Chapter Four -- Practical  Considerations

General responsibilities of clergy

Most of these things we've already told you, but they bear repeating:

  • You work for the people, the Gods, and the Earth.
  • You should do your best to conduct rituals that meet the deeply-held needs of the people who have asked you for your services as a ritualist. Don't be afraid to adapt old rituals or create new ones to serve those needs.
  • You should honor the wishes of the people, so long as they are in accord with your own deeply held values, and cause harm to no one.

Corollary: if you can't perform a ritual because to do so would breach your ethics, or cause harm to someone, let the people know. Perhaps you can work out a mutually-acceptable approach.

  • Legal reporting requirements may accrue to some rites of passage; for example, the registration of marriage documents. If this is the case; you are legally liable for failure to make such reports to appropriate authorities.
  • Maintain appropriate confidentiality. Know your state's or province's legal requirements concerning priestly confidentiality.
  • If you have promised to be somewhere on time, be there. If you become delayed in your journey, phone ahead if practicable.
  • And finally, you must conduct yourself in a manner which reflects favorably upon the Gods and the people. Therefore, be courteous to the people you encounter.

Working with other clergy-persons:

Most often, you will be called to do rites of passage either working alone or with a steady working partner, depending upon the customs of your particular Pagan order. Sometimes, perhaps for a wedding or a funeral, you will be called upon to work with another clergy-person of a different Pagan order, or perhaps of a different religion altogether. This is one of those circumstances where a prior investment in making professional contacts with other clergy-persons can pay big dividends in ease of collaboration.

Distinctly different problems are presented by working with co-officiants of other Pagan orders and those of other religions.

Clergy of other Pagan orders:

Working with co-officiants of other Pagan orders presents advantages and disadvantages. To the good is this: you won't need to engage in  basic interfaith education. On the other hand, you may assume that we all mean share the same customs and vocabulary, but in reality different Pagan groups may have very different terminology, different understandings of the same words, or even different ritual etiquette. Unexpected conflicts may arise.

For example, many Wiccan priestesses would be horrified to have others touch their personal working tools, especially without prior permission. Others would be reasonably comfortable seeing another Witch handle their black-handled ritual knife, and might even expect whoever is holding the knife to be in charge of the ritual for that time. Some use their knife exclusively for conscecratory or symbolic purposes, and might be quite scandalized if another person uses the knife to cut a cord or slice a cake. Others feel that using the consecrated knife to slice the cake consecrates the cake.

Clergy of other religions:

Working with ministers of other faiths may be fairly easy if you have made prior arrangements for collaboration, and you have reached a good rapport with the other officiant. Generally, clergy of the more liberal denominations, such as Unitarian-Universalists or Reform Jews, will be relatively more comfortable working with us. Women clergy are likely to have read enough feminist theology to at least know about the contemporary Goddess movement. Ironically, some women will be so anxious to establish themselves as respectable members of "the club" within their own denominations that they will be stickier than the men. Also, remember that there are feminist and liberal wings even within some of the more conservative denomination, so approach each individual with the same kind of open mind you are hoping they will hold towards you.

It may be quite hard, or downright impossible, to co-officiate with a clergy member who believes their own religion has a monopoly on the truth, or who is actively hostile to Pagans. You may be able to salvage the situation by entering into a dialog with the other officiant. On the other hand, you should be prepared for the worst-case scenario, where the other officiant attempts to block or cut-off your part of the rite. If the other clergy member is uncomfortable with you, remember that Pagan content can be made fairly low-key and subtle. Even if you cannot allude directly to the Gods, you can speak of wind and sun, ocean and mountain, and the green, growing life all around you. You can always speak of love.

Under such stressful circumstances, remember that you are working for the People and the Earth, not for the hostile clergy-person and certainly not for her/his organization (even if you do happen to be working in their venue).

Things to bear in mind:

  • Act like you belong -- because you do.
  • Don't confuse ignorance -- or even fear of the unknown -- with prejudice and hostility. Be prepared to answer questions. Be patient.
  • Remember that you are a clergy-person, not a performer.
  • Make effective use of your core ritual skills.
  • Relax, and enjoy the experience.
  • Always be prepared to adapt and improvise.
  • Never forget who you are working for, and never forget Who you are working for.

Non-Pagan family and guests

Most of us have dear friends and cherished family members who are not Pagan. So, for those rites of passage that are normally celebrated in public -- child blessings, marriages, and funerals in particular, you can assume that some of the guests, perhaps even a majority, will be members of other religions or of none. Many of these will be unfamiliar with our religion, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the unknown. Some will be fearful, others even actively hostile. Remember that the person whose rite this is will be relating to these guests for years to come, while you have to deal with them for only one day. Your tact, diplomacy and good communication skills can make your "client's" future family life a lot easier.

Some pointers

  1. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions before, during and after the ritual. Planning meetings, wedding rehearsals and post-rehearsal dinners offer a great opportunity to brief the closest friends and family. Their reactions will do a lot to cue the others. Be patient with questions that seem stupid -- remember this may be the questioner's very first exposure to our religion. Never assume hostility when ignorance will do.
  2. Where there will be a printed program, consider including a brief and simple explanation of our religion and of any specifically Pagan or generally unfamiliar elements you intend to include in the service.
  3. Never include anything in the service that could be taken as a mockery of the family's religion.
  4. Watch out for elements that would more commonly be interpreted in ways very different from what they mean to us.
  5. Before the ritual actually begins, consider giving a "warm-up" talk that emphasizes what we all have in common - love and support for the person or people concerned, feelings about the event being marked..
  6. Explain any unfamiliar ritual elements briefly in your "warm-up speech" and then again, in more detail, just before they are to happen.
  7. Actually seeing and participating in the ritual may bring up more questions for people, so be available for at least a while after the ritual. Stay for the coffee hour or at least the first part of the reception.
  8. If the extended family is particularly skittish or hostile, consider using a more generic or secular approach. Models for a secular wedding and a secular funeral are included here. After all, the people who asked you to officiate are the ones who really matter, and they know who you are and what Powers you will be invoking.

Working with people in trouble

Not all rites of passage are happy occasions. Sooner or later, every working priest/ess will be asked to create or conduct a funeral or memorial rite, a handparting or a resolution ritual. People need our help even more at the sad times than at the joyous ones. So, here are a few pointers for working with stressed-out and distressed people:

  • Stay very grounded yourself. The best support you can offer them is your calm presence.
  • Do not offer cheap comfort. The usual clichés are not helpful. Instead, they tell people you are uncomfortable in the presence of their grief or rage, and so cut off their free expression.
  • For the Goddess' sake, do not lecture or sermonize. Don't try to tell anyone how a true-believing Pagan should feel or should react to this crisis.
  • Listen, and let them know you are listening. Make eye contact. Lean a bit forward. Occasionally make a neutral comment like "uh-huh" to encourage them to continue.
  • Let them initiate any physical contact. Some people in grief crave hugs, others feel crowded by too many well-meaning huggers.
  • Let them set the emotional tone. They may want to cry. They may be clinging to an all-business attitude to get themselves through the immediate crisis. They may resort to black humor, or even plain silliness. They may be angry at the Goddess Herself. Remember, while there is such a thing as inappropriate behavior, there is no such thing as inappropriate emotion.
  • In a planning session, respect your own time limits, but beyond that, let them set the pacing. They may not be thinking too clearly or quickly right now.
  • In the ritual itself, there is no time limit. Don't commit to conduct the rite if you have a heavy date afterward. Don't ever rush the process, and be prepared to ignore your carefully planned format if they need you to.
  • Within your ethical limits, let the rite be whatever they need it to be. Remember, this is their rite.

The well-dressed clergy-person

What you should wear when you officiate at a public ritual of passage depends on both your own custom and the wishes of the people concerned. Ask them if they want robes or street clothes, and, if they want secular garb, how dressy it should be. Obviously, some passages are more festive than others.

Unless there is a specific request for something different, consider a dark-colored business suit (Judy's favorite clergy suit is dark forest green; Gwyneth wears a blue suit with a white blouse) with a discrete pentacle or other religious pendant. Some of the men in the New York area have taken to wearing dark, solid colored neckties with bright silver pentacle pendants worn over the tie. If the ritual will be outdoors, be mindful of the weather and wear shoes appropriate to the ground you will be on.

You might also want to bring along one or more items of specifically clerical adornment, such as a priestly bracelet, necklace or stole. A stole (a long, narrow scarf that is draped about the back of the neck so that it hangs over the front of our clothes) is a universally-recognized article of clerical garb that is somewhat more appropriate for us than a Roman collar. There are stoles available with beautiful Pagan symbolism embroidered or appliquéd on them. Whatever you use as ritual adornment, put on immediately before beginning the ritual and remove immediately afterward. This signals when you are acting in priestly role.

On-the-job training

There's a lot to be said for small-group apprenticeship in Pagan clergy skills. Most covens and groves provide opportunities for supervised ministerial practice, either as assistant to the officiant or as 'student minister' with one's mentor watching alertly from the sidelines.

However, not all Pagans are so fortunate as to find a group to work with; some people also choose to work as Solitaries for reasons of their own preference. In such a case, it may be harder to acquire and maintain practical ministerial skills. Consider working with a local interfaith council or getting together with ministers of compatible faiths for monthly meetings. It also pays to occasionally attend the services of other faiths, to see how their clergy deal with problems and surprises during their rites. An often-overlooked source of ritual ideas is the theater, particularly improvisational troupes. Groups such as Toastmasters can help you build skill in public speaking. Volunteering in a counseling role at a local hot-line, crisis center or hospital provides invaluable training and experience in working with people in distress, and is also another way of making contacts while doing some good work for your community.

Resources for on-the-job training

Harrow, J.S., Brambir, M, and Harrow, C.G.C.
    1996: Counseling Basics for Wiccan/Pagan Clergy
Kennedy, E.
    1981: Crisis Counseling: the essential guide for nonprofessional counselors; Continuum, New York; ISBN 0-8264-0244-5,
Kennedy, E. and Charles, S.C.
    On becoming a counselor: a basic guide for nonprofessional counselors; Continuum, New York; ISBN 0-8264-0506-1,
Napier, A. David
    1986: Masks, transformation and paradox; University of California Press, Berkeley, 282 pages; ISBN 0-520-04533-5;

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