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Toward a Pagan Commons? A Conversation

 The other day, a Christian friend posted a link to two articles on the phenomenon of celebrity pastors, "The Evangelical Industrial Complex."  And it got me thinking about the similarities and differences that exist, between the evangelical community and within my Pagan community.

The issues in the Pagan community are different... but related, I think.  "The market"--whether we're talking about publishing or speakers at large gatherings--is really the only Commons we have for our community; because we have always been cash poor, we have very few non-profit institutions that can promote leadership and share ideas on anything but a market-values basis.  Until very recently, everything we have built had to pay for itself through market share in order to support itself at all.  And while projects like the fund drives for Cherry Hill Seminary  and The Wild Hunt are beginning to help with that, it's still largely true: what has a potential to bring in cash gets shared, while what does not... does not.  It's not wisdom that we are inadvertently selecting for, but marketability, and that is hindering our spiritual growth and integrity as a community.

I don't mean that those leaders who are financially valuable and therefore famous are not also, often, wise and good leaders.  I am indebted to many of them.  But I am aware that we are losing voices that we need to hear, and leaving unexplored whole regions of Pagan thought, because they're not likely to draw in a paying crowd.  And institutions that promote deepening and continuing growth among our leaders or teachers--famous and not--are not very marketable, because they are not of use to our enormous base of newcomers and seekers.  I see us willing to promote institutions that echo mainstream culture (as Cherry Hill Seminary does, with it's willingness to confer degrees and its focus on academic training analogous to mainstream seminaries).  These institutions are marketable, because they offer status and legitimacy to members of a religious movement starved for that.

But they do not necessarily build on our own unique strengths and insights as a spiritual community.  Perhaps they can't--after all,  Paganism is a movement that challenges the status quo, and to survive in the marketplace, our institutions must appeal not just to what challenges us (raised as we are in mainstream culture, with a good deal of enculturation in the status quo ourselves to overcome) but to what flatters us, and gives us standing in our own eyes... which will often be what supports that status quo, not what goes against the grain of our consumerist, hierarchical culture.

Again, I'm not attacking the institutions we have built.  Cherry Hill Seminary, for instance, is a good and useful tool, and academic training is one of the things Paganism can benefit from.

But we are also a community of wildness, of Mystery, of ecstasy and of mysticism.  And that can't be taught or supported by academic rigor.  The institutions and connections that can support that vein of our life cannot be driven by market values.

And that's where I get frustrated.  I wish I saw the way forward.  Sometimes, I think I am the only one who has noticed that we're stuck.

So I asked a group of friends and Pagan teachers what they think. Here's the conversation that followed:

Jason Pitzl-Waters launched the conversation, saying,
I think that our movement has to decide if we want to be part of institutionalized religious culture, or if we want to continue as a  subcultural force. Despite our diversity, institutionalization isn't impossible, look at the New Age movement. But we have to ask if the commerce and attention are worth what we will lose.

I want to add, that I'm not knocking infrastructure and institutions, I'm simply saying that you can't have those things and be the outsiders to the power we often critique. 

Elysia Gallo, a senior acquisitions editor for Llewellyn wrote,
Of course we're nothing like those Christian megachurches and their celebrity authors/pastors. Yes, when I am evaluating a manuscript of course it matters whether the author is a visible Pagan, whether they are connected to other people on the internet or in real life, whether they attend conferences and festivals. But I will never find an author where I say "okay, if just a third of the people in their congregation buy this book, it will be profitable." Never going to happen! 

It is key that I find books that are not just driven by the author's reputation--though in Pagan circles, reputation means a lot more than having a good-sized congregation, because we really are much closer with our BNPs; we see them in action and can decide whether they know what they're doing, walk their talk, and are genuinely good people or not.   But I need to find books with interesting themes that will be relevant to a wide audience. Otherwise they won't sell enough copies to break even. 

I do see a lot of interesting work done by small presses, publishing books that we simply couldn't because our overhead is greater and we wouldn't break even on a book that only can be expected to sell a couple hundred copies. Sometimes I'm jealous of those presses, but then I remind myself we all have our place in the ecosystem. I try to find books for a wide audience, and that more often than not means entry-level to intermediate. 

For all the wailing that there are "no advanced books" - there are, people just don't buy them in great quantities. Because the vast majority of people who've been in it for a while are more into following their own spirit, inner voice, coven, deities, etc. and mostly don't believe that anything that anyone else could write would possibly have any value to them. Even though clearly many people would benefit from, for example, Shauna Aura Knight's workshops, there is this cognitive dissonance in the community because people think they already know everything and very few people make it a priority to go further. 

Paganisms are also countercultural, and we have collectively eschewed the idea that marketing means anything or that money and infrastructure are important or even necessary to a spiritual movement. No one is getting rich off of this because no one made it a priority to do so.  (See the New Age movement for a contrast - some of those people are very wealthy indeed.)

That is why the people doing the advanced work will continue to eke out an existence, why people publishing small print runs of something really interesting will most likely continue to see it as a part-time job or even as a hobby rather than something that can truly sustain them financially.

Druid writer John Beckett focused on whether or not our current institutions can offer what we need as we advance in our practice.
Cat, I think your observations are accurate, and a good extrapolation from the original article.  For as young as the Pagan movement is, I think we have adequate resources for seekers and beginners.  They're not universally good, but I could say the same thing for many Christian churches, and not just because I disagree with their doctrine.  We do OK with beginners, and with time, effort, and mindful reflection, we'll do better.

Here's the harder problem:  as you said "institutions that promote deepening and
continuing growth among our leaders or teachers--famous and not--are not very marketable".  I'm experiencing that myself as I'm being led further and further into teaching.  The resources I need aren't readily available.  Cherry Hill doesn't teach what I need to learn, for the reasons you list.

At this point, it falls on each individual intermediate Pagan to figure out what he/she needs to learn and find a way to learn it.  I'm fortunate to be able to work one-on-one (remotely) with two very experienced teachers.  But I know they're frustrated too, because the advanced stuff doesn't sell, and they're dependent on book sales and speaking fees to pay the rent.

I don't have a solution, other than a couple hundred years of organic growth.  But this is a big part of why I have no plans to quit my day job before "normal" retirement age.

On the question of leadership training, author Shauna Aura Knight commented
I also wanted to bring up Cherry Hill and other Pagan seminaries/clergy training. That word clergy is problematic because many traditions use clergy to mean a high priest/ess, ie, someone who's been theologically trained in the tradition. To me, clergy implies actual leadership and facilitation training, and training in pastoral counseling, among other things.

I see the work that Cherry Hill is doing to be crucial. I'm not so much concerned with the issue of making Paganism more in line with the status quo by using seminaries/similar clergy educational process. What I am usually more concerned by are the hundreds or thousands of groups out there with poorly trained leaders. Leaders who have no concept of communication tools, group dynamics, facilitation, and pastoral counseling.

Now, not every group leader needs to be all things. Some of us are administrators and accountants, some of us are writers, some of us are ritualists. I'm terrible at pastoral counseling. But, it's a skillset we need to grow in our community. I do think that Paganism can add something to that skillset, and I can go into more depth on that some time later. I don't think it's dumbing Pagans down to teach some of the basic skills that other groups need.

In fact, I think that if more Pagan leaders had access to this type of training, we'd have less group blowups, less drama, and we'd have more sustainable communities. We'd have more of those "Commons" types of spaces.

It's part of why I teach leadership. But, the leadership/ritual facilitation training isn't as marketable, to be sure. There are far less people interested in learning to be leaders than there are people interested in the 101 stuff.

Renee L. replied to my concern that we may lose our way in our rush to sustainable institutions, and reassured me that I'm not alone with the concern.
No, you're definitely not the only one.  My other concern, which you touch on slightly, is that if we support institutions like Cherry Hill too strongly -- or give too much credence to their graduates -- we'll lose that Mystery.  That Paganism will become nothing more than an academic exercise for most, eventually losing its wildness and personal connection with deity.  As soon as you start relying on BNPs to explain and define your religious experience for you, the potential for deep  religious experience is lessened.

Another friend, active in leadership on the West Coast, took a different tack. She reflected on the struggles we still have both to keep growing, to keep the lights on, and to respect the ways we have to work in order to do that:
Part of the issue that never enters these conversations is there are now, all of a sudden, 7 billion people on the planet. Everyone is dealing with staggering growth and all the needs, including spiritual, that come with that.

Pagans have been rightfully suspicious of institutions, yet institutions can in many ways more easily deal with growth - simply because we have models of how to do that. I think smaller, autonomous groups that train one another and then break away - sound familiar? - can possibly deal with growth, but we need to be conscious of this process as more than just "tradition" and rather, as a way to seed ideas outward.

Social media, believe it or not, attempts to deal with some of the problems you are speaking of. A lot of information is shared freely. And many of us are criticized for this very fact. There is tension between "mystery religion" and "worldwide religion". We need both, I think - though not in equal measure - but feel really uncomfortable with that.

Regarding Pagans not wanting to support institutions, and things being sold at "market value", I'm not sure what suggestions you have. A pledge drive is still assigning market value to something.

I often think of the people who complain at the high prices synagogues charge for seats to high holy days. They complain that the synagogues are being greedy and gouging people who only attend a couple times a year. This pisses me off hugely. If those people attended year round and made regular contributions the synagogue wouldn't have to charge high prices for a seat on Yom Kippur. They don't support the synagogue year round, but they expect it to be there when they need it.

Pagans can fall into a similar trap. I've heard Pagan leaders who ran gatherings that were really reasonably priced - too low, in my estimation - get told they must be "raking it in" while they were on their knees scrubbing the stove out after the event was over.
Renee L added some thoughts on what it's like to try to bring Pagans together in some sort of common space:
Earlier I intentionally took my Free Spirit Gathering programming hat off, because I wanted to think about this without getting into that mindset. But now, having seen Cat use the concept of "a Commons" -- a concept that I love, by the way -- I'm feeling that hat floating atop my head.

I would love to be able to say that Pagan gatherings -- such as FSG, or Rites of Spring, or Pagan Spirit Gathering or whatever else -- act as a Commons for this sort of connection. Heck, it's why I became involved with FSG to begin with. But when you run an event, you need people to come to that event; and if you need people to come (especially in rough economic times), you need something to draw people in -- including new people; and when you're looking to draw people in, one of the best/easiest ways is to bring in famous people/BNPs, especially if they're big enough to have their own marketing team to help market your event for you.

I had mixed feelings years ago, when Geo Marvil started doing this for FSG -- he'd arrange (or have others arrange) for a BNP to come a year in advance. It was within his purview because he was in charge of marketing -- and having that top billing BNP was definitely a marketing-related move. Our attendance numbers rose when he started doing this, and they've fallen in recent years -- years when we've had no BNP. FSG is looking to increase its numbers by starting to bring BNPs in again and -- once again -- I have mixed feelings.

FSG, and gatherings like it, are a perfect place to have a regional Commons. That doesn't take the place of ongoing local discussions, but I think it's a good way for different localities to meet and exchange their ideas. But when you bring it Famous People the dynamic changes (at least it does to me). But without the BNPs, the event might die (over a number of years, as attendance drops and the event is able to offer less as a result). For about a decade I've been wondering how to balance these factors out -- and for about a decade I've had no answers. I know this is a subset of what Cat's talking about, but it feels related.

Susan Curewitz Arthen added:
Great post--and all of the responses well thought out. An improvement over the decades-long debates over whether it is okay to charge for your teaching, counseling, officiating.

The strongest strand for me, something ingrained in what Andras Corban Arthen taught me, is how divorced most of us are from the natural world. There lies the mystery, the wisdom, and yes, some of the practical life lessons. Opening to and deepening that connection can and does lend itself to balancing it with scholarship and activism. For me it has become the best way to live my life, and a calling that refuses to become buried by the busyness of daily life.
 I commented
I'm so glad that it came through that I am NOT talking about charging or not charging... nor about whether Pagan institutions are a good thing or not. It's our lack of a Commons, a space to connect and share ideas and support one another outside of market considerations that I'm unhappy about.
My West Coast friend concluded
I'm not sure what the answers are. These questions and concerns need a lot more time. What would help though, is to ask the questions in the way you are attempting to do. Too often these conversations are just about what people like or dislike, or what people fear. They don't feel well conceived or mature to me. And usually, they all boil down to money, which is only one part of the puzzle. And that money factor often includes a moralistic component, which only muddies the waters. Teachers who ask for money are still subject to mud slinging.
I'm not sure what the answers are, either.  Is my concern valid?  Do the rules of the marketplace distort the gifts we offer one another, especially beyond an introductory level? 

And more importantly, is there a better way to support our vein of mysticism and ecstasy, and perhaps even encourage our elders as well as new seekers to keep growing spiritually as well as in knowledge and experience?  How do we support the development and nurture of wisdom in a world where it's hard enough to break even?

Your questions, your comments, are very welcome below.  Please feel free to join the conversation.  Can we create a Pagan Commons?


Gina Pond said…
I think we need to really consider institutions, because it's not whether it's a good idea or not, but it's a matter of legacy. What do we leave for the future? How will people 10, 20, 50, or 100 years from now know what and who we are and what pagan history is?

(Also, I beg to differ on the cash-poor thing, but that's an issue for another time...)
Anarchivist said…
Yes, your concerns are very important, and I'm grateful you've gotten so many people thinking about the subject. I suspect there are many of us who are looking for new models. Some stars are aligning, too, since I've been doing a lot of research and thinking about the current state of our education system in general. I started looking into a situation at my alma mater, and discovered that its current stated top priority is to fill the needs of the local business community. Whose interests are obviously very different from mine, and generally aren't in line with the goals of the humanities and liberal arts, which I studied there. So I'm seriously looking at: if traditional education abandons its core values, what alternatives might be out there? How do we preserve culture at all? Like with the commons: we need new ways of thinking about these things. Which is hard to do, but I'm glad you're getting a ball rolling, wherever it leads!
semiruralpagan said…
I feel like you acknowledge the vast majority of concerns people have with creating institutionalized Pagan structures. I find myself flip-flopping lately on whether I love or loathe organized religion. And the more I think on it, the more I see it not as an issue with organization and structure, but with the loss of core values that can happen so easily when building that structure. In my life, I'm working with a partner to start a small business geared towards helping other small businesses. And even in that totally secular endeavor, there have been many times over the past several months where we have had to step back and reevaluate our process because we have gotten so caught up in the business building aspect (the bank accounts, the filing with the gov't, the marketing plans, etc...) that we've come to neglect the core purpose of the business (design). And if its so easy for two people to get sidetracked from a business venture that they both rearranged their lives to pursue, how much easier is it for people to get sidetracked from spirituality, since our society as a whole values business/commerce over spiritual endeavors? I think if we accept the necessity of institutions for the continuance of Pagan learning and growth, there needs to be some safety nets in place to catch the organizers when they begin to lose the focus on core values in the wake of the huge burden of business planning.
Anonymous said…
I continue to think about this conundrum. For my part, I have no issues with formalized Pagan institutions; I think some of the healthiest groups that I've seen follow a congregational model and are usually a part of UU churches. The lasting organizations I've seen are the ones out there making actual headway toward things like Pagan equality.

What I think gets in our way more often is numbers. Specifically, the combination of being an extreme minority faith, plus how we seem to have gravitated toward either capitalism or a refusal to charge any fee. I wrote an article on this a while back--and it's a little long--but it explores how the method of tithing works to provide a sliding scale where people give what they can based on their income.

Add to that a collaborative, collective decisionmaking process for a local community, and you could have things like a Pagan commons.

Another problem that I've seen, as a teacher of leadership and an observer of group/community process, is the problem of not enough Do-ers. Statistically, most people don't want to be the leader, the want to just be, or Be-ers, as I call them when I teach.

Do-ers are those rarities amongst us--the organizers, the event planners, the crazy people who decide to put together a Pagan Pride or run a ritual, and then we're struggling to have enough volunteers. The challenge is, once again, exacerbated by community size.

In any given local community, there are only going to be so many people with the "event organizing" bug, or leadership bug, as it were...and among those, it seems like 50% of them will have some severe personal issues or mental illness that makes them poorer leaders than they otherwise would be, some with severe enough problems that they actually destroy more community than they build, and send many Pagans running into solitary-land for a decade.

Between the challenges in leading groups and initiatives, and in raising money for those initiatives, it's amazing anything gets done at all.

Typically as a leader, I can ask my Chicagoland Pagans what they want to see til I'm blue in the face but I get little response. Eventually, I have to either organize an event, or not. And I have to decide what to offer, and see if people like it enough to bother showing up. It's throwing spaghetti on the wall. Sometimes, the spaghetti doesn't stick, and I don't make enough to cover venue rental.

Wouldn't it be great if instead, people donated $1, or $5 or $20 or $100 toward the group, and voiced what they'd like to see, and we worked together to build that? That would be great, but it's not what happens. But one can hope.

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