On being a priest of Set and a Pagan minister, and what spiritual leadership should (and shouldn’t) look like.
I occasionally receive inquiries about how I came to be ordained, and how others might do the same. Here is my best attempt at distilling all my thoughts on this matter, in one convenient place.
People often refer to the concepts of “priesthood” and “religious ministry” as if they were interchangeable, but I prefer to distinguish between these two functions very carefully. The assumption that a minister is always a priest and vice versa is rooted in the monotheist premise that people in the same religious community will always follow the same god, and it is inappropriate to hold Pagans to this standard.
- In a polytheist context at least, priesthood is the act of serving one or more particular deities with regular rituals and/or offerings, by studying their lore, and by helping others understand them as necessary. It is a devotional occupation that is all about doing something for a god or a pantheon, or their followers.
- Ministry, in my opinion, has less to do with serving any gods in particular, and more to do with serving human beings. It is an act of community service that is mostly about helping people legally marry, procure good fortune, and/or memorialize their dead. These are practical issues that all kinds of people need help with, regardless of which god(s) they prefer to acknowledge (if any).
So when I officiate a wedding, bless a baby, or eulogize somebody’s ancestor, I am serving strictly as a minister. I don’t care if the people I help believe in any deity or not, and I will even tailor my services to reflect their beliefs (within reason, of course). Theology is only a point for discussion when it comes to my services for Set, which I see as fulfilling a more priestly role. While a person can certainly be a minister and a priest at the same time (as with most monotheist clergy), in Paganism you can also be just one or the other, or even alternate between the two as necessary.
I should clarify that I am not recognized as a priest in any particular congregation apart from my own, and that others are welcome to dispute my use of this term as they see fit. I would hope that all the work I have done so far will prove I sincerely do my best to live up to the label, and that I am not just some occultnik hack. Our coven might only consist of four people, but I’m confident enough in our shared experiences not to care too much if other groups consider us “legitimate” or not. We have little interest in increasing our own numbers, since we don’t believe anyone should have to join any sect, pay any dues, or kiss any hiney to learn about the mighty Champion of Ra. Hence my insistence on publishing everything I write about the Big Guy for free; everything in this ongoing work (such as it may be) is a votive offering not only to Him, but to all my fellow Setians as well. It is hoped that others will find the material helpful enough in some manner, even if we must agree to disagree on certain points.
As we LV-426 initiates reached adulthood, two of us decided to get married (not to each other, but to our own separate sweethearts). And since we manifest Set’s rebellious disposition so nicely, neither of us was willing to appease either of our extended families by conceding to a conventional Christian wedding ceremony, or even to a more secular procedure at a local courthouse. For this reason, I was legally ordained in the Universal Life Church Monastery so I could officiate a ceremony to my Sister Bean’s liking, and we enlisted another minister from the Monastery to officiate my own ceremony. Since then, I’ve officiated ceremonies for other couples who needed it, without concern for whether they are Setian or Pagan, and without charging any fees. Apart from working execrations, blessing a few newborns, and the one time I administered last rites for someone, weddings represent the bulk of my ministerial experience at present.
The ULC Monastery is one of those “anything goes” churches that ordains anyone who signs up for free. Such institutions are often viewed as “shams” by more traditional churches, which have huge populations and generate enough (tax-exempt) revenue to fund things like Bible colleges and theological seminaries, where they can actually send their clergy to be trained. Pagans do not enjoy anything close to the same numbers or resources that Christians enjoy, making it much harder for us to successfully launch our own churches (let alone seminaries) and keep them going. While it is not a Pagan church specifically, the Monastery makes it possible for covens like ours to enjoy the benefits of ordination without paying a shit-ton of money we don’t have to some institution we don’t even agree with. This seems only fair to us, given that we don’t own any property as a group, we have no treasury to speak of, we don’t request or accept monetary donations from anyone, and we certainly don’t charge each other any membership fees.
There are other multifaith churches that offer more conventional ordinations, such as the Universal Unitarian Church. Some Pagans I know have enrolled in such ministries to benefit from the training they offer. It’s a lot of hard work, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who chooses to go through that process. I’ve always lacked the time and the money to do it myself, and while I work well with authority in a strictly business context, this is not the case when it comes to religion. My faith is the one area in life where I get to have absolute control, and I chafe with resentment when I feel like that control is being restricted. However, I don’t wish to discourage anyone else from considering options like the UU. Online ordination has served my purposes pretty well thus far, but it is not the best option for everyone, and I wish nothing but the best for those who endeavor to graduate from more structured ministerial programs.
That being said, I fully disclose that I am not a licensed counselor or social worker, and that I am ill-equipped to handle some of the issues ministers in other faiths are trained to deal with. I do, however, work in a field relating to public health, and whenever I meet someone who needs help to such an extent, I always refer them to licensed (and preferably secular) professionals. I don’t milk them for all they’re worth like some televangelist faith healer. I also don’t fuck around with people’s safety, and if I think someone might be extremely dangerous to either themselves or others, I will report any evidence I find to the appropriate authorities. There are traditional organized churches that train their ministers in all kinds of ways, but which also harbor and protect obvious evildoers among their own leadership. So whenever I hear more privileged faiths poo-poo the idea of online ordination, it just tells me they hate minority religions and want to keep us down. Besides, my ministerial work is supplemental to my sacerdotal work anyway. While I do my best to help whomever I can whenever I can, I really do what I do for Set and for other Setians—which is to say, I identify as a Setian priest first and a Pagan minister second.
Piggybacking on a multifaith online church is certainly not an optimal method for circumventing the lack of legal equity between our various religious traditions; but starting my own church has never seemed like a practical idea. I doubt there would be that many people knocking down the door to join, and I am uncertain as to what I could really offer those who did. I also have serious ethical problems with how churches are allowed to become tax-exempt businesses, political interest groups, and safe havens for sex offenders in this country. Part of me would want any church I help launch to actually pay taxes, just as a matter of principle and accountability. But then again, there are many ways in which tax exemption is extremely helpful for Pagan churches that are already struggling to get by as it is; so I am conflicted on the matter. Until a better option presents itself, I’ll just make do with independently serving Set as a priest from LV-426, and with facilitating any ministerial work I might need to provide through the ULC Monastery.
While I take my work very seriously, I don’t claim to be some prophet who holds the keys to all the mysteries of the universe, and I am extremely critical of anyone else who does. Set demands self-determination, not blind obedience, and anything that infringes upon your personal sovereignty is anathema to Him. There are far too many priests and ministers (of all religions, including Paganism) who prey on the people they “help” for power, money, or sex. If someone demands that you give something of yourself that you don’t want to give—whether it’s your time, your money, your ability to think critically, or even your body—that is NOT OKAY. I don’t care what religion you are, Set’s gift of autonomy is for ALL sentient beings, and those who deprive others of this gift will become pet food for Ammut in the Underworld!
As a final note, I still occasionally meet other Pagans who think I must either talk backwards, eat babies, or spin my head around 360 degrees because I worship Set. With all due respect to experts in other fields: if the extent of your knowledge about Big Red is that He is the “Egyptian devil” or “god of evil,” then you are a LAYPERSON as far as He is concerned, and people like me are here to put you back in your lane. We aren’t going away any time soon, either; in fact, I reckon the 2020s will see more of us awakening to our true identities than ever before! Set is mighty, and so are we!