The Roles Filled by Clergy, Explained

I interviewed a prospective student recently and asked her what her goal was with training. What did she eventually want to do with information I taught her? She said she wanted to become a High Priestess. I asked her what she meant by that, and she couldn’t explain it to me.

I’m not surprised. It seems like such a simple concept, but there’s more to it than many of us think. Breaking down the different roles filled by a High Priestess – or really any clergy member – isn’t exactly a regular conversational topic, and it’s not covered in the intro books either.

Why not?

We Pagans and Polytheists are reinventing the wheel in several areas. It’s part and parcel of trying to simultaneously revive ancient practices, meld those practices into modern life, and create something that will endure into the future.

Thing is, there’s so much assumption going on that figuring out what kinds of roles clergy can fill is sometimes complicated. We don’t have the old definitions (or support structures) to fall back on, and we’re not as yet organized enough as a whole to have new ones.

So let’s take this apart and look at it. What are the different roles filled by clergy?

The Roles

I’m not claiming to speak for anyone else here – this is my personal classification system, based on my own experience. I’ve separated out the roles filled by clergy into five different categories (and associated them with different elemental correspondences, because I can): Visionary, Lore-Tender, Ritual Facilitator, Pastoral Care-Giver, and Administrator.

Visionary (associated with Spirit)

The Visionary is the one who sees possibilities – either with their own eyes or with the help of the Powers – and works to bring them about. Their calling is helping to birth What May Be from What Is, to guide their vision from potential to manifestation. They have new concepts about or ways of relating to the Powers or other people, and they devote themselves to sharing those ideas with others.

The most obvious Visionaries are those who are intentionally creating new traditions from the ground up. These days they often share their visions through publishing books or blogs, but in times past it involved word-of-mouth and directly recruiting followers.

Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch. One of the more well-known instances of sharing a vision with the general public.

Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch. One of the more well-known instances of sharing a vision with the general public.

The Visionaries dedicated to reform are often harder to peg, especially during their lifetime. They are working within established tradition, and the changes they suggest might happen so slowly that they never see the fruits of their labors. It’s only after they pass that the scope of their reforms either shape the tradition they worked within or grow into something brand-new.

Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha were all Visionaries. So were John Smith and Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson). Gerald Gardner, Starhawk, Raven Kaldera, and Galina Krasskova are more moden Pagan Visionaries. Some people already consider the current Pope to be a Visionary of the reformer variety. It’s not the size of the vision, or its success or failure, but the dedication of the Visionary to the vision that sets this category of clergy apart.

Lore-Tender (associated with Air)

A Sunday class for a Unitarian Universalist group in Maryland.

A Sunday class for a Unitarian Universalist group in Maryland.

Once a tradition is established, it’s the Lore-Tender role of clergy that sustains it beyond the founder. The Lore-Tender is the teacher, the guide, the one who maintains the records and keeps the tradition as close to the founder’s vision as possible. They’re also the ones who allow an established tradition to grow with the times by interpreting and applying old precedent to new situations.

Lore-Tenders are teachers and judges, historians and story-tellers. The best ones have both the authority of their traditions and the ability to temper that authority with compassion, mercy, and humility. The Visionary often sees things in broad swatches and bright colors. It’s the Lore-Tender that breaks down the vision down into something that can be understood by other people and used every day in real life.

An obvious example for this are the Jewish rabbis who debate the Talmud. Many Pagan Lore-Tenders can be found in more Reconstructionist paths, as they interpret ancient manuscripts for a modern age, but anyone who shares what they know with other people is filling this role too. Those handling the religious education for children – Sunday School teachers and the like – also fall under this classification.

Ritual Facilitator (associated with Fire)

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

In many ways this is the role that comes to mind first when people think about clergy. Ritual Facilitators conduct the rituals and liturgy of a given tradition. Their job is to create experiences designed to bring others into liminal space, guide them through a transformative experience, and bring them home again.

While technically this title could be used by a solitary (“I facilitate my own rituals”), this really only applies when referring to someone guiding at least one other person.

Rituals include (but are not limited to) regular services, holidays, rites of passage, and Ordeal rituals.

Pastoral Care-Giver (associated with Water)

The Oracle of Delphi, who spoke prophecy from the Gods to the ancient Greeks.

The Oracle of Delphi, who spoke prophecy from the Gods to the ancient Greeks.

Whenever you have a group, you have people who need support and guidance. Pastoral care covers all the things clergy does to care for group members on an individual level. For the most part, I’ve found that the bulk of this tends to be counseling services.

While we might think at first that counseling would only be about specifically spiritual topics, it usually sprawls far beyond that. The more traumatic an event is, and the more someone wants the assistance/guidance of the Powers, the more likely clergy is to be called. However, calling on clergy for counseling services is certainly not limited to crisis situations. I’ve provided pastoral care for topics ranging from dream interpretation to interpersonal problems to employment concerns.

In addition to the counseling aspects, pastoral care includes doing magick or divination for others, hospital visitations, community building efforts, and regular check-ins. Classes on non-spiritual topics that might benefit members of the group – like budgeting workshops, for instance – would also count as pastoral care.

It’s important to note that while establishing and maintaining boundaries in general is essential for the sanity of clergy people, pastoral care is the area that is hardest to manage. Those drawn to this type of work are naturally compassionate and helpful, and taking a night off from pastoral concerns to play WoW or go on a date probably seems pretty trivial when someone needs help.

This “off time” is critical, though, especially for Pagan clergy. Recent studies indicate that US clergy from all traditions are more at risk than the general population of a number of health problems, including hypertension and depression. A likely explanation of this is “lack of time off from the job, driven perhaps by a sense of duty to both God and humanity to answer every call for help from anybody”. The only exception? Roman Catholic priests, who are required by canon law to take four weeks a year of vacation and attend a spiritual retreat. And that’s when being clergy is their only job and they have other clergy with whom to share the burden. Since Pagan clergy usually have paying jobs in addition to the work they do for their group, and often don’t have anyone with whom they can share the burden, that time off is essential to their health and well-being.

Administrator (associated with Earth)

Every group requires behind-the-scenes work to function. That’s where Administrators come in.

The amount and type of work handled by Administrators varies depending on the group. If a group is more like a casual study circle this is minimal. Once money becomes involved, or the group becomes more established, this escalates. And once property is acquired and/or a group is officially registered as a church the demand for this role jumps dramatically.

Administrators are the unsung heroes of the clergy. They do all the incredibly necessary work that no one notices. It’s the Administrator who files required paperwork, tends the finances, mows the lawn and organizes the candles. They support the work of other clergy too – they stock tissues for the Pastoral Care-Givers, gather supplies and publicize events for the Ritual Facilitators, track and categorize the libraries used by the Lore-Tenders, and make sure the Visionaries remember to eat every now and then.

If only I’d known being clergy was THIS fancy!

If only I’d known being clergy was THIS fancy!

You might have noticed that few of these tasks are skilled labor. Anyone can stock toilet paper, and you don’t have to be a member of the clergy to do the accounting. That’s very true. Most traditions spread that work out to laypeople, allowing their clergy to focus on the tasks only clergy can do.

Pagan groups rarely have that luxury. I think our biggest hurdle here is that our groups are simply too small. When a congregation numbers in the hundreds, it’s easy to either find a few volunteers for these kinds of tasks or gather enough money to hire someone else to do it. Many Pagan groups can count their members on one hand, though, and even groups with their own property number in the tens far more often than the hundreds. Even larger groups are often too physically scattered to make traveling long distances to do housekeeping tasks a viable option.

This is where many groups stumble and fall. Administrative work is not glamorous. It’s not all woo-woo, it’s not showy, and there’s very little praise to be had here. Rewards tend to be limited to a personal sense of satisfaction found in doing a job well. There is no end-date, no resting on laurels, and no vacation. The grass grows even if no one’s doing anything, the accounting needs to be handled even between Sabbat rituals, and toilet paper needs to be stocked regardless of the type of event happening at the time. Even the most well-intentioned groups fall apart when these aspects are neglected.

When these tasks start slipping, nine times out of ten it’s the clergy for the group that steps in and tries to hold everything together. Acknowledging this trend as an aspect of Pagan clergy work is just realistic.

While Pastoral Care-Giving usually requires the firmest boundaries, it is the Administrative area of clergy work that seems to lead to the most burnout.

That’s a lot to do!

It is, no question. Once it’s all laid out like this it’s pretty obvious why established traditions often pay their clergy. It really is a full-time job, and in many cases a clergy person is on-call 24/7 to boot. Requiring them to have a full 9-5 on top of that makes everything that much harder. It requires a ton of training, commitment, care, and time to fill any of these roles in a way that does honor to both the Powers and the group, much less all of them.

I wrote this as if all the roles were filled by separate people, but in real life Pagan groups one person often has to fill all of them (hopefully with at least some occasional help!). However, keep in mind that each clergy person will find themselves more comfortable in some roles than they are in others, and the comfort areas are the ones they’ll naturally focus on. The Visionary might have a hard time staying on top of inventory, someone who excels at the one-on-one required in a counseling session might freeze up when facilitating a ritual, and someone who loves to teach what’s been established might have a hard time reforming what they teach.

That’s ok. It’s a bit much to expect one person to do all of these different things. However, seeing it all laid out makes it easier to find people to fill the roles best suited to their natures, and doing that will allow our groups to grow and flourish now and into the future.

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