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Doing it Our Way: 

The Case for Unpaid Clergy

by Judy Harrow (HP's, Proteus Coven)

Some of us believe that the culture of Europe suffered a major change at the time of the fall of Crete. As the new way - the Way of Dominance - grew stronger, we lost our feeling for the sacred, living Earth and for the interdependence of all living things in her. For generations, alienation from Mother Nature increased, but now that tide had peaked and turned. We, who live now, in the early days of the neo-Pagan renaissance, are the privileged ones. We live in a time of joy and hope - but also one of urgent and awesome responsibility. The open heart understands that the timing of our return is no coincidence

Mother Earth - and all who depend on Her life, including humans - faces a life-threatening crisis. Perhaps it is She who has now called forth Her advocates to work according to their own talents, political, cultural and spiritual, for Her defense and healing. Perhaps human intelligence, individual and collective, senses the threat, and our own awareness of danger opens us to a long-vanished way of seeing and being. Perhaps those are two different descriptions of the same process.

Either way, it is clear is that our care and our work on all aspects of the problem are desperately needed. We must do it quickly and we must do it well for life to survive on Earth. But we must also do it very carefully, because each of us is in many ways the product of the Culture of Dominance, formed by that educational system and still immersed in that climate most of the time. Old habits manifest easily, especially under stress. But survival itself requires a deep and basic transformation. The end is created by the means. The attitudes and habits that brought Earth to this crisis can never heal or save Her.

To understand how thoroughgoing a transformation is needed for healing, we must trace the nature of the hurt. Our present condition is the result of a long process of alienation, through which we have lost consciousness of the intrinsic, sacred value of our own work and of our living Earth. Eventually, we came to see things ulteriorly, to evaluate our surroundings and our behavior only by what we can get for them. As this worldview permeated our culture, it became common sense to value the numbers on a piece of paper more than an old-growth forest or a stable human community. Ulteriority is the consensus reality of the Culture of Domination.

On an intuitive level, if not consciously, all humans understand how ulteriority poisons the sacred and renders love impossible. We show our understanding when we withhold from the market place those few things we hope to maintain as ultimately valuable, as sacred. For example, only a few people are willing to sell their sexuality. Few of us would trade family for gain. And we know what we think of those who choose friends who can advance their career ambitions, and discard friends who cannot.

Most Wiccan traditions place ritual practice and religious education within that small category of things we hold too sacred to sell. Our work as priest/esses has been done for love alone: love of each other, love of the Earth, and love of the work itself. We reject the need for extrinsic compensation~~ because we know that work done in and for love is self-compensating. By our acts, far more strongly than we ever could by words, we have offered a radical challenge to alienation and ulteriority.

We cannot effectively advocate that which we do not live. We must practice what we preach, before we begin to preach it. Our way of doing things is an integral part of our difference from the mainstream and so of the message we have been called forth to bring. Only by doing things the Wiccan way, even when inconvenient, can we continue to do things the Wiccan way.

I remember my own time of training in the late 'seventies. Never in those years did any of my several teachers ask for any kind of payment or exchange. Seeing their students grow was their reward, and seeing the contributions their students would make. There is no way I can pay those people back except by continuing the process of community and culture creation, and doing so for love alone. Seeing my students grow, seeing their good work is my reward. I need and want no other.

But the traditional Wiccan consensus against paid clergy is now being questioned. Some of the advocacy of paid clergy is itself ulterior, coming from people who feel themselves too special to be bothered with mundane jobs. Such advocates of paid clergy usually fantasize themselves as the full-time Witch and the rest of us as the drones who pay tithes. When we seem somehow reluctant to free up their time by adding tithes to the rest of our own bills. The would-be full-timers rail against 'tight fisted" Pagans who would rather spend their money on "toys" than support their clergy. None of them have yet explained just why it is that, after a hard day's work, I should sacrifice my pleasure to their leisure. Most Pagans can easily spot and ignore these self-elected "Pagan Tammy Fayes."

There are, however, others who are sincerely wondering whether paid clergy has not become a painful necessity. They raise three points that are perfectly true. Those of us who want to continue on a voluntary basis need to respond to these concerns. If we settle for unreasoning appeal to Tradition, then we deserve to have our position stigmatized as "the last Pagan taboo."

The most important of these points is the sheer extent of the crisis, in both senses: great danger and great opportunity. The danger to Earth's life is immediate. The increasing numerical growth of the Pagan community may be part of what will save Her. It takes time, energy and skill to do all that needs to be done, but we need it all right now. We see around us religious groups that purchase for themselves the full-time services of religious specialists who can do all these things. It looks real good. And we wonder if part-time clergy can ever meet our needs.

The unpaid priest/ess, because s/he cannot expect financial support, has to hang on to that day job. Itís only rational then for her to prepare for a good day job instead of heading for seminary. Few can invest the years and dollars in professional training with no reasonable expectation to earn a living. The priest/ess' day job also takes time and energy, which limits how much s/he can give to the coven. Still, we surely don't want to avoid the cash trap by having only rich people as clergy, we doom ourselves to being less than we could be, and less than Mother Earth now needs.

If paying our clergy really is the only way to get the work done, then that's the way we have to do it. I don't think so. Instead, we discover that traditional peoples all around the world have a way of rigorous and thorough on-the-job training that avoids the need for expensive full-time seminaries. Itís for us to reclaim the practice of apprenticeship.

To do so the first minds we must change are our own. Although the idea that all real education takes place in classrooms is recent and shallowly rooted, it is pervasive. We all needed diplomas to get good jobs. We all were trained to trust the academic credentialing system. But, in reality, many people have learned many crafts well one-on-one, even in professions. Abraham Lincoln never went to Law School. We need to remember that learning comes in many forms. Although ability and competence may be validated by a piece of paper, they are never created by one.

Each of us needs to be honestly satisfied that our apprenticeship training is solid and demanding. The process is already underway. On healthy development in the Craft over the past is our growing insistence on objective requirements for initiations. Priest/esses around the country are avidly sharing and collecting curricula, borrowing ideas from one another to raise the standard of training. Many of us require demonstrations of skill and work from our students before we award their degrees. The days of initiating or elevating on the basis of perseverance, popularity, or some vague intuition are fast passing, and good riddance. By acting in accordance with our wi1l, we create and develop belief in our own collective competence as a magical thought form.

As we come to experience and believe that our apprenticeship program is comparable to seminary training we empower ourselves to defend that position politically. Recognition as a legitimate, if small, religious group is very important to us. Only when we have established our credibility will others be able to hear what we have to say in advocacy of Mother Earthís life and health. That was the battle we won here in New York. The discriminatory procedure for clergy registration was not aimed at any particular religion. Rather, it drew an improper distinction between seminary graduates and all others. The effect was to give mainstream groups, which have the resources to maintain seminaries and support full-time clergy, a specially privileged status.

Still, although others, including storefront Christian churches, were suffering from the same discrimination, Witches felt particularly called upon to challenge the system because of our history. One of the major effects of the Burning Times was to transfer the right to practice medicine from apprentice-trained folk healers to university graduates. Today, we do without seminaries for reasons of belief, not just because of limited resources. On religious principle, we could not agree that we were inferior to conventional clergy. We fought City Hall for five years, and finally won. Our victory benefited all, and honored Wicca' 5 martyrs -

Strengthening our training program and winning public recognition for it are both very important to us. But if we're going to stay on a voluntary, necessarily part-time basis, we also need to work within some realistic limits. A person can only learn so much or do so much in an hour. If they need to use many of their hours to make a living, they cannot learn or do all we need of clergy. So again, at first glance, we seem unable to fulfill our aspirations while remaining faithful to our traditions.

The answer to the paradox lies within our own thealogy. As polytheists, we celebrate the diversity of Divinity, and the divinity of diversity. The organization of most religious communities reflects their understanding of the Divine. Patriarchal theologies model all-male clergy. Similarly, Pagan religious leadership should be as decentralized as our conception of the Sacred.

We can start by broadening our understanding of clergy roles. Until recently, we have understood a priest/ess to be one who conducts Pagan ritual, and little more. Sometimes we settled for even less that that. Aspirant priest/esses ware taught in some groups simply to go "by the book," not even trained to adapt or create rituals for new occasions and needs. While people to create and conduct the rites may be the first thing a religious community needs, our needs go far beyond that. Those who lead covens also need to know something about small group organization and dynamics, at a very minimum.

We can also begin to honor the great contributions of Elders who are not inclined to lead covens. The typical priest/ess skills of ritual leadership and group facilitation are only the beginning of what we need. We need researchers to recover Pagan models from European antiquity and from the contemporary Third World. We need thealogians (gealogians) to help us understand how our values, our symbols, stories and practices and our daily behavior in the world all work together. We need artists of all kinds to create and adapt beautiful expressions of our beliefs that can deeply transform consciousness. We need mentors to prepare the priest/asses of the future, and counselors to help us work through our perplexities and hard times. We need media specialists who can help our neighbors understand us and hear what we are saying. And we probably need a dozen other roles that I am not thinking of right now. It's past time for us coven leaders to share our pride of place.

If we are going to forego paid clergy, and still have the clergy services we need and deserve, we cannot expect or demand all things from any one person. Instead, we can learn to honor our human differences, as we honor our many different God/desses. Each of us has different interests and talents, which we can develop and contribute. Every coven member should be expected and encouraged to bring her special skills and strengths to the group. Sharing the work turns the coven into a context and support system for the spiritual development of each member. The experience of contributing, and of being valued for it, is profoundly empowering.

Many hands make light work, and so does working in accordance with our interests and talents. If we each concentrate on the part of the work we most enjoy, we greatly minimize the risk of priest/ess burnout. The "exchange" of talents and skills in different aspects of clergy services also reduces the temptation to rationalize extrinsic compensation as an exchange of energy. Or would we really rather tell some of our folks that all they have to offer is their money?

Even when all members' talents are welcomed, it's unlikely that the full range of clergy skills will be available in one of our small covens. So we need to look beyond the coven, sometimes, when special expertise is needed. We have many ways to locate our specialists: publications, festivals, organizations like C.O.G., the various Wiccan traditions and lineages, and informal local networks. We can become aware of who is particularly good at what. We can call on one another's specialties as needed, and offer our own to the whole community. We can build Consultation and referra1 networks.

To take advantage of the richness of expertise that already lives among us each one of us must also learn to admit that there are some things we don't know how to do. The humility openly to seek and accept the help of others is another form of spiritual growth. Because it's rare that our needs will be neatly symmetrical , we'll almost never be able to exchange help directly. Still, we can accept help in trust that who-ever helped us will get what help they need from some-body else in the network. Open sharing in love and trust is the way to a Partnership society - precisely the cultural transformation that the Earth needs now.

Proponents of paid clergy argue that cash on the line releases our debt for services rendered, and so does. But do we want it released? Accepting help for which we cannot directly reciprocate creates a moral obligation to help another person on some other occasion, without expecting direct payback. I believe that sense of mutual obligation serves us well.

Whenever we give or receive such help, we by that act weave ourselves into a stronger and closer fabric. The thread that connects us is our commitment to the Earth. That web of mutuality and obligation under girds community, and guards us from the cash trap. As the web becomes better articulated, we will have created a new form of decentra1ized clergy, where each person' 5 talents count. We will have realized an old ideal: from each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs.

A second concern that merits attention is how unhappy some of us are with our day jobs. We all need to pay rent and buy groceries. We have to somehow get enough money to meet our material needs. And some of our jobs really are pretty awful. Some of us work for polluters, or oppressors, or the military. Some of us work in stressful circumstances, around unpleasant people. Many more of us have jobs that are "just' boring and irrelevant. Daily misery makes the escape into paid clergy status seem really tempting. In fairness, some of those who would like to be full time Pagan clergy are not so much trying to exploit the rest of us as to achieve a kind of integration in their own lives.

But if magic is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will, why need we settle for day jobs that are awful? Some of us have work that is consistent with our deepest values, and yet does not involve selling the Craft. There are Pagan teachers, doctors, librarians, artists; I earn my own living as a workplace safety inspector. The knowledge that what I do during the day is potentially lifesaving brings me pleasure. Decent day jobs are possible, but finding them requires paying a little creative attention. In some places already, Pagans are forming career networks, helping each other to find and do well at appropriate jobs. There are many ways of right livelihood, limited only by our imagination and our ingenuity.

We need to make sure that young people who seek training for our priesthood understand that our priest-hood is, and will continue unpaid. Those who don't fully realize that they must work for a living are most likely to drift through school, most likely to get stuck with unpleasant jobs. Instead, we can encourage them to think seriously about choosing a career that is compatible with their ethics and their talents, and to work as hard at their secular education as they do at their Pagan studies.

Our refusal to accept payment for our work as priest/esses has also been ridiculed as a form of the body/spirit split. The opposite is nearer the truth The belief that some of us are too holy to face the mundane work world is an expression of alienation, In contrast, working a mundane job helps a spiritual person stay grounded in ordinary reality, as we daily share the experience of average folk, Full-time clergy risk the distorted perceptions of a sheltered, ivory tower lifestyle. Those in esoteric religions are even more at risk than mainstream clergy. Just look at the next New Age mail order catalog you receive. Make the perhaps charitable assumption that those folks actually believe what they promote, and you'll see what I mean.

The third argument to examine is the claim that charging our students is good practice, completely apart from the merits of paying our priest/esses. Money, we are reminded, is this culture's way of keeping score, of describing the value of anything, The same dollar can't be spent twice. The money that the student pays for Wiccan training can't buy her some-thing else. She has made a sacrifice for her beliefs. This sacrifice tells her unconscious mind that the activity is worthwhile, and so motivates her to apply herself to learning. At the same time, the Student's willingness to offer a financial sacrifice is an easy, objective test of the Student's sincerity and dedication. All perfectly true in this culture's terms, and that's why charging our students actually works against the cultural transformation that we, and Mother Earth, need so much right now.

Pagans are a small minority in this culture. If we do things in accordance with this culture's alienating ways, it is the Craft, not the culture that will be transformed. Think about it - aren't we seeing much more slickness, much more hype, much more "star system" than we did ten years ago?

These trends could lead to the development of a group of spiritual consumers, comparable to those in the New Age movement. Instead of being a measure of sincerity, the financial sacrifice can become a substitute for really doing the work. We've all seen people claim to be "shamans' on the basis of having attended a couple of pricey "intensives. Most of them really believe it: they have been through some impressively choreographed rituals in a beautiful setting, in which the sheer power of a large number of participants was amplified by the dramatic skills of a prestigious leader.

Although those encampments and such are very enjoyable, in reality no number of weekend one-shot workshops taken with big name facilitators can ever replace the years of patient, long-term developmental work done within a close-knit coven. Our coven mates know us well enough to call us on our evasions when necessary, and they will be there for us during the rough spots - The stars who fly in for the weekend won't even learn the names of all five hundred participants.

So, enjoy this irony: the fact that money really is this culture's way of keeping score provides us with an elegantly accurate test of the perception and wisdom of our potential students. Can this person appreciate the true value of what is offered completely freely, by ordinary- looking people in homely circumstances, enough to put in the hours and years that will be required to learn it? Paying tuition by itself may get some people credentials, but it never got anybody an education, of any kind, anywhere. The real cost of learning, secular and spiritual alike, is effort: research, study, practice. If s/he can't pay that cost in the total absence of this culture's reinforcers, s/he probably doesn't belong with us.

Yes, we need and deserve skilled clergy, right livelihood, and a good, tough screen for potential students. We need everything that the advocates of paid clergy say we need. But, with a little creativity and care, all of those things are available to us on our own terms. What's more, despite concerns about priest-/ess burnout, our own old ways are perfectly sustainable.

In fact, only our own ways can sustain us as a transformative force for the defense and healing of the Earth. Cultures and communities are systems. A change as drastic as the transition to a full-time paid clergy would set in motion other changes. The logical outcome would be to destroy our unique nature, and assimilate us totally to the culture of ulteriority and domination. Think about what makes us different.

Our first and most Obvious difference from the ways of our neighbors is that we practice our religion in small Circles. Any of us can claim the coven's time, attention and energy at need, and expect to get it. We take it for granted that, at our meetings, every face is visible and every voice is heard. But this visibility is no small thing. It is the basis of our close, family-like bond, a sharp contrast to a society in which isolated and rootless individuals compete against each other for status symbols. We enjoy intimacy. The members of mainstream congregations, which tend to be large, do not.

A circle small enough for intimacy cannot realistically support their priest/ess. A group large enough to do so cannot fit into most living rooms. The cost of renting a meeting room requires even more contributors -to own and maintain our own facilities comes even higher. We'd soon be caught in the trap of cash addiction. Before long we'd be seeing no more than the backs of each others' heads, just like a "normal" religious congregation. Next, those who can contribute more would also be having a greater say in congregational decisions. This loss of equality within the group, along with the loss of intimacy, would erode belief that the Goddess lives in each of us.

And the full time clergy we thought could do so much more for us would instead find much of their time and energy diverted into fund-raising, management and congregational politics. Dependent on their priesthood for a living, they'd be tempted to say whatever the fat cats like to hear, or to judge new seekers by the size of their wallets. As the next generation of priest/esses is chosen, at least in part, by their ability to pay, our disintegration begins to accelerate.

The average mainstream congregation is a middle-Size business; it exists primarily to maintain itself. Yes, we could build institutions just like that. And then we'd have lots of meeting space and the services of full-time religious specialists. Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it. In those massive and impersonal temples, a few pictures and phrases would probably still be recognizable, to remind us of what we once were. But that's not good enough for me. We're used to so much more.

It might seem like we can avoid some of these organizational problems, and still support our clergy, by having them "free lance." But charging directly for ritual services rendered, rather than taking a salary from the congregation, causes even more serious problems. People who lay out money normally expect to get what they pay for. It's difficult to tell a client who has paid for a reading or a healing that the energy is just not there, especially if you depend upon their return business to pay the rent. But the Spirit cannot be bought or forced, it moves as it wills. Faking it, or doing it by rote, however, is the fastest possible road to burnout, which is exactly what supporting our clergy was supposed to avoid.

Our Elders knew what they were talking about: Craft and cash don't mix. Still, let's be clear about the real issue, for money per se does not corrupt. Money, like magic, is a neutral tool. There is no problem, other than aesthetic, with asking for a contribution sufficient to cover the cost of necessary ritual supplies. The corrupting force is ulteriority, however manifested. Money is nothing more than a liquid medium of exchange. As such it is the easiest form of extrinsic reward, the most convenient ulterior motive. If our priest/esses expect or accept any kind of extrinsic compensation, whether that is money or labor or goods, then they are no longer doing the work for need and love and pleasure

This time of crisis is a time of changes, of great danger and great opportunity, and of the rebirth of hope. We may deceive ourselves by settling for superficial change, but we can't fool Mother Nature for very long. We can reach a world of peace and Partnership can be ours, but we not by way of Dominance and ulteriority. We need to change our ways, not just our symbols, because what we get in the end will be created by the means by which we achieve it. As always, the choice is ours. May the Lady's love, poured forth upon the Earth, be our example.



"The World in Her Hands" illustration, Copyright © 1991by D. Murray.

Copyright © 1991, 1999 by Dawnblaze. All rights reserved.
Revised: 04 Jan 2002 06:13:24 -0500

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