Cherry Hill Seminary at crossroads

Terence P Ward —  August 4, 2016 — 55 Comments

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Students and supporters of the South Carolina-based Pagan seminary may have been surprised or worried about an announcement placed on the institution’s Facebook page entitled, “The Future of Cherry Hill Seminary.” While there are no plans to close the school at this time, the message reads in part:

Unpredictable cash flow has compromised our ability to be sustainable. The nature of the extended Pagan community, the economy, and even the very face of higher education have all changed dramatically in the past decade. While many of you have been dedicated and committed, we are now considering the reality that we may not be able to continue as we are without a significant increase in participation by many more people in our community.

We spoke with Holli Emore, who has served as executive director of the 20-year-old institution since 2007, to learn more.

“We haven’t been able to make ends meet for several years,” she acknowledged. “It’s been really difficult.”

Cherry Hill SeminaryOver the years, Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) has become a model for the sort of formal infrastructure for which some in the Pagan community yearn. However, every step of the way has required the effort of blazing a new trail.

“We’ve never had a sugar daddy, somebody to help us get launched,” Emore said. “Most schools are heavily endowed” at the outset. That means that majority of the seminary’s expenses are paid for on a cash basis out of tuition. Those expenses are include the per-student fees paid to instructors and the modest pay given to Emore. However, she herself hasn’t been paid in quite some time.

The seminary was founded in 1996 by Kirk White, with classes originally being conducted through the mail and then online. Its name was taken from the name of the road that once ran past White’s family lands. For many years, “Christian Hill Road” was the mailing address for Cherry Hill Seminary.

A board of directors was established in 2007 as part of a process to become a formal 501(c)(3) nonprofit with Emore as its chair. Those board members elected to hire Emore as executive director and move the entire operation to South Carolina, where the seminary’s Master of Divinity program was established in 2009 with the first graduate receiving her degree in 2012.

In years since, a priority has been accreditation and formal recognition by the Distance Education and Training Council. While CHS has completed all licensure requirements in South Carolina, accreditation would make the program eligible for student loans, and its graduates would be able to apply to become military chaplains. This process, however, has been stymied both by the expense and by the fact that Pagan theology doesn’t fit the implicitly Abrahamic expectations set forth for seminaries.

“It’s a big deal, and very expensive,” said Emore. “Just sending in the application is $10,000, plus you need the ability to host five people that come in and audit your program over several days.”

Cherry Hill Seminary has no physical campus, making the hosting requirement a complex issue beyond the raising of funds for the application fee. Another financial challenge is that faculty must be salaried; instructors are presently paid based on the number of students in their classes, which is more practical given the decidedly not-deep pockets of the institution.

Emore said that there is significant interest in a seminary program that trains potential military chaplains, but there are again some complicating factors. Accreditation would make the process easier, but an alternate route onto the approved list involves representatives of three other schools vouching that the Cherry Hill Seminary Master of Divinity is equivalent to their own degrees. This is how Oral Roberts University was approved.

While three liberal Christian schools had people willing to work through this process, the schools couldn’t, in the end,  say in confidence that the degrees were equivalent. CHS students “don’t have to study Greek, or Hebrew, or the Bible” as a matter of course, Emore explained, and “while they could see it was a solid program, they couldn’t be sure it was comparable.”

Muslims faced a similar problem, since the training of an imam is not at all similar to that of a Christian priest or minister. Emore said that with “a five-figure infusion of cash and some graduates to use as test cases,” Pagans could follow the administrative process used by adherents to Islam. One of the issues that would have to be addressed is the implicit assumption that graduation from the seminary includes ordination. Since students at this Pagan seminary come from diverse traditions, they must seek ordination from legally-recognized Pagan churches, representing another step that Christians can often skip.

DancersAd1smallerWhat’s not a factor in the problems facing CHS, Emore stressed, are the recent controversies that have involved the seminary, such as former faculty member Ruth Barrett signing a petition against trans* inclusion at a festival. “It was certainly very unpleasant,” Emore said, “but those were not our students or donors, with minor exceptions. Only one person pulled a contribution and said it was over that.”

The statement on the Facebook page included an invitation to support the long-term existence of CHS by taking a course, pledging funds, or providing other ideas. Master-level classes are $435, with courses toward certificates running only $240 each. “We’ve had people offer ideas,” Emore said, but “they all require human or financial resources” that the nearly all-volunteer organization lacks right now.

More than an appeal for money, the school’s announcement is seeking guidance. The Master of Divinity program “is what the Pagan community wanted eight years ago, but it’s hard to say what people want now.” In the past, the offered scholarship seats have been left unfilled, and an annual program, offering a class nearly for free if a student recruited a first-timer to join, was abandoned due to lack of participation.

“We’re finally going public and asking, ‘What do you want?'” Emore explained.

She went on,”We debated stating a dollar or registration goal and decided against it. That would imply that if we reach that everything would be okay, and that’s not necessarily true. We want to see if people see a need for this, and want to keep it open. We think there is, but we need to hear from other people because we can’t be unbiased.”

By the end of the year, board members will make a decision on whether to continue the work of this organization. If the end is indeed no, through a process called “teaching out” the existing 10-12 Master of Divinity students would either complete their degrees or be given support in continuing their studies elsewhere. One thing that Emore makes clear is that the preferred option would be to continue the work for the Pagan community. However, in reality, that work will largely depend upon what Pagans themselves do in the coming months.

Terence P Ward


Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Erin Lale

    About the ordination part: Are there any study tracks at Cherry Hill that would be appropriate for heathen clergy? Specifically Asatru? If so, please contact us at the American Asatru Association so we can discuss it.

    • Macha NightMare

      Yes. CHS courses are designed for Pagans of any persuasion. CHS faculty and Board members represent many Pagan paths. Chaplaincy skills apply to most, if not all, religions.

      This is not the place to leave messages for CHS, so if you’d like direct contact, I suggest you contact CHS, not TWH.

      • Erin Lale

        OK thanks

  • Given the critique of the Christian colleges, why isn’t there a language requirement? I think that it could be done through a test of translation competence? Since many source mythos are originally in other languages, I think it would make a lot of sense, particularly if anyone is of a reconstructionist or even ceremonial bent.

    • As a former PhD student, I had to prove competence in two languages. One was waived as I had an undergraduate degree in one, and I took a translation test in another, after taking a course specifically in said language.

  • I have been watching and hoping to see CHS receive their accreditation. That is what has held me back. I have and still lack the finances to attend.

  • Tauri1

    Isn’t there some way that the requirements for military chaplains be challenged in court? Obviously those requirements are dominated by the Abrahamic religions, but Paganism is pre-Christian and shouldn’t be held to the same requirements. What about Santeria or any of the African religions, or Shinto, or Native American religions? Are their “chaplains” required to pass those same tests? If so, isn’t that discriminatory?

    • Casey Taylor

      Those religions don’t have military chaplains. The only minority faiths I know of who currently have chaplains are Judaism and Buddhism. Those two face the same requirements as Christian chaplains, namely MDiv or equivalent level Masters degree and endorsement from a DoD-recognized religious organization. The requirements are the same for all faith groups. The problem with CHS training chaplains is that DoD also requires that the degree come from a regionally accredited university. Sort of a catch-22 for potential chaplains seeking a formal pagan theological education, but there it is.

      • Tauri1


      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Clearly a mechanism for peer review of accredited seminaries is close to the core of their sense of their own legitimacy. What’s the source of that? Were fly-by-night theology schools once a menace? Can this remedy be justified in light of the drawbridge and mote it becomes for minor religious, under the Establishment Clause?

        • Summer

          It’s not an Establishment Clause issue. Its an issue based on our higher educational system. Attending a school that is not accredited means a student bears a significant risk. If a CHS student decided to continue their education, for example, pursuing a different degree elsewhere, their CHS would not be recognized. And yes, there are fly-by-night and for-profit schools out there. You send in a check, perform some menial activity like a write a short essay and they send you back a PhD. Accreditation would provide a validation that ultimately protects students.

          • Tauri1

            One of my friends “attended” a for-profit school for a PhD in psychology – Capella. Because she’s partially disabled she selected an online school and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars working her butt off getting her Masters and PhD. They were accredited by the HIgher Learning Commission and their out of Minneapolis. The kicker was that their programs are not recognized by the State of TN, so she couldn’t get certified by the state, couldn’t get credits transferred to local colleges, couldn’t get anyone to intern her. So just because you attend a school that is “accredited”, doesn’t always mean that the student is protected.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    Once again it is a matter are Pagans willing to give monetary support to what they claim they want. Religious infrastructure requires cash, pure and simple. Our ancient Pagan ancestors supported priests, temples, and so forth. If we are going to be respected religions then we have to solve this problem of getting the money together to create the things that we claim that we want. We are our deeds.

    • MadGastronomer

      ABLE, not willing. Demographically, pagans tend not to be wealthy. Most accredited seminaries were originally endowed by a WEALTHY BENEFACTOR. We don’t have the money, as a community, to support all the things we’d like to support.

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        Even in the Pagan community, the wealthy do not prove all that generous. Churches, and religions are mostly supported by the poor and middle class.

        • MadGastronomer

          Supported day-to-day, yes. But funding a seminary’s founding is done by small groups of big donors, and that’s what Cherry Hill has always lacked.

          Pagan communities have seen some very successful crowdfunding campaigns, which IS the kind of thing you’re talking about, which undermines your point.

      • Macha NightMare

        I disagree that Pagans are not wealthy. That’s an old trope from the days when we were mostly young counter-culture types and everyone was in the broom closet. Check the tech industry, for instance: tons of Pagans with tons of money (if not so much time away from work). There are doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, nurses, accountants, artists, airline pilots, neuroscientists, folks performing various healing arts — you name it. We are actually quite diverse. I see plenty of Pagans making pilgrimages to Europe and elsewhere; that’s not something poor ppl can do. Some think nothing of paying $100 for a concert or theater, $20 for a CD, $4 for a latte, but when it comes to supporting Pagan efforts, they’re not around. Or they expect something for free or cheap.

        OTOH, in recent years Pagans have raised lots of money for charitable projects. Pagans accounted for much of the money that bailed the Parliament of World Religions out of trouble when they had a costly ruling against them in Spain. Saved the institution. And maybe there’s the rub: it was an established institution.

        Pagans tend to view religious institutions with a wary eye, which, given their tendency towards uniformity and autocracy, is prudent. I view them askance myself.

        But we pay good money to go to colleges, universities, and graduate schools. Of course, graduating from such a school usually leads to better jobs, promotions, raises, whereas any kind of seminary education results in very iffy job prospects.

        Seminaries of all kinds are on shaky ground survival-wise. Same with age-old religious institutions like sisterhoods and brotherhoods. I’ve made some good friends among the local Dominican Sisters due to our shared work in Marin Interfaith Council. That sisterhood is 800 years old, yet today the average age of members is something like 70. They don’t attract younger women. And I must say, Christian or not, they share many values with me, they are activists, teachers, etc. (peace, capital punishment, homelessness).

        You are so right about benefactors. I daresay that CHS, with which I have been fairly deeply involved in various capacities for about 16 years, may be the only educational institution that began without a single endowment. There’s where the old hippy optimism shows itself: thinking this can be done on the goodwill and financial support of our small Pagan population.

        • Amy Hale

          Some seminaries have been building highly adaptable and marketable degrees through combining a business and leadership curriculum with seminary training. Essentially the curriculum would be similar to an MBA or a Master’s in Management with a leadership focus, but there are theological and contemplative elements woven throughout. These students come out with the training to work in policy, governmental or an NGO track.

    • MadGastronomer

      Oh, and not employing and defending bigots might have helped them, too.

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        Seems that all organizations get caught hiring such people,often because they don’t know that they are at the time. Over all I would say that the good done by the seminary out does the mistakes that they have made. We Pagans need to do more for our community and spend less time making excuses. I myself have always been poor, but I have managed to be active in the community doing what I could.

        • MadGastronomer

          They continued to employ and defend a transmisogynist. It wasn’t just an “oops” hire. Mistakes happen. This was not a mistake.

          And in my household, as in a number of others I know, transmisogyny is a dealbreaker. That’s not an excuse, that’s refusing to support someone who actively harms my family.

          My contribution to my community at the moment is putting in the hard work of researching and writing funerary rituals.

          • ChristopherBlackwell

            Glad to see that your are active. I ran an online magazine for over a decade called ACTION and interviewed Pagans of different traditions and religions around the world. Unfortunately the person that did the web part of it died of cancer and at seventy I no longer have the necessary energy. Just interviews, no ads, and never charged a dime. Not too bad for a person mostly housebound, who can not walk very far and no longer drives. Now mostly write letters to the editors, and readers comments on their online versions of various English language newspapers around the world on civil rights, legal rights and religious rights. Thank goodness for the internet. Easy to feel isolated when you can’t travel and live out in the desert. Before the internet, it was Pagan protest letter campaigns, and keeping up with up to forty Pagan letter friends in the States, England, Europe and South Africa with a few small articles in Pagan newsletter, England and in South Africa, in an early Pagan magazine. I could not afford Air Mail back then so those going to South Africa two two weeks by ship each way. So neither poverty, illness, disability, or being isolated was ever considered an excuse not to be active in some way.

          • MadGastronomer

            Some people can do those things, but some people CAN’T. There are problems, limitations and disabilities other than yours that absolutely can prevent people from participating as much as they would like to. Calling that “excuses” is BS. You have no idea what other people’s lives are like.

          • ShakerGirl37

            Don’t think he means it like that. I think he simply stating that nothing kept him from being active in Pagan community. Meanwhile there are people closer to Pagan community who refuse to participate at all. And then balk when they realize free spirits need funding. To make the blanket “you don’t know what other people’s lives are like” statement is immature. Gentleman is 70 years old, he knows what is up. Formal seminary school is expensive, nearly any specialized schooling is. But the bottom line is that at the end of the day, the Pagan community (or some kind UU community) will either find ways to stand up and support Cherry Hill Seminary or they won’t. It really is that simple.

          • MadGastronomer

            When you label the stated reasons people have for not being able to be more active as “excuses,” that is indeed one of the things you are saying, whether or not you mean it. If he doesn’t mean it, he should be careful not to say it.

          • ChristopherBlackwell

            I think you are just a troll picking fights here.

            It would never occur to you that I explain what I have done to encourage others in the same, or similar fixes.

            So many new Pagans have this strange idea that you have to have years of experience, special talents or be near a Pagan community, or be someone before you can be an active part of the overall Pagan community.

            I just show that none of those things are actually necessary. You only have to be willing and have a bit of imagination to figure out what you can do, then do it.

          • ShakerGirl37

            He should be careful? He actually tried to keep some form of Pagan community alive for over 10 years and you think you’re going to school him over the Internet? I think what is going on here is a lot of over sensitivity on your part. Having seen a great deal of the Pagan community myself in my own town, I can attest to seeing amazing groups and festivals last a few years and then fall fantastically apart due to all kinds of conflicts including people who say they want to help and then refuse to show the F up. Grow up, dude.

          • Macha NightMare

            Good for you, Christopher! My story is similar. I live on Social Security alone, in a reverse-mortgaged condo. I’ve never made much income even in the best of times. However, I have managed to be an activist Pagan, more or less.

          • Cathryn Platine

            amazing how some of us manage to be actual activists with little to no income… kudos to you both.

          • Macha NightMare

            I have always found the activism part far more satisfying that the paper-pushing I did for lawyers for an income. 🙂

          • ChristopherBlackwell

            Macha, you have inspired a lot of people. You also prove my point.

          • Cathryn Platine

            I hate sloppy semantics. You used the term “transmisogynist” which has it’s roots as misogynist. Let’s break that one down, the root being gyno from the Greek pertaining to biological female, as in primary sexual characteristics and “miso”, Greek, from misein to hate. So the original word modified is misogyny meaning to hate (fear) those with female sexual characteristics pertaining to female biology. So if you add trans to that it either means a transgender identified person who hates biological women or someone who hates post operative transsexual women…….. not what you used it to mean at all. Ruth has zero problem with post operative women btw.

          • Rhoanna

            Etymology doesn’t determine a word’s meaning. (See, obviously, “pagan”.) Transmisogyny doesn’t mean what you’re trying to claim it does, and I suspect you know that.

          • Cathryn Platine

            Pagan was defined as the current religious usage in the original Latin by Julian, emperor of Rome, in the fourth century. Somehow most Pagans continue to ignore that simple fact.

          • Cathryn Platine

            If it doesn’t mean what it breaks down to then it means nothing at all but just another made up word to use in trans-McCarthyism in a misguided war on feminist women. As a lifelong and proud and out second wave feminist AND someone with a trans/intersexed medical history, I call foul.

          • MadGastronomer

            Pre-and non-op women are still women, and bigotry against them is hatred of trans women. You are also a transmisogynist.

          • Cathryn Platine

            And here it is…….. I was lobbying Congress twice, co-founded TWO grassroots trans civil rights organizations, lobbyed TWO state legislatures and was taking in newly transitioned women probably while you were either in diapers or grade school……. and you go straight to the insults, the ad hominem attacks like any good fascist wannabe McCarthyite…….. and you wonder why so many feminists are getting fed up with your crap???????

          • MadGastronomer

            Learn what an ad hominem attack is.

            If you don’t want to be called a TERF, don’t talk like a TERF.

          • Cathryn Platine

            TERF is an insult, it is meant to be an insult, it was coined by a rabid anti-transsexual transgendered to be an insult…… ad hominem means “at the person” referring to attacking an individual rather than addressing facts or even opinions. And I am 67 and have been active in every single civil rights movement since the mid sixties……. including being a proud and out lifelong second wave feminist. If you people so pro trans would engage others in conversations rather than name calling, you would not have a fraction of the so called TERFs out there today, I know this for a fact because I actually do engage them in conversation. You may be 38, but you have some serious growing up to do.

          • MadGastronomer

            No, an ad hominem attack is not an insult — and yes, certainly I insulted you — it is a dismissal of a person’s argument based on some personal quality of theirs. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Like, say, dismissing someone because they’re younger than they are.

          • MadGastronomer

            Oh, and I’m 38 and have been an activist for 22 years, since I was in high school.

      • Cathryn Platine

        Pagans often love to find one thing to justify not supporting other Pagans in something worthwhile. That whole issue is a red herring, she left for the good of the Seminary and apparently that isn’t good enough for you???? The offending book hasn’t even been published yet!

        As someone who also has been labelled a TERF by some wannabe trans supporters I call foul. My own background was one of the first tier trans activists and the Maetreum of Cybele, now called transphobic by some idiots, was founded in part to provide a safe place for newly transitioned women to bootstrap their lives…….

        • MadGastronomer

          Surgical transition is not the only kind of transition, and the Maetreum does nothing to help trans women who cannot access surgery for whatever reason, so no, it does not help “newly transitioned” women. It helps a very, very few trans women, who have somehow managed to access surgery but who don’t otherwise have resources — a rare occurrence, as most people who can afford surgery have plenty of those.

          You quibble with the term transmisogyny. You certainly sound like a TERF to me.

          • Cathryn Platine

            check your facts …….. We WELCOME people of ALL genders, always have and taken in dozens of non surgery tracked women over the years……… including plenty of so called street girls with zero access to medical care… And exactly who the f*%k are you hiding behind a screen name making these false accusations???? Give us YOUR name and background.

            Oh yes, I live on poverty level Social security and never made more than a maximum of 24 grand a year my entire life so pull that poor impoverished me shit on someone else.

          • MadGastronomer

            MadGastronomer is a unique name, while my legal name is extremely common. It’s actually a lot easier to find me by this name than any other. But my name is Rebecca Scott, if you must know. Look me up, if you like. While I’ve been a loud defender of trans people for many years, and have been an activist when I was able, my defense of trans women has intensified since I married one.

            I’m sorry if I’ve got bad information. I had always heard — largely here on TWH — that the Maetreum only allowed post-op women to live there. Is that not true?

            I said nothing about your personal finances, and frankly don’t care.

          • Cathryn Platine

            Bad information is the understatement of the year! It is, in fact, a flat out lie. You married one, I was born one and one of the most active trans activists out there in the mid nineties. You have slandered the Maetreum and called me a transmysogynist and TERF and aren’t even trans yourself????? That, my dear, is actual transphobia. And that is why you don’t go off half cocked, as it were, on someone who doesn’t buy the current trans dogma hook line and sinker. You owe me a huge apology.

          • MadGastronomer

            Then I apologize.

          • MadGastronomer

            I apologize for having bad information, that is. You came in sounding like a transmisogynist and a TERF, and I responded accordingly. I don’t apologize for that.

          • Cathryn Platine

            You knee jerked reacted when a few minutes on google would have saved you from being an insulting liar….. blocking your short ass…….. have a nice life.

          • MadGastronomer

            And a few minutes on Google would have shown you what I do and what I’m like. You didn’t attempt it, why should I?

            Bye bye now.

    • Cathryn Platine

      Indeed we are our deeds. A mere handful of dedicated and now ageing Pagans have done much to bring us as far as we have come but as Christopher points out, often it is those of us physically disabled and poor who do the most. Infrastructure is hard, we at the Maetreum did it on a shoestring, turned around with little resources and fought and won a decisive (and expensive) legal battle for equality under the law of Pagan “churches” and then tried to show the way to community involvement with a community radio station… all to the yawns of the greater Pagan communities. I am 67, physically disabled and living on poverty level social security and yet led the way at the Maetreum so I have little patience for “we can’t afford it” BS excuses. If you take your religious beliefs seriously, you will find a way, period. Cherry Hill is a very worthwhile project, it is one that needs support……. end of story.

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        I remember that battle well and how long it took and I imagine many Pagans thought it was a lost cause, especially considering who and what you are.

        I think the city and county and city officials thought that would make you an easy case to win in their discrimination against you. I myself worried about your physical safety as well.

        But you pulled it off and I guess we can say you have become sort of the grand dame out of it. I enjoyed interviewing you.

        It was always a learning experience to learn about people doing things that I knew nothing about and letting them say it in their own words and in some detail.

        I have only been interviewed once by the regular media, our home town news paper and I hated the fact that almost none of my own words were used, but instead the reporters interpretation of my views used. That is what created the policy that I used in ACTION.

  • Jessie Olson

    Time to do some serious strategic planning and restructuring. Fundraising plans, strategic plans, and stakeholder surveys are all necessary parts of periodic re-evaluation and assessment for non-profits.

    Funding is always an issue in Pagan institutions (really all non-profit institutions truth-be-told). If you ask for too little, people believe that they are getting what they pay for. If you ask for too much, they say that they can’t afford it, while they continue to spend hundreds on new Pagan books and shiny baubles.

    I wish Cherry Hill good luck as they try to move forward. This is a difficult time in an organization’s life cycle.

    • Macha NightMare

      “strategic planning and restructuring. Fundraising plans, strategic plans, and stakeholder surveys ” CHS has done all of these things time and again. Now it’s time for Pagans to pony up if they want it to survive.

  • Julia Traver

    That is most of the problem with a modern religion which has cherry picked (sorry for the pun) most of its theology. There does not need to be orthodox theology; but, there needs to be a way to think theologically. Greek and Latin are great in order to read the original works in the original languages. In addition, German is a language of the academy. Many journals are not translated. I am getting myself ready to return to graduate school, so right now I have to up-grade my German and Latin. In addition, I will be tutoring with a local college student in ancient Greek. Yes, I’m not all into the “instant feelies,” as many may be. I am doing multiple divinations on this right now — and I will be seeking out others. I wish to be well-educated and respected first. We have to do better than ANY Christian seminary — so that is why I want to go to an Ivy League school.
    Ordination will come for me by way of Hellenion. I will also have to do their priest training as well.