I apologize for the length, there’s not much I can do about it because it was an interview.

Hello everyone! Today’s post is a bit of an interruption to the normal blog style, but I hope it will become a more regular sight here at Magick for the Real World. Today, I spoke with Holli Emore who is the executive director of Cherry Hills Seminary, the first and only graduate seminary school for Pagans. They are pushing forward to make Paganism a more accepted religion here in the US as well as other countries. Their board of directors and faculty are (wo)manned by some of the most influential people in Pagan culture to date. Their current President of Chaplaincy, Rev. Patrick McCollum, was the first government recognized Wiccan chaplain, and has met with President Obama to work on California’s Five Faiths policy. Jason Pizl-Walters, the author and owner of the Wild Hunt, is on the Board. Their current President, Aline O’Brien has co-authored several books with Starhawk, was a founding member of the Reclaiming Tradition, as well as being the National First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess. This group of motivated individuals makes up what I consider to be our greatest “think tank” in several decades.

So without further adieu, here’s the interview.

Josh Whitney: What are Cherry Hill’s goals as an institution?

Holli Emore: We exist to serve the education-for-ministry needs of the Pagan community. We are not here to teach you how to practice your path, although you may learn a lot during your student experience. What our founders realized, at least a decade ago, is that people need more than one typically learns in a coven, grove, circle, etc.

We also see that we can expect to emerge in the future as a channel for emerging Pagan scholarship. Our faculty, staff, board members and students are integrally involved in such esteemed organizations as the American Academy of Religion, the Parliament for the World’s Religions, and many interfaith organizations around the country, as well as many university religion and other departments.

I cannot agree more with how necessary an organization of this type is in this time of transition. Thank you Cherry Hill faculty and staff for working hard to fill this incredibly important slot!

Josh Whitney: Okay, you stated that Cherry Hill teaches more than what can be learned in a typical group. What do you mean? Possibly could you give me a few examples of “courses” or “degree plans”?

Holli Emore: Sure. Some examples from my own experiences as a student include studying the basis for ethics in our society, and developing my own personal ethical code. Most people have really never thought through how they will handle specific situations. Many will quote the Wiccan Rede, but what does it mean to “harm none”? How does that play out in real life? What does it mean to be a mandated reporter? And how do you recognize, acknowledge and maintain healthy, yet permeable, personal boundaries, or boundaries for your group?

Josh Whitney: Okay, that makes sense. I’m not very familiar with seminary style educational facilities, so could you explain how a student goes through the educational process? Do you have degree plans that a student follows or do they simply all go through the same process?

Holli Emore: On the more esoteric end of the scale, I’ve just completed a wonderful fall semester course in which we looked at the development of the concept of the soul, from the very ancient Greeks to the present day, and even finished off the course with a Pagan text. All of us in the class just loved reading Plotinus, Parmenides, Iamblichus, etc., in the context of a group of Pagans, including a Pagan professor. It was an academic approach, but highly relevant to each of us in our personal development. Two of us were in the process of developing new local groups, one person self-identifies as an ethical humanist, one person is Wiccan, one was sort of Reclaiming-oriented, one of us is Hermetic-Egyptian – a highly diverse group. You just can’t buy this kind of intellectual and spiritual stimulation. Heck, it’s hard to even find it, for most of us across America and the other countries we serve.

We offer several master’s degrees in Pagan studies, including a Master of Divinity, plus we revamped our certificate program, so we still offer several certificates through the Pagan Community Education program. Then we have recently added (and continue to add) some short courses called Foundations, which are open to the public and last for only four weeks. One of these is a refresher on academic writing, good for those who’ve been out of school for a while. Another which I took last year was Foundations of Counseling. It was designed to introduce the very basic principles of helping others, specifically for someone who does not plan to go into a counseling field. Many of us are singled out because of our leadership or other prominent role in our local communities, but have had no specific training in, e.g., knowing when to refer someone for professional help, when someone is simply being manipulative, when someone just needs a friendly listener, and when to dial 9-1-1.

For those pursuing a master’s degree, our departments are Pagan Advocacy; Pastoral Care and Counseling; Public Ministry; Nature, Deity & Inspiration; and Text, Tradition & Interpretation.

A Master of Divinity involves additionial study, internship, etc. All of the requirements are spelled out in our Student Handbook, available online under the “For Students” section of our web site. Here’s the link to the student handbook: http://cherryhillseminary.org/StudentHandbookAugust32009.pdf

Josh Whitney: So what about the people that can’t actually get to South Carolina?

Holli Emore: As long as you have a good internet connection, you can attend Cherry Hill Seminary. We do not have a physical campus. Our business office is in Columbia, SC, but our courses are all by distance education. We hold an annual intensive in the summer for matriculated students, and we offer a day-long Winter Conference each February in California. In the future, we hope to offer more workshops in various locations around the country. But our students all take class online. This involves participation in listserves, conference calls and chats on Skype, and email. Our online classroom supports virtually all of our class functions, and we occasionally use other platforms to show videos or slide presentations (PowerPoint).

The fact that this learning is available to everyone is a great feature. The thing to remember about CHS is that they are not only working to educate, they are working to provide jobs for this education to be used in (for example the chaplaincy program that I mentioned earlier). The classes are legit master’s classes which will challenge the students to really learn the material rather than skate by. This is not a run-of-the-mill education, and serious students will gain a massive amount of information by taking these classes.

Josh Whitney: I am interested in how your internal structure is set up. Are the employees actual paid employees or do they all have separate day jobs? As we all know, this is a very common issue in most Pagan organizations.

Holli Emore: The executive director (that’s me) receives a less 15-hour per week modest salary. All other positions are volunteer. Now you know why I said our people are very dedicated to this cause! It’s a real challenge for me as management to both coordinate staff and to encourage them as volunteers. Fortunately, all of us really believe in Cherry Hill Seminary and want it to succeed. It is very inspiring to me to work with people who for the most part put aside their personal agendas and always look to see how we can best fulfill the CHS mission.

This is also why we encourage people to make charitable contributions to CHS. I know that sometimes people may wonder why we always include a way to respond with a gift in all our newsletters, etc. But the reality is that if we charged our students enough to provide the professionalism for which we are all striving, very few people could afford to attend CHS. We are a 501(c)3 charitable organization, by the IRS code, and we work hard to maintain the highest level of accountability and transparency.

Josh Whitney: I was really hoping to hear that you had more paid employees, but I understand how hard it is to get a large enough student body to make it worthwhile.

Holli Emore: Oh, yes, to answer your original question, virtually all of us have other jobs. I am a consultant to nonprofits, so I have the flexibility to combine my CHS work with that for my other clients, from my home office. But the time demand for really doing a good job for CHS is increasing rapidly. We hope to make my position and others full-time by next year.

As always, this money problem creeps up. I will refer to one of my earlier posts about how Christians have created their organizations from donations (aka tithing). This may not make every Pagan excited, but these organizations are the same organizations that have brought our culture to a point where people may hate us, but they don’t fear us as they did in the past. These organizations cannot succeed without our help, and if you can’t volunteer time or energy, the least you could do is send the $20 you were going to use for pizza to help pay these people for their time, energy, networks, and Goddess help us, their amazing talent and genius. Remember, they are not just an agency of education, they are an agency of change, a change for our benefit. For those of you who still live in fear of coming out of the broom closet, remember that you are choosing to stay in fear by not helping organizations like CHS.

Josh Whitney: Who do you see as the current Pagan culture’s leaders?

Holli Emore: I”m pausing to think because I believe we are in a strongly-transitional time. Our original leaders are aging, some are passing on, and at the same time our community and communities are pondering what they need from leaders. One of our advisory board members, Sabina Magliocco (Witching Culture) has written about the oppositional nature of modern Pagans. It does seem to be true that many Pagans can tell you all about what they aren’t, and how they are different from the religions of mainstream culture.

And yet, there are some basic human needs which exist no matter what spiritual system or religion one uses to frame one’s spirituality. More and more I am seeing the need for us to abandon the closets that sheltered us during the “satanic panic” years, and which continue to serve some of us in the Bible belt.

I have a great admiration for those who are recognizing the needs in their communities and basically getting down to work, doing whatever it takes. My friend Christopher Penczak is doing this in New England. Amber K and Azriel have built something really beautiful in Ardantane. Thorn Coyle is creating a new movement [I believe it’s called Solar Cross?] for providing spiritual training and group experience. For a good many years, the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel in the mid-Atlantic states has demonstrated outstanding leadership. Here in South Carolina, Osireion and other groups are reaching out to each other, weaving, re-weaving and growing our webs of connectedness. The people in whom I recognize the traits of leadership these days are the ones who bring our tribe together, who help us find our common threads at the same time that we recognize our differences. These same leaders are usually found being very active with their local, regional, and national/international interfaith networks. Our CHS head of chaplaincy, Patrick McCollum, is a wonderful example of the kind of bridges that can be built when one both stands with integrity for one’s beliefs, but also reaches out to walk with others and learn each other’s ways, needs, meanings.

You asked who are the current Pagan culture’s leaders, and I would say, look for the little red hens out there – remember that childhood story? – the Little Red Hen is the person who understands what needs to be done, who rallies the community to work together, and who follows through and gets it done.

I must say that I am incredibly excited to hear about all of this forward momentum. I had almost given up hope from my fruitless internet searches for something worth reading and hearing about. These leaders are doing exactly what must be done. They are working towards something. They are not just standing by and complaining. They are actively taking action. This is something that must be realized. It must be realized now when the momentum is waxing rather than waning. This is our time to step up and become the leaders much like our heroes of the past did. Many years have passed since the last great steps were taken, but we are moving forward again, and I say “Where do I sign up?”

Josh Whitney: That makes sense, and seems to be similar to what I’ve seen happening. Since the old guard is making room for the new crusaders, it seems as though the way that things are done is changing as well. As you said, there have been many scares in the past that have kept people out of the public eye. How do you feel about the way that people still hide in their closets about their beliefs and how do you feel that the fear can be resolved?

Holli Emore: That subject is a very personal one for me since I still make part of my living as a consultant. There’s no doubt that some of my clients would be horrified to think they were working with a witch. Then there are some who know and they either simply find it a curiosity, or they love learning more about my spiritual side. It’s very tricky for someone who is self-employed, as many of us are these days, because we have no protections against discrimination; no one has to hire me. That said, I sincerely believe that as people get to know and trust us as individuals, then they will be prepared to accept who we are as Pagans.

I still remember that Harvey Milk at one point urged gays and lesbians to come out. I say to people, if you can – do it! Do it for those who cannot as yet. And then remember that you are an ambassador for a little-understood cause and be out with dignity and maturity.

I must agree. There are those in the Pagan world who risk much by coming out of the closet, and not only to themselves, but to their children. Yes, those of you who grew up in Los Angeles or Austin or even Denver may be able to let your 8 year old step out of the house with a pentacle the size of a baby hanging from his neck and not expect the neighbor kids to beat him senseless, but those of us who reside in Red territory have to make choices knowing the consequences. My son was hit with rocks because he knows that we don’t go to church or pray to “God”…and he’s in kindergarten…yes, kindergarten. So I agree with Holli, if you can be public, do it, but do it so that the rest of us don’t look bad.

Josh Whitney: So, final question: What do you feel is the greatest problem in the Pagan culture as the head of CHS as well as an individual Pagan practitioner?

Holli Emore: Many Pagans have run so hard to get away from the organized church and from obnoxious fundraising that we have developed a dysfunctional relationship with those ideas. We don’t have to throw the babies out with the bathwater. As an organizational consultant, I am very sensitive to nuanced variations found in different groups of any kind. Part of my job is to pick up on those nuances and help guide leaders into ways of doing things that fit their organizational personality, so to speak. I am aware that the idea of a seminary makes some Pagans very nervous; they don’t want to see us “sell out” to mainstream culture.

But Cherry Hill Seminary is a wonderful experiment in growing a new variant which embraces the best of the cultures we encounter, including those we left behind. We do not have to imitate others. But neither must we be afraid to appear similar sometimes.

And about the money thing – as a fundraising professional (I have a CFRE certification) I have spent my career helping people understand that it’s not about the money, it’s about our passion for something. Even in hard times, few of us in this country go hungry, and nearly all of us can be generous if we choose to. At Cherry Hill we have done nearly everything we can do with volunteer support, and we are nearing the time when we will be stalled without regular year-round support from people who believe in what we are doing. I know from personal experience that generosity produces genuine satisfaction, even joy. So, I hope that Pagans — many of whom are very philanthropic, by the way — will increasingly recognize the empowerment that comes from giving. And I don’t just mean to Cherry Hill. I mean to their local charities, to national groups like the Parliament for the World’s Religions and the ACLU. That’s part of our spiritual responsibility.

Anyway, those are the two issues that come to my mind when you ask about my work as head of CHS. As an individual Pagan practitioner, I can tell you that I spend much of my time helping my private students understand that they possess infinite ability and just need to walk into their own divinity!

Holli, I think that we have come to exactly the same conclusions. Money, fear of imitating Christianity, and lack of faith in oneself are the three biggest issues. These are the three that are most limiting because they keep us from organizing (Christians are organized and you’ve got to believe that you’re worthwhile before you can be a leader) and they keep us from fighting back with lawyers as well as pushing new laws (money rules in these areas, but organization is key when you don’t have a multi-billion dollar corporation to back you).

I must admit that I was impressed with CHS’s efforts, and I hope that you are too. Go visit their website at cherryhillseminary.org, sign up for a class or at least make a donation.