In 2012 I conducted a large-scale national survey entitled “The Pagan/Witch/Heathen Community Needs Assessment Survey.” The ultimate intention of this project was to provide our various communities with information about what our real challenges and needs are in order to help us make wise decisions in meeting those needs.
Of the 3,318 people in our communities who answered my survey, 989 are self-identified leaders or clergy. I am currently doing more in-depth analysis on this subpopulation, but there are a few challenges related to leaders and clergy that are of particular interest to those of us who care about Cherry Hill Seminary.
First of all, many people have, over the years, offered anecdotal evidence that clergy/leader burnout is a problem. I can now say that this is borne out in the quantitative evidence. Of the total sample, 41.4% named clergy/leader burnout as a problem, but a full 65.6% of those who identify as clergy/leaders name burnout as a challenge, with 22% giving it the highest possible rating for severity. There are many possible and likely contributors to the problem of burnout, but I want to draw attention to one that is also highlighted in my data. Of those participants who are members of groups and might, therefore, have expectations of the role clergy and leaders should play in their lives, 46% indicate that clergy/leaders are inadequately prepared for pastoral counseling, while 52% clergy/leaders themselves indicate that a lack of preparation for pastoral counseling is an impediment to their practice. This highlights a rather serious weakness in the training that many of us who are in clergy/leadership roles receive through our normal channels and I suspect it also directly contributes to the problem of burnout.
I would now like to put aside my hat as an academic researcher and make my invisible pointy witch’s hat visible (I am reading Tiffany Aching at the moment…Hail Sir Terry). Those of us who are in positions in which we are visible, whether we are formal leaders or not, are likely to be called upon to provide a form of pastoral counseling. This involves people who are in crisis. Dealing with people in crisis can be rough, especially if you are not confident that you know what you are doing. I, personally, have found that not only do I sometimes find myself in these roles with other members of my magickal communities, I not infrequently end up trying to help people who are not Pagan at all but who are in crisis because they have had some psychic or “otherworldly” experience that has shaken their foundations … sometimes dangerously. The most challenging times, for me, have been with people who are clearly having real psychic experiences, but who I also suspect are actually mentally ill. These are not inherently mutually exclusive conditions. When I have encountered these situations, I have found myself way out of my depth. There have been many times, over the years, where I have really wished that I had more training in how to talk to people who are in acute crisis.
Additionally, most of us were raised in one of the mainline religions with full-time professional clergy and many people bring all of the role-expectations from religions that have full-time professional clergy and add it to all of the magical expectations for their leaders. And yet, virtually all of us (a mere 17 exceptions out of 989) are not full-time professionals and are usually having to earn a living elsewhere. Frankly, unless we develop a radically different model than the small, intimate private groups, we are unlikely to have many professional clergy.
I think that a place like Cherry Hill Seminary is critically important because they do offer training in pastoral counseling and, given that we take psychism seriously and recognize some of the dangers inherent in these gifts, I would expect that we might have important content that would not be present in training conducted by mainstream pastoral counseling programs. I would like to see a significant conversation take place within our communities about how we should be handling pastoral counseling. Most of us are so busy that we are at risk for burnout and can’t manage a lengthy program that would teach us how to really do pastoral counseling, even if we know it would do us good.
Personally, I wonder if we could create a national tiered system. Basically, if there could be a relatively basic tier that would give people the tools they need to triage a crisis and make appropriate referrals. The second step, obviously, would be that we would need a cadre of people who would have the in-depth training so that the rest of us could refer people to them. This, then, would be their ministry. I think that it might be a useful discussion for us to consider having specializations so that someone who is a truly gifted healer of this sort would not also be expected to run the ritual, organize the meetings, be the expert on all sorts of magic, etc. etc. It would also mean that those people who are brilliant ritualists, for example, but who are not necessarily suited for doing pastoral counseling would have the basic tools to triage a crisis and have a structure for connecting people in crisis with the resources to get them the help they need. I think it is unrealistic to expect everyone in a clergy/leader position to have all of the skills we associate with full-time ministry, plus what we expect of them in terms of our expertise.
This proposal is just one possible way of addressing this challenge. I am sure that there are others and I hope that we can start talking about them. What is clear, however, is that our current situation leaves both those who are seeking pastoral counseling and those who are expected to give it in an inadequately supported position.