A Priestess, Not a Pastor
Should pagan clergy engage in pastoral counseling? Maybe not...
I am not a Christian now, but I was for a long time. I've read the Bible cover to cover. I've been involved in a church and even led Bible studies. I have availed myself of pastoral counseling. These days, if you haven't noticed, I am a pagan and a witch. I am a member of a "wicca-adjacent" witchcraft tradition that embraces inclusive paganism, focusing on both Celtic and Norse pantheons. As part of my work within my tradition, I teach students. I am called a High Priestess, but I am not a legally licensed clergyperson in my state, so I am not able to legally "marry and bury" as they say. I do, however, lead Sabbat celebrations and other types of rituals in my community.
Most of the folks who take up leadership in the pagan and witchcraft community do so with the best of intentions. Many get trained, either in the context of their initiating traditions, or through formal seminary programs and other leadership programs. Most do it because they want to be of service to those local to them who are on the path, and who need help. After all, community is a powerful thing that provides protection, healing, a sense of belonging and much needed resources. If we have learned nothing from this pandemic, we have learned that none of us does this alone. We need each other, a community of people around us, to survive and thrive.
It is perhaps natural that pagan leaders should look for examples to follow, models to guide practices from more "established" religions and spiritual practices. Our Priests and Priestesses are, for the most part, not professional clergy, inasmuch as most of them have other employment, other means by which they pay their bills. There is still, within the pagan community, a bit of a sense that we are a "younger sibling" to more established spiritual traditions, and therefore have something to prove.
It would make sense that when we think about borrowing ideas, we borrow from those traditions that are close to us in proximity and with which we might already have some familiarity. Christianity is still the dominant religion in the United States, and many of us started out at least nominally as Christians.
We need to be very cautious, however, of drawing too many parallels between our spiritual traditions and pathways and those of our Christian neighbors. It's simply not true that we should expect our pagan leaders to offer the same kinds of relationships and services as our Christian counterparts. I tell people -- I am Priestess, not a Pastor. There IS a difference.
One of the activities that I find most problematic for pagan leaders is the idea that we can offer pastoral counseling. I am not a psychologist. I have not trained as a counselor. While I am a good friend and I like to think that I am a good listener and can offer good advice to help people address a wide range of personal problems, I am simply not a trained professional of any stripe, and it would be disingenuous to offer myself up as someone who can be a counselor to anyone. There is a huge tradition of pastoral counseling in Christian traditions. Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions also have traditions of counseling among their clergy and leaders as well. It is natural that pagan clergy might want to be able to offer a similar service to the communities they work in. But there are reasons why pagan leaders might want to rethink this.
For starters, most Christian denominations have an administrative structure, often international in scope, that trains, supervises and supports its clergy. While certainly some priests and pastors slip through the cracks of Christian clergy administrative structures (looking straight at you, Catholic Church....), the fact is most Christian clergy have a backstop to turn to when they run into situations that are overwhelming or tricky, and parishioners have a means to hold clergy accountable. Pagan leaders may have elders within their tradition to reach out to when faced with a difficult situation, or peers they respect, but there really isn't much formal training in counseling, and not a whole lot of tools to hold clergy accountable or provide support when things get rough. If you're a pagan Priestex trying to provide counseling to members of your community, you're pretty much a trapeze artist working without a net. And the potential for you to go splat is not insignificant.
Because pagan leaders often get little training in counseling, many of them are unaware of the full extent of the responsibility they undertake, both ethically and legally. There is a reason why we require secular counselors to get credentials from licensing authorities. Caring for someone's mental health requires skill, and when people seek counseling, they are doing so because they feel they cannot manage their problems on their own. Thinking that you have what it takes to manage someone's serious mental illness issues without the necessary training is pure hubris, and it makes you a danger to those you are counseling. It is often very hard to tell how deep a person's problems go at first blush. An untrained, inexperienced counselor will likely miss important signals, or fail to ask the right questions that would identify the need for more serious medical or legal intervention.
I keep raising the issue of legal intervention because it is a very real issue. Most jurisdictions in the United States make it illegal to practice medicine without a license, and this includes psychological counseling. While there are exceptions for pastoral counseling, if you do not have official clergy credentials, this exception might not be available to you. Moreover, assuming the role of counselor in a relationship carries legal responsibilities to the community. Those who serve as counselors are often "mandatory reportoers," meaning they may have a legal duty to report to the appropriate authorities in certain situations where a person being counseled has become a danger to themselves or someone else, or in situations where a child is being abused. If you aren't fully versed in whether you are a mandatory reporter, and under what circumstances and to whom you must make a report, you are doing a disservice to your community and to those you are counseling, not to mention opening yourself up to significant and real legal liability, and in some cases prosecution from the state.
Another thing to keep in mind is that in pagan communities and witchcraft traditions, our Priests and Priestesses often have a very different relationship with those we lead than Christian pastors have with their parishioners. In an oathbound tradition in particular, you have made a mutual commitment to work with each other, and the hierarchical nature of the relationship carries with it the imprimatur of authority over your student. Put more simply -- your words, thoughts and opinions, both expressed and implied, may be perceived as being commands or requirements, even when you don't mean them to be. The danger that your student will feel obliged in ways that are unhealthy definitely exists. When you then also take on the role of counselor, there is even more of a danger that appropriate boundaries between you and your student will be violated. Christian priests and pastors are often authority figures as well, but the nature of oaths taken in witch traditions is much more personal, and therefore feels much more binding and authoritative than the bond that might exist between pastor and parishioner.
Even in relationships that are not oathbound, there can be this danger. As a practitioner of the craft you are seen as having knowledge and abilities that make you personally powerful. You know things and can do stuff that other people can't. And while you and I both know that doesn't really make you anything special, there will be people who see that as conferring on you a certain status and authority. They will want you to tell them what to do about their problems because they see your magical practice as making you smarter or wiser than them. It is a dangerous thing to start believing this about yourself. This is one of the reasons why I remind people over and over again that anything I say that passes for wisdom is the result of surviving my own stupidity. The witch that allows themselves to be placed on a pedestal, insisting they need not be vulnerable to anyone, that insists on hiding their mistakes, is setting themselves up for a big fall, and they won’t be the only ones hurt.
So where does that leave us? Pagans need access to good mental health care. Pagans need access to good counselors. If a person feels called to provide that care and counseling to the community, they should do what is necessary to ensure that their offering to the community is of the highest quality. Given the demands in terms of training and knowledge base and the practice itself, they may wish to consider whether they have the ability to be both Priestex and Counselor. Personally, I cannot do both.
That said, as leaders and teachers, it does behoove us to have something more to offer our community and especially to those in crisis than "I'm not a counselor." If there are pagan-friendly therapists in your area, get to know them for referral purposes. Educate yourself enough about proper practices for managing people in distress so that when people do come to you in crisis you can successfully triage the situation and then refer them to a more appropriate resource. Be up front with your community about who you are, what you will and won't do.
Most importantly, be authentic and vulnerable with those around you. Allow people to see your flaws and your struggles, and be willing to ask for and receive help as well as give it. The pagan world benefits more from a stronger community with a rich life of give and take than it does from a patronizing leader who presumes to know what is best for everyone else. A community that allows us to bear each other's burdens and lift each other up is perhaps the greatest benefit to the mental health of its members. We know from research that many of the biggest problems we face as humans -- addiction, quality of life in old age, depression -- are better handled when we are enmeshed in a supportive community.
As a Priestess that is part of my charge -- to help build up new witches, and help build a community that celebrates and serves the gods, the natural world and humanity itself. It's why I lead rituals. It's why I teach. And to be good at it I must be in the trenches with everyone in my community, those that I circle with, those that are in oath relationships to me, and those who are not. It is a charge to lead by serving, to show the strength in vulnerability, and above all, to love with commitment and devotion and abandon. It means giving up the need to control and the need to feed ego. It's a demanding enough job all on its own, and one that I wouldn't trade for anything.