How Does Paganism Reconcile Pagan Bureaucracy?

I’m coming to terms with the truth about why I left the Church.

Just Before Leaving, by brokenview

It wasn’t that I had an experience of deity that fell outside of the Church’s teaching. That would come later.

My experience of God was always mysterious, never concrete. I was taught that one could, if centered and open, feel a presence that you might identify as God or as the Holy Spirit, but I didn’t trouble myself too much with whether what I was feeling was the Grand Daddy of Them All, or something else. I was content with seeking out a feeling of reverence.

I didn’t leave the Church because I suddenly stopped believing in a literal interpretation of the Gospels or the Bible. I never believed in literal interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, not all Christians are literalists, or even dogmatists. I knew a great many mystic-minded people in the Episcopal church, many of whom used the scriptures as a launching point for deep, inner-dialogue. It was all metaphor for me: the Gospel, the Eucharist, all the aspects of church life and ritual. It was all meant to be symbolic of an inner reality of harmony and oneness with the divine. Or at least, a striving toward that state.

I didn’t even part ways with the Church because I felt like Christianity was insufficient in providing one with the means to build a meaningful spiritual life, a more present engagement with the world. People take Christianity to town on account of its patriarchal nature, but I was a part of a tradition that was led by a woman who referred to Jesus as “Mother Christ.” Christ was beginning to be understood, by some, as the Goddess might be understood to some Pagans; a universal force which is both masculine and feminine, whole unto Itself and also capable of keeping each of us within the reach of Her divine love.

This was the Christianity I walked away from.

Admittedly, I did have problems with certain aspects of the Church before I left. I was uncomfortable with saying the creeds, for one. “We believe” is rarely a true statement, and I didn’t believe a lot of what was being said. I didn’t believe that Christianity was the One True Faith, nor did I believe in original sin. I didn’t believe in proselytizing, but neither did most of my fellow church-goers (another misconception is that all Christians are fired up to convert — this wasn’t my experience).

But these problems weren’t what ultimately drove me away from the Church.

I left the Church because of the bureaucracy.

Red Tape, by Julia Manzerova

I left the Church because I was tired of having the legitimacy and acceptability of my sexuality put to a vote. I could not tolerate any longer a conversation about how inclusive the Church should be, because the answer seemed ridiculously clear to me: radically inclusive. Even having that conversation allowed people to entertain the notion that there was an acceptable amount of exclusivity, and that never sat right with me.

I watched leaders within my own tradition manage their churches like businesses, like corporations, and I watched leaders in other traditions swindle and lie.

The people. The ignorance, the narrow-mindedness, the rigidity — that is what led me to leave the Church and consider other possibilities.

I wonder if a Pagan who is part of an established, well-organized tradition could find herself at a similar point of crisis.

Bureaucracy is bureaucracy. There are a number of Pagan churches — I’m a member of one — and many of these traditions have hierarchical leadership structures. Leaders are people, and people are fallible, and politics are a part of institutions. I’m not sure there’s any way around that.

But do our Pagan organizations, with their structured forms of leadership, their real and legitimate financial needs, their need to keep the institution alive/functional/growing/ordered, run the risk of becoming like what the Church became for me?

I ask these questions not to hold up the evils of Christianity against the virtues of Paganism — that is not the discussion I’m hoping to have here. What I’m wondering about is the nuts and bolts of religious community, of Pagan religious communities.

Can they exists without becoming centered around power-dynamics? Do not the matriarchal traditions also deal with struggle for power?

Can Pagan churches fail in the same way that Christian churches do, in that they become so focussed on keeping order, upholding what is safe, resisting the transgressive even when the transgressive element may embody some central teaching or central truth about the tradition?

How does Paganism reconcile Pagan bureaucracy?


58 responses to “How Does Paganism Reconcile Pagan Bureaucracy?”

  1. Mark DeFillo Avatar

    Pagans invented religious bureaucracy. There were bureaucracies of pagan religions for, at least, thousands of years before any religion appeared which claimed to be totally superior to all other religions, and thus excluded them as “pagan” or some equivalent term. As far as we know, the first to do that were descendants and followers of Abraham. Where did Abraham come from? The Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, which at that time was already very ancient, and had temples with priestly bureaucracies that were probably as old as the city itself.

    That being said, Pagan religions can occur in almost any structure, or lack-thereof, as others have said. Here, we’re concerned with those that do have organization, structure and bureaucracy.

    What is bureaucracy? Basically it means organizational infrastructure that keeps track of people and resources, usually with some kind of record-keeping and other tools. At its best, it helps to maintain continuity and order. At worst it can become tyrannical and oppressive, or even fall into its own opposite and become chaotic by losing its own discipline. When it becomes oppressive, then it becomes an oppressive cult. Through the span of history, pagan religions have seen the best and the worst and everything in between.

    If we look at the huge, ancient and still-thriving Pagan civilization of India, we can see examples of all types. At the present time, we can see some organizations of its many traditions struggling with bureaucratic or other organizational problems. We can also find thinkers who put their minds, and their schools of thought, to the age-old problem of what to do about these pitfalls. Sadly, sometimes founders of groups have specifically warned against the dangers of bureaucracy, but followers have built the organization with bureaucracy anyway. A case might be made that at least a little bureaucracy is needed in a big organization, but even then, it could be limited.

    In summary of their points, some of the best say the only real solution is for enough people (members, and especially leaders) to maintain the integrity to keep their religious organizations and bureaucracies from becoming oppressive, from suppressing critical thinking, from being centered on the organization itself rather than its goals (the benefit of its members!).

    Organizations and bureaucracies can serve a purpose, including in Pagan religions. But again they can also swerve from their purpose and become harmful instead. I would say that one safeguard is to get people who are suspicious of bureaucracy to take office, since they may be more ready and more capable to quickly see and fix problems before they spin out of control.

    Those who form new Pagan traditions or groups should consider all these things carefully, and decide if they want to go with an unstructured plan, or build up some degree of structure. If the latter, they should make a strong effort to try to guard against the potential pitfalls, especially for the generations that come after.

    One strength for the Pagan world may be that it is rare to think that a particular organization is necessary. It may be considered essential to follow a particular teacher or preserve and pass on a specific tradition or lineage, but it is more likely to be acceptable for an organization to be allowed to fade away, or to be joined, or to be superseded, by a newer organization, but continuing the same tradition. Looking at the Indian part of the Pagan world again, one guru who successfully built an international organization stated clearly that if that organization ever failed and collapsed, it wouldn’t necessarily matter much, provided his future followers continue printing and distributing his books, thus perpetuating his tradition and its teachings and practices. He also warned against bureaucracy, notably.

    Final thought: the fact is that the Pagan is vast and diverse, so there really is no one right answer to questions like this. What does matter is that everyone tries to do the right thing to the best of their ability and knowledge, in organizing (or not) and maintaining their tradition. It will be different in different circumstances and with different people.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you so much for this comment, Mark. It’s a treasure to have this level of thought, dialogue and discourse on Bishop In The Grove.
      Please let me know if you have a blog of your own, for I’d love to keep up with your writing.

  2. Peter Dybing Avatar
    Peter Dybing

    You have no idea how your “Red Tape” affected me in this time and place! Off subject but true

  3. Swift Rabbit Avatar
    Swift Rabbit

    Right now I don’t think paganism reconciles pagan bureaucracy. I think we resist organization, hierarchy, or even consensus with a ferositiy I have never experienced in any other group that considers itself a community or semi-connected. Some of this comes from us as a group being dis-enchanted with bureaucracy. Most pagans are converts or have been involved in a negative manner with another faiths bureaucracy or in the case of the USA we are as a nation slowly becoming disenchanted (I believe anyhow) with the two party system and this systems ability to create real change and value. I think we see both that there may be a need for a certain amount of law and community support but are still fumbling with the degrees of such influence as well as the shape it would take. We know there are problems with the programs we’ve experienced but we’re still hammering out the something else we would do to prevent these problems. It’s a big task for a group of people who have day jobs not related to faith.

    There are sects within paganism that have infrastructure. Those groups don’t have the same size scope the church has, which I think helps to hinder opportunity for corruption. These groups also have little to no impact on each other. They may choose to be allies in certain advocacy stances but one group does not recognize the authority of another or accept one set of priests/ titles another has bestowed.

    I think we, as a community, need to come together to support worship space, teachers, rituals, and our political rights. The problem with this is that we’re so new and diverse as a movement we’re still arguing over what any of those things are (and whether we have any real common ground).

  4. Morri Avatar

    I’ve never liked ‘religious-based’ groups, for two reasons: 1. I don’t like bureaucracy (nor do I need it, which some perhaps do), and 2., if I’m in any group, I don’t want to be there because of religion. I want to be there because we are doing something interesting or having fun. I’ve never felt more awkward than at pagan groups, because spirituality to me is an inner process, something deeply personal – not something for public consumption, display or etc.

    If a bunch of pagans all get together to plant trees, or a relief effort, or something, that’s great – but the minute someone starts with the “Lord & Lady” it has the same effect on me as someone starting on the “Jesus is Lord” stuff. If you all need that as your group glue, that’s fine, but it’s not for me.

    I suppose I’m a soloist by nature. Just my two cents.

    1. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

      That makes a lot of sense. I feel the same way, at least in a religious group where I don’t know the people. I can handle the Jesus is Lord at the church I attend because I’ve come to care a lot for those people, but as soon as I’m with people whose background I’m unfamiliar with, I hear the phrases and praises and start to get edgy. And that’s sort of how I felt the one time I tried the pagan public circle in my area. I didn’t make that connection before, but now that you point it out I see it is a very similar feeling.

      I feel like I’m posting a lot on the comments on this post. Am I posting too much on it? People keep saying things that sound neat, and I want to respond, but I feel like I’m talking too much.

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        The dialogue is great, Lauren. Keep it coming.

  5. Michelle B Avatar
    Michelle B

    I can mirror many of your comments here, Teo. I was a youth minister
    in a Christian church for many years. It wasn’t until I was faced with
    the emerging openness of many of my youth’s sexuality that I realized my
    belief system can not co-exist with the church. While I have always
    considered myself pagan, I was able to acclimate to various religious
    traditions as a youth minister because I ministered to the individual.
    It was when I was confronted by angry parents (and not supported by my
    employer — the church) for telling their child it was okay to be gay,
    that I realized it was time to move on. To me, it went against
    everything I believed in to tell a child that they were going to be
    punished by “their” god because they loved another male or female. My
    god/desses would never do that. It was a true struggle for me and a
    decision that didn’t come lightly. I walked away from my work in the
    ministry (a steady paycheck) and was subjected to many angry comments.
    However, it was more important to me to show my youth that I meant every
    word I told them, that they are loved unconditionally and are perfect
    in the eyes of their god. While that may not be what their church
    believed, it is/was what I believed.

    Since then, I
    joined a pagan church that celebrates all of the values I hold dear. It
    is my goal to someday be ordained through my church and again continue
    my ministry to not only youth but also anyone who needs to know how
    treasured they are.

    All churches have their
    political monsters. It is the nature of today’s business world. However,
    I believe that such bureaucracy doesn’t have to taint what draws members to a church — a sense of belonging and support of a spiritual community.

  6. Arthur Turbyfill Avatar
    Arthur Turbyfill

    It would appear we both left the Christian Church, and most especially
    the Episcopal wing of it, for very similar reasons!

    Now I find myself the duly elected Chair of the Council of
    The Church of the Earth of Raleigh, NC.
    You would probably equate this to Sr. Warden (and I performed that
    service for a parish in Dallas, TX, some years ago, too). So, the questions you have posed in your blog
    post today reached deep inside me and touched my heart. As an “inter-faith” community of Pagans, The
    Church of the Earth is relatively small.
    Still, I think we dance with these concerns each time we meet. I do not have an answer to your question, nor
    do I think we do ourselves a service by rushing to defend our own community,
    idolize or demonize others, or deny the reality of the Pagan bureaucracy. But as so often happens, we need voices such
    as yours to remind us we need to keep these concerns in our awareness. This is the way we avoid becoming all those
    things we did not like about the religious traditions we left.

    Thank you for once again asking the questions someone in our
    Pagan community needs to ask.

  7. Kate Dennis Avatar

    Teo, my experience in the Pagan community at large is that many have
    become paralyzed by a fear of organization. This fear stems from their
    negative experience with particular individuals within the hierarchy of
    the church and which they confuse with the actual organizational model
    and do not recognize as the failure of humans. Continuing to project the
    evils of humans into the organizational model ( imperfect as that model
    may be) demonizes the tool rather than holding the user accountable for
    their actions. That’s my take on it.

    I am a member of a loosely organized multi-traditional Pagan church which has been in existence for over a decade. This provides a core from which to operate and provide service to our members and the larger community ( We are the primary organizers of Central NC PPD). It gives us a framework and stability which contribute to our tribal sense of identity. Most of all, it gives us a constant, which I do not find limiting, but rather comforting.

    I,too find myself wishing for the existence of Pagan temples, accredited
    seminaries, and professional opportunities for service, because I
    personally believe it is the only way we will achieve the synergy to
    integrate into modern society and the mainstream religious community. I
    believe this will be imperative to our survival as a wisdom tradition in
    the future, We are marginalizing ourselves and generations to come by
    negating this vision of reality.

    In my opinion, it is not the organizational model that causes problems: it is how we use the model and what we choose to do with it that is at the crux of the matter.

    1. dashifen Avatar

      Good words; I wonder, sometimes, if the fact that I did not come from a Christian background means that my experience is different enough from those who do that I lack this trepidation in the face of organization. I’d love to know more about your organization and what it took to set such a thing up. Do you all have a website?

  8. Kilmrnock Avatar

    I can only speak from personal experience . Many moons ago i belonged to a Methodist church where power struggles happened , it was only resolved by the replacement of a much loved pastor and a large loss of congregation b/c of it . I have also belonged to a sort of loose coven that also painfully imploded due to power hungery , controlling leadership . Unfortunatly this is not an uncommon occurance in covens . My path has since evolved to druidry . As a member of ADF this doesn’t seem to be a problem .So far the upper tier leadership is not overly controling , the organisation is set up in such a way to avoid this . I can’t speak for all groves , but mine is very democraticaly run .Altho leadership does require certain qualifications we do elect our leadership to short term office . no life time posts though out the grove and the upper tier leadership as well . Altho the organisation provides structure and basic ritual form , each grove is an independant entity not really answering to a greater authority as say the Catholic Church does.From what i have seen this type or model of leadership or buerocracy seems to work quite well. I s a model for other to loook at or adopt . An extreme top heavy top down mangement model to me just seems primed for abuse and trouble . as we have seen w/ other religious organisations . We as pagans need to avoid this at all costs , if we wish to survive . I do need to make one clearification about ADF the Archdruid position can be a long term post but even they are answerable to the Mother Grove and the membership and can be removed if a problem occurs . As many in our membership , paganism in general, are quite sensitive to these kinds of problems .Seems to me atleast a more loose overtly democratic management style more fits the pagan community as a whole . Kilm

  9. L Avatar

    For a recon, this question is strange. But then again, you probably aren’t even addressing us.

    I came back to religion because I wanted structure– they key word here being “religion” and not “spirituality”. I guess reconstructionism is an out, though. You have access to as much structure as you want, the original cultural praxis, without all the red tape. There is no 501(c) status to maintain, there are no duly appointed leaders, preachers, and interpreters of some singular source. There is only you, the gods/spirits/ancestors, and right action.

    But many of these old cults were far from radically inclusive, and I think that is still an important part of the religious experience, and in many circumstances, the human experience. And I’m not talking homophobia or transphobia or other bigotries, I’m talking Mysteries– the Mystery of an occupation, of a craft, of a certain state of physical being (like being disabled, for instance), those cannot afford to be radically inclusive if the integrity of the thing is to be maintained. Personal cults cannot be radically inclusive. When I talk about my religion, I deliberately leave off the names of things and deities most times because it’s not my place to share that so casually. It’s not my information to disperse. Folk and diasporic religions can’t afford to be radically inclusive, otherwise they would likely face extinction. Or at least being gutted.

    So I’m not sure what pagan traditions you’re actually talking about, the more I think about it… are you referring specifically to neo-pagan paths and Wicca? Are you talking about paths that have philosophy mostly divorced from the religious practice? Or ones where they’re inextricably intertwined? I’m actually more interested in knowing what pagan organisations might actually be relevant here…

    (My left click isn’t working on some sites in chrome right now for some reason, so I can’t log in to disqus.)

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Hi L. Thanks for the comment.

      I certainly wasn’t excluding recons, and I’m not sure I was addressing any specific group. Perhaps I was thinking more about Neopagan paths, simply because I’m a part of a tradition that identifies as such, but your clarifications about your recon path is useful to me. In fact, the line “Personal cults cannot be radically inclusive” really hit me.

      When you say that “Folk and diasporic religions can’t afford to be radically inclusive,” how do you see that playing out in day-to-day life? How have you experienced the threat of “being gutted?”


      P.S. Can one ever really divorce philosophy from religious practice? How does that work?

      1. dashifen Avatar

        “Can one ever really divorce philosophy from religious practice? How does that work?”

        Ask an atheist 🙂

        1. Teo Bishop Avatar

          Perhaps I should have asked, can anyone have a religious practice without also having a philosophy?

          1. dashifen Avatar

            Gotcha. Now that’s a hard one….

          2. L Avatar

            Hehe, yeah dashifen has it more what I was talking about. A philosophy that is independent of the work you do religiously.

      2. L Avatar

        To be quite honest, I don’t know how many people would call what they do a personal cult, but referring to it as things like “personal practice” or “solitary practice” definitely gives it a different ring. But at the same time, I’m sure we all know of solitaries that get together and do ritual because their “personal cults”, while exclusive, are compatible. I think I”ll have to give this a lot more thought before I say much more. 😛

        As for the folk religion part… I’m sure you’ve heard of a guy named John Castaneda? I think the whole neo-shaman* movement is good example of this, as the existence (and proliferation) of plastic shamans belies a very common disingenuousness that has had a profound effect on those who are genuine and whose roles are of the utmost severity and importance in their communities. Look at the whole issue of appropriation that has just exploded in the past couple years (I wager as POC pagans, some of whom also come from folk magic backgrounds, are beginning to find their voice)– there is a very intense feeling of ownership of these religious practices, traditions, and effects that is being violated and has been for centuries. Add to that hurt and outrage the fact that many of these traditions are exclusive and closed to the general population, and yet those boundaries are not being respected. The fact that “Native American spirituality” is a term that gets thrown around as often as it does, and without any notion of irony, tells me that exclusivity is necessary for some traditions, because they can’t afford to be indiscriminate. And that’s not to mention that cultural exclusivity might not even be in reaction to marginalization, but rather just the way the culture is.

        *using the word here with all the usual caveats about the problems inherent in transplanting a term from one specific cultural usage to another

      3. KNicoll Avatar

        When I think of folk religion, I am very specifically thinking of the religious practices of a distinct people – a cultural phenomenon. This cannot practically be shared by anyone who is not a part of that culture. (Which does not mean that religious tourists don’t try to insinuate themselves into these things, and get pissy when they’re told they have to live as, get adopted in, or be with the people of that religion in order to learn. They don’t want the culture, they just want the shiny spiritual bauble they think is in there – but to the indigenous and ancient worlds, in many places, there was no word for “religion”, there was just the way people lived.)

        Folk religion may be a derivative of an institutional religion (‘folk Christianity’, say). Or it may be an entire, complete thing of itself. But regardless, it’s something that cannot be understood well out of its context. (Honestly, I think one of the major flaws of Christianity is the way it tried to transcend context, but that’s a tangent.) And people come in, think they have it, rip it out of its body and take it away, not realising that they have stolen a bloody chunk, not gained spiritual knowledge.

        My experience (as a white suburbanite from the US in background) is that a lot of white suburbanites in the US are actively jealous of the spiritual practices of others, which are perceived to have more vibrancy and reality to them, and thus get absolutely furious when they cannot get those things like they could get a nice ethnically-crafted pot or rug from one of those Ten Thousand Villages shops, or whatever they’re called where you are.

        The truth of most cultural religious practices is that if you’re not from there, you’re not from there, and that’s a separation that actually matters. I think the West has too much of an expectation of universality, of the one way, of access. Not enough “do the things that work among your people, and we will do the things that work among ours”.

        All living things adapt to their environments. Why would the spirits – and the practices that connect people to the spirits – be any different?

    2. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

      I don’t understand how an occupation or craft can be said to have “Mysteries”. If you’re talking about, say, diluting the calling of “artist” by allowing anybody who’s made stick figure comics in MS Paint to call themselves an artist (and I mean ANYBODY there, not just the people who can do it well), that I can understand. But occupations don’t have things that they deliberately don’t teach outsiders in order to preserve some mystical integrity. Maybe things you need to learn in a certain order, but that’s to be sure you have the base knowledge to build on.

      And the idea of a physical state of being having a Mystery that “cannot afford to be radically inclusive”?? That doesn’t even make sense. Yes, there are things you can’t explain without experiencing them. That does NOT translate into deliberately not TRYING to explain things so you can maintain the integrity of being deaf or depressed or trans or anything else. I am really not following this?

      1. Kilmrnock Avatar

        Well , from one point of view , an occupation does have a set of skills some needed to even be part of the occupation or trade others learned in order to do the work involved . As say an electrician , carpenter , auto mechanic . These trades require extensive training , equiptment and a certain amount of skill and knowledge , some occupations require a certain mindset or for lack of a better term a knack for the work involved .Most skilled trades require an apprenticeship and /or advanced training for a person to be a part of it .I believe this was the analogy he was speaking of . Kilm

        1. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

          Ah. (Attempting to reply to both at once; so forgive the attachment to the second.) Once you explicitly mention bringing deities into it, your position makes more sense to me. The reason it’s confusing for me is that I do not believe that occupations have deities, so it doesn’t immediately spring to my mind that that might be what you meant. While I understand what you mean a little better, I still don’t think it’s an appropriate comparison to the religious mysteries. Now it sounds to me as though you’re implying that one cannot be a TRUE artist, hunter, musician, what have you, without having this deep spiritual connection the the deity at the heart of it. (How I interpret the wording “preserve the integrity of”.) I worked (not professionally) as an artist for many years, and deity had nothing to do with it, and I would have been extremely offended if you’d told me I was damaging the integrity of … of artist-ness because of that.

          Just realised that I forgot the second part! Kilm, the apprenticeship/advanced training is what I meant by saying that there may be knowledge you can’t get without having prior knowledge.

          1. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

            Ok, I just figured out what bugged me so much about the original comment. As I said, the general idea of “there’s knowledge you aren’t ready for yet because there’s experiences you haven’t had yet”, that I can grok. What got me was that the analogy was followed by a mention that you deliberately don’t use names of things or deities in discussion with others, it not being your place to distribute the info and all. That immediately strikes me as deliberately withholding in order to keep others out.

            The analogy *I* thought of was that I’m a chemist, I work with chemical engineers. We discuss concepts all day long that most people would not understand because they haven’t taken the math for it. But we’re not going to refrain from saying “Prandall number” to them even though it’s likely that they won’t know what we mean.

            But THEN while I was thinking of THAT and how I wanted to write it out, I suddenly flashed back to one of my high school art classes, where I regularly sat with the same group of people, one I didn’t see much of outside of that class (or maybe couple of classes)… the one where, halfway through the year, I realised that I WAS actually cutting my vocabulary down quite a lot, since I tended to get a lot of blank stares when I used the longer words. I felt bad when I realised I was doing it, and I certainly wasn’t doing it deliberately or even consciously – but I also didn’t really make an effort to stop doing it, because I enjoyed being able to have conversations that didn’t stop dead occasionally as people tried to figure out what I meant.

            So even though I don’t think that’s exactly the kind of thing you meant, I think it has some of the same spirit. It at least lets me step out of the defensive “What, so now I’m not a real artist because I don’t commune with the god of artists?!” angry mindset into a “Huh, ok, yeah, I guess I can see that.”

            (And I should add that I never had any disagreement with the idea that *religious Mysteries* ought to avoid trying to be radically inclusive, just with the idea that things like occupations or states of humanity could be said to avoid it in the same way. But that could be because I was not viewing the religious mysteries in the same sort of way, as something that IS, instead of something that is decided.)

          2. L Avatar

            As for my withholding information about my practice, it really isn’t my information to share– I am a reconstructionist of the old Maya religion, a group of people who, for the past 500+ years have been treated like dirt by colonists, suffered every injustice under the sun at the hands of Europeans, and those who wished to rise to power using the oppressive world they created and left behind only decades ago. They have folk religions based on these old understandings, these old gods and spirits, and they have ownership of these things. I don’t. Not to mention that the status of the openness of the religion I’m aiming to reconstruct is dubious at best… I am not in any position to “spread the word” or enable just anyone to get into this.

            As for gods, I mentioned them because my practice is heavily pantheon-oriented, and knowing the personal effects (their icons, their faces, their tools… and intimately knowing those is knowing what they do and who they are) of the lords is of high importance. It’s not “I’m not an artist because I don’t commune with a patron of the arts”, but rather “I cannot know the patron of the arts without being an artist.”

          3. AnantaAndroscoggin Avatar

            Medieval European Guilds seemed to always have a Patron Saint of their own. Early navigators (a.k.a. “pilots”) would keep their notes on how to get a ship from one place to another in one piece a very hidden, personal set of secrets, often written in a personal code as well. Don’t think I’ve ever read anything indicating that there might have been a Navigator’s Guild, though.

            And don’t forget, that the Masonic orders (“Speculative Masonry”) are said to have branched off from “Practical Masonry” of the ancient Stonemason’s craft.

      2. L Avatar

        I define Mystery as something that you can only know by experiencing it. I’m not talking about deliberately hidden knowledge, just knowledge that not everyone has access to by cracking open the proper books or googling the right websites. Occupations had, and sometimes continue to have, patrons specific to that work. Not sure how that’s so confusing? If you’re not a hunter, or an artist, or a merchant, then you can’t fully know the god of the hunt, or the arts, or of commerce, can you? And the person that replied to you before me has the idea. Mysteries are about actively doing and experiencing, not just armchair intellectualizing.

    3. Kilmrnock Avatar

      well altho an ADF member , i am also a recon [CR] and participate in a CR style faith . Actualy CR is more a methodology for learning and to find a faith . I am also Sinnsreachd , a celtic tribal CR style faith . we donot at this point have a formal hierarchy . Each Family or group of families is a seperate unit . We do have a set of core beliefs document , that one needs to agree to , to be a part of the faith . But there are CR style faiths out here . We Sinnsrearaithe are quite spread out now and are still but a few . I belong to ADF at this point for fellowship and commerrodery with like minds and for Celtic ritual . The grove i belong to is Celt centered . The grove follows a Celtic faith with only a few minor differences . At this point i am no loner ……..i need group ritual and structure for my personal practice .ADF provides this , but at my heart/beliefs i am Sinnsrearaithe. Kilm

  10. Eran Rathan Avatar

    I have never been Christian, so I’m only just finding some of that intensely weird power-mongering and bickering that happens at churches vicariously through my wife’s church (who are really laid back Methodists, but still have their own internal power struggles). But you see it at the PTA (intensely clique-ish), you see it at the various sports and dance and other kid stuff. Parents are WEIRD. And soccer moms, of whom my wife is sortof-but-not-really-one, are the most competitive, conniving, cliqueish, manipulative and mean people I have ever had the misfortune to have to deal with. Seriously, I’d rather have dinner with Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell than some of those women.

    And in any group of three people or more, you’re going to have at least one who wants power over the others. Maybe not consciously, but its there – it in the nature of humanity to be a hierarchical group. I am solitary partly because I have no stomach for that sort of politicking. Its wasteful and pointless.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, Eran. I appreciate the perspective.

      As a solitary, do you feel you miss some of what is offered to members of organized groups?

      1. Eran Rathan Avatar

        Yeah – I did belong to a group for a few years about a decade ago, but it imploded specifically because of personality clashes/power-grabbing among the leadership. I miss the comraderie and group rituals, and the discussions which led me to further develop my faith – though I’ve found that a lot of the discussion you’ve hosted here has been as in depth as some of those ones were (and some of the discussion here certainly more so – its refreshing getting perspective from completely outside my own experiences).

        I do miss the music. I am completely and utterly musically inept, and some of the group I was in were very gifted musically – hearing someone sing or play music with that divine joy in their heart is probably the number one thing that I miss – its not something that you can get via recording.

  11. Themon the Bard Avatar

    One of the big questions has to do with size, and it’s inherent in our way of thinking in the 21st century. We always think far too big.

    The natural limit to a human organization is around 100 people. It’s the biggest group that can hold together as a “family” or “tribe” where everyone knows everyone else, has personal relationships with everyone else, and can keep track in their head of a web of ongoing gift-obligations.

    If you belong to the Church of the 99, you have a lot of organizational options that are simply not available to the Church of the 999. Or, as in major religions, the Church of the 99,000,000.

    Implicit in this discussion is the idea of a Grand Tradition — like the Episcopal Church, or Paganism-with-a-capital-P — that goes way outside the 100-person limit. For contrast, members of our circle met with someone interested in our group who grew up in a small “church” in California that has had on the order of 40 members, give or take. Some of the families involved are now bringing in a fourth generation of children. The group has no “chapters” or “groves” or “hives” anywhere else in the world.

    Smaller groups have a whole different collection of potential problems than larger, less-personal groups. They’re more like family, and I think most of us know how painful family can be. I think one of the reasons many US families are so disconnected and divided is that we don’t have a traditional store of wisdom that tells us how to organize on the 99-person level. All we know is the 99 Million person level: cities, states, nations. And churches that are effectively franchises, like McDonalds, which are intended to serve a standardized product to millions. When we grow up in a nuclear family, disconnected from any larger set of strong traditions that tell us how to behave, we’re going it alone, making it up as we go, and much of the time, we mess up big time.

    I think we get into the same situation with coven and grove. We’re either working blind, or we’re trying to develop a one-size-fits all franchise model.

  12. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

    I feel that most likely I’m going to be the minority voice here, but well, here it goes.

    I left Christianity due to the theology and the problems I felt were associated with Abrahamic Monotheism specifically. The truth of the matter is this, I enjoyed the structure, the bureaucracy.That is one of the things that I struggled with when I first became Pagan is that their was no organization, no structure(I found ADF and Hellenion though). A structure lends strength, it allows the community to grow because of the organization and a directed vision. It allows us to connect and network and give each other opportunities. One stick alone is easy to break, but bind many together and it is difficult. What is that which binds them together? Structure.

    Take fraternities for example (cast away any negative opinions you have about them for just a moment). Lets say there is a guy in Fraternity XXK-Texas, and a guy in Fraternity XXK-New York. These guys will have a radically different culture, and likely have different political and religious leanings, but they are bound together by the Fraternity. As active members if they happen to cross paths (and are aware of it) they are obligated to behave kindly to one another, Lets say the Texas guy goes to the XXK-NY Frat House, that chapter is obligated to show hospitality towards the Texan, even if he is a Literalist Christian and they happen to all be Atheists.

    These sort of Mores don’t happen by chance. The National Organization of XXK oversees and manages the sub-ordinate chapters across the nation. They develop a curriculum for the pledges which will cause these men to feel certain obligations and bonds towards their fellow “brothers”. You then have various sub-divisions which cause it to be more tailored individually (State, Regional, and then Chapter Boards of Governors for example) This is a bureaucracy if there ever was one, but the thing is, it *works*. The reason why they get more and more people despite the hazing and all is because they have this internal structure which ultimately benefits the members. Without some sort of internal structure a group will be forced to remain local, and as a group grows from being city-wide, to county, region, state, then country they have to develop more and more structured systems of governing which will (hopefully) lend strength not from the top, but from the bottom up.

    It isn’t like people are forced to join these structured groups such as Hellenion or ADF. They could be Eclectic, they could be solitary Wiccans or find a Coven or the like. The Pagan community has plenty of “unstructure”, but if we ever want to have things like Temples or Churches, we are going to need some structure. In addition, Paganism is radically inclusive of gender, orientation, and race, and thus the only thing that we would have to contend with is method of practice and theology, and even that isn’t a big hurdle.

    Bureaucracy and the structure it creates may not be what some people are looking for, but for those people there are plenty of other opportunities within Paganism for them to embrace and delight in unstructure, but for those of us who seek it, the few opportunities we have are incredibly dear.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Connor. I’m glad you’re a part of the dialogue. You’ve done well to explain how bureaucracy can work, and there are certainly Pagan groups that function like fraternal orders. I’m thinking AODA, but there may be others.

      You mention that Paganism “is radically inclusive of gender, orientation, and race,” and I would say that’s true of ADF, but not necessarily all traditions. I’m curious when you say that “the only thing that we would have to contend with is method of practice and theology” — what do mean by that?

      1. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

        True enough, the more extreme Asatru groups have a tendency towards exclusiveness, but as do some Hellenic groups that I have seen (and you can’t forget the Dianic Wiccans I suppose)

        (This is essay length. I’ll understand if you don’t feel like reading it)

        I want to make a premise for the “bureaucratic group. The group is “open” as in, it does not dictate personal practice necessarily and primarily concerns itself with congregational worship.

        As for the theology and practice, I’ll address the theological stuff first. In Paganism I’d say we have four broad theological categorizations. Atheistic-Animistic, Polytheistic, Duotheistic, and Goddess-Monotheism. Any group who wants to have structure has to ask themselves “Which direction?”. Some groups such as OBOD and AODA say “build your own theology” and offer little to no instruction, or if there is instruction it is generally made explicitly clear that you can modify this with no problem to fit your theology. Lets say you want to take it in a particular direction, then you have to cope with “how hard” is it going to be? You have groups like ADF which operate on the premise of Polytheism, but which don’t exclude you if you are say, Duotheistic. Then you have things like Asatru Blots or YSEE who have a developed theology and rejection of that theology will result in alienation from the group. When organizing groups we have to ask ourselves if we are going to be theologically all inclusive (which will inevitably be cause to include the Abrahamic views to a degree, which may scare off some) oriented towards a specific theology (Which keeps the group in a specific sphere, yet may scare off certain people due to perceived/imagined obligations) or theologically specific (the problems in this are rather evident I think.).

        These choices in theology will be a large factor in making or breaking the group. Be too theologically inclusive and the group may wind up feeling shallow to some (but not always!) be too exclusive and you wind up alienating others fully and are unlikely to expand.In addition, the theology must be relatively consistent from area to area much like a Fraternity has a consistent creed.

        Now for the practices, the easier part. Wiccans cast circles, Druids enter groves, and Hellenics use “chernips/khernips”. These all are various practices performed by various Pagan groups.In organizing a large “Pagan” structure, we either have to have “generic” practices which may not be reflective or tie well into the theology of the group, or we can have inspired (by the theology, cultural orientation or whatever other premise the group is using)practice. Generic is obviously easier to teach because there are certain enthymemes that run through the Pagan community. However, this gives the group no real feeling of being “different” from other groups and thus may result in the members not being retained (which is rough on a national organization). The “inspired” practice will likely be unique to the organization, and thus will create a stronger bond among the members because it gives a sense of “This is Us. This is what We do” and thus make the members less likely to leave the group because the uniqueness of practice causes a stronger identification of the community and of it being differentiated from the larger Pagan community (a danger in this is that if done incorrectly it can make a Superior Us vs Inferior Them mentality, which is a horrid turn for a group to take) As a religious organization, developing a sound and solid practice is absolutely essential and must remain consistent throughout the organizations chapters/churches. If group X does something it doesn’t mean that group R has to have the exact same thing, but it does mean that they must be similar..

        Any and all Pagan organizations seeking to establish churches, orders, groves, etc must grapple with these two things. These two things are what will provide the skeleton for the organizations. A sound theology and a consistent practice will cause people to feel like they belong to a community rather than an enforced grouping, and will thus cause people to want to donate money which will further reinforce the structure. The only danger is becoming too rigid in practice or theology as the local groups must have some autonomy over what they do and what their practice springs from.

        1. Teo Bishop Avatar

          This was, indeed, post-length — but I loved it.

          Conor, do you have a blog? Have you given thought to writing about your perspectives on Paganism, Druidism, Hellenion, or any other thing religious in nature? If you don’t, I think you should.

          Write about what you believe is true, what you believe is not so true, and — most importantly — what it is in your life that informs those beliefs. We don’t really know each other, but I think it would be a good thing for you, and I think people would read it.

          And you should keep commenting here, too.

          Thanks fo being a part of this dialogue.

          1. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

            I’m glad you enjoyed reading it I do have a blog, I just don’t really write on it very much, because I’m usually unsure of what to write about. Perhaps I’ll do what I do when I comment and just say what I feel I need to say. .


          2. Teo Bishop Avatar

            You’re quite welcome.

            You have perspectives, and you have lived experience. That’s about all you need for a blog, in my opinion, and by starting to write more regularly you might discover a common thread in your work.

            Feel free to share a link to your blog if you’d like.

          3. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

            Alrighty, here is the link. I don’t really have a lot at all.

          4. dashifen Avatar

            As another person unsure of what to write about, I feel your pain. I also feel your love of structure and bureaucracy, but that might be because my father is in local government so I was steeped in bureaucracy growing up.

      2. Ian Phanes Avatar
        Ian Phanes

        A minor correction: AODA is not a pagan group, though many of the members are pagan. (Speaking as a new member, who happens to be pagan.)

    2. Éireann Lund Johnson Avatar

      I agree here that there is a tendency for pagan groups to trend towards the disorganized, and feel somehow proud of this, but then to atrophy over a relatively short period of time. I’m not of the opinion that being ‘disorganized’ is always better than being organized, and structure lends a lot to a group and its potential longevity. While lamenting the hierarchical structure of traditional Abrahamist religious societies, pagans often lament the lack of the same for themselves, without allowing for the structure and organization it requires because they are so often demonized. Remember though that the ancient pagan peoples had such organized structures, and even modern Wicca comes from lineaged traditions structured of formal initiations and degrees. Assuming that paganism is naturally anathema to structure and organization doesn’t make sense when held against these historical precedents. I also agree that some pagan groups have made smart use of organization which most of their membership seems happy with, and with what it provides. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. 🙂

  13. Elizabeth McNally Avatar

    Excellent food for thought. I feel that, as you mention, people are fallible whether Christian, Pagan or other. There will always be those who have agendas that are ego driven or based on personal prejudices . I’ve recently crossed paths with Pagan Fundamentalists, and found myself shocked (who knew!). I have no answers as to how the Pagan community might avoid these same pitfalls, but understanding and creating an awareness that there is potential for such bureaucracy is a good first step within individual organizations.

  14. Nancy Avatar

    Human nature being what it is, and pagans being no better or worse humans than those of any other religion, I think it’s inevitable that we’ll find these failings in our institutions as well. As we’ve seen, radical inclusivity isn’t necessarily a part of the pagan worldview – many embrace it, but many are just as interested in bringing us/them divisions with them to their new faith from the ones they left behind. For myself, the need for a church was itself one of the things I left behind. A small, close-knit clan with whom to worship and practice is what I’ve sought – a large body such as a church seemed to me tribal – parochial, even. Increasingly I see pagans and their institutions desiring and attempting to mirror various aspects of the church – pagan churches, pagan bibles, Wiccaning ceremonies, etc – and I wonder what exactly it is that we’ve left behind if we’re bringing so much of it with us. My belief is that if we don’t want to experience the same failings as the Church has suffered and which have caused so many to turn their backs on not just the Church but spiritual belief and expression as a whole, we should stop seeking to institutionalize our faith entirely. It smacks of a need to legitimize our faith, and I don’t think we need to have churches and bibles and pagan versions of Christian rituals to do that.

  15. n8k99 Avatar

    One hierarchy is not equal with another. There are different methods of constructing the organizational structure of humans working together. The Church’s reliance upon Orthodoxy and control from above will not work within the context of the Pagan Church. Yet, as there is an increase in worshippers and people who practice the Old Ways, there will be an increased need for some sort of structure that can interface with the rest of society. Is there a cast in stone nature to the present pagan hierarchies? Or can we not as members of the movement create a practical structure which will work for us and those who come after?

  16. Charlton Hall Avatar

    I think that power dynamics are inherent in any organized structure; otherwise there’d be no need for such structure in the first place. Our own Order wrestled with this concept. How much ‘dogma’ is necessary to form a coherent organization? Is it possible to allow freedom of experience while still maintaining some structure? We have a minimal framework, and leave the rest up to the individual. Unfortunately, sometimes that runs the risk of trying to be ‘all things to all people.’ In other words, it can sometimes lead to a watered-down practice.

  17. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

    It’s an important question, and not one that I’ve found an answer to yet. Though an atheist, I still belong to a liberal Lutheran church in my area and we have been discussing issues like this for several years now on the council. How can we stay together as a group, and how can we grow, without running into issues like these?

    And the final questions, and Mam’s comment as well, I think are also reflected in the debate over the value of “atheist churches” in the atheist community. Some people want to find a way to get the benefits of a physical meeting place and community (like a church) but without the negatives. Many others, I imagine especially those who left Christianity in severe pain, think that it’s impossible to separate the bad from the good, and question if the good is even all that good.

    For what it’s worth, I do think it’s possible, if only because I’m not willing to believe that humans are completely a lost cause. It’s just something that has to be worked at together – keep the *whole* community/church/fill-in-collective-noun involved, and not just the leaders, because then the feedback and the group dynamic can potentially help keep the poisons from forming.

    People make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we should completely abandon all attempts at tangible community (which is the argument I’ve heard from the “we have the Internet, what more do we need?” atheists).

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for this comment, Lauren. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

      You might pick up a copy of my friend, Chris Stedman’s book, “Faitheist.” It just came out, and he take a very different stand on establishing connections with religious communities than many vocal atheists do.

      1. dashifen Avatar

        Ha! I had just sent her the same suggestion earlier today. Great minds and all that 😀

  18. Mam Adar Avatar
    Mam Adar

    I understand completely where you’re coming from, Teo. I’ve been there and done that. The fundamentalists who have re-defined two thousand years of religion to mean “no gays, no abortions, no evolution” are only a small minority of Christians; they’re just the loudest parrots in the flock. But my experience with Church bureaucracy, hierarchy, and authority is precisely why I am wary of pagan buildings, pagan seminaries, official titles, paid clergy, and all of that. I have zero confidence that pagans, most of them raised in Christian churches, after all, would not make exactly the same mistakes as those churches have.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Mam Adar. I’m glad that you’re a part of this conversation.

      I’m almost certain that Pagans will and do make those same mistakes, but what I’m not sure of is whether that invalidates organizing altogether. I ask the questions in this blog post, but then I find myself thinking that I wish there were Pagan temples, accredited seminaries, job options for those who wish to serve. Not sure how to reconcile that conflict in myself.

      Have you found any benefit from organized religious community, Pagan or otherwise?

      1. Mam Adar Avatar
        Mam Adar

        I have fond memories of the Episcopal church I went to as a child, and of two Lutheran churches my husband has served as an organist. (I can’t stand Lutheran theology, but I love me some Lutherans. Just stay away from the Missouri Synod folks!) Of the various clergy I have known, two Lutheran ministers and two Wiccans stand out as people who had genuine knowledge of their own traditions and genuine skills in helping others.

        I have not really found a place in any Pagan organization and am resigned/resolved to being solitary. Which is okay, really; I’m an introvert and I like solitude. It’s not that I think Pagans should not organize, should not have specialists, should not recognize people with genuine knowledge and ability. I’m not in favor of “disorganized religion”, just distrustful of known organizational patterns and quietly hopeful that new patterns can be found. I think the traditional Wiccan system is, in fact, a very promising alternative, as are its cousins in Freemasonry and fraternally-inspired Druid groups. But whenever I see Pagans talking about seminaries and paid clergy, I can only think of something Anglican solitary Maggie Ross wrote in the ’80s: You cannot pay someone to be self-effacing.

    2. Marc Avatar

      Mam Adar, I agree. However, I think Pagans have an opportunity because so many of us see the struggles that people have gone through in these older religions. Perhaps the issues you address can be brought up early, dealt with then, and then find that it is less an issue later. Yes, we’ve seen horrible fracturing and schismatic tendencies. Maybe it’s a lost cause. Maybe not.

      Bureaucracy is an unfortunate, necessary evil given the stresses put on organizations by external factors (Government, outside groups). Administration is needed, apart from the spiritualist-religious necessities of the organization. And unfortunately, today, they come across as conferring a form of legitimacy. A person who has enrolled in a seminary, or gone through an accredited training program, or bear official titles seems to have greater “credibility” to the public, over someone who signs up for a course on the Internet that confers upon them some kind of ordination.

      I don’t think one can have the community part without the bureaucracy part. A temple’s priest/ess might be an AMAZING spiritualist leader, but suck hardcore at accounting. I’d rather have an administrative group that could take care of that sphere of responsibility than expect someone who can’t/has no interest in it.

      1. Mam Adar Avatar
        Mam Adar

        Hi, Marc. The problem is that the default model of “paid clergy”, the more-or-less Protestant Christian model that most people seem to be going on, requires the cleric to be a liturgist, a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, and an expert schmoozer, all in one. I’ve seen Christian clergy who were good liturgists and crap pastors, good preachers but mediocre liturgists, enthusiastic at the altar but totally useless in the office. When my father-in-law died, it became apparent that he had been for a long time the de facto administrator of the church to which he belonged–and he was good at it. The pastor wasn’t, and isn’t, and the membership, the physical plant, and the liturgy have all declined as a result.

        Perhaps Pagans should just keep separate the people who pay the bills, make the phone calls, get the papers to the printer on time, and the people who can lead ritual, do trancework, divine on a deep level, etc. Can we do that? Financial recompense for all, but no fancy titles, that’s my fantasy.

        1. dashifen Avatar

          There’s another model, though. Perhaps it was simply the synagogue that my family attended during my childhood, but I suspect it’s somewhat generalizable to other Jewish (or perhaps to other Conservative Jewish) congregations. There, the Rabbi was simply the Rabbi. He had an office but it was filled with books on religious history and theology. His job was to be the spiritual leader and he had a staff of about half a dozen who acted as the bureaucrats for the congregation. The positions were elected and had term lengths (though I don’t recall if they were term limited).

          In short, it was run very much like a small community (which, considering the ethnic connection of a large portion of the population of the congregation, I suppose it was a small community) with a spiritual center and purpose. This model is something that I could see working well in smaller Pagan settings.

          1. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

            That’s how the church I attend is organized as well. The pastor does do a lot of administrative work, but there is also a paid staff and a volunteer staff (which, admittedly, both need expanding as we’re going through a lot of turnover right now) to handle the brunt of it. And anything connected to church “politics” (which I put in quotes to show it should cover every possible meaning of the word you can think of) is supposed to be handled by the church council, that the pastor sits in and participates in discussions and makes suggestions/recommendations, but by no means directs the consensus.