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Community Focus


M. Macha Nightmare

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Seminary's website

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TWPT Talks to M. Macha Nightmare©2010TWPT  

TWPT:  Can you give me some background on Cherry Hill Seminary (hereafter referred to as CHS) when it was founded, by whom etc.?  

MMN:  CHS was the inspiration of Kirk White, arising from discussions among folks in COSE Church of the Sacred Earth in New England.  According to one of Kirk’s early collaborators, Cat Chapin-Bishop, “the idea was always to bring onboard whatever talent would be needed to make the school the best reflection of what the Pagan community had to teach that we could find.”  Originally envisioned as being a correspondence school with a residential component, the seminary moved to an online format when, around 2000, Cat got a domain name and set up a website.  CHS began to offer classes online, using fairly primitive Yahoogroups chat rooms.   Given the flourishing of what is known as “distance learning” at all manner of educational institutions today, it’s obvious how prescient those early founders were.

Laura Wildman Hanlon joined with Kirk and Cat to do a lot of brainstorming of what they'd like to see in a Pagan seminary, dreaming up all manner of fascinating sounding courses.  Of course, finding competent people to teach them and finding texts to use was another matter.  Fortunately, in the interim more and more Pagan studies titles are being published and more scholars are working in the field of Pagan studies.  Further, the
American Academy of Religion (AAR) now includes a section on Pagan Studies that was established at about the same time.

Cat claims that “There was always the sense that the school was going to outgrow what any small regional organization, or even single tradition of Paganism, could bring to it.”  To that I would add my own observation that Paganism is a small enough demographic to not have enough people to sustain a seminary unless both faculty and students could be drawn from around the country.

At that time there were two courses required of all students: one was Survey of Neo-Pagan Traditions and the other was Boundaries & Ethics.  Cat developed the latter and asked Judy Harrow and myself to audit it in order to give her feedback on how it worked and so forth.  I have to tell you: that B&E course was one of the best classes I've ever taken.  Cat assigned provocative reading and we did a lot of online research of all manner of ethics statements from many different kinds of professional organizations, religious organizations, counseling, psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual organizations.  At the end of the course, each of us was expected to create her or his own personal code of ethics.  (An example of one appears in my book, Witchcraft and the Web.)

When that 16-week courseended, Cat asked me to design a course on death and dying.  I told her I’d do it if she held my hand all the way, since I had no idea how to do such a thing.  Well, I did, and it was a hit, if you consider that it’s run every Fall semester since it was first offered in 2001.  Most feedback has been very positive.  Further, the course has resulted in many final projects, such as Michael Reeder’s Hospital Chaplaincy Education Slideshow and available here at the website of the Washington-Baltimore Pagan Clergy Association. 

As we stabilize and expand, and have available personpower to do the work, we plan to post a more comprehensive collection of all manner of death and dying resources that have come out of that class, including songs, chants, and rituals.

TWPT:  Why was it felt among those who founded the school that there was a need for CHS?

MMN:  It was Kirk White’s dream to have a seminary that would put Pagan ministers on equal footing, training-wise, with ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders and spiritual advisors.  The roles required to conduct rituals, to “priest/ess” them, is one we Pagans learn better than most.  However, with the increased popularity of our religions, increased visibility, and attendant changes, we are now called upon to perform other roles, roles which in the overculture (my word for “mainstream society”) are performed by clergypeople, and for which we have not prepared.  This is where CHS comes in.   

I am uncomfortable using the word “clergy” to describe what we do because I think it comes burdened with heavy connotations that we may not necessarily wish to cultivate.  I prefer the word “minister” for what we do when we set out to be of service to our communities, although I realize there are other Pagans for whom the word “minister” carries negative connotations.  

This is an example of the delicate dance we do when we create Pagan institutions within the larger culture.  We tend to adopt commonly used terms that may be inaccurate when used in a Pagan context.  We are mindful of not compromising Paganism, in all its diversity, in our efforts to organized, standardize (to some degree), and educate.  Regardless of what term we use, CHS was created to help Pagans acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to serving their communities and interacting with the public on behalf of Paganism.

TWPT:  Is CHS an accredited school and what does that mean to students who study with CHS?

MMN:  Accreditation is an outside review process that examines every aspect of a school to ensure its quality, stability, and long-term sustainability.  A diploma from a school may be legal and legitimate, but not necessarily accredited.  CHS offers legitimate degrees, along with our certificate programs and public courses, but it is not accredited yet.  That's a long, extensive and expensive process for which we need significant financial support from the Pagan community.  We have set our goal to seek accreditation because of repeated requests from students and other Pagans over the years who have told us that this is what they want: accreditation.


Accreditation will carry particular weight for those seeking to serve in chaplaincy capacities in particular, in the military, in hospitals, and elsewhere.  It will also be important for those who wish to go beyond their master’s to pursue scholarship at other universities, seeking a doctorate, e.g.

TWPT:  Is it difficult for a school such as CHS to obtain accreditation?  How much effort has to go into getting and then maintaining accreditation?

MMN:  Yes, achieving accreditation is a monumental task for any school.  We are seeking accreditation through DETC (Distance Education and Training Council), a body that's been in existence since the 1920s to accredit schools that teach by a method known as “distance learning.”  That used to be correspondence schools.  Today most distance learning takes place via Internet-based communications platforms such as Moodle, Skype, AuthorStream, etc.

Among the many requirements that need to be met before one can apply for accreditation are: (1) minimal full-time paid staff; (2) bricks and mortar office; (2) library with a minimum number of volumes; (4) fully developed courses of study; (5) a minimum number of students; (6) running for a minimum number of years; (7) established financial resources.  In addition, all master’s classes faculty must have ‘terminal degrees,’ which in this case usually means a Ph.D., M.Div., or D.Min.

We currently have one
part-time staff person, Executive Director
Holli Emore.  Of course, we pay our faculty, but nowhere near what they’re worth or what they would earn teaching elsewhere.  They teach for us because they believe in our mission.  They also get to work with exceptional students.  CHS students are motivated; otherwise they wouldn’t come to CHS.  All the rest of our staff is completely volunteer.  The work they put into the school is nothing short of phenomenal, and we would not be able to exist if it weren’t for the dedication.

TWPT:  When did you first become involved with CHS and what prompted your decision to do so?

MMN:  See above about Cat Chapin-Bishop’ soliciting me to teach a course on death and dying.  During my involvement, I’ve worn many hats: public information officer, chair of the Public Ministry Department, supervisor of the chaplaincy program headed by Patrick McCollum, faculty, and, in recent years, Board member.

TWPT:  What were your impressions of the founders and the work that went into bringing CHS to life?

MMN:  I’m grateful that the founders of CHS were inspired to get the project rolling.  The longer I remain involved, the more complicated and monumental the work seems to be, but without their initial establishment of the seminary,
I’m not sure who would have brought us forward.

TWPT:  Ultimately how will those being trained at CHS benefit the community at large with the knowledge that they acquire through their studies?

MMN:  I believe the long-term benefits are obvious: informed service to our communities; improved interfaith relations; increased knowledge about our roots, branches and blossoms.

Most students do not come to CHS to earn a promotion or a raise at work.  They do not come to create a career for themselves.  The Pagan community is not so well established, not to mention endowed, or even inclined, to support people doing ministry work.  We who do ministry work do it because we want to, not because we are paid to do so.  In my observation, students come to CHS for two reasons: one is for personal enrichment and the other is to be of better service to their communities.  This results in their being highly motivated, which is a real treat for teachers who often have students who just take a course because it’s required or for the credit rather than because they really want the teaching being offered.

TWPT:  What kinds of courses can a student choose to take during their time at CHS and what degrees do you offer to your students?

MMN:  CHS began by aspiring to grant Master of Divinity degrees, although I don’t think the founders realized the vastness of that goal.  I think they, and we, were and continue to be idealistic about what we can accomplish and the means by which those accomplishments can be attained.  That said, those ideals have driven us for more than ten years, and make us the energy to keep moving forward.  We have taken seriously Cat’s charge “to make the school the best reflection of what the Pagan community had to teach that we could find.”

As I recall — and I freely acknowledge that my memories of that time, especially since I was newly involved, may be a bit askew, but essentially sound -- when I started at CHS, there were three departments: Pastoral Counseling; Ritual, Interfaith and Public Ministry (?); and Cultural Studies.  Or maybe the Cultural Studies Department was just a title with no chair, faculty or courses.  I know there was a chair of the Cultural Studies Department for a brief period after I became involved.  

By the time I was more involved, we had decided to have two courses that were required for all students.  One was the earlier mentioned Boundaries & Ethics and the other was Survey of Neo-Pagan Traditions.  We thought the latter was important because those coming to CHS already knew about whatever Pagan tradition they came from, but didn’t necessarily appreciate the scope and diversity of Paganism throughout the US, so if they were learning to speak on behalf of Paganism in general, it would behoove them to know more about other expressions of Paganism.  

In 2008 we achieved
more clarity about what exactly we sought to establish by way of course offerings.  For those who are not matriculating and/or are not seeking a degree, we have a certificate program called PCE, which stands for Pagan Community Education [or Pagan Continuing Education – there is still discussion going on and it could change].  This is a general program taught by competent Pagan teachers with or without formal degrees from institutions of higher learning.  If we had not agreed to this program, I would not have been able to support our pursuit of accreditation.  We feel that PCE is critical to our vision of supporting Pagans and their communities with education.

In addition to the PCE courses, CHS offers two different master’s level degrees, a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and a Master of Pagan Studies, in five different areas of concentration.  Depending upon one’s talents and interests, one can study Nature, Deity & Inspiration; Text, Tradition & Interpretation; Pastoral Caregiving & Counseling; Public Ministry & Expression; oe Advocacy in Interreligious & Secular Venues.

TWPT:  What was it that you brought to the mix when you started working with CHS in terms of experience? Tell me about your role with CHS in the previous years?

MMN:  Oh, boy, that’s complicated. 

I started out by teaching.  Then for a while I was the PIO.  Later I chaired the Public Ministry Department.  I think my motivation is fairly typical of all of us who work for CHS: I saw a strong need for this kind of education, others kept telling me they had a need for it, and with the exploding Pagan growth, that need has multiplied exponentially.  Plus, I have the interest and aptitude, and currently have no other gainful employment.

TWPT:  This year begins a new year-long role for you with CHS.  Tell me about what kinds of things you will be responsible for during your tenure as the President of the Board during 2010.

MMN:  Primarily keeping the seminary afloat financially, which is of critical importance and our number one priority.  I hope to see the establishment of an endowment or two from which we can draw interest to keep CHS solvent.

Right now we have a part-time executive director— well, actually she tends to work for CHS full-time, but she’s only paid part-time now — plus we pay faculty.  The only benefit staff receive, if they choose, is free tuition for one course per semester.  What we pay faculty is nothing like what they’re worth or what they earn in academia.  Ideally we’d like to make their efforts financially viable for them.   We will eventually have to offer more than a token compensation or pat on the back if we are to be sustainable over the long haul.

I want to build the Board into a strong
er working group.  To that end, we’ve just, as of March, added two more members:  Tarotist
Beth Owl’s Daughter Livingston of North Carolina and Michael Smith of Assembly of the Sacred Wheel in Delaware.

:  How much will your own hopes and desires for CHS determine what you will do during your time as President?

MMN:  While my input has certainly been an important part of our formation over the years, let me assure you that this has been a group effort.  There are many times we have struggled to come to agreement on issues ranging from the grand to the miniscule.  I have a pragmatic approach, which is to look for where there is a need and take action.  I chose to move out of the staff/academic side a couple of years ago because I was satisfied that it was in good hands.  Our leadership at that time felt that I was more needed on the Board where I can exercise more widespread leadership and advocacy.  Accepting the presidency during 2010 was something I did reluctantly, but I was needed, so here I am.  

TWPT:  As you look back on what has happened so far what are some of the high points that the school has achieved since it was founded?

MMN:  We have a good reputation among the Pagan communities who know of us, and a loyal student body that seems to appreciate what we offer.  We have also established ourselves in other ways in the wider world.  For instance, a few years ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private (it you can call 500 guests private) conference with H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama in San Francisco.  People working with and for CHS receive frequent invitations to speak about Paganism to college, university, seminary, and psychology students, as well as journalists.  In another example, our director Holli Emore was recently asked to serve as a chaplain by Project FAITH of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council.  As far as anyone can tell, this is a first in the state, and she was invited in large part because of her affiliation with CHS.  

The head of our chaplaincy program, Patrick McCollum, is involved in a very important and high-profile lawsuit in the Ninth Circuit that seeks full religious accommodation for all religions (in this case, mostly minority religions) in the California prisons, and all US prisons, as mandated by federal law but not currently implemented.

Many faculty, students and staff are involved in various facets of the interfaith movement.  For instance, I am active in my local
Marin Interfaith Council and in the the United Religions Initiative. Faculty members Michael York and Michelle Mueller attended the most recent Parliament of the World’s Religions
in Melbourne, Australia this past December, as did many other Pagans.  Executive Director Holli Emore is an official Ambassador of the Parliament where she lives in South Carolina.

Several of our faculty as well as others affiliated with CHS have authored many books about things Pagan.  Michael York wrote Pagan Theology, for instance.  I co-wrote, with Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying.  Judy Harrow,
Tony Mierzwicki, Patrick McCollum, Brendan Myers, and others have books in print and forthcoming.  Our faculty and some students regularly present to their professional associations and at academic conferences.  We have several students and instructors who are regular volunteers with the American Red Cross; they bring their experiences back to the classroom, providing valuable context for themselves and others as they approach topics like Compassion Fatigue or Boundaries & Ethics.

TWPT:  As you look forward to your year as President what are some of the items that are on top of your agenda to work on and to push ahead?

MMN:  Number one is fundraising.  Number two is filling out the Board with committed members.

We will also be advancing the accreditation process, expanding course offerings (not specifically Board business, but cannot be done without adequate funding), revising the bylaws, and doing strategic planning.

:  Is the community as aware of what CHS is and does as you would like and if not how do you plan on making the community sit up and take notice?

MMN:  I certainly hope it is.  We tend to buy ads in festival programs, we advertise in Pagan magazines, and most importantly, we rely upon the enthusiastic word-of-mouth of students and others involved with CHS.   We have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and send out a monthly email newsletter.  Anyone can subscribe by visiting the  CHS website and clicking “Add Me.”  We present at festivals and other Pagan community events as often as we are able.  

TWPT:  Does CHS offer any kinds of grants, or can it participate in the government's student loan offerings?  Do you have people on staff who help prospective students figure out if they can afford to take the classes and if there is any help for them out there?

MMN:  No, not yet.  The ability to get financial aid is one of the benefits of being accredited, and as I said before, we have a long way to go before we can obtain accreditation.

TWPT:  If everything works out great and you were to achieve everything that you need to during your time as President what will CHS look like or be like when you complete your term in 2011?

MMN:  The seminary would be on firm financial footing, and we would be able to begin hiring staff and faculty.  Right now all of the work — maintaining the website, Moodle classrooms, regular newsletters, etc. -- is being done by volunteers who believe in what we’re doing.  I tip my pointy black hat to all of them.

TWPT:  Any final thoughts about CHS and your upcoming time at the helm?

MMN:  I would love for everyone to catch the vision that we should all support something like CHS, whether or not we ever take a class.  It’s a shared resource that belongs to our entire community.  What we build now will be here for the Pagans who are just now in diapers, and generations beyond them.  I receive a great deal of personal satisfaction from my modest financial contributions, as well as from encouraging others to give.  Money is energy, and everyone can do something.  This child has become a rapidly growing adolescent, and it’s time to shift us into a higher gear.

TWPT:  Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about this very important work for the Pagan community. We appreciate what the school represents and we appreciate your efforts and everyone else's efforts to make this a success.