Friday, 21 May 2010

Cherry Hill Seminary

A guest post from Cherry Hill’s Executive Director, Holli Emore.

Here in the United States we have an interesting legacy connected with the term “professional” as applied to chaplaincy and other religious service. The same spirit which drove many of our early European settlers to make that daring leap across the ocean into the unknown also inspired a new way of looking at religious clergy. At the same time that new Americans rejected the hierarchies of monarchy, they often embraced self-taught clergy. The similarities between institutional religion and institutional government must have been all-too-obvious in the atmosphere which birthed democracy. Also, trained educated clergy were not always available (this is sometimes the case in rural areas even today). Protestantism is nothing if not democratic, though like democracy, it is no stronger than the weakest link, which is often a well-meaning but uneducated minister/leader. We so strongly hold to the value of individual inspiration and vision that we too easily overlook what may be gained by educating our clergy.

At Cherry Hill Seminary we find ourselves in an ongoing examination of what it means to serve the spiritual needs of a community, what skills and education are beneficial, or even essential, to such service, and where we should either forge new ground or look at the successful models developed by other religions. Certainly, we could spend all of our time negotiating the maze of professional standards put out there by professional associations, standards for pastoral counselors, therapists, chaplains, prison chaplains, hospital chaplains, and more. The U.S. military has been very rigid about the education it requires of its chaplains, but then relaxed those standards when the Middle East conflict exceeded the numbers the armed forces were prepared to serve spiritually. Part of the CHS push for future accreditation has been to satisfy requirements which may now be negotiable.

Nevertheless, setting a high bar for those who serve, and, therefore, lead us, is a good idea. One need not look far to encounter spiritual leaders who have ranged from mediocre to pathological and even murderous. One of the first courses all CHS students must take is Ethics and Boundaries. Most people think that ethics is an intuitive exercise, and trust that the Rede or the Golden Rule will get them through a rough patch. Our course challenges a student in every way possible, and by the end of the course each student has produced their own detailed code of ethics. More importantly, those students are better prepared to face the real world, with its unpredictable, ever-changing barrage of issues, predicaments and gray areas.

And then there is the reality that hospitals, prisons and other institutional settings simply must establish some kind of standards for the people they allow to have access to their clients. Ultimately, they are held responsible for the standard of care, including spiritual, and so it is only fair that they ask us to demonstrate that we are up to the task. There are worlds of issues that the average individual has no way of knowing about operating in such an environment. We will be far better able to deliver something of value to those clients if we have had the proper preparation.

To some people, the word “professional” implies that they are paid a salary for the work. Salaried Pagan clergy are not likely to abound in my lifetime. Rather, we propose that “professional” in this context signals a level of excellence perhaps not found among the rank and file volunteers. Most of us have a healthy respect for the training and apprentice-ship required of a goldsmith or accountant or social worker. But we resist the idea that a spiritual worker may need specialized training, too. I look forward to a day, in my lifetime, when Pagan clergy command respect for their expertise, not just from the mundane world, but from our own.

ps - M. Macha Nightmare's interview with TWPT offers further background on CHS.

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