In Support of a Pagan Laity

“Clergy” is a loaded term for any faith, but it becomes especially problematic when coming at it from a Pagan perspective.

Definitions vary, but for me the difference between “layperson” and “clergy” is fairly basic. Most people focus their spiritual practice on themselves. Their spirituality is largely self-contained, and their personal spiritual fulfillment comes from their own connection with Divinity. Others find that their spiritual practice and fulfillment is dependent on serving others. Both of those types of people would fall into what I consider to be laypeople. However, when a need to serve combines with a calling to some sort of leadership role we get clergy.

This important and distinct difference gets glossed over entirely too often.

I think the line gets blurred because most of today’s Pagans are converts from other faiths, and they’re converts because the faith they grew up with didn’t meet their needs. When they finally find a faith that speaks to their soul, they just jump in without checking in with themselves first. By the time they do that they shrug and keep forging ahead, afraid of losing that spiritual home.

Personally, I tried really hard to force myself to be Christian when I was younger. It didn’t work. The stories and tenets didn’t make sense to me. Being a “good Christian” would have required me to ignore or hide my true self, compromise my principles, and make what I believe to be unethical choices. Nothing against Christianity – it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

Finding Paganism was a revelation. THIS fit. Suddenly I had a place, and the relief was intense. When you light a match in a dark room the brightness is overwhelming. It is easy to see how people new to Paganism would take that bright, shiny “I’m home” feeling and confuse it with “this is my entire life now”. Especially when we’re encouraged to make that commitment from the get-go.

It’s fairly common in the Pagan community to take on a clergy title -“priest” or “priestess” – early in the initiation process. By becoming Pagan it is assumed that you’re serving the Gods, and that by doing so you’re automatically somehow serving the larger community.

This is incorrect on two fronts. The first one is that not all Pagans believe there are Gods to serve in the first place. Some people very happily see all deities as Jungian archetypes, or universal principle made manifest, or Divinity as being in everything and so faceless, or … you get the idea. The idea that the Gods are actually distinct individuals with preferences and personalities who deserve and perhaps require worship is not even the majority in Paganism, much less the default option!

Even if the Pagan newbie does believe in individual deities, they might not know how to conceptualize that. I wasn’t really taught how to serve even the Christian God as a child. Sure, I knew how to follow the rules, but study? Devotional practices? Regular prayer? Writing rituals myself? Holidays that focused on church more than presents? That was what monks and nuns and priests did – not me. I was just supposed to show up. Once my practice started incorporating all of these other elements, the only mental category I had for it was clergy. I don’t think I’m unique in that.  And I certainly didn’t know where to start!

So that whole idea – that all Pagans are serving the Gods and so the community -is simply incorrect, either through lack of belief or lack of skill.

That assumption neatly ties into another one, that is almost an unspoken rule in Pagan circles: Pagan newbies will take on some sort of leadership role in the larger community as soon as their skills are developed enough. Again, this just is not true. But everyone is railroaded into a group leader/clergy path, whether or not they are called to it, because it’s simply the next accepted step in Pagan practice. You learn the basics, then turn around and begin teaching and leading others. That’s just The Way It Is, and those who resist that way are essentially admitting that they’re not advanced enough to handle it. Which means their perspectives and skills are overlooked or ignored.

There isn’t an accepted place for the experienced and skilled Pagan layperson, a middle ground between “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I am called to lead a group”. This is sad.

I know people right now who are serving as clergy without feeling called to do so. It’s the price they pay for remaining in the public community long enough to know which end of an athame is sharp, and expected if they are going to gain acceptance in a specific group. They are not clergy by my definition – they are artists, warriors, scholars, bards, healers, diviners, lovers. Their necessary and beautiful spiritual gifts are being pushed aside and neglected because they feel pressured and compelled to be something they’re not. Not only is all their free time consumed by something that doesn’t nurture them, they don’t have time left over for the things that do. This leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, self-martyrdom, and eventually leaving the Pagan community in self-defense. At the same time, the entire community is losing out on all the contributions these unwilling clergy could be making, if people would simply back off and give them space.

I also know people right now who know, deep down, that they will never fulfill their spiritual potential without a community to serve and a group to lead. Their gifts are all about counseling, teaching, group work, administration, and ritual facilitation. But finding people who could teach them the skills they need to capitalize on their talents is more difficult than it should be. They have no way of knowing who is serving out of sincere desire and who is serving out of duty, so they have to wade through all the passive-aggression, all the martyrdom, to find someone who gets it and can teach them. While this is going on, they see demonstrated all around them that serving the community will suck them dry, that they won’t have a life outside of it, that they have to bravely accept feeling empty and soldier on despite it. These views are internalized, and this attitude translates into the work they do.

Is it any wonder that many people reach a Journeyman level and retreat from the public scene rather than continue to offer their unique perspectives? That newbies have to get most of their instruction from books, and don’t even know which books to start with? That finding teachers and/or books for advanced topics is such a challenge?

Group leadership is no more important, valid, or devoted a path than the artist who connects to their Gods every time they create, the scholar who finds understanding through history, the lover who feels union with Divinity at orgasm.  They all serve in their own ways.

Laypeople serve different functions than clergy, but they are no less important or valuable. We need to start offering respect, support, and validation of their individual experience. The better we are at doing this the more fulfilled we’ll be as Pagans, the stronger we’ll be as a community, and the better we will serve our Gods.