Spiritual Counseling and Wiccan Clergy:
not psychotherapy in disguise
I have been a psychotherapist for the past thirteen years, and a High Priestess for eight. I have come to believe firmly that there is a real and important place for counseling among Wiccan clergy -- but equally firmly that that place is not the same as that of a psychotherapist.

I became a psychotherapist by what seemed to me at the time to be the easiest and simplest of routes: a Master's Degree in clinical Social Work, with a six month clinical internship; followed by four years of agency practice with two hours a week of specialized supervision, and, finally, licensure in my state to practice independently. In order to remain licensed, and to continue to be eligible for malpractice insurance and third-party reimbursements, I must complete thirty hours of continuing education through accredited programs every two years. The qualifications for licensure in psychology or psychiatry are tighter than these, and, in reality, most clinical social workers (including me) put in a lot more ongoing training and supervision than what's required of us.

It is hopelessly unrealistic to expect weekend workshops at Pagan gatherings, even supplemented by independent reading and a good bit of sweat equity, to turn Wiccan clergy into psychotherapists. Just as many Witches are competent herbalists and energy healers, but don't feel that their work is the equivalent of conventional medicine, I would not encourage Wiccan priests to consider our religious training to be the equivalent of a psychotherapist's. More importantly, Witches have a job to do that no psychotherapist without our religious training could possibly do: spiritual counseling for our communities.

The work of a psychotherapist depends highly on the kind of thinking Starhawk calls "flashlight beam" vision, "a grid through which we view the world, a culturally transmitted system of classification." Anyone who has ever waded through the DSM IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) knows just how rigid a grid a psychotherapist must view the world through. Must view the world through: if I do not have a DSM IV diagnosis documented in each "patient's" chart, I not only can't bill insurance for my work, I risk a malpractice suit. The critical distinctions between Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Acute Reactive Psychosis are, to be sure, very important to understand. This grid is not entirely based on delusion, and it can be useful. But I am often deeply aware, sitting with therapists, of how we can miss the individuality and the soul of the men and women who seek our help. They can become numbers, liability issues, and case histories as we practice (another implication of the medical model and its grids) defensive healing.

Thank all the Gods we serve, this is not the only way to be with people in pain! As Starhawk also writes, "Extraordinary consciousness, the other mode of perception that is broad, holistic, and undifferentiated, sees patterns and relationships rather than fixed objects. It is the mode of starlight: dim and silvery, revealing the play of woven branches and the dance of shadows, sensing pathways as spaces in the whole." As a full-time psychotherapist, I cannot tell you how deeply I wish I could bring more of this kind of awareness to my daily work! But, though it isn't ever entirely absent, neither would it be appropriate for me to speak prophetically in a therapy session with clients who seek me out for conventional, not spiritual counseling... Any more than it would be ethical for a Christian psychotherapist to inject his spiritual beliefs and practices into such a setting.

What's more, it wouldn't be appropriate even with my Pagan clients. So much of the work of psychotherapy depends, not on my knowing the answers to my clients' problems, but to their improvising solutions for themselves, that please themselves. Therapists are already cultural icons of wisdom, and it's hard enough to step down off of my pedestal and move out of the way of clients finding wisdom for themselves. If I were to Draw Down in session, to do divination, or even just share what a marvelous ritualist I am in the context of therapy, it would be too much—High Priestess and psychotherapist, friend, and psychic all in one package? I would risk making people in vulnerable parts of their lives feel too overshadowed to do they work they came to me to accomplish. (Not to mention setting myself up for a fall when, inevitably, my feet of clay started to show.)

But in the context of Pagan community, we are all striving, all the time, to be as whole as we can. No one who has spent much time in a Wiccan coven has failed to notice that the same High Priestess whose ringing invocations shake the stars also tends to forget the ritual candles, or trips on the hem of her robe after her share of the ritual wine. Because we work intimately in small groups, none of us can sustain an illusion of Goddess-like wisdom for very long. And though some of us are foolish enough to try to act selflessly in our roles as clergy, most of us figured out a long time ago that the reason we aren't paid for doing what we do is that the doing is meant to be the pay. So, if we're not getting something back from our coven-mates, we*re doing something wrong.

Detachment is the model for traditional psychotherapy; engagement for Wiccan teaching. No expectation of reciprocity is the norm in psychotherapy: but expecting our students and coveners to pull their own weight is the norm in the Craft. Both can be valuable ways of teaching and helping others to grow -- but they are different paths, and that needs to be acknowledged.

What have I done as a High Priestess, by way of sacred counsel, that I could not have done as a therapist?

When one Witch's husband had just died, I held her and rocked her in my arms for hours as she cried. I gave her Reiki so that her body would have the strength to hold her pain. I have played Trivial Pursuit with one coven-mate the night of his mother's funeral, when that was the only form of comfort he was able to let in. I have driven nine hours to eat fast food with a community member hospitalized for depression, painted the pregnant belly of a first time mom with anointing oil, and done Tarot for the mother of a dead baby, who needed to know he was out of pain, safe in the next world. None of these things would be options for me in my other world, as a psychotherapist, and all were profoundly healing and sacred events -- for myself, as well as the theoretical "recipient" of the care.

Is sacred counsel an adequate substitute for psychotherapy? No: the issues I deal with in my private practice are real, and in many cases, too explosive and charged to be dealt with in any other setting. Psychotic breaks, suicidality, multiple personalities and post-traumatic stress are all issues I deal with as a therapist daily, and not issues I'd advocate doing depth-counseling work with as a Priest or Priestess. Therapy does some things priestly counsel can't for the counseling that comes with Priest-craft is not psychotherapy. It is something harder (for the giver and the recipient) because it is more powerful, more real, and more personal.

And there's no place to get it but from ourselves. If Wiccan clergy attempt to fill the role of traditional psychotherapists, who will be left to fill our role?

Cat Chapin-Bishop now teaches English in Middle School. She blogs at Chestnut House and at Quaker Pagan Reflections.

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    Copyright © 1999 by Cat Chapin-Bishop. Originally published in the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) Newsletter, and reprinted by permission.