Yesterday, Sam Webster released an article on the Wild Hunt detailing the launch of a new website and a new initative. This organization, PaganPro, bills itself as a way to “fact check” people with claims to clerical and priestly lineage and training. It will “have third-party verification of their Pagan and academic qualifications” as well as feature “the ability of the public to comment on and validate the skills and character” of the people that they showcase. This is all in an effort in “validating the quality of our leadership”, as Webster writes in his article. Through the use of surveys and a paid background check, PaganPro will seek to validate and legitimize the people in its roles as a priest or leader.

The initial reaction was positive. Who can argue with the fact that there needs to be a focus on “quality control”, as the article was titled? There have been some serious horror stories of people claiming to be a spiritual guru or leader, a high priest with the utmost credentials, only to have it be revealed that those claims were patently false. Beyond that, some of these individuals can be down right dangerous – opportunistic and irresponsible. The specter of Kenny Klein and the Frosts hang over this movement, I believe, and echos of the abuses that James Arthur Ray perpetuated in his own perverse New Age spiritual forays undoubtedly drive the movement.

It should be said that I do not have a problem with hierarchy or orthodoxy, provided it is created in such a way as to not remove power and privilege from others, or used in an effort to “other” someone. I am not a splitter. I firmly believe that we need to set exclusive boundaries for the idea of Contemporary Paganism. What religious identities are “Pagan”. What processes are “Pagan”. What we can do to craft a non-appropriationist cultural identity despite the fact that many of our foundational teachings are found across the world. I believe these things are possible, even without defining religious or theological minutiae. This can be done all the while keeping Paganism as a large umbrella term for similar, related religions. The creation of such an edifice and not the construction of a “Pagan” religion with a strict, limiting orthodoxy would be my preferred goal.

But PaganPro does not sit well with me. After the initial positive reaction in the comments to Sam Webster’s article, some individuals chimed in with their concerns or reservations about this action. It is my fear that these concerns will be wiped away as typical Pagan complaints against change. We all have seen someone screaming about the “unification of Pagandom” under a single governing body, and the (irrational) fear that some people have if someone tells them they cannot simply do whatever they want.

I am concerned that this certification system that they use, and it developing into something that’s not so benign as they would like it to be. I can foresee this snowballing down the road as a way to divest oneself of any potential threats. Not “certified” by PaganPro? Too bad, we’re not going to let you preside over a ritual. Why weren’t you vetted and certified? Something to do with your background check? It doesn’t matter, because PaganPro can’t tell them why they didn’t give you a seal, just that you aren’t “certified”. What about the assumption that if you didn’t get verified you must have done something wrong, or are otherwise not trustworthy?

The following are reasons why I am unsettled by this development:

Firstly, there has been no single word from any one associated with PaganPro in regards to the questions or fears that the people are voicing in regards to it. There have been no interactions in the comments of the Wild Hunt. PaganPro has a tumblr which has no new posts based on the concerns of people or direct interaction with some questioners. This site launched on Saturday, November 22nd – a weekend day. The biggest personality behind the idea and the individual who put down the groundwork for the site is “out of town and off-line” this weekend, presumably as a way to get away from the stress of this project. According to her she gets “physically ill” while being in the spotlight.

The only person who has chimed in on The Wild Hunt’s comments section about Webster’s article is PaganPro’s designated intern. And nothing she has said alleviates anything the questions are raising, as of 2:30 PM on the 23rd. I use The Wild Hunt as a location of importance, not only because it’s the website where the story went public on, but also because it has a far greater reach of engagement than a “Facebook group” where the site was pitched initially, as referenced in the tumblr.

Sam Webster, the author of the article, who has been prodding for this site to be launched, has not responded. There has been zero interactions from the movers and shakers of PaganPro in order to perform any kind of customer service/engagement. This is an extremely bad first impression, in my mind.

Are they waiting until the business week begins? Or have they made up their minds about their processes and concerns and have no incentive to engage in the concerns of the online voices?

Secondly, unless I’ve missed this on PaganPro’s website, there are no ethical mandates or mission statements that the website operates under. There is zero promise of adhering to an ethical or moral perspective in deciding who or what gets “vetted” and certified. What are the beliefs of the members involved with the community? What are their beliefs? The website’s statement is to “make safe the circle”. They intend on doing this through survey use as well as allowing their users (and commenters!) brief statements of argument and defense over something that happened in their past and on their Pagan resume.
But what guarantees are there that the individuals granting the validating Pagan seal are willing to overlook their own biases and prospects? Many traditions do practices and rituals that others find abhorrent. The recent arguments on animal sacrifice within the community. Will a diehard anti-animal sacrifice/pro-vegan individual overlook their own bias in the matter? Where is the quality control for the people who have quality control as their focus?

The only thing they have to do is go through the same process that they expect others who use their site to go through. But nothing to stop this team of verifiers from denying verification based on bias.

Then again, PaganPro responds that they are “Not the community’s personal hit squad, investigative team, or even the community’s litmus test to who is or is not qualified to be [sic] pagan clergy.” They’ve just taken it upon themselves to be a tool to provided transparency.

There are too many questions, here.

Thirdly, the site makes use of legitimate background checks, provided by Talent Wise. While, on paper, there is nothing inherently wrong with the background checks, and they are not necessarily compulsory, there is an important distinction that gets lost within the actual website. Quoting the tumblr based on the idea that their example signs up with PaganPro: “The background checks will consist of a SSN check, county criminal records check, multi-state criminal records check, and the Nation Wide Sex Offender Database. These checks can only be run if you volunteer to do them. If her background check comes back with a completely clean record, she will be sent the Pagan Pro Verified seal to use in her emails, on her website, and any social media pages as she sees fit.” Emphasis is mine.

So if I am reading this right: if you do not consent to (and pay for) a background check, you cannot receive verification or a fancy seal to place on your blog or site. My earlier fear of having this required which, yes, is separate from any influence by PaganPro is rearing its head.

The topic of pseudonyms and alternate personas has been huge within the last couple months. The Pagan blogosphere erupted in hatred in regards to the vindictive revenge-outing of people who were forced to hide under an assumed name for an online or alternate presence. What about these people? What about people that have to fear for their profession, their academic careers, or their family due to social reprisals? How do they factor into this background checking scheme?

There’s no consideration for it. At all.

Fourthly, any member can ask for verification of a person on the site, regardless of that person’s consent to enroll or be part of the site or not. The individual must then either join the site themselves in order to fill out a clergy profile, or provide some kind of corroborating story to the claim that put them on there (That they had previously said they were of a lineage of a certain teacher), while Pagan Pro reaches out to the Big Name Pagan in question to corroborate their side.

But there is no way to opt out of it, period. There is no way to get your name removed from this list. So in effect it turns into a master list of your credentials, or what someone says to you/about you, for the entirety of the Pagan (and world) web to view.

Fifthly, and lastly for the purposes of this blog, I want to bring up the idea of people with non-standard lineages. I’ll use myself as an example. I have had no teacher, save for history. I do what I do based on what I have learned, and my own developments, and maybe some kind of communication I’ve had with other workers and practitioners. But there are a number of prominent people in and out of the community that operate as priests and priestesses, with no lineage to speak of. Further, I am ordained through the ULC as a minister. In New York State, the ULC is recognized as a valid ordination. For the purposes of the law I am a verified minister. But if I cannot prove some credentials, I’ll be unable to receive certification?

This places an emphasis on the current Big Name Pagans (which I always assumed as tongue-in-cheek to begin with) as one of the only valid sources of training out there. Something that spirit-workers, reconstructionists, and independent thinkers know is not the case.

I understand that this site is more about a resume system and a CV system. But I feel it’s especially putting the cart before the horse. It makes a big deal about a significant amount of abuses, or potential abuses, within the community. How about, instead, we focus our efforts on establishing a seminary system that can branch out into other courses? A clerical training program, not unlike ADF’s wherein the people who are enrolled and go through the necessary course work (because yes, it is all necessary to be done to be a religious leader and centerpiece) to receive certification. Then, perhaps, PaganPro can offer an alternative source of verified, “vetted” information based on their own seminary rules.
I feel that this path, the creation of a seminary structure open to people across the Pagan spectrum, would be far more constructive than what amounts to a master-list of “approved” priests using the current system we have.

Just some thoughts to think about. I’m hoping I’m seeing the worst case scenarios and that these do not come to pass. But I understand the online community, and I can understand how something like this could be abused for selfish ends. I just hope that if this gets off the ground (another discussion entirely, based on the ‘fremium’ model they use), that it is not used for ill.

Thanks for reading.