Big Name Pagans, Ministerial Formation, and the Calling.

BNPs. It is a phenomenon that Peter Dying and Crystal Blanton have brought into the pagan blogosphere recently.  And, as someone who has pondered aspects of leadership deeply as I work towards my M.Div at Union Theological Seminary in New York, I have had occasion to think about identity, leadership, ministerial formation, and contemporary pagan theological identity quite a lot.

When we are in seminary, engaging in the process of theological debate, discernment, encounters with problematic texts and traditions, and the nature of the world’s injustices,  our calling is something we constantly refer to, explicitly or implicitly.   The cost of attending any 3 year divinity school program is high- not just financially, but emotionally, intellectually, and at times, physically.   Over and over again, our calling is being challenged, and I find it  transformative.

Our neo-Pagan tmodels of leadership, as I have seen over my twenty years of being on the path, first as solitary and then as a coven member, coven leader and now organizer of NYC Pagan Pride, evolved from the role of Priest/ess, and not from the role of minister.   There is a big difference in my mind, although often they may seem to overlap. Calling is at the root of it.  Paganism’s strength, as well as its weakness, is that we are all engaged in a never-ending  process of priest/ess-hood. But we seldom talk of that priest/priestess- hood as a calling.

On many levels our “priesthood of all believers”  is good- the ways in which one individual can contribute to our vast and anarchic  community are as unlimited as the talents and inclinations of individuals in that community. For some that may mean “Big Name Pagan” activities- such as writing books, teaching public classes, starting temples, or, on the grass roots level, leadership in community gatherings and efforts to contribute to inter-faith and other justice issues that have their impact in the wider world outside our community. For others, just leading a coven, volunteering, or  counsel people with divination is enough.

In seminary, we devote a whole year to what is known as ministerial formation- what is the true nature of your calling? What should you know about your calling?  Through a variety of means- internships and group discussion, analysis of leadership models, and critical thinking about everything from ministerial ethics to self-care, we are challenged to take our unique  urge to serve and turn it into a vast tool-kit of self-knowledge.

I have the luxury of engaging in this process because I am here and paying for it.  I am learning to become, in effect, a minister- no matter what my career path after seminary might eventually be.  As I have learned from joining the Unitarian Universalist denomation, organizational standards help to create ministers.  A desire to lead, teach, and be out there in our community of priests is a wonderful thing.  But it does not always lead to the creation of ministers- to those who are serving. In our community, the Big Name Pagans (a term I also hate!)  become our models of leadership. But those who become leaders in our community are leaders for a variety of reasons and ways. In short: their calling might not be our calling. We may decide to become ministers, and not priests. To be chaplains,  and not writers.  To teach liturgy,  but not magic. To be artisans, and offer ministry through music, art, or dance.  To be a liturgist in a community of six, rather than an author who reaches the entire community with well-written, inspiring books.

As a whole, our neo-Pagan theology has done extremely well in dreaming our culture into being.  It can be argued that over the past century earth-centered theology has moved from an “underground” practice to a foreground faith practice- with its own set of theologians, leaders, and scholars who are busily engaged in defining our worldview and modeling what it means to be actively engaged as pagans in the world today- aware of the past, present, and future, and committed to the long haul. This is big, exciting leap into an often hostile world- a leap that comes with the assumption that our entire theology, community, and being has something to add to the world, and has its impulse in the Unseen.  If not for the healing of ourselves and the world, then why engage in the path of a priest/ess at all?

But we are still catching up in our efforts to create forums that can apply that theology to the needs and traumas of life through the quiet ministerial skills of chaplaincy, life-span religious education, and other modes of service.  Thank the God/dess for schools like Cherry Hill Seminary and other places that are leading the vanguard in this direction; at Cherry Hill and other places, we will to formulate our own stands of ministerial formation. This is not to say that you must have an academic degree of any kind to serve the pagan community effectively. What I am advocating here is a conscious effort to foster a sense of calling, and all the training and introspection that comes with it, in our community. This can be done in any number of ways – but most of all, it should come through our leaders and teachers who are in a position to “hand down” our theology  to the generations that come after.

We may cringe, and I think rightly so, at the idea of “Big Name Pagans” . The implication is that there is a separation of worth between those whose priestly efforts, whose individual callings, have gained them fame in our community, and those whose efforts have not.  Some of us, it is implied, have “made it” with our need to contribute to our community, and some have not. Maybe what we need, instead of labels, is to take a page from another religious tradition and start towards developing a pagan flavored set of skills- the set of skills necessary to discern and formulate an authentic, richly endowed calling.

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