What is the difference between a volunteer Community Priest/ess and a Ceremonial Priest/ess for Hire?
In terms of most sacred activities? Not much is different.
In terms of context and professional accountability? A whole lot is different.
Only one piece of this puzzle is financial compensation. In transparency, I have spent the past 7 years making less than $10 an hour working in my store so that I could pay my employees more per hour than me (a scale of $12-15 per hour). Last month, it became possible for me to give myself a raise and I now make the same per hour as the other employees who have been here for as long as I have. For readings, since I pay taxes amounting to 25% of each session, plus an additional 10% to my store as a fee for the space, I charge $108 per hour. For weddings, hand fastings, and other rites of passage for people I do not know, in private, pre-negotiated settings, I charge $250 for a package consisting of a preliminary consultation session, all creative work relevant to writing a unique ceremony for each occasion, a follow-up/rehearsal session, and the actual event itself, including local travel.
My rates are appropriate and fair given my scope of experience (now 12 years as a professional, and over 20 years as a practitioner) as well as the cost of living in my geographic location. Thorn Coyle offers more details on the cost of living in the Bay Area compared to what she makes per year as a Pagan Minister here. It's helpful to see her reality in black and white, and to use it as a yardstick for review of my own reality. There are differences between being a Pagan Minister with salary and parsonage, as Thorn is, and being a Priest/ess in the contexts I have been describing in this series of articles (volunteer and for hire), which I have been elucidating as I go along. Neither is better than the other- they are each valuable models relevant to different peoples' ways of approaching spiritual life in service, and they each have their own context. There are enough folks with different types of needs that it is useful to have a variety of practitioners employing diverse models in their service.
The context I inhabit when acting as a Ceremonial Priestess for Hire is a professional one, and demands forms of skill, accountability, and mindfulness that my volunteer role does not demand in the same ways. For example, the volunteer Community Priest/ess does not have to wonder what to list as her profession on her taxes. She does not have to answer to city or municipal authorities about the type of business she is conducting in her space, or provide a license to prove that she is vested with the right to operate. She does not have to deliver guaranteed results based on customer demand. She is free (as the term "volunteer" implies) to come and go in her work at will, and to prioritize her personal comfort over her adherence to regulations or codes of conduct. She may have her own code, or an organization she partners with might have a code she must follow to serve on behalf of the organization, but that is not the same thing as answering to legal or governmental authorities and laws, nor is it the same as what is expected from a consumer-provider financial relationship.
Professionally, I am a business co-owner with astrobarry. In our shop, The Sacred Well in Oakland CA, I perform the tasks relevant to a commercial endeavor. We offer goods and services, with clearly defined costs, in a legally- and financially-accountable environment. We charge taxes and pay taxes. We have stock sheets, databases, and an amazing metaphysically-minded attorney, Trisha Lotzer of Lotzer Law Group. We have a proper accountant, The Tax Buddha. Everything we do in the store that is ceremonial, magical, or community-service-oriented is the direct benefit of the store doing exactly what it is meant to do: run smoothly as a business.
However, there are places where our business diverges from the traditional business models we have learned to take for granted in commercial culture. Most of the differences in our approach are reflected in the measures we use to assess how we are doing. Rather than judging our success merely based on the bottom line, we employ a series of philosophical and practical guidelines to keep our business in alignment with healthy, community-minded sustainability. That means that we take all levels of manifestation into account in shaping and evaluating our business.
The Sacred Well Credo
We believe in magic. Magic is the dance of co-creation between humans and the universe. We are all powerful beings, capable of shaping our reality with a mix of intention and will.
We honor all traditions. Nobody holds a monopoly on the magical arts. We find inspiration from a variety of cultural and spiritual lineages, while recognizing that the true heart of magic beats a unique rhythm within each one of us.
We love our planet. We strive to create products using the most eco-friendly, sustainable materials and methods possible. These days, this is a collective work-in-progress. We continue to seek "greener" ways to share our magic with you, out of respect for Mother Earth, the source of all our creations.
We value our relationships. Our customers, our suppliers, and the many creative souls who lend us their helping hands are all an integral part of our business. We're committed to conducting fair, honest, and mutually beneficial exchanges with everyone we encounter.
We revel in the mystery. We are humbled by everything we still have to learn, and all in the universe that shall remain unknowable. Our growth process is an ongoing journey, and we consider it a privilege to share that journey with you.
I gauge our success at The Sacred Well by a variety of factors: how happy and creative are the employees with their duties and tasks, how many people we are able to employ at a living wage, how many customers are satisfied with their purchases who return again and again, how green are our suppliers and practices, what balance do we have of factory-made versus hand-made/locally-made products, how much are we able to give back to the community in providing space for sacred circles, classes, and workshops, how many books are we buying from small presses and distributors versus clearinghouses, and what is the reputation of our products? Anyone in small business can tell you: it is a balance of choices that you make every day that ultimately draws and gathers a supportive community around your store. At The Sacred Well, we work mindfully every day to keep the business practices, and the store's energy, clean.
In my role as provider of space and resources in my store, I am, in many ways, focused more on the lifestyle side of Paganism than on my religious role as Priest/ess. I am performing tasks related to procurement, production, creativity, relationships, aesthetics, management, and human resources. However, I am also performing services, for which I am paid, in a role that some might call "spiritual advisor" and others might call "entertainer."
Having been a professional tarot reader, intuitive, and Ceremonial Priest/ess for Hire for over a decade, I know from experience that although it is not widely acknowledged in the USA under our cultural norms, I am functioning as a Priest/ess when I am doing this work. It is very specific work that includes divination, energy movement, observation/witnessing spiritual phenomena and spiritual awakenings, confessional services, re-alignment of subtle forces that have shaken loose and are creating static, friendly guidance for those seeking to create personal ritual, knowing of secret ways, and performing sacred rites. Each of these tasks involves specific sets of skills that are attained over time with study and concentrated practice.
For my part, I am also functioning as a scholar, interpreter, and purveyor of a mythic-level resonance that appears in various forms and cultures all over the world: the magical woman. Whether she is the shamaness, the weather-worker, the midwife, the witch, the local spinster, or the wise crone, there are tales upon tales of this archetypal figure who listens to the whispers of the unknown, who seeks omens and performs rites, who offers advice, and who has adventured far enough outside the world of what is normal or proper to ever be content with mere appearances again. She has seen too much to go back. Thus, she is the Seer for her community. At the very least, she is the storyteller. And she makes her living as such.
One might say I make a living helping people turn off the left brain in order to allow the more creative, reverent, expeditionary tendencies of the right brain have some room to stretch and express themselves. In these moments, whether it is in a reading, during a chanting meditation or in a ceremony, whether I'm singing and encouraging others to sing, dancing and encouraging others to dance, being a dreamer and encouraging others to dream, or telling a story, I am helping unlock something deeply, primally desired by many, many people: divine union with source.
In order to create the conditions where this kind of communion can happen, I rely on years of study, practice, personal creativity, and the cultivation of functional technologies that yield most beneficial results possible in repeated incidences. It has its own science to it, but more of an alchemy than a chemistry. I avoid doing things that would place me in the realm of "therapist" or "doctor" as these have different connotations, different types of training, and different governing principles. I refer people to these professionals whenever it is clear that what the person needs more than a ritual or reading is a medical or psychological type of healing. Being able to see beyond my own need for making a living to the ethics of referral, especially in cases related to mental health, is a professional skill unto itself.
I also teach classes at my shop and online, wherein I share the results of my personal research and experience in witchcraft, mythology, lore, and divination. These classes are "how-to" and "hands-on." I encourage people to explore, to teach themselves to try things, to dare to be a "knower of things for themselves" using my methods as a kick-start or inspiration for their own sacred journeys. Everything we do at The Sacred Well is very DIY. We provide opportunities and tools that help folks to bring their own magic forward in their own lives. Part of my job is to hold space for that, to make sure our space stays clean on all levels, and to teach what I know of sacred arts.
Whether you call me "spiritual advisor," "entertainer," or "Priest/ess", I am utilizing a specialized skill set to help another person or people find tools, messages, and resources that unlock a mythic resonance they carry within themselves. I facilitate experiences of the Divine in this setting, professionally. I am paid for the employment of these skills, as any other experienced professional would be, out of respect: for the knowledge I have acquired, for the sharing of my expertise and energy, and for the work I do to keep the space clean and ready. In another culture, it would not be unlikely to see a Priest/ess functioning in a similar capacity and being financially supported for it, only in a temple, not a store.
"We are healers working retail
or working graveyard without pay" - Rootless, SJ Tucker
My accountability as a Ceremonial Priest/ess for Hire involves
-ethical business conduct (the price stated is the price you pay, I am on time, clean, dressed appropriately, and prepared for my duties, I cultivate professionalism in my interactions)
-customer satisfaction (ie, the couple has to really LOVE their hand fasting, the client really has to have an answer to the question they brought to the reading, the mineral specimen has to be good quality)
-procedural and practical duties (accurately completing marriage certificates and mailing them right away, reporting my readings income on tax returns, making sure my business has adequate insurance)
While it is a good idea for the volunteer Community Priest/ess to also have her own accountability standards, they are simply not the same - in tone or urgency to comply - as those required of a professional setting.
I have decided not to even attempt to take on defending why anyone might think I "deserve" to be paid for my professional work. It is my day job. Of course it is paid work. It is what I spend 8 or more (usually more!) hours per day doing, with significant training and accountability required of me, just like any job might require of any employee. If I was not doing this job for pay, I would need to do a different job for pay, and I have done that in the past as well. The fact that I also perform some of the same tasks in a volunteer capacity brings me into alignment with doctors who volunteer in developing countries, attorneys who work pro bono for cases close to their hearts, and computer technicians who choose to help their friends install wi-fi in their apartments. It's my free will choice (and often my joy!) to use my professional skills to help out in a community setting.
Whether I am functioning as a volunteer Community Priest/ess with my Coven, where I give freely of my skills, or whether I am functioning as a Ceremonial Priest/ess for Hire in my shop, where I am paid for my skills, it is really important to note that I am not a professional minister. I have not attended seminary. I do not have an M.Div. I have not chosen "being the leader of a religious congregation and providing practical as well as spiritual sustenance" as my profession. I have chosen "shop owner and (spiritual advisor? entertainer? Priest/ess?)" as my profession. The paradigm of minster is one that I find personally uncomfortable based on the western understanding of the role. I went to Catholic school from K-12, so some of my discomfort might be explained that way. Further, my own spiritual practice is rooted more in non-western cultural norms of householder religion than western church culture. So I do not take up that role, though, as I mentioned in a previous article on this subject, I am beginning to see that I will need to cultivate some ministerial skills to better serve the growing community that is CAYA Coven. Part of cultivating those skills at this time is knowing when I don't have them, and when to refer someone to the appropriate professional or possibly another Priest/ess who has ministerial training.
So, in all that I have reported on being a volunteer Community Priest/ess, as well as a Ceremonial Priest/ess for Hire, I have grazed but barely touched the subject that brings us all here in the first place: call it the Goddess, call it the Mystery, call it magic. A lot of my work in these two roles is actually remarkably secular and practical. You show up imagining an ethereal light and fragrance of sandalwood as I chant and drum by a fire, and instead you get me schlepping bags of clothes to the shelter, studying spreadsheets, or helping the bride safety pin that loose ribbon back into her neckline before the big moment. So, where's the magic? We actually will find out about that most-important wellspring of my spiritual service in my next and final article on this topic: Priest/ess at Large.