Pagan Spiritual Counseling in a Tribe-of-choice, part 1

This is a reworking of an essay I did for one of my Cherry Hill classes:

In my ministerial work, I’m faced by a situation which is fairly new in the realm of pastoral counseling as a whole, but increasingly common in the Pagan realm.  My ministry is almost entirely focused around a tribe-of-choice:  a group bound by friendship, love, spirituality, fellow interest, and other factors which don’t necessarily stem from common geography, ethnicity, race, or religious upbringing.  Of necessity, this kind of ministry differs greatly from the more standard “pastor and congregation” model; the following is an attempt to outline and briefly describe what I see as some of the most significant of these differences.

Probably the most obvious is the factor of choice itself.  I didn’t choose my ministerial role; it was chosen for me.  There was nothing so dramatic as “the Call” often reported in evangelical Christian ministry; simply put, I slowly realized that there was a reason that I was being asked to do more and more ministerial tasks (not just celebrating handfastings but counseling and advising):  I was considered by a large number of people in my tribe-of-choice to be “their minister”.  This was humbling and actually kind of alarming- I didn’t feel prepared for this responsibility.  It’s hardly a surprise that these realizations led me to seek ministerial training at Cherry Hill.

I’m still working out how this “choice factor” affects my pastoral counseling.  For one thing, it’s reinforced that for me, being a minister is not a position of authority- that (as word origin suggests), I’m a servant of my tribe-of-choice, and not a leader.  Complimenting this is the egalitarian nature of my tribe-of-choice itself; I believe people see me as their minister because they feel I’m the best person to fill that role, not because I’ve been assigned to them in some way.  Although this could lead me to take too much pride in my work (something which can be just as corrosive as the arrogance of authority), it’s not something I worry about too much; people in my tribe know me, some very well and for a long time, warts and all. It’s much harder to get a swelled head when that’s the case.

Another difference that is essential to the tribe-of-choice environment: I have multiple roles in the community, multiple relationships with fellow members.  I’m friends (to a varying degree) with almost everyone I minister to; some of these friendships are long-standing, starting well before I became a minister.  Some of them are intense and intimate friendships as well, informed by a wealth of shared experience, both good and bad.  This web of love, friendship and respect is an essential part of the community- you could even make a case that it is the community.

I realize that there are potential ethical pitfalls endemic to this environment, but I can’t change the parameters.  I can’t deny the love and friendship that binds me to my tribe-of-choice without becoming unbound.  So I must be very careful, and make it clear which role I am acting in at all times.  I do avoid certain parts of life within the tribe- the most significant being the “gossip network”.  I try (but don’t always succeed) to be a “black hole” for gossip- it comes to me but it doesn’t leave.  I don’t think that gossip (at least the negative kind) is a good thing for any community; I also have to maintain confidentiality- one of the most important parts of my code of ethics[link].  I also strive to maintain a reputation for honesty- I try very hard to tell the truth, and to remain silent when I can’t.

Because of the network of friendships that runs through my tribe-of-choice- a network that I’m part of and wouldn’t leave even if I could- it is very hard to maintain the sort of context-free stance recommended by many in the pastoral counseling field.  Even though I don’t involve myself in gossip, it is hard not to pick up some information about the stresses and conflicts that surrounds me.  Some in the community assume that I know more than I actually do; that’s hard to address, because it isn’t necessarily even a conscious assumption on the part of the people I deal with.  Taking these factors into account, claims of ignorance could be seen as a pretense by some, and possibly a deceptive one.

The best way I’ve found to approach this is by making it clear to those I counsel that I am focused on them, even though the situation involves many more people; and that I will make the highest effort to be objective, no matter what else I have heard.  I don’t solicit information from other viewpoints, but I will answer queries of the “what have you heard about the situation” nature- even though I won’t identify my sources- if it seems important to the counseling situation.  I also make it very clear that although I’m focused on what is best for my counselees, I don’t take sides.  Nor do I “get in the middle of things” and offer to arbitrate; I don’t have the training it takes to do that, and it would be unethical for me to act otherwise.

It’s also important for me to remember that my tribe-of-choice is formed by many overlapping groups, with connections that often change and are hard to quantify.  Some of the groups and connections aren’t religious or spiritual in nature- there are hobbies and creative interests that connect us, and some of these are as strong or stronger than spiritual connections.  There are also some very private and sometimes secretive people in the community, so connections may be hidden or kept very low-key.  It’s important to maintain a humble willingness to be educated about a situation from a counselee’s point of view.  This is a sort of “not knowing” that is actually often quite helpful.

[to be continued]