Pagan Elders, Healthy Community Structures

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One of the things I’m passionate about is finding workable models of Pagan community. Overall, I hear a lot of Pagans complain about community. I hear the same old stories–Pagans can’t get along, it’s like herding cats, leaders always burn out, witch wars….etc, etc.

And yet I’ve seen healthy Pagan communities.

I believe that the thing that holds us back is both our communal “story” that Pagans can’t work together, as well as a lack of a workable structure. Pagans sometimes shy away from words like structure, but the trick is, there are structures that don’t limit what you can believe or how you practice, spiritually.

There are structures that offer a circle to hold the community, a set of group agreements about what’s ok to do, what’s not ok, how decisions are made, and how we’ll work together as a community.

I believe that some of the unspoken group agreements and accepted processes are what hamper the Pagan community as a whole. One of those is related to our interaction with community leaders, teachers, and elders. There was another blog post on Wild Hunt a while ago about “big name Pagan authors,” and I think that that post, contrasted with a later post on Pagan elders, is of great interest.

Paganism, for the most part, finds itself structured in a capitalist model. Largely Pagans reject the “church” model, but what that’s left is a chaos, a power vacuum, where the Pagans who speak the loudest, or who have books published, are the ones whose voices are the most respected.

There are exceptions, of course, but even in the scope of a city, like Chicago, if a new Pagan emails me, they ask, “What books should I buy? Where can I take classes?” And it occurs to me, the only way to learn about being Pagan, for most folks who are new, is to pay to take a class, or to buy a book. Either way, how can the buyer (especially a newbie) be certain about the quality of the information in the book, or the quality of the teacher?

While I’m not for copycatting the Christian church model of organization, a church-like, congregational structure has certain advantages. One is that there is a consistent function where new people can get initial education in Pagan traditions (perhaps an intra-faith education overview of different traditions offered within the community) as well as a measure for excellence, and a way that Pagan Elders (or people who will become elders) can offer their work as clergy members, organizers, and leaders.

I’d rather see a church-like structure as that provides Pagan Elders with a way to become acknowledged in the community as positive role models and teachers. The process of becoming an Elder is generally accepted to be a process that is generated by the community, not by the individual who is recognized or not recognized as an Elder. Having acknowledged Elders–ie long-time community servants–gives new Pagans “point people” to go to and get advice on their path.

A structure like this also provides a way for people to become Pagan without spending hundreds of dollars on books, or on classes with presenters where there’s no way of judging the quality of their work before registering for the class. I’m all for supporting our Pagan authors. Heck, I am one, and a lot of my friends are writers of various types. The challenge is, there’s a lot of books out there. Not all of them are good. There’s a lot of Pagan teachers, and not all of them are good. I’d rather see the money go to the ethical, informed authors and teachers. And I’d rather see that money go into local Pagan communities to make them sustainable.

I believe that healthy communities acknowledge that there are leaders in the community. People who serve communities faithfully and ethically over time become community Elders, and I hope to continue to build foundations for communities that respect Pagan Elders, instead of throwing stones at them.

I’d also like to see communities that can support getting potential Pagan Elders and ministers appropriate leadership training so that these leaders don’t make the mistakes that so many stepping into Pagan leadership do. A church-like structure working under a tithing model–pay what you can afford to support a community, vs. only the people who can afford to pay for classes–has the potential to raise more money, overall, which can support Pagan ministers (with salary, paying for them to go through ministerial training) as well as provide resources for the community (raising money for Pagan families in need, etc.)

But to get there, we need to begin by respecting the the Elders and leaders who are doing the work right now, in communities. And to a certain extent, I think that finding ways to respect and honor the ethical, informed leaders does a lot to articulate a separation from the unethical, egomaniacal Pagan leaders and teachers out there.

I think that Pagans have a love/hate relationship with Elders, teachers, published authors, community leaders, because so many in those positions of visibility and leadership have disappointed us.

Either leaders are beloved, walk on water, fawned upon, and kissed up to, or they become a laughingstock, pariah, are snickered about or cast out of the village entirely. The paradox I see Pagan communities holding is, we respect our own individual authority so much that it’s hard to acknowledge a community authority. And yet, like any group or community, we still need teachers and Elders to continue the traditions. I feel that Pagans see any leader as “too much control,” and any structure as “strangling,” when both can be a healthy support to serve the community.

Can we find a way to respect our own individual autonomy and right to spiritual expression, while also honoring our Elders and structures that support the community, vs. seeing these as things that are against, or take away from, Paganism?

I believe that we can, and I work for that.

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