Speaking as an outsider, there seems to be a paradox at work in the American psyche. European people escaping religious persecution gave up homes, land and long generations of national identity to begin an entirely new life thousands of miles from all they knew for the sake of religious freedom. Almost as soon as the first principals of that freedom were enacted they were challenged to prevent Catholics from openly practicing, and so the struggle to limit religious freedom has continued right up to the present day. Despite the separation of church and state religion is absolutely central to every aspect of every American persons life, whatever their belief or lack of it.
It means that there’s is an instinctive neighbourliness in many American communities, people tend to pull together and put their money where their mouth is, willing to support charities and services in a way that we don’t here in the UK. The founding optimism and work ethic means that where people can, they tend to. And atheists are the most mistrusted group in America. (1)
40% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society", putting atheists well ahead of every other group, with the next highest being Muslims (26%) and homosexuals (23%).
So religion is a powder keg and a fundamental feature of American identity. Where Paganism is mildly mocked in the UK it (along with every other non-Christian philosophy) is perceived by too many Americans as some kind of threat to the soul of the nation. Personally, I believe it would be wonderful if American Pagans were able to sidestep the religious Olympics, to not enter into litigious, strident, corporate-speak that seems to characterise so much religious discourse, but with the stakes set so high I’m not sure that’s realistic. I emailed a US hospital chaplaincy organisation to ask how many Pagan members they had. The receptionist replied: “None. Paganism is not a religion.” Pagan pals sorted this out within the hour, but when a receptionist feels so strongly about what is and is not a religion, and safe enough to announce her opinion on behalf of a national organisation, that’s an indication of how febrile the subject is.
In which case, Pagan chaplains need all the support they can get, and this is where I hope that the professionalization of chaplaincy can be most useful. To be in contact with a group of people who are in a similar situation, facing similar problems and opportunities is a blessing. This is what good supervision can offer. A confidential space, run on similar but different foundations from a magical working group, where the focus is not the client but the practitioners’ relationship with the client.
Being able to make use of chaplaincy supervision depends on a background competency in chaplaincy skills. A solid, thought-through understanding of Pagan theology, counselling skills, boundaries and ethics are a foundation from which all else flows. The most brilliant ritualist, skilled in surfing magical realms is going to run into trouble as soon as they step foot into a hospital if they don’t have an understanding of what it means to enter a hospital.
Because of the centrality of religion in the US there are already a good number of Pagan chaplains functioning in a skilled and effective way. This is how most new vocations grow, from people just getting on with the job, wanting to learn more, to share their skills so that others can avoid pitfalls and offer the service more widely. Paganism has reached a level of maturity where it can (just about) support a virtual seminary, a place where Pagan ideals are supported.
Providing an extensive education in diverse aspects of Pagan philosophy, practice, and skilled ministry;
Supplementing existing ritual and magical skills with training for professional ministry and counseling;
Serving as an ongoing resource for individual continuing education; and
Providing a forum for scholarship and community
If you haven’t already looked at Cherry Hill Seminary, take the opportunity now! This is the premier gathering and resource for people serious about the vocation of Pagan Chaplaincy. They offer Masters degrees that are required by many hospitals before they recongise a religious visitor as a chaplain.
Perhaps most importantly, they offer fellowship. You will suddenly gain access to many other Pagan people doing the same thing as you, some of whom have been doing it for a very long time. Connections are made, friendships struck up, knowledgeable peer support is available. Formal supervision isn’t yet available but this is close to the next best thing.
1 ^ Penny Edgell; Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann (April 2006). "Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society". American Sociological Review 71 (2). http://www2.asanet.org/journals/asr/2006/toc050.html.