Priesthood, from the perspective of the pagan community is not always seen in a positive light. It’s understandable, if you come from a traumatic experience with Christian priests (and ministers, outside of Catholicism.) Even those not from a Christian background have probably experienced a bad pagan priest or two. Priests are, afterall, human, and prone to the same weaknesses as the rest of humanity- burnout, greed, self-centered, power, control…
We all have heard the saying “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and I know it is true. We’ve seen it over and over. It doesn’t need to be true, but there is something within our own human nature that makes power an incredibly seductive creature. Priests that become predators, taking more for themselves, declaring themselves above others, and with a self importance that feeds nothing but their own ego.
This is why even our holy people- priests, priestesses, clerics, elders, shamans, whatever we call and name them can fall. I can’t speak of other religions- I do believe they work to reduce and eliminate corruption but it falls short since those in power are the ones policing, and are thus working in a sort of paradox. But I can speak a little of pagan priesthood and what I've seen and experienced.
We don’t have an organized priesthood, and I think that this is both good, and bad. It’s good, because we don’t fall into the same sort of paradox where the ones in power are watching over themselves. In the end, no one ends up being responsible for the “souls” of the people- our practices are so individual and personal that soul care becomes the responsibility of the owner of the soul. It’s bad because there’s no standards for pagan clergy- in fact, anyone can call themselves a priest, priestess, shaman, völva, and it’s very hard to verify their practice and training. This isn’t always a bad thing- but it does increase the risk for scammers, fakers and liars. When a pagan priest begins to act questionably, who does the community turn to? Sometimes each other, and the priest is run out, but it feels the more likelier of circumstances is the entire community is brought down- sometimes to the point of division and such a poor taste left in our mouths that no one wants to be a part of a community any longer.
The good thing about pagan priesthood is the fact that in the end of all things, we aren’t that needed. Pagan priests are not there to mediate between you and the Gods. They aren’t there to sanctify, hear confession and grant absolution. This may be controversial, but good pagan priests aren’t there to do anything but guide. Some might say lead, but as a hard polytheist, the ones that lead are the Gods, and it’s my experience that the Gods don’t care for titles and appointed positions. At a recent workshop, someone used the term torch bearer to describe her role as priestess, and it resonated with me so much.
So why Pagan priests? What good are they? In my opinion, the answer is training and experience. There are some good things that can come out of working with a priest. Inexperienced pagans can learn from priests, just as the young can learn from the elders. This isn’t to claim that priests are “better”, because just as elders can also learn from the young, priests can learn from the community around them. Priests, good priests, of the community are skilled with listening skills, with communication skills as well as contain maturity and know-how that can help a community and individuals along their journey. If you think about therapy- you can talk to your friends, your family about your problems, but going to a therapist offers a better solution when you need unbiased, trained ears. As a priest, I have gone through training to listen- both to the Divine, and to you, and help guide you through the process of problem solving from a spiritual perspective.
I like to think of myself, and my fellow priests/priestesses are the ones that extend a hand when someone has stumbled. We are shoulders to cry on, we are the friend that can call out your bullshit, and the teacher that says “Shhh, it’s quiet time” when we know you need to listen instead of talking. Going back to that torch bearer analogy from my fellow priestess, the image of a priestess that holds the torch for a person in the dark while they do the work needed to heal is what most comes to mind for me. Priests can help you create the rituals you want for life celebrations- pregnancy, birth, entering adulthood, coming out, transition, marriage, divorce, death. I believe priests are there, or should be there, to help our community carry burdens, and work towards a stronger people. In a way, it has little to do with speaking for the Gods, and everything to do with being a tool for the Gods. One of the most important part of my training for oracle work has been to let go of my ego- and that applies outside of oracle work. I think it really applies to most work done as a priest.
Of course, I started this article saying power corrupts, and while that is true, there are ways to reduce that power struggle. No one priest should stand above any other. No one priest should have the final say- priests should work together, checking in with each other, sharing their thoughts and ideas, and encouraging one another to discern. Just like any sort of organization, priests can confer with one another, ask for input and advice. Fellow priests should be there to call out any bullshit we see, including misinformation, corruption, ego, and appropriation.
There are a couple of books that come to mind on all of this: Reverend Lora O’Brien’s book A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood: Community Leadership and Vocationwhich is from a more generalize perspective (and a much needed book, in my opinion.) Stephanie Woodfield’s book Priestess of The Morrigan: Prayers, Rituals & Devotional Work to the Great Queenis more specific to The Morrigan, but that doesn’t make it any less useful. There’s some good stories and lessons within it that can be applied to any deity worship and priesthood experience. (She also has another book coming out in November- Dedicant, Devotee, Priest: A Pagan Guide to Divine Relationships which I’m really looking forward to, and I believe it from a more generalized perspective.) There’s also The Pagan Leadership Anthology by Shauna Knight which has a lot of advice and perspective from practicing pagan leaders.
Just as our pagan practices look different from one another, so do our priests. And yet, in all of the communities I’m in, we’re able to cast aside our differences to work together. In the community to The Morrigan I am in, I work with priestesses and priests of all different sides of Wicca, witchcraft, Heathen, polytheism (both soft and hard), and druidism, all with different traditions and practices to do one thing: Devote our time, and energy to The Morrigan in a communal fashion. Teach about her, and aid her devotees and dedicants in finding each other and Her.
I am not ordained in any particular tradition. I have been in training for several years, am a student at Cherry Hill Seminary in two different programs, and have been called one of the “big, badass priestesses” doing her (The Morrigan’s) work by big, badass priestesses I love and respect. For some, this is enough, and I’m a part of the pagan priesthood. Soon, I will be offering my services as priest in the form of spiritual counseling, and spiritual direction. It’s something I’m very excited to do- pagan friendly therapists can be hard to come by and I hope to give my community something special. Spiritual counseling, something I’ll explain in a later post, is not psychotherapy, but can be just as useful, and a welcome change perhaps for pagans who seek someone who won’t dismiss their pagan beliefs and practices.
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