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Home My Articles, The Tree Pagan Clerics


Pagan Clerics

I was asked to write this article by a visitor to my site. It is my pleasure to do so. This is one of those topics that I feel should be discussed. Many people don’t think about it unless confronted with it. It’s important to think about these things before you go shopping for a Priest/ess to learn from or a coven to join.

It’s important to sit down and come up with a list of qualities you want in you clergyperson and in your rituals. Some common sense should be part of this process. It’s important to build the ideal cleric, but it’s just as important to understand that the “benchmark” you set in your individual quest for a cleric is only a goal and that all clerics are, of necessity, human.

I asked a list I’m a member of what qualities should be sought for in a cleric of the reader’s tradition, and I got a wave of answers. It’s a laundry list of desired characteristics. I’ll discuss those particulars with you in a bit.

With the rise of the Internet as a teaching tool, it is possible for anyone to have a national presence and be considered an authority on any subject they care to claim.

As a result, I feel that THE quality that one should have as a Cleric is the ability to function as the best representative of his or her path that is possible to be. When a layperson or those who are not Wiccan think of your tradition, the representative of your path should be the one they think of at that point. Ideally, this is the local cleric of that path as much as it is a nationally known representative of that tradition.

Ultimately your chosen cleric should compare favorably with people like Doreen Valiente and Raymond Buckland. S/he should be able to comment intelligently on what specific Neo-Pagan, Canaric faiths are to the public at large and calm the uninformed average “everyperson’s” fears about those who are Neo-Pagan. S/he should also be self-confident enough to admit to NOT knowing information if that is appropriate.

Now, I will admit that this is a high ideal to try to aspire to. I’m not sure I could qualify.

On a practical level, look for someone who embodies the best of the path you are following. More often than not, s/he will be one of the good Clerics.

The community laundry list starts with Commitment with a capital “C”. When searching for a cleric this is number one. While some may feel that this refers to the papers used put the person in question into the “funny farm”, but commitment is more than just mental instability. Commitment embodies a willingness to keep going when it is hard; when a person is tried and fed up. It is resolve in the face of adversity and a desire to keep going because the cleric feels compelled to continue with ministering and teaching others.

Commitment also entails loyalty. Loyalty to the students s/he is teaching and loyalty to a leader of his/her own. Everyone will grow and change. Some may take a different path than the one started on. Loyalty means keeping in touch, being aware of each other. It also means when the teacher declares a class will meet at such and such time and place, they show up on time and prepared and so do the students.

An additional type of commitment is to the lifestyle. What good is it to learn from a “teacher” who adamantly insists, “Members of this path live by the Rede”, and then goes out and harms everyone she can think of simply because she likes the ego trip? That’s hypocrisy plain and simple. This is a way of life, one that demands that we, as a group, continuously recommit ourselves to improving our lives and improving the lives of those around us. Among other things, this means being ecologically conscientious. How can one say they love the Earth and continue to use items that harm it?

Responsibility can take many forms, but the one we should focus on here is the ability to do what you have said you will do. It’s also taking the credit and blame for problems that occur. It also means they need to be able to think ahead and see potential problems and deal with them in a pro-active manner before they become problems.

If s/he is the leader of a group, be it coven, Yahoogroup, or study group, s/he should be reasonable in all s/he does. An example: when teaching a class, a student starts to disrupt the class. A reasonable leader would speak with the unruly pupil privately, more than once if necessary. If the behavior persists, then the person should be asked to leave, their money, if any, should be refunded and the erstwhile student should be banned from the class. If they continue still, it is time to call the authorities, particularly if the gathering is in the teacher’s home. This should not be done out of rancor, anger or hatred, simply out of a sense of wanting to provide value for the rest of the students.

Additionally, being responsible may include letting that person back into the class should their attitude change. This would be mercy in action. It is possible the person who was being a jerk was doing so out of displaced anger, having a bad day or it was just that time of the “moonth”. Everyone has bad days and a wise leader and Cleric understands and appreciates this. At the same time, a jerk is a jerk and usually not subject to change. A cleric must be strong enough to say no, mean it and stick with it.

The cleric in question also understands that it is ok for him/her to have a bad day too. Granted, it is bad form for every day to be a bad day, but on occasion a cleric should allow duties s/he have taken on to be done by others. Once again, it needs to be moderated with common sense (another very rare quality) and should stay in the realm of “once in a while”.

A good cleric should ideally have a good sense of humor, and an excellent sense of the ridiculous especially when it comes to him or her-self. S/he should laugh when laughter is appropriate. If Wicca is about honoring the Gods and the Earth, and we are of the Gods and the Earth, then how is acting like a human being dishonoring the Gods? I have heard My Lord and Lady laughing a time or two in Ritual, and it added to the ritual. Yet, certain Priest/ess act like it is a bad thing to act human.

Need I say that a whining cleric is someone who should generally be avoided? Someone who is constantly bemoaning their life and telling everyone that they are in a bad place and how horrid things are to the simplest of polite questions is a drain on your energy. Worse, you may feel that it’s your duty to do something to make their life better, and that ultimately only perpetuates the problem. Clerics that wail about their burdens and how much they have to do are in my opinion bragging about their duties and playing martyr for their own gratification. Run, run hard, run fast.

It is fine to take on new projects and learn new things in fact, not learning is death. Taking on so many that you are overwhelmed isn’t.

Our ideal cleric will be supportive of others when needed, and ready with a boot in the buttocks when that is necessary. S/he will be able to see when someone is being lazy and not doing what needs to be done, and s/he will be able to take action and get them going.

S/he will assume that everyone has an inherent worth and they will act towards others with that ideal foremost in his/her mind. S/he does not casually belittle others simply to assert their dominance or authority.

This understanding of the worth of others allows our ideal to the acceptance of another’s path, even when it is not one s/he would personally follow. S/he can see the good, helpful and hopeful things that Christianity or Buddhism or Satanism offer the practitioners of those paths. S/he understands that the paths of others work for those who follow them. The cleric allows the individual the right to the freedom to follow those paths without making judgments about someone as a person.

S/he doesn’t make unilateral judgments about anyone. For instance, at one point I had written an article on tolerance that (ironically and hypocritically) was very intolerant of Satanism. Through direct experience and through study, I found that most of my assumptions about Satanism were wrong as a result; I modified the article to reflect that. It’s this kind of learning, the admission of fallibility, the ability to admit being wrong and a willingness to change that is one of the many qualities denoting a good clergyperson.

Having said that let me say this. A good cleric is able (or should be) to make judgments when the situation calls for them. For example, s/he can look at a practitioner of his/her religion, think about the dogma and morals of his her own path, and make a judgment about another member regarding their practice of a shared tradition. If, in the cleric’s opinion the other member is not following the correct path, it is his/her duty to deal with the errancy of the person in question.

When called upon to be the representative of his/her path on an interfaith council for example, s/he is able to represent his/her path well and defend with intelligence points of faith or dogma s/he may be challenged on by others. Please note, I say defend, not stridently scream about. Many of us have been graced by those who have decided to latch on one point or another of practice and scream about how evil it is. This does not obligate the clergy person in question to scream about a single point at the top of his/her lungs. In fact, it is crucial that our cleric be able to speak on many issues with humor, wit and intelligence.

S/he will most often have to be able to distinguish between an attack on their opinion, on their facts and on him or her-self. This means s/he should be able to debate things properly, without making it personal. Everyone has opinions. Facts need to be challenged as new facts come to light. Being able to remain calm, able to know when to accept criticism, when to defend oneself and how to do it without getting flustered or hurt is a vital skill for our ideal candidate.

One thing I feel that is of critical importance is a willingness to learn about other paths. It is necessary for many reasons. First and foremost, it will keep the cleric in question from stumbling when s/he deals with other faiths or when talking about another faith. How can a Priest speak about Shintoism, what it means to be Shinto and how a believer worships if they don’t know anything about it? It would make the priest in question look very idiotic at the least. Unfortunately, more and more priests and priestesses are doing just this, speaking without bothering to learn the facts.

In my fantasies about “if I ruled the world” I would ensure situations similar to ones that prevailed in many AD&D campaigns I participated in. Two priests or priestesses or any combination thereof of different gods could sit down over a pint, argue dogma and revelation, talk about the points of his/her path in opposition to the other’s, pay for his/her ale and move on. It was not in hatred, not in anger, but in the spirit of education and camaraderie that these two to come together. It was done simply to do so, to spread their faith, to talk to others of another path, not from rancor. Unfortunately, inside and out of the Pagan community this kind of thing happens all too rarely. It seems humanity must feel they belong to the one and only “My religion is better than yours!” club or it just isn’t any good. Even in defying convention we are conventional, rebelling against “them and they” we have become the thing we despise.

In my notes at this point, I have a long list of qualities that fall under “Intelligence”. Some of it I have written about already, but some of them I have not.

The perfect Cleric should be widely read, is able to speak intelligently on a number of different subjects, even if it’s not in depth on those subjects. Which means they should have a good secondary education, as in having graduated High School with high grades, and possibly done a year or two in College possibly getting a of two-year associate degree. This should give what I feel everyone should know to them and will allow a good Cleric to be able to speak about a majority of topics. Independent of school required reading a wide and voracious appetite for non-fiction as well as fiction is a necessary component as well.

S/he should be aware of and appreciate the difference between book knowledge and actually knowing a subject. For instance, they may have read and understood the mechanics of whaling, how to fire a harpoon, flense a whale and boil blubber, but they should be cognizant of the fact that unless they have actually gone whaling and they don’t know all there is to know about it. They should also state this when they speak on the topic of whaling to others. This would make them honest.

Our ideal should be willing to do research in areas where his/her knowledge is weak. If a question about his/her ritual comes up, s/he should be able to find out where that ritual came from and how it developed into the ritual s/he is doing. S/he should know what references the information may be found in. If s/he doesn’t, s/he should be willing to do the work to find this information, be it on the Internet, in physical books or at the library.

The good cleric should be knowledgeable about his/her own path and the nuances of ritual and dogma. S/he should know what the wand represents and why it represents that, and above all s/he should be able clearly state to others why each symbol is where it is instead some place else. As part of that s/he should be able to articulate why something works or doesn’t work. Explaining the mysteries to someone else might be hard unless the person Ideal is talking to has also experienced the same mystery. Which means s/he should have a good vocabulary and be articulate.

One thing that many people overlook in searching for a cleric is life experience. If a Priest/ess is designing a ritual to celebrate the acquisition of a new home for some practitioner, I feel that the Priest/ess in question should have gained their own home at some time in the past, to be able to adequately put down the feelings and changes that occur with home ownership into the ritual. I think this is one of the major problems people have with a 15-year-old Priestess. She simply doesn’t have the life experience to be able to talk a teen through all the changes of puberty, adolescence and college, and then give good and relevant advice on a new child in the family.

Ideal Clerics should also be able to identify where they are deficient and be able to find someone who knows and has experience in areas they do not. They should seek those elders who can speak about life experiences they haven’t yet experienced.

In the case of our 15-year-old priestess, I’m sure she would rise in people’s estimation if she found others to counsel those who had problems she was unequipped to handle. Finding a mother who had lost a child to counsel a young mother who just lost a child would be more helpful than spouting Silver Ravenwolf platitudes.

Our wise one should also be able to separate good information from the good sounding bullshit. There are a lot of people out there who lie, some for personal profit, some for self-aggrandizement, some simply because they can. Quite a number of the aforementioned are really good at spinning plausible sounding tales. A good cleric should be able to hear it and know which parts are good and which are bullshit, and be able to prove the lies in the truths. Even if the only one they tell is him or her-self, it is critical that s/he knows.

One lady pointed out to me that in most cases this will mean that the Cleric in question is not able to do everything by him or her-self, so it may be that the religion or the path in question winds up with two Clerical types of people, the Priesthood and Ministers.

In this form, the priesthood would be those who think the deep thoughts, the ones who debate and speak as the representative of their religion, the ones who study and write the rituals and the ones who actually perform the rituals. The ministers are those who would do the outreach work, counsel others, go to the prisons and talk to the inmates and who go to the hospitals for the same reason. The ministers are the organizational element of the actual church or coven.

I realize that I have used words may be loaded with meaning for some neo-Pagans. Call them Priests/esses and Ministers, Flower Queen/King and Lords/Ladies, call the structure what you wish, don’t let the words get in the way of the deeds. If it works, use it.

No organization can get along for very long without both parts present. Sometimes both are in one person, but often s/he will burn out from trying to do too much. Both should be co-equal in any hierarchy. In Seax-Wicca it would be best if the Priest and Priestess were the “Priesthood”, and the Thegn and Secretary were the “Ministers”. If one were a member of a traditional, Gardnerian coven structure, the High Priestess would be the Priesthood and the Coven Maiden would probably be the Minister.

Splitting the duties this way would allow the Maiden and/or others moving into the Priesthood position time to gain experience in organizing a coven and dealing with the various people problems that come up. This should be supported by the “Priesthood” before going off on his or her own. It would also allow them to gain experience in ritual structure and practice before being thrust into the deep end.

Of course, one must also recognize that no matter how comprehensive this list is, there will be qualities that are not listed simply because they are subjective or path specific. I may not count beauty high on my list of what makes a High Priestess, but one who is a devotee of Aphrodite may see that as a prerequisite. The same goes for alcohol tolerance and the ability to lead a ritual while drunk. I don’t consider that to be a necessary quality, but a Discordian or a follower of Dionysus may see that as one of the qualities that is absolutely essential.

Mostly, I feel, a good Priest/ess or Minister, a true Cleric of the Gods, should love people and his/her path to the point that s/he is considered to be a good person by many, from all walks of life and paths. S/he should be some one that everyone wants to know. It should ideally be possible that when it’s discovered that our Cleric is a Pagan or Wiccan or a Witch, the previous impression they have received about our hero/ine utterly negates any prior impressions the non-pagan had about Neo-Pagans. (Whew, a tongue twister but it’s my fantasy after all.) Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to quantify and even harder to spot in someone else. You might call it the quality of saintliness but that could be considered heretical among Neo-Pagans.

For all who will lead or are leading a group, you must work on developing these qualities in yourself. These are the very minimum qualities I look for when looking for friends and leaders within the community. I have been very fortunate to meet some people who exhibit these qualities, just as I have met many who are judgmental, with no tolerance and so on.

For those who are looking, use the brains the Gods gave you. Don’t jump at the first good sounding Priest/ess who comes along. S/he could be snowing you. Spend some time with them and do your homework about them.

If s/he pressures you to make a choice before you are ready, you should probably go someplace else. Most good Clerics will understand that you need to feel comfortable with them, and they need to feel comfortable with you. If s/he doesn’t understand that, there are hundreds more people out there for you to meet and check on. With grace, and a good sense of who you are, it will be a fruitful search.

Added 7-13-04 One reader pointed out that it’s important to remember that you are looking for qualities that you need to help you grow. You are looking for a catalyst in them to start you on the path you wish to follow, and as such you need ot understand yourself first. Always keep that in mind.

Originally posted 2009-11-11 21:39:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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