Ministry and Duty to Report

Sam Webster —  August 2, 2014 — 38 Comments

Ministers are among the legally mandated with a duty to report abuse. But what a minister is in the Pagan community, is a vague notion. Some folks call themselves ministers or “reverend” because they lead a group of Pagans in religious activity. While this is certainly an appropriate position for a minister, the profession of ministry requires a lot of education (4 to 5 years) and that education is rarely undertaken by Pagan religious leaders.

[Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

The expense is only one of the barriers. Many of self-declared ministers are skilled priest-folk, but that is not the same office as minister. I’ve written about priesthood and ministry elsewhere. In brief, a minister, in most congregations, is at least a Master of Divinity. They have been through an education that is partially academic, but also one balanced by a significant amount of spiritual and personal challenge delivered by a seminary, and informed by the deep experience of those who have gone before.

In the past five hundred years, a significant body of learning and experience has developed in the seminary community, which can only be transmitted by studying in one because it is a culture – not simply information or technique. It is a body of knowledge and skill richly informed by the enormous amount of error that the professional religious community has foisted upon those they serve. This may seem like a strange endorsement, but those errors are the precious stuff of wisdom. Much of the spiritual care that humans benefit from looks no different from spiritual harm. The only way to know is empirical; it has to be tried. Then each success and failure has to be passed to the next occasion and to the next generation of religious professionals. This is done in seminary.

The ‘challenging’ of the minister-in-training is an important part of rendering a human capable of serving and helping another. Mostly, we, who go into the helping professions, do so for egoic reasons, which poisons any help we give. In training for a profession such as social work or psychotherapy, the practitioner has to be ‘broken’ of self-centered impulses. This is no less for the minister-to-be; rather even more so given the spiritual content of their service and profound responsibility that it entails. The ‘challenging’ is an ordeal that tempers the person who would serve in deeply transformative ways.

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

Training is only the first step. It renders the master of divinity fit for the task, but that is only half the story. There must also be the contribution of the community to making an effective minister. This has two parts, one permanent and the other temporal. The first is ordination. This is where a community, often by means of its leadership, acknowledges the training and preparation of a minister-to-be and consecrates that person to the task of spiritually serving that community. This, and whatever act of blessing, sometimes laying on of hands, is what makes a person a ‘Reverend’. The second, more temporal part, is the actualization of that blessing in a call-to-serve a specific community. What is most important to note here is that the community has the power and responsibility to invest its minister(s) with delegated powers and a mandate to act on behalf of and in service to that community.

Which brings me back to the mandated duty to report. Naturally, everyone has a responsibility to report abuse. What is different for those legally mandated to report is that they can be brought up on charges if they don’t fulfill the mandate and report the abuse.

A minster, for the reasons above, has a legally-mandated duty to report sexual abuse of minors, abuse of elders, as well as reporting responsibilities with respect to harm to self (suicide) and harm to others (assault, murder.) This is founded on the presumption that the minister is trained in the ability to recognize abuse and has been given the responsibility to observe, counsel, and correct the community they serve. Without that training, the identification of the problem may produce unacceptable numbers of false positives and negatives. Without the community’s mandate, what right does the minister or person have to speak up?

We can remediate the lack of training with specific training. I hear that at the upcoming COG Grand Council/Merry Meet there will be two different trainings given. One of which is explicitly about the mandated duty to report. This is excellent, although making sure this training is universal for all who take leadership roles is a problem yet to be solved.

However, the more general problem of mandate remains. Outside of our small groups, which is where most of our leadership exercises its (rightful) authority, at larger events where the problem of predatory behavior is more prevalent, who has the mandate to speak? The event coordinators already have their hands full and can’t be everywhere, so other means of observation and reporting have to be present. We can easily acknowledge that leaders in general have this responsibility implicitly. However, we can see from the reports that we have on this problem, this is insufficient to solve it. Some are taking responsibility on themselves, such as the Council of the Phoenix. While noble to step up, who has given them this authority? No one, and so they wisely limit themselves (thus far) to being a resource hub.

[Photo Credit:  RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

[Photo Credit: RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

One approach is to establish a certification body. This would be an organization of members of our Pagan community, presumably with appropriate training, who could then establish standards on the basis of law and best practices. Then individuals, organizations, and events can apply for, duly receive, and proudly proclaim that they have been certified to comply with the law and those practices.

Another approach, which ideally would build on the certification principle, is to establish professional organizations of Pagan leaders and likewise assert the law and best practices. This would then lead to a culture of self-policing. The members of the organization would be mutually bound to observe, report and correct their fellows to maintain the high standards of the organization.

Of course, having more Pagan leaders who have been through the seminary process would also help. Scholarship and other support for those who feel called to the work are ways our community can cultivate good leadership. The Pantheon Foundation in our very first year of operation in service to the community has established the Diotima Prize to provide support (this year $1000) to a Pagan Master of Divinity student.

Yes, this comes down to a matter of power. Who do we empower to act on our behalf? And who will watch the watchmen? These are not easy questions or we would have solved them by now. But, now we have to get to work on them.

More Information:

NCSL: Mental Health Professionals’ Duty to Protect/Warn Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Abuse and Neglect

Missouri: Missouri, Ministers Duty to Report

Washington: Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: A False Dilemma?

California: Mandatory Reporting (Elderly)

California: Mandatory Reporting (Children)

Sam Webster


Sam Webster, M. Div., PhD(c) is an initiate of Golden Dawn, Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions, publisher at Concrescent Press and author of "Tantric Thelema." He founded the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001, and is the Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation.
  • I would love to see the organizations you’re talking about come into being, not only to protect those who would be our ministers as they wade through the complex systems of law our society has created, but also to lend our Pagan spiritualities more legitimacy in the wider world as we start taking responsibility for our larger and smaller communities.

    Cue everyone who says “Why should we conform to mainstream hierarchy?!?” and “We don’t need educated Pagan clergy, it only makes us more Christian!”

    • kenofken

      I’ll take up your cue. Any movement to create a separate caste of ordained “clergy” and the equivalent of pastors and bishops will get zero buy in from me and most of those I know in the movement.

      If you think creating a fraternity or grand council of ordained leaders will somehow lead to a culture of self policing, you may want to look at the record of Catholic Bishops first. College men, every one of them, duly ordained and for a quarter century now, the benefactors and even authors of some very good policies on abuse. With all that, they still engineered the greatest pedophilia ring in modern history. Mandatory reporting laws by themselves are useless, and especially so within the context of clericalism. The instinct is ALWAYS to make the problem go away quietly and avoid scandal. What sort of transparency would this self-appointed Grand Ordained Council (GOD!) have? None. Their “investigations” would all be cloaked in confidentiality and “trust us, we’re the professionals here.” That would work until the victim’s attorneys came calling and pulled all of the skeletons out of the closet and secured a 9-figure judgement against the council, all of the participating congregations and whatever seminary was involved. You think the pagan community has money problems now…

      The abuse and harassment problem in the pagan community is not one of insufficiently professionalized clergy. It is a problem which has arisen largely out of our deference to celebrity culture and our unwillingness for many years to have the difficult dialogue about positive sexuality within a culture of consent. Predation happened primarily because we failed to articulate any bottom line values or confront any of our “star players” on the festival circuit.

      • I believe we can have trained, legal Pagan clergy, AND keep that clergy from becoming the type of “good old boy” fraternity that some Christian clergy has become. We have different beliefs and values, why should our clergy reflect values other than our own? Emphasize service to the community, emphasize accountability, and make it clear that the Pagan clergy are the servants of the wider Pagan community, not the other way around.

        Is this a perfect model? No. There is no perfection. There will always be a users who will take advantage if power. This does not mean we should eschew all forms of clergy just to avoid what is unavoidable.

        Basically, I don’t believe clergy should be LEADERS, they should be servants, and if they lead, it’s by example, and by the choice of the community. This would set us apart from Christian forms of clergy, and perhaps engender more of a culture of accountability.

        There is a great deal the larger Pagan community has avoided discussing.

        • kenofken

          Everyone thinks they can beat the curve of institutional rot and the inertia of human history and nature simply by dint of good intention and purity of heart. Nobody has yet pulled it off in the 200,000 years our species has been around, but there will always be new takers for the scam.

          • Call me stupid, but I’d rather be an aware idealist who keeps my eye out for abusers, but still believes in the dream, than cynic who can’t seem to believe in anything or anyone.

          • kenofken

            I believe in a lot of things, and I believe deeply in the people I surround myself with. I don’t much believe in institutions, and I don’t happen to see the aping of Christian ecclesiastical structures and the desire to remake ourselves into suburban churchianity as “the dream” for modern pagans.

          • It is for some of us, as evidenced by this blog post and by my comments. If you have no interest in being part of it, then don’t.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I want to hold up one point kenofken makes. If the Pagan community sets up a body with responsibility for dealing with abuse at festivals, and the abuse goes on, the institution can be in a world of hurt and the community with it. Word.

        • kenofken

          Who has responsibility for dealing with abuse at festivals? Take the roster of organizers, and staple it to the registration sheets of everyone in attendance. Every one of those folks has an important share of responsibility for a safe atmosphere, and every last one of them is empowered to make important contributions to that end.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I think the proposition that a festival take exactly that physical action, would prompt the most interesting staff discussion of the year. It would focus the institution on the subject, whatever else came of it.

  • Aly

    I agree. Having a seminary that teaches, not necessarily any particular flavor of Paganism, but history, care of congregations, etc, would be great. If we, as Pagans, want this, we need to support this with more than words. Currently, my husband is going through the ordination process. Within his tradition, the congregation supports you through this, and then when you find a church, then you are ordained. That is a simple model that used to be prevelent, and we could borrow that. What is Paganism without borrowing? 🙂 Cherry Hill Seminary has so much potential, and could easily fit this need.

  • Grynner

    We’ve been working toward this end for quite some time now in our little corner of Tennessee. Summerland Grove has been continuously working on our training system…both the general one and our clergy specific. All in all, it takes at least 5 years to get through our training program and become legal clergy. Our program isn’t accredited. ..yet…but that is an eventual goal we are working towards. Our model isn’t perfect yet, but then, even the “big name” pagan seminaries (like Cherry Hill) don’t have national accreditation…yet, but we’re developing a good foundation.

  • Gus diZerega

    Sam, with all due respect, I could not disagree more. Thank the Gods there is no way to create or enforce such an idea. I think the small group united by practice is the ‘natural’ form we will take as a religious community. A coven, grove, or whatever a Pagan tradition might call their smallest unit is far too small to provide a context for professional ministers, and today we have lots of solitaries who do not even participate in covens. They might come together for a Sabbat or similar celebration, but that is about it. To my mind that is our biggest problem insofar as we see ourselves as in any sense an organized community.

    Priestesses and priests may take on special devotional duties to deities, as you have written, but consider how something like that currently works on a large scale.There are shrines and temples to deities and ancestors in several Asian cultures.They subsist on the donations people coming to those shrines make. They are in no sense a congregation. When the deity/spirit ceases to respond, the donations slack off. Take a look at Jordan Paper’s discussion of this in East Asia in his “Through the Earth Darkly: Females Spirituality in Comparative

    I think that is the logic framework for Pagan practice. I suspect our numbers are far too small for anything like this to arise yet, but it seems in harmony with our orientation and East Asia is a modern society.

    There is another very relevant book, though not concerned with religion. Stephen Fox’s “The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and his legacy.” An abiding theme in his book is the contrast between professional and amateur conservationists. Fox argued both were necessary, but on balance the amateurs were the more important. Of course he was not writing about us, but the dynamics he describes are universal, and very instructive for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of amateurs and professionals in a religion. As I understand our situation the advantages of amateurs are even greater among Pagans than within the conservation movement. You described the weaknesses of our current situation and the strengths of a professional ministry. I would suggest that we need to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of both.

    Whatever happens I think will happen organically. My own guess is that in time people will donate enough to establish a site for a small temple to such and such a deity, or perhaps to several. It would be a central location for Sabbats and similar public gatherings, and perhaps rented out for handfastings, funerals, initiations, and so on. There will be enough Pagans in the area to support it through donations and rentals. I seriously doubt there will be enough to support any kind of professional priesthood for a very long time, if ever.

    I have no problem at all with some people receiving special training. It is in its early stages now and as we grow it should increase. But the important skills of service that you describe in your linked post on the nature of ministry need not and I think should not take a form that grew from monotheistic roots reinforced by law. Ours will arise naturally, in response to felt concrete problems within our community. I think they will take on forms quite different from those arising out of Christian traditions.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I think the idea of formally qualified ministers of whatever religious denomination is not only a desirable idea, but a necessary one.

    If nothing else, it provides a guaranteed level of competences for services provided.

    Considering what those services often are, I feel very strongly that there should be some form of regulation involved to protect the users/recipients of said services.

    Sure, it may be unpopular with some, but it does not have to enforce either orthodoxy or orthopraxy at a religious level. Just at the personal level.

    Look at it another way, would you rather go to an DIY enthusiast to build a temple, or your home or to a qualified tradesman (stone mason/builder/carpenter)?

    If you choose the former, then do not be surprised when everything starts falling apart around you.

    I have, myself, given consideration to the vocation of minister-priest but I not only lack the community to minister to, I also lack somewhere to learn the skills required. (All seminaries I have found in the UK have been Christian focused, whereas I need a Heathen one.)

    • Northern_Light_27

      “Sure, it may be unpopular with some, but it does not have to enforce
      either orthodoxy or orthopraxy at a religious level. Just at the
      personal level.”

      What do you mean, at the personal level? How does this square with each group developing its own thew? j/w

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        A major part of ministry is offering personal services such as counselling.

        These kind of skills should be ones that are formally studied and learned and not left up to individuals to do however they want.

        Counsellors, youth workers and the like have codes of practice (and background checks) to prevent the incidence of abuse.

        These kinds of skills are what should be taught (and accredited) to all those who minister.

        That way the religion itself can remain flexible enough to allow for groups to not have to worry about incompatibility or centralism.

  • sonya miller

    I agree with this post. The Atc has set up Woolstein Theological Seminary for this end, and all the ATC affiliates that have Clergy do receive training, we have a “Black Cord Council” that supports us and advises us as Clergy. We are constantly encouraged to always be educating ourselves, and continuing in the next steps to be Better Clergy that serve not only our group; but people in general…for Clergy are Clergy to everyone. It is a calling and a service.

    For those not “into Pagan Clergy” we must acknowledge the fact they are already here, there were here a generation before I occurred and the needs of our people have grown to where they need us for counseling, for marriages, divorces, testimonies in court, for hospital visits, funerals,visits in the Prison system and everything Clergy of any other faith does; we cannot go back…we can only go forward. If we do not adress the need we have; then we our keeping our head in the sand…the time is now and I am so happy to read this post!

  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    Maine Pagan Clergy Association:

  • Makki

    Because of this, I’m thinking of what it would take to go into seminary… but sadly, “seminary” is almost always thought of as being Christian (even though there are other seminaries, of course) – plus there is the income/cost issue. But hearing Pagan voices on this subject helps, and gives me hope.

    • kenofken

      What it will take, if we copy the traditional Christian model of seminary, is $50,000. $35,000 on the very low end, and an undergraduate degree going into it. Unless you can eat that cost yourself and are independently wealthy, that means you need to find a full time job pastoring after graduation. That in turn means you need to find 100 or so pagan families deeply committed to forming a congregation and willing to put up a couple of hundred bucks a month, with some fairly wealthy benefactors in the mix. The traditional pagan tithing system of a handful of sweaty singles and a fiver in the love offering basket ain’t gonna cut it. The only mandate in the pagan movement so far for full-time paid clergy is coming from those who want to be full time clergy. Nobody is addressing the dollars and cents part of the equation, or the fact that this model is increasingly breaking down even in the Christian congregational system from which it arose.

      • Deborah Bender

        kenofken’s figures on congregation size and finances tally with what I know about Jewish congregations in America. A congregation of that size with that mix of donors will be able to meet in rented quarters and hire the services of a rabbi only part time. It will not be able to afford to pay a cantor. Acquiring a building requires several years of intensive fund raising.

        More established congregations saddled with a building often have to merge in order to be able to afford both a building and a full time rabbi. At the other end of the scale, major cities have some Reform congregations founded in the nineteenth century that have a thousand or more members, huge temples and several paid rabbis and other religious staff.

        In Judaism, rabbinical students finance their own studies (perhaps with some help from family and friends). Originally these studies were done under direction of a rabbi, and some Orthodox ordinations follow this model, but most American Jewish denominations have rabbinical seminaries that are similar to the Protestant model. When the student is ordained, he or she has to look for a job, whether by finding a congregation willing to hire her, or a teaching job, or serving some other kind of institution such as Hillel House.

  • Pitch313

    Requirements like the duty to report exist at the boundary of the overall Pagan community and the dominant society, and bears into the Pagan community from the dominant society. It’s not so much that the Pagan community should not adapt to the duty to report–or an impulse to professionalize some version of clergy–as it is what qualities of the Pagan community its members should resist changing.

    Like Gus, I think that small and somewhat independent groups form a core model for Paganism. Small groups don’t match up well with some aspects of the formalization and professionalization you describe. Not every group needs or wants a leader who is that sort of clergy person. Or the organizational status that brings it into the arena in which such requirements as mandatory reporting obtain.

    I guess that I’m holding up the notion that small may still be very magical.

  • Northern_Light_27

    I’ve a question more than a comment– in your specific Pagan religion or area of Paganism, is festival attendance up or down? Are large, national, umbrella groups more supported now than ten years ago or less?

    If the answers are “down” and “less”, that suggests a different model than if the answers are “up” and “more”. I’d be especially interested to see how one speaks to abuse-reporting challenges with small groups and small festivals, because while I don’t know where things are trending with the rest of pagandom, I think that’s absolutely the future of heathenism.

  • Wolfsbane

    As much as I am loathe to hold up any Christian organization as a model, the system used by the Christian Science church seems to best model for our needs.

    In that organization, there is a position, readers, who handle weekly sermons.. The position is elected by each individual church. They read from previously prepared material and don’t sermonize. Readers are not treated as clergy.

    They also have a position called a practitioner. A person who prays for individuals based on the teaching of their church and acts as a sort of counselor. They undergo a course and accreditation. They are also not considered clergy.

    A more detailed description of what they do can be found on Wikipedia.

    Not a perfect fit, but far better than the authoritarian traditional Christian model.

    • Gus diZerega

      Definitely better Wolfsbane, but even here I don’t see the fit. Certainly Wiccans have no need for or interest in sermons. The Charge of the Goddess is the closest many of us have to a “canned sermon” and it is simply a function of the HPs which she practices more or less consistently, depending on her sense of what is appropriate. In my experience it gets deeper and deeper as I hear it, once the early boredom factor faded, but that depth of meaning is largely nonverbal.

      Other traditions can speak for themselves.

      Every coven I have been involved with works as a coven to do healings for members who ask for them. And for others on occasion as well. I cannot imagine a case where Wiccans would select one person to do the prayers for healing.

      Again, other trads can speak for themselves.

      Basically I think we should reject attempts to inject terminology from within the Christian tradition into our practices. Whatever differentiation we develop within our community will ideally grow from its natural evolution, and importing Christian terminology such as ‘ministry’, ‘sermon’, ‘congregation’, ‘ordination’, and even ‘laity’ is ultimately destructive to what makes us uniquely important in the spiritual world of the US. They fit an different view of spirituality, religion, and human relations. Words have meaning and power and words from what are ultimately radically different traditions import their meaning and power into ours and so ultimately distort it.

      • thehouseofvines

        “Other traditions can speak for themselves.”

        Wow, Gus! That’s a huge step forward for you. I’m genuinely impressed.

        • Gus diZerega

          written like an ignorant twit.

          • thehouseofvines

            I don’t think it’s ignorant to encourage moral and intellectual progress when one encounters it.

          • Gus diZerega

            It’s ignorant to suggest I have ever claimed to speak for other traditions.

            It’s to act like a a twit when you seek to start a fight by flinging insults that are not connected with the thread.

            Now I’ll add another, it’s dishonest to then pretend what you wrote was simply praising my supposed change of attitude.

            So I guess “Ignorant dishonest twit” should do it now.

            I won’t waste any more time with you unless you can come up with something interesting and on topic.

          • thehouseofvines

            I heard about the problems you had with some polytheists recently and this seemed like you were taking steps to correct some of the things they had criticized you for. In my experience praising people when they do right is more effective than scolding them when they err. Considering how embattled you perceive yourself to be, I can understand why you are suspicious of my motives, so I won’t try to convince you otherwise. But I’m not your enemy. In fact I’d like to see a lot more polytheists and pagans sitting down and talking out their differences, instead of engaging in endless online spats.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            House of Vines, I read your original comment as snide and sarcastic, and in my view that casts a shadow over the rest of your self-exculpation. YMMV.

          • thehouseofvines

            Hmm. I can see that. I probably should have included some context instead of aiming for brevity. Text is really bad for conveying tone and other necessary components of communication. Thank you for pointing that out.

          • Gus diZerega

            I have never had problems with polytheists, being one myself.

            I have had problems with some who sought to appropriate the term for themselves and their theology alone. If you had read me carefully you would know that because I addressed these issues explicitly over and over again.

            You would also know that I have explicitly and repeatedly said that I do not deny they are polytheists, only that they have any claim to the term that criticizes the rest of us. I have never attempted to speak for them, only to deny their attempts to describe the rest of us polytheists as not really polytheists. So for me, you evidence a HUGE double standard.

            Your tone was also condescending, as well as based on a false reading of what I have repeatedly and I think clearly written since at least the publication of Pagans and Christians in 2000. So there is no ‘huge step forward” for me on the part of those who have read me and understood my arguments.

            And again, this issue has nothing at all to do with this thread. Give it a rest, stick to topic.

          • thehouseofvines

            I think your Pagans and Christians is a seminal work on interfaith and have recommended it every chance I’ve had, which is why I found the conflict a couple months back so unfortunate. I admit that I do not follow your blog, but I’ve cut back on most of my blog reading these days.

            I apologize to Sam Webster for inadvertently hijacking this thread. I have great respect for the work he’s doing building communal infrastructure and encouraging dialogue on related issues. Working together we can accomplish so much more.

          • Gus diZerega

            Thanks. It’s nice to end this on a more positive note. But again- I have never claimed to speak for other traditions than my own, and Gardnerians fight plenty over who is or is not speaking correctly for them so I try to stick to the most generic issues when I write “as a Gardnerian.”

          • It’s ignorant to suggest I have ever claimed to speak for other traditions.

            Really now? Cos I can search Patheos and show you where you have. And don’t pull a Dawkins and pretend context is irrelevant. Cos you do that sort of thing a lot, and it’s annoying. You’ve dared to speak for all manner if traditional and revived polytheism, and you’ve gotten obstinate and incredulous when those in said traditions told you that you don’t speak for them.

            If you’re saying that you don’t do that anymore, great, I’m with Sannion in saying such growth should be encouraged, but don’t insult my intelligence (or anyone else’s) and claim that you have never done so.

  • Diomedes

    I have the same opinion on this that I have on a wide berth of “Pan-Pagan” issues in that I do not believe that it is a Pan-Pagan issue at all, but an issue for individual traditions to deal with. An organization of “Pagan” ministers will inevitably either water what they do down to provide for so a wide variety of believers, or favor one tradition over others, and it will disenfranchise those who do not belong to that tradition. We do not need “Pagan” clergy, we need Heathen clergy, Hellenic clergy, Wiccan clergy, and so on and so forth. When you try to serve all, you end up serving no one adequately, so let’s focus on our own and let others do the same.


    Really be UNLIKE the Abrahamic groups who don’t think you have a direct access to the spirit (or any responsiblity to react in the face of abuse) unless you’ve gone to the right schools and been blessed by the right people. If you see something, report.