Wendy Griffin retires as academic dean of Cherry Hill Seminary

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COLUMBIA, S.C. –After serving as academic dean at Cherry Hill Seminary since 2011, Wendy Griffin retired from that position on Jan. 31 and has been proclaimed “academic dean emerita” by that institution’s board members. During her tenure at the seminary, a number of new programs introduced and behind-the-scenes infrastructure changes were made, and important steps taken on the difficult path to accreditation.

Cherry Hill board member Jeffrey Albaugh presents Wendy Griffin with proclamation that she is now academic dean emerita [courtesy]/

When she was readying to retire from the California State University system after more than 30 years in higher education, Griffin did not intend on taking a new position. However, she experienced one of those coincidences that make some elders nod sagely. It was a chance encounter in an airport bathroom set her on the path to becoming the academic dean for a Pagan seminary.

That isn’t to say Griffin wasn’t qualified for the position with three decades of working in higher education were under her belt. She has injected her Paganism into academia and academic standards into Paganism throughout much of that time. Griffin is founding co-chair of the contemporary Pagan studies group for the American Academy of Religion, co-editor of the first academic series in Pagan studies, and serves on the editorial board of the Pomegranate, an academic journal focused on Paganism.

It was heading to an AAR conference that Griffin ran into Aline “Macha” O’Brien in an airport bathroom. O’Brien has become something of a force for recruitment for the seminary, and during that meal she broached the topic of Griffin filling the open position of academic dean. When she expressed interest, executive director Holli Emore drove to Atlanta to meet Griffin and discuss the job that within a few months she took as her own.

One thread that seems to run throughout the history of Cherry Hill Seminary is the close working relationship characteristic of a bootstrapped startup. While Griffin is more than happy to list accomplishments that occurred during her time as dean, she takes credit for none in particular.

“We tend to work as a team,” she explained. “I would never claim any one thing.”

Among those things that Griffin declined to claim as her own — but to which she acknowledges contributing toward — are the establishment of a variety of behind-the-scenes processes to bolster the seminary’s professional practices, the creation of new types of programs in response to the needs of the wider Pagan community, and the work needed to achieve accreditation, a brass ring that still remains out of reach largely because the process is not only rigorous, but expensive.

CHS now has a program for the imprisoned, providing a year’s worth of rituals covering a variety of traditions along with a related myth and specifics about the how and why of ritual, all for a cost.

Military Pagans can access training to help bolster those groups, and non-Pagan military chaplains can learn what makes Pagan religions different from others with which they’re familiar.

Another innovation is a suite of classes called “rhyzomes” that are intended to help members of small civilian religious groups learn skills such as leadership and fundraising.

For Pagans seeking deeper understanding of ministerial or leadership skills but don’t wish to earn an academic degree, there are now several certificate options. Community ministry is a 15-month self-directed course that covers ethics, theology, spiritual development, ritual, and a number of other areas. There are also certificate programs in environmental leadership, lifelong learning, leadership, and pastoral care.

Master’s degrees in divinity are the ones most strongly associated with the seminary model, but it’s not for everybody. “People need to have the time and money to study for pleasure,” Griffin acknowledged, and that presents something of a catch-22.

Until the accreditation process is complete, students at Cherry Hill Seminary are not eligible for federal financial aid, making pursuing a degree expensive. Many important steps have been taken toward that goal, including the creation of a faculty handbook, ensuring all texts are graduate level, and recruiting professors with terminal degrees in their respective fields.

However, it costs around $10,000 just to apply for accreditation, and there’s no guarantee of acceptance on the first try.

“Without accreditation, it’s hard to raise the funds needed for accreditation,” Griffin explained. Hence, the catch-22. Established Christian seminaries often had early benefactors who ensured those expenses were addressed, as well as leaving endowments the earnings of which would provide from routine expenses. Endowments also make it possible to award scholarships.

No Pagan institution has such a patron, and Griffin noted that, “Paganism attracts autonomous individuals who are less likely to seek spiritual community. . . . In most churches, people give every week.”Cherry Hill SeminaryEven in Christian denominations, seminaries rarely receive direct donations in large part because of the endowments from which they were created. The lack of a fat nest egg in Cherry Hill Seminary is also why, although all faculty members of the seminary are paid, Griffin and other administrators have volunteered their time. They are passionate enough to make that contribution, but presumably the field of potential replacements for Griffin is limited by that reality.

The accreditation process may be slow, but it hasn’t abated the drive to establish Cherry Hill Seminary in the broader academic community. In conjunction with colleagues at the University of South Carolina, the seminarians have held several symposia and published their proceedings. Those interested submit abstracts of their work which is read by committee, and thereby evaluated for possible presentation in Columbia.

“It was very successful,” Griffin said, referring to the first two symposia which took place during her time at Cherry Hill Seminary.

Looking ahead for the organization she is leaving behind, Griffin thinks that Cherry Hill Seminary will be at the forefront in training ministers for the challenges of climate change, which is deep concern for her. “There could be a billion people left homeless,” she said. “If a hurricane destroyed my home, I could probably use spiritual support at that point.”

As for herself, Griffin thinks it’s time to return to one of her other passions, being a novelist. She’s already published two works of fiction, and is finishing her third even as she brings herself up to speed on changes in the publishing world.

Griffin completed seven years as academic dean, after agreeing only to serve for five. The search for her replacement is ongoing.