Part of being clergy is giving spiritual advice and helping people troubleshoot their relationships with deities.

Having had both excellent and blisteringly terrible experiences on both sides of that equation, I have some thoughts about what works and what doesn’t, along with common pitfalls to avoid.

Never Unsolicited

Perhaps it will pop into your head to give someone unsolicited advice about their relationship with a deity.

Don’t. This seldom goes well.

I’m not sure why anyone ever gives unsolicited advice about personal matters, honestly. Don’t tell people what to do with their bodies, their appearance, their identities, their genders, or their babies.

Especially do not go up to people and tell them what they need to do with their spirituality.

1. You are almost certainly wrong.

2. It’s intrusive, rude, and usually leaves the other person upset for a long while after that.

My lover is a priest of Apollon, but they are the “instant pirate, just add rum” kind of priest of Apollon. Sometimes people choose deities who are like themselves. Sometimes they choose deities to ballast or balance certain tendencies. Sometimes opposites attract. This priest definitely has an “opposites attract” sort of thing going on with their deity.

They happened one time to attend a large public devotional for Dionysos at Pantheacon, and someone they didn’t know swaggered up to them and declared, “Dionysos says you need to get more in touch with your Bacchic aspects.”

The priest smiled and nodded, and the person walked away feeling that they had done the god a service.

But the priest of Apollon was secretly thinking, “Fucking hell, if I was any more in touch with my Bacchic aspects, this hotel would burn to the ground.”

Hard agree. The person giving the advice only said that because they had literally no idea who they were talking to. They saw a person with Apollon’s energy nearby, and made a crap ton of stupid assumptions which they then attributed to Dionysos. And my love is still irritated when they think of it, a year (or two?) later.

I have had my fair share of unsolicited advice as well. All of it was completely off-base. Like, “you have to work with this being who has nothing to do with your practice.”

Then they get upset because I’m not listening to them (or as they see it “the gods”). Because why would I?

Almost no one listens unless they asked for your opinion in the first place, and half the time, they won’t listen even then. Not unless what you are saying to them makes some sense to them or answers a need for them. For that, you actually need to know more than two or three scant details about them.

Without knowing a person’s situation and viewpoint in detail, you cannot give them good advice.

Always Empathetic

People hear that as “be nice.” But really, what I am telling you is to imagine how you would feel in the querent’s shoes.

The harsher your words, the more they hurt, the less likely it is that the person will hear what you are saying.

You can’t educate or persuade people by truth bombing them in the face. It doesn’t work.

How to ask a question and listen to an answer.

Before you give advice, you really need to understand what the issue is. Make sure you understand the person before you start to dispense advice. You should ask questions, but you shouldn’t assume that the truth you think you hear is the truth that is being spoken.

Ask the question. This is the easy part.

Listen until the person is completely done speaking. This is slightly harder. If you are used to banter in a conversation, even with this person, set that aside. Think about popcorn. When popcorn gets going, you hear a lot of noise all at once, then it slows but is consistent, and lastly, there are longer pauses. A person may start by speaking very quickly. Then things start to slow down, but pauses are short. Only to collect thoughts, really. Lastly, a person will have longer pauses, and give you an indication that they’re done.

Defer judgment. This is hard. When people are struggling in their relationships with deities, you may hear anger, fear, or other uncomfortable emotions. If you are looking for the impiety you’ve got to correct, or if you have some other ideological agenda, you will not hear the person, and you will be unable to help them.

Repeat back what you thought you heard and make sure that you have understood. It’s ok to summarize. Then ask, “is that roughly what you’re saying?” Get confirmation that you’ve recieved the full message.

Ask clarifying questions to make sure you actually understand. If there’s anything that doesn’t add up, ask some questions until it does.

Try asking the human these questions

Let me be really clear: no one wants you to actually tell them what their spiritual goals should be. If they tell you that, they’re wrong and will be upset when you don’t give them the exact advice they wanted to hear. Try asking the following questions to get a beat on what they actually want your help with.

You’ll want to be taking notes. And you will want to start with, “I have some questions I would like to ask you so that I can understand your situation better before I advise you. Is that ok?” Be clear that they don’t have to answer any questions that are too difficult for them.

0. Before I dig into this, do you have any mental health struggles that I should be aware of? Before even asking questions, it’s helpful to know if a person has triggers you need to avoid, ongoing social anxiety that causes them to hear constructive criticism as being harsher than was intended, or if there are certain topics you should avoid talking about. Tailor your language to the person so that you don’t accidentally hurt them with your words.

1. What are your objectives? Describe your ideal outcome for me. Here, you have an opportunity to save yourself some time. If someone wants to do something that you find objectionable, you can simply say, “I don’t think I’m the right person to advise you” and just move on.

2. Why do you want that? Look to get into the motives that are behind the goal. Here, the deity may start talking to you, but do not, as yet, share anything. Make a note of it and come back to it later.

3. Tell me about your daily practice. Based on looking at my face, I guess, people have made assumptions about my daily practices that were dead wrong. Even if you think you know what a person’s practice looks like, ask, and listen to the answer. It matters.

4. What are the concrete challenges you’ve been experiencing so far? What happened when you tried to do this? Here, you will start to get a better idea of what the problem is. Again, defer judgment, note down the specific struggles, and move on.

5. What have your past experiences with authority figures looked like? Tell me about your mother, father, school teachers, pastors/priests/rabbis. Ask yourself, “is this person actually trying to work through their relationship with authority figures and projecting this process onto the deity?” If the deity appears to be giving them grief, was there an authority figure in their past who gave them a similar type of grief? If they’re reacting against what the deity is saying, are they really reacting against the deity, or against a parent or teacher who treated them badly in the past? Follow this question up with, “do you see any patterns emerging, in terms of how you view those authority figures and how you view this deity?”

6. What are you hearing, psychically? What’s the gnosis, if any? At this point, you will want to communicate to the deity exactly what the human heard when they spoke. What the deity was trying to say and what the human heard may bear no relation. The deity may or may not clarify. Don’t share this yet. Make a note of what was said and what was heard, and move on.

7. What manifestations are you observing? Is there a reasonable and non-magical explanation for it? Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. Sometimes, we read meaning into a situation that isn’t really there. It’s important to sort the signal from the noise, and to really zero in on what is or is not miraculous in nature. It may be that there isn’t actually any communication from a deity going on, but if that is the case, don’t say that. The person has goals, and they told you what the goals were. Focus on those. Do, however, gently remind a person that yes, people get sick, cars get dinged, and objects gets lost. There isn’t always a spiritual cause.

8. What do you think the deity/spirit is thinking right now and how do you feel about that?  People attribute motives to others. Those motives don’t always make sense. Talk this through with the person, being sure to completely understand what the perameters are for what a deity might be. Clarify their ideas for them by thinking of others religions where similar ideas hold sway, whether or not you personally agree with those ideas.

9. How would you feel if you were in the deity/spirit’s shoes? What would you be doing right now, if you were them? This question will help you gague how this person thinks power should be used.

10. How would you like me to support you in reaching your stated goal of ______? After meandering, bring it back to the point. It may be that just talking certain issues through has helped the person to realize that they just wanted clarity, and that they now have it. It might also be that they just wanted to feel heard. Then again, they may want to talk with the deity.

In which case…

Then try asking the deity these questions

Let the mortal know that you’re going to need a few minutes. If the deity has a lot to say, it is helpful to write the deity’s answers down, but the deity may not want everything they say shared with the mortal… or with anyone! Be discrete.

1. Do you recognize this mortal? It can happen that a person is having a huge issue with a deity because the deity isn’t actually involved in the situation. If the deity says “no” it may not necessarily be helpful to tell the human that. Hold on to this information and come back to it.

2. This is what this mortal is trying to do with you, and this is what they are experiencing. Are you onboard with their aims?

If the issue is harassment, you might want to reframe the latter part of that question as, “is there something urgent going on, or is this mortal the next Constantine?” If the deity starts rambling about moral nuances and mythological future events, or whatever else, follow up with, “is there something this mortal can do that no other mortal can do?” Or even, “what will be the negative consequences for your cultus if you stop harassing them?

If the mortal wants something from the deity that the deity cannot give them, you may want to follow up with, “is there another deity that this person should be asking?”

Sometimes, a mortal wants intimacy with a deity that the deity does not want. If this is the case, do not simply blurt this out. You will need to let the querent down gently, probably by telling them what kind of relationship the deity IS amenable to.

3. How would you feel if you were in this mortal’s shoes right now? Asking this is usually unnecessary with deities of social things, but can be helpful for less social deities to bring their emotional intelligence to the fore.

4. What are your objectives with respect to your broader cultus in this situation? The deity may not have an answer for this if the issue is that they are harboring romantic feelings for the mortal in question.

5. This is what I think this mortal wants. Do you agree? What do you want in this situation?

6. How would you like me to support you in this situation? What should I say or not say? The deity may help you craft a response, or they may have basic guidance that they simply want you to execute.

Use your common sense

Read over everything you have written down and take a minute to consider what makes sense for the situation, the person’s viewpoint, the deity’s objectives, and the social reality that surrounds the subject matter.

Just because you heard a deity say to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Context is everything, too. Without it, you can hear everything yet understand nothing.

For example, there was once a woman who heard a voice tell her to “let Jesus take the wheel” while she was driving. She did just that, and the result was a car crash. I’m sure the deity meant this metaphorically, as in, within the context of her life. She thought the context was literally driving.

Think carefully about the consequences of what you are about to say, and about what will probably happen if the person follows your advice. Think not just about the spiritual consequences, but also the mundane ones.

Also ask yourself if you are, after all is said and done, the best person to help in this situation, or if you know someone better suited to the person’s mentality, objectives, and needs.

And if, after all that, you don’t know what’s going on or how to help, it is far better to say, “I really don’t know” than to risk making the situation worse.