administration, et al) and this seems like a reasonable model in which to structure a Tradition’s clerical endeavors.  This is not unique to United Methodism since most (if not all) of the mainstream American Christian churches (as well as the various branches of Judaism) also follow a similar model. 

     Furthermore, within United Methodism, for example, there are “part-time local pastors” and there are also elders in “full-connection.”  The difference between the two is that licensed local pastors are not required to get as much education as elders whereas elders in full connection are seminary trained and follow Greer’s somewhat sarcastic model of priesthood which is the basis for his “Methodist envy model,” to which Greer writes,

“A priest or priestess – a clergyperson of any kind – is someone who gets paid to conduct regularly scheduled services for a congregation and to perform weddings and other rites of passage.  They also provide moral and spiritual counseling to parishioners, with maybe a bit of genteel political activism thrown in on the side; got a liberal arts education, has a master’s degree in divinity, is part of a national tax-exempt church organization, and carries out his or her professional activities in a building set aside for the purpose, all funded by the dutiful donations of worshippers.”

Taking the sarcasm out of this model he seems to imply a model of priesthood that includes:

  • Ritual Leadership.
  • Facilitation of Rites of Passage.
  • Pastoral Care and Counseling.
  • Outreach.
  • Education (B.A. degree and M.Div).
  • Compensated for services provided.

           Greer goes on to claim, “A fair number of Pagans apparently believe that all Pagan clergy ought to adopt the same role.  I believe there are at least two fundamental problems with this model.” I agree with Greer that this is not the only model for Pagan clergy; however, it seems that Greer is not simply arguing for multiple models of Pagan clergy but arguing against the above model, claiming it is exclusively Christian, and this is where I disagree with him.

      A thorough knowledge of United Methodist polity would inform John Michael Greer that their system for clergy is not without merit because they have multiple ways of utilizing clergy that is not limited to just full-time paid clergy.  At one point Greer advocates for multiple views and at other times he seems to be emphatically opposed to full-time paid clergy.  Is he opposed to clergy being full-time?  Or is he opposed to clergy being paid?  Or is he opposed to full-time AND paid?  I am assuming he is opposed to full-time paid Pagan clergy and will be operating under this presumption.     

      I believe there is plenty of room for multiple models of priesthood and clergy (Pagan or otherwise); however, I feel compelled to respond further to Greer’s claims because he seems to find unacceptable the notion of “paid Pagan clergy” as if that model is somehow incompatible with other models of clergy.  Having a vision of full-time paid Pagan clergy is not incompatible with simultaneously thinking that part-time volunteer clergy is also an acceptable vision for performing the work of clergy.  Not all venues can support full-time paid Pagan clergy.

      In his argument against “paid Pagan clergy” Greer writes,

“The first issue is that the only people that I’ve ever heard insisting that there ought to be paid full-time Pagan clergy are the people who want to become full-time Pagan clergy.”

 In this argument Greer is confusing correlation and causation.  It is akin to saying something like more men practice Druidry than women, therefore, men make better druids than women.  If this is his first “fundamental problem” with full-time paid Pagan clergy then I hope his second argument is better than the first; however, we will see that it is not.

     Greer goes on to write,

“People don’t join Paganism in hope of getting the same kind of religious experience they could find over at the local Methodist church.  People become part of the Pagan community because they want something they can’t already get in a Methodist church, or any other corner of the religious mainstream.” 

This argument of Greer does not support his argument against full-time paid Pagan clergy it simply claims the motivation for people in becoming Pagan.  What he seems to be claiming is that since most Pagans have left “mainstream American Christian churches” that the Pagan community shouldn’t emulate “mainstream American Christian churches” by having full time paid Pagan clergy – as if the presence of full-time paid Pagan clergy would somehow invalidate the religious experience of Pagan traditions.  Isn’t that the same as saying something like: Pagan groups have (traditionally had) unpaid part-time clergy; therefore, groups with unpaid part-time clergy are better at being Pagan and you could infer from this that Pagans who have attended Pagan groups with part-time unpaid clergy have had uniquely Pagan religious experiences; therefore, groups with unpaid part-time clergy are better at providing unique Pagan religious experiences.  This is simply not true and an unfounded claim.

     I can walk into a United Methodist congregation and experience their form of worship and then sojourn over to a Russian Orthodox Church and have a totally different religious experience yet both clerics operate under a similar model (i.e., paid professional clergy).  Likewise, I could walk into a Baptist Church with a part-time local pastor (who is often unpaid) and get a very different experience than I received at either the United Methodist or Russian Orthodox congregations; therefore, it is not the existence of full-time paid clergy that dictate the religious experience rather it is the nature of one’s theology which materializes physically through ritual and rites of passage and should inform one’s pastoral/spiritual care. 

     Regarding religious experience and why people have navigated away from “mainstream American Christian churches” I would like to illustrate a point made by Linda Mercadante in her book on the ‘spiritual but not religious’ titled, “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.”  Mercadante writes,“Many SBNRs I met often complained that the spiritual groups they tried did not facilitate, live out, or convey what interviewees thought of as true spiritual experience.  Many said this about Christianity.”  However, this quest for religious experience was not limited to people migrating away from Christianity.  Mercadante writes, “This lack of spiritual experience was not restricted to stories about the Christian church, however.  Amit Singh from the Silent Generation had grown up in a family that maintained a Hindu temple.”  In her book she presents qualitative data on people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” and why they have navigated out of more traditional avenues of spirituality (i.e., “mainstream American Christian churches”).  Her research is applicable to why people seek out Pagan spiritual experience instead of continuing to do so within “mainstream American Christian churches.”

     I mention the research conducted by Mercadante because she spends a lot of time exploring the spiritual but not religious demographic and I believe this “classification” of people applies to many who identify as Pagan who, I believe, could easily agree with the identifier of “spiritual but not religious.”  Greer is correct that people leave mainstream American Christian churches often because they are seekers of “true religious experience.” However, they are not leaving these “mainstream American Christian churches” because these churches have full-time paid professional clergy.   Again, this is an issue of correlation and causation and is the logical fallacy that Greer has turned into his “gold standard.”

     John Michael Greer mentions the migration of people out of Christian churches and into various Pagan traditions in his book, "A World Full of Gods," when he writes, “…a substantial number of people from wholly orthodox Christian and Jewish backgrounds have broken decisively with the god of classical monotheism and embraced the complex, poorly defined, but vigorous collection of new religious movements that calls itself Paganism.”  The work of Mercadante presents why someone would leave a Christian or Jewish community, that provides a plethora of services, to join a new religious movement that is poorly defined (and often overflowing with witch wars and conflicts) because the seeker is looking for true religious experience.  And this quest for religious experience has absolutely nothing to do with whether the cleric leading the ritual is “full-time” and paid or “part-time” and a volunteer.

     John Michael Greer continues his essay by claiming,

“Exactly what is desired from Pagan practice differs from one person to another, and that individualism feeds the raw diversity of the faiths we call Pagan.  Expecting so diverse and factious a community to conform to any one concept of priesthood and priestesshood is a waste of time, and if the concept you have in mind comes straight out of the religious mainstream that so many of today’s Pagans left behind – well, let’s just say your chances aren’t good, and leave it at that.” 

I agree with Greer that there are multiple ways of looking at the concept of priesthood; in this he and I are in agreement; however, he is opposed to adopting concepts “…if the concept you have in mind comes straight out of the religious mainstream…”  As I mentioned previously Greer seems to be arguing for multiple ways of looking at priesthood while condemning the idea of full-time paid Pagan clergy as somehow incompatible with Pagan practice.  He is saying it is acceptable to have many views of Pagan priesthood, just not “that one,” with “that one” being what he calls the “Methodist envy” model. 

     Greer then introduces his reader to Friedrich Nietzsche and summarizes Nietzsche’s idea from “Twilight of the Idols” with, 

“Still, the point deserves to be generalized: every religion is a system; every part of any such system gets its meaning and purpose from the whole, and trying to apply definitions from one faith to another without taking into account the difference between the systems is a little like trying to put a truck tire on a tricycle.” 

I am not exactly sure what Greer is advocating here because he seems to have embraced syncretism, or the blending and co-opting of practices from one “system” with another.”  In another essay of his titled, “The God from the Bread Basket” included in the book “Jesus through Pagan Eyes” by Mark Townsend, Greer writes about the syncretism of Dion Fortune and T. S. Eliot with, “To Fortune, and in a different sense to Eliot as well, Christianity and Paganism were simply different ways of talking about spiritual realities and relationships that could not be reduced to a single symbolic formula.”  In this same essay he does indicate, “Those times are unhappily long past.”  Happily those times don’t necessarily seem long past because Greer is participating in syncretism of his own and the AODA and Gnostic Celtic Church seems indicative of this phenomenon.  As a spiritual syncretist myself I subscribe to the sentiment echoed by Dion Fortune and T.S. Eliot. 

     Greer seems opposed to Christian models of clergy and yet the Gnostic Celtic Church is organized with deacons, priests, and bishops and has adopted a “quasi-monastic” system.  While monasticism isn’t exclusively Christian the model of “quasi-monastic” deacons, priests, and bishops seems to mirror a Christian model albeit a different one from the “Methodist envy” model illustrated above.  I presume that since it is different from the “Methodist envy” model it is somehow acceptable whereas the notion of full-time paid Pagan clergy is problematic.  I suspect there is something else behind Greer’s opposition to full-time paid Pagan clergy.  Something that he chooses not to share with his reader, or may be consciously unaware; however, that is something he will have to ascertain for himself since what we have is what he wrote. 

     I am concerned with John Michael Greer’s ecclesiology.  Ecclesiology being the theological study of “how a church/religious organization sees itself.”  In his essay he seems to be arguing for a model of priesthood/priestly functioning that is nothing like the Christian model when he writes, “The modern American Christian concept of the clergy is unique to the Christian (and mostly English-speaking) nations of the world.”  He identifies this concept as the “pastor-as-shepherd” model.  He seems to be implying that the “pastor-as-shepherd” model is identical with the “Methodist envy” model and therefore incompatible with Pagan models for clergy.  My response to this is that the model of American Christian clergy is not as unique as Greer might suggest and while Christian theology uses priest/minister as shepherd symbolism it is thus because of a parable from the New Testament rather than the image of a parish priest scooting parishioners along a hillside like a shepherd tending a mindless flock of sheep.  It is the use of metaphor to indicate that each person within the community is important and comes from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in the Gospel of Luke.  A Christian cleric responsible for a congregation should be a well-differentiated leader capable of leading his/her congregation in our post-modern world and I hold it to be true that a Pagan cleric that holds a position of leadership within a congregation (e.g., grove, coven, et al) should also be a self-differentiated leader who is capable of leading.  This concept transcends religious lines and includes Christian, Pagan, Jewish, and any and all sorts of religious leaders. 

     Greer then turns his reader’s attention to the classical world by showing examples from antiquity that seems to show that full-time paid clergy are not historically accurate.  He writes, “Priesthood and priestesshood in the Greek world was usually a part-time activity, not a career, and the holder of the office often changed yearly or every few years, depending on local custom.”  What came to mind when I read this was a passage from “An Introduction to Roman Religion” by John Scheid where Scheid wrote, “The most important public priests of Rome held their position for life and benefited from immunity to public charges and taxes.  They also enjoyed the privilege of banqueting at the expense of the people and could occupy places of honour at the Games.”  The Romans were not identical to the Greeks in how they viewed their priests, and I suspect Greer is aware of this concern.  It is not that practices varied among ancient people it is that they had different cultures that seems to be Greer’s point.  In his essay Greer seems to be arguing for cultural purity using examples from Hellenic culture and then Egyptian culture.  What was true of Greek culture was not true of Egyptian culture and you cannot apply a set of ideals from one and apply them to another – this is what Greer seems to be stating.  

     In his use of examples from antiquity he advocates for cultural purity when he writes, “Egyptian concepts of priesthood and priestesshood thus make sense in the context of ancient Egyptian religion; Greek concepts in that of ancient Greek religion; and Methodist concepts in that of modern Methodism.”  In modern day United States we live in an “American concept,” and as such even a modern Hellenic Pagan will have commonalities with someone practicing Egyptian Paganism.  Likewise, in our “American concept,” we will have things in common with United Methodists simply because we share a common culture.  You will find Pagans of all types fellowshipping together at festivals, at meet and greets, and at other social and spiritual events.  As diverse groups of Pagans interact they will “cross-pollinate” with one another and share ideas of “what works” and “what does not work” and the community will continue to grow and mature.   We have diversity within Paganism but we also have a common culture in which we can find a sense of unity.  What is at issue is not culture but instead it is context. 

     It is nice to point out issues from antiquity and it is good to be aware of cutting edge scholarship on the life and circumstances of ancient people; however, we live in a post-modern age and therefore find ourselves living in a different paradigm than what was lived in antiquity.  One cannot simply look to a dusty academic book about the ancient world and reconstruct a religious tradition – there is more to it than that.  Antiquity can inspire and inform but it is important to recognize that the paradigm of today is categorically different from the ancient world and this cultural difference needs to inform how we do “ministry,” it needs to flow into our ecclesiology and our ecclesiology needs to flow into our practice. 

     John Michael Greer presents full-time paid Pagan clergy as a model he calls “Methodist envy.”  He seems to insinuate that the compensation received by the Pagan cleric is somehow obtained through exploitation of the community in which they serve.  Greer is only seeing a small piece of a much larger scene.  A small ten-member coven really cannot support a full-time paid Pagan cleric, but neither can a small United Methodist church.  What Greer failed to mention in his essay is that those Methodist elders serving churches full-time as paid clergy are serving churches that can support a full-time paid pastor.  Small country churches, even within United Methodism, often have volunteer pastors or part-time local pastors (non-ordained and less educated).  If, for example, a Senior/Chief Druid served a grove with one hundred families and that Senior/Chief Druid worked full-time sustaining and supporting this community then it would be exploitative if he or she were not compensated.  Therefore, the “problem” is not about culture it is about context.     

     Full-time Paid Pagan clergy do not necessarily have to be supported by their “flocks.”  There are other means in which Pagan clergy can be employed full-time as clergy while not necessarily serving in a leadership role of a grove, coven, or otherwise.  It is time for Pagans to step up and assume leadership roles as full time professionals in health care, corrections, and the military as chaplains.  As full time paid professional clergy.  In order for Pagans to have military or prison chaplains we need to stop shouting “persecution” and relishing in our “otherness” and focus our efforts on finishing a college education, enrolling in seminary/graduate theological education, and then navigate through the tough waters of clinical pastoral education.  This is not an easy task.  In fact, it is extremely challenging but it is worth the effort and we CAN do this as a community.  We can stand side-by-side clerics of every religious tradition as equals because we ARE equals. 

     In any discussion of clergy and ordination it is appropriate to look at two important philosophical and theological implications of the priesthood, which I will call the “ontological question,” what IS a priest?  Different traditions will answer this question differently but if ontology is the philosophical study of “being” then it becomes important to delve into the nature of the priesthood.   In those initiatory traditions that ordain through initiation or some other transformative experience then the priest is such because of a transforming experience; whereas, in some traditions the ritual leader is simply the most competent person filling a role and “functioning” as the cleric and being in that role is not an ontological function but rather a practical function. 

     I believe that we (as humans) can promote ontological change through initiations and rites of passage thereby transforming initiates from “something” to “something else” through the initiatory experience.  I also believe that the Gods (Divinity Itself) can also promote an ontological change within a person that the Christian world refers to as “a call to ministry.”  If the Gods call a person to the priesthood to serve at both the altar of said Gods and also the altar of service to humanity then it seems reasonable that the Gods will bless this individual and assist in fostering this call.  John Michael Greer calls the model of full-time paid Pagan clergy “Methodist envy” and cautions his readers with “copying Christian models of clergy is a Pagan dead end.”  It is not a dead end for Pagans.  Compensation for clergy is not exclusively a Christian phenomenon, as I presented above in my example from Roman antiquity; however, I was recently reading about the priesthood within Hinduism and similar discussions seem to be occurring within Hinduism as Rajan Zed said, “…priests performed an important role in Hindu society and should be compensated accordingly.”  I believe that Pagan clergy, competent Pagan clergy, provide an important role in our community and should also be compensated.  

     I would like to now draw your attention to an important point made by Friedrich Nietzsche.  Not from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols” but from “On The Genealogy of Morals.”  In this text Nietzsche discusses the difference between “slave morality” and “noble morality.”  In his explanation of slave morality Nietzsche writes, “…in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all – its action is fundamentally reaction.”  Nietzsche then describes nobility with, “The reverse is the case with the noble mode of valuation: it acts and grows spontaneously, it seeks its opposite only so as to affirm itself more gratefully and triumphantly – its negative concept “low,” “common,” “bad” is only a subsequently-invented pale, contrasting image in relation to its positive basic concept – filled with life and passion through and through – “we noble ones, we good, beautiful, happy ones!”

     John Michael Greer falls into the trap of slave morality in his reaction against Christianity; although, he simultaneously also seems to argue against this line of thinking.   Towards the end of his essay Greer adds, “In the context of modern Paganism, much of our problems stem from a bad case of Methodist envy.”  Our problem is not “a bad case of Methodist envy.”  The problem within our community is much more systemic than whether or not to have full-time paid Pagan clergy.  The real problem is holding onto the slave morality that has permeated our Pagan culture - the constant resentment and reaction towards anything Christian.  What I have observed is a need for some Pagans to feed off of the sense of “otherness,” along with the need to always “be different,” to always be “alternative.”  The ultimate concern of the Pagan community should not be the fostering of otherness; rather, it should be devotion to the Gods, our Ancestors, and the Earth and in that process we become, ontologically, a noble people… stronger than before. 

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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.

Comments

  • Anna M.H.
    Anna M.H. Friday, 15 August 2014

    While I am, in general, a big fan of Greer's, I really disagree with his point of view on this, and feel you made many good points. I am especially impressed by the last paragraphs, which make the point that we cherish our "otherness" -- sometimes to the point of our detriment.

    Having seen lots and lots of well meaning, but very bad "leadership" from both the small-church Protestant ministry and the amateur Pagan ministry -- and having given some pretty darn bad leadership myself, as an amateur Pagan minister - I completely support the idea of a paid, professional Pagan clergy.

    And while we're at it, I know a couple of Christian ministers. There's nothing wrong or distasteful about what they do except for the fact that they are "othered" by their own congregations and held up as people who can't be human or make mistakes. But we already do that with our high priests and priestesses.

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