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It’s a situation that’s becoming increasingly common on social media. You’re scrolling through your feed and come across a post from a friend who appears to making a threat of suicide. For most of us, there are only moral questions we face in deciding what to do next. Should you try to contact your friend, or your friend’s family or local friends? Report it to the police and ask for a health and welfare check? For Pagans who claim the title of clergy, there are ethical and legal layers to this decision, as well. Are they considered Mandatory Reporters, and do they have a legal requirement to report possible suicide attempts? If they are ordained, does their governing body require them to report or ask that they maintain confidentiality, even outside of a counselling setting?
The person is safe, but deeply unhappy with Rev. Davis’ actions. Others, including some who self-identified as Pagan clergy, were also critical of reporting a possible suicide attempt to police. They felt Pagan ministers don’t have the same obligations as Christian ministers. Others felt that friends don’t “snitch” on friends, and Davis should have stayed in the role of friend, rather than minister.
“The person I reported had a history of trauma and has a suicide plan in place that they shared at other times in their life. On the occasion of a personal trauma, they intimated that they no longer wished to live on in face of a loss. Due to previous episodes, and the depth of the loss, I felt the words that this person shared with me held the gravity that merited a call to ensure this person’s safety,” said Rev. Davis. She added that she remains convinced the person was seriously contemplating carrying out a suicide attempt.
What are the moral, ethical, and legal issues Pagan clergy may face in situations such as this? What training do they receive and what value does that training have for the greater Pagan community? What do we mean when we talk about Pagan clergy and how is that different, if it is, from mainstream religions’ clergy?
At its most basic, clergy are the formal leaders of any religious group. In the United States, our views of clergy, and how clergy interact with the State, have been modeled on the Christian concept. Clergy marry, bury, and carry (counsel persons or carry the burden of counseling).
Are Pagan clergy members the same as mainstream clergy? The answer appears to be both yes and no.
Some Pagan clergy don’t minister to persons, but instead maintain a temple dedicated to a particular God or Goddess. Others lead religious services, but do not counsel members and are not part of a specific group. Then there is the controversy playing out in city council chambers and courtrooms whether tarot reading is entertainment or a religiously-protected counseling practice. Although there are no official studies to definitively claim one way or another, Pagans appear to have a higher number of lay clergy (or those not ordained by a State but recognized by a religious organization) than other more mainstream religions.
Yet Pagan clergy are performing legal marriages, presiding over burial ceremonies, and counseling members. They are also pushing for greater acceptance within societal constructs, such as the military, hospitals, and prisons. They want the respect that is granted by default to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy.
Rev. Davis says a fellow Pagan clergyperson told her if a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim person tells the public they are clergy, and their community accepts them as such, and their traditions accept them as such, there is no question. However, if a Pagan tells the state they are a priest or a reverend, the state demands proof of by a church body in order to accept them. She believes it’s unfair that a church organization can ordain a pastor, but a coven cannot ordain a priestess or reverend without being double checked.
While much of this attitude is part of a systemic problem of privilege by dominant religions toward those in the minority, she believes part of this is also because some Pagan clergy aren’t serious about their responsibility and are too casual about seeking out formal training.
“All clergy should know the laws of their state, and their articles of belief. Training in safeTALK, Mental Health First Aid, and other programs should be an ongoing learning,” said Davis. She believes that all Pagans who wish to take on the role of clergy need to be ready to assume all the duties and responsibilities of that role and that means being properly trained.
Responsibility and Training
Pagan clergy training runs the gamut from no training at all, self-training, and formal training by an organization. They may be ordained by a religious group or may not feel this is necessary for the duties they perform.
What training options are open to Pagans seeking to become clergy?
One of the only Pagan seminary currently operating is Cherry Hill Seminary. They offer a Masters in Pastoral Counseling, a Chaplaincy Master of Pagan Ministry, and A Community Ministry Certificate. The Community Ministry Certificate can then be used to apply for credentials through Sacred Well Congregation, an organization who recently became an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Organization for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Yet Pagans are taking other routes to becoming clergy.
Davis studied at Family Life Education at Spring Arbor College before she received her ordination through Universal Life Church. Neither the college nor the religious group through which she received her ordination are Pagan. She said there weren’t as many options back when she sought ordination.
Oberon Osiris went the self taught route, “My training was in the School of Experience, I learned by doing.” He said he began his counseling over 40 years ago as a tarot reader. After performing a few marriages, he began seeking out books specifically on counseling skills in the marriage and relationship field.
“Most couples I’ve married get that counseling and some work-ups and exercises on relationships as part of the package. I refuse to marry anyone I don’t know well enough to see how their relationship works.” Osiris said that he doesn’t often marry people anymore, but still keeps his credentials up to date and continues his self study.
Pagans wishing to become clergy can also take classes from programs such as Circle Sanctuary’s Ministry Training Program. This program takes a minimum of three years and includes distance training by telephone conference calls, online group discussions, one-on-one mentoring face-to-face, and more traditional classes at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve and Pagan Spirit Gathering. After students complete training they can then apply for ordination through Circle Sanctuary.
Rev. Selena Fox, Founder of Circle Sanctuary, highlights that Circle Sanctuary’s clergy training includes teaching about Mandatory Reporting. Fox said that Rev. Dr. Paul Larson, psychologist and professor with The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, is among their Ministers who train students in this area.Legal Considerations
Although state law can vary widely, in most states clergy of all types are considered mandatory reporters. Mandatory reporters are selected classes of people legally required to report suspected cases of abuse to government authorities.
Clergy are a special class of mandatory reporters. While most states do require them to report cases of suspected child abuse or suicidal behavior, the laws vary on if they are required to report suspected abuse of adults or self harm and possible suicide attempts by adults. Clergy are shielded in most states from lawsuits stemming from breaking confidentiality if they choose to report abuse or self harm, so guidelines will sometimes tell clergy “when in doubt, error on the side of reporting.” Knowing your state’s laws is vital.
Clergy are also always considered to be clergy. They are never considered regular citizens or just a friend or not on the clock. Persons don’t need to be in a recognized counselling session for their conversation to be protected by confidentiality laws and for the clergy member to under mandatory reporting laws.
Ethics of Profession
In Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: a Clergy Dilemma?, Rev. Marie M. Fortune explains that the profession is torn between the ethics of protecting people and the expectation of confidentiality in a spiritual setting.
But there is another set of ethical principles which enter into this discussion from a faith perspective. They have to do with one’s professional responsibility to victims of abuse. Within both Jewish and Christian traditions, there is the responsibility of the community to protect those in its midst who are vulnerable to harm.
Although this is usually talked about in the context of abuse, self harm can also be considered abuse within clergy circles and those experiencing suicidal thoughts may be categorized as vulnerable.
In the situation Rev. Davis encountered, Osiris said that he would have felt obligated to act, “I certainly would want to find out if they are being helped and by whom.” He stopped short of saying that he would have reported the situation to police.
Davis added that she feels saddened by having to execute what she felt was her duty. She said that while she is trained clergy she’s not a licensed counselor and felt proper authorities needed to assess the situation, “I think, no I know, that that is what I am supposed to be about. That, and being in the service of the Ones I committed to serve.”
Aside from the legal or ethical requirements of clergy, how are people to react when they see what appears to be a suicidal post on social media?
Experts suggest that you think the person is in imminent danger, dial 911. Have as much information about the person’s location as possible.
If the threat seems more vague, respond immediately with a brief, clear statement that offers help, such as the number to a suicide hotline. Then report the post to the social media platform. On Facebook, such a report alerts the Facebook’s safety team, which immediately sends an email to the user and starts a confidential online chat with a crisis worker. Your name won’t be shared with the user.
Experts also say to take every post that sounds suicidal seriously. Davis agrees, “I would rather have the hatred and derision of a living former friend than the good esteem of a dead one.”