Building a Better Paganism

I do not have biological children. I have a stepdaughter I adore and would fight a dragon for, but becoming a parent in the fullest sense of the word has never been of interest to me. What I find a little odd about that is the juxtaposition of not having or desiring kids but being deeply invested in shaping the Paganism to come. Much of what I do as Pagan clergy involves laying groundwork: establishing liturgy, building community, breaking harmful patterns, and beginning the process of healing broken places. I know for a fact that some of the metaphorical seeds I plant now will not flower or bear fruit until well after I have joined the ancestors. 

I still listen to a lot of hard rock and metal (if you’re just connecting with me now, you should probably know that I was in a pretty popular metal band in my 20s and early 30s) and I find the refrain from Art of Dying’s “Die Trying” plays in my head with some regularity: “If it takes forever/I will die trying.” I know that’s kinda dark, but it’s where I live. I know that the Paganism I’m dreaming of and trying to create will most likely not appear in my lifetime. But I love this world enough that I’m perfectly content to keep setting the stones on the path until my body won’t carry me anymore. It’s worthy work. 

When big cataclysms happen, one of ways we can respond is to take the explosion as an opportunity to course correct. We can evaluate where we are and where we want to be, and what needs to shift in order to get there. One of my favorite quotes from Rev. Carl Gregg, the minister of my UU congregation, is “The system that you are in right now is perfectly designed to get the results that you are getting.” 

The ripples from the big explosion in the Heathen world are still with us, and I find myself coming back to thoughts around systems and organizations. Where are we now? Where do we want to be? What system contributed to this problem? What can we change in the system in order to get different results? 

Any group of five Pagans will have six different answers to the questions above and if there are any Heathens in the group, at least two arguments will have broken out while trying to answer them. There are no universal answers here, largely because the Paganism we long to see varies from person to person. I can only tell you what I want to build, what I think needs to change in our culture in order to get there, and what I’m doing in my home community to build the Paganism to come. 

I want an inclusive Paganism. I want a Paganism where my beautiful queer friends feel immediately welcome and safe and ARE welcome and safe. I want a Paganism where my beautiful brown and black friends feel immediately welcome and safe and ARE welcome and safe. I want a Paganism where my beautiful parent friends and their kids immediately feel welcome and safe and ARE welcome and safe. I want a Paganism where my beautiful friends with disabilities feel immediately welcome and safe and ARE welcome and safe. 

To build a truly inclusive Paganism, we’re going to need to destroy some sacred cows and let a few others out to pasture. Paganism as we know it – the large collection of practices and paths lumped under the “they seem like goddamn hippies to us” banner – includes patterns, practices, and structures that are immediately off-putting for people who aren’t straight cisgender white able-bodied adults. Our intentions could be the best in the world but the impact of the systems in place give us the results we’re getting. We can intend to diversify all we want, but if we don’t update our systems to match our intentions, homogeneity will remain the result. We will continue to be a religion that is not welcoming to the very people who need us the most. 

We need transparent power structures. Any group of people working together involves an organization and distribution of power. We can dislike that all we want, but this is simply how group dynamics work. If your group wants to accomplish anything more than an endless email thread, there will be a way decision-making and implementation of plans happen. 

Abusers of all stripes and those who enable them thrive in structures that either deliberately include secrecy or have poor communication methods within the power structure. Transparency doesn’t mean the Mystery gets corrupted. It just means the logistics and people-management of a group becomes more resilient to predators and those who make excuses for them. We need to understand that the sacred nature of what we do and the pragmatic matter of how we manage our community are separate categories. 

Here’s what my own organization is trying: 

  • Everyone in the volunteer group – the folks who do the work of making rituals, festivals, gatherings, and events happen – has full access to all documents in our shared Drive. Any one of that 30+ group of people can read notes, meeting minutes from the board, ritual plans, event post-mortems, and more. 
  • Multiple board members are cc’d on all communication that comes through our official channels: email, the social media pages, and more. Anything that impacts the entire organization, whether good or bad, goes to the full board. 
  • Although board members do check in with each other, all of us are able to act to address issues that come up, including escalating those issues above the president (me) and straight to the minister of our congregation. (Relatedly, I can be removed from office easily if I become tyrannical or unethical.)
  • Since we are a public-serving group, we offer regular classes that are introductions to the organization, and we cover how we govern and organize in those classes. We’re clear and communicative about how decisions are made, and who the people are who are making them. 
  • There are twice-yearly full-volunteer-corps all-day retreats. At those retreats, we evaluate where we are, figure out what that means in relationship to our long-term goals (we have a 2028 vision we’re aiming for), make plans, do skill building exercises, and more.

We need better training for our clergy. The overwhelming majority of Pagan groups end up with one or a few central priests and organizers. These folks hold the culture of the group in question and are also generally the tie-breakers and thought leaders in the organization. Whether they want to call themselves the word or not, these folks are clergy. And clergy need real support and some specific training for the role. 

Most paths within Paganism are fantastic on the learning front when it comes to magical and spiritual techniques. The thing is, my own experience of clergy work is that it is solidly 50% people management of various sorts. Our clergy need to be trained in communication skills, conflict resolution, de-escalation, basic physical and mental health first-aid, and red flag behavior recognition. And, at the very minimum, our clergy and any folks who offer programming for children need to be background checked (although it’s important to remember that background checking can miss important things and isn’t enough by itself). And, we need to find a way to make training accessible for our clergy. Predators thrive when the leadership of a Pagan organization (its clergy) are under-supported and lack the skills or discernment to address concerns when they arise. 

Here’s what my own organization is trying: 

  • More than one member of the board is a graduate of or is currently enrolled in the Commissioned Lay Ministry Program of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The training in the CLM program includes Spiritual Companioning and communication skills including conflict resolution. Unfortunately, this path is not open to all Pagans or even all UU Pagans – it’s currently a regional program. I really wish it were more widely available. 
  • More than one member of the board is trained in mental and physical health first-aid. The entire volunteer corps is informed when a new mental health first aid course is available locally and as many of us as possible try to take it and stay up-to-date on our certification. This is also true of Pastoral Care trainings that happen locally or online. The more of us with strong communication skills and the ability to respond to a crisis in a constructive way, the better. 
  • More than one member of the board is in a field that includes co-creative problem solving. The overwhelming majority of our offerings are collaborative, so board members who have existing skills in bringing people together and team-building are incredibly valuable.
  • Our board includes a therapist, a minister with a Masters of Divinity, and a couple folks who own their own businesses. The combination of professional and spiritual skill sets are important to us. 

We need to pull the heteronormativity out. The overwhelming majority of Pagan paths are rooted in a heteronormative worldview. Straight relationships between cisgender men and women are the baseline for what is considered “normal,” and in groups of people, the norm is perceived as what is “correct.” This highlighting of a limited set of gender, orientation, and relationship forms spills into all sorts of areas of magic and ritual where the social construct of gender is misapplied to actions, beings, and objects that are not inherently gendered (gender meaning the social construct, not the cellular indicator of sex – rosemary plants have a sex, but not a gender). We have historically placed energy, beings, actions, and more into “masculine” and “feminine” categories, and it needs to stop. We need to look at our liturgy and expand it past a false binary. 

Here’s what my own organization is trying: 

  • We’re about five years into using liturgy that does not contain gender essentialism in any form. In rituals that honor deities, specific deities are honored (rather than fuzzy gendered archetypes like “the goddess” or “the god”). Our attendance has only grown. 
  • We do not offer gender discriminatory programming of any kind. Either everyone can attend everything, or it doesn’t run. 
  • We platform queer voices and perspectives by encouraging our own queer-identified community members to step into leadership and teaching roles and by bringing in queer-identified teachers and guides to offer programming. 
  • We do not use gender essentialist language or constructs like the largely misused and misapplied “Maiden Mother Crone” concept in our offerings. We know that to do so can cause harm to the many members of our community who occupy intersectional points outside the binary. 

We need to dismantle the white supremacy embedded in our systems. “White supremacy can be defined as the institutionalization of whiteness and white privilege and the historical, social, political and economic systems and structures that contribute to its continued dominance and subordination (Giroux & McLaren, 1994).” The overwhelming majority of Pagan groups center a white historical narrative – we focus on the traditions of predominantly-white pre-Christian European cultures, and we usually present a narrow historical perspective. Along with that, we have a long and problematic history with cultural appropriation: taking spiritual and magical techniques and practices from marginalized and oppressed cultures and adopting them as our own without credit or recompense given. This includes practices that have been specifically labeled as closed by contemporary members of those cultures. We must find ways to decolonize our magic. 

Here’s what my own organization is trying: 

  • We begin each ritual with a land acknowledgement and 50% of all donations go to our local Piscataway-Conoy tribe. We feel that acknowledgement without action is just lip service. 
  • We prioritize teachers and leaders of color in all our offerings. This includes our annual Frederick Pagan Pride Day, a large Pride that draws upwards of 700 people every year.
  • Multiple members of the board and the volunteer corps have been through anti-racism training like the Unitarian Universalist program “Beloved Conversations.” Even more members of the community have read and are applying the knowledge from anti-racist books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.” 
  • We are careful to credit where traditions come from if they are used, and we do not use closed traditions at all (like purifying with smoldering white sage). We speak openly about cultural appropriation with our community through our classes and other offerings in order to increase awareness and inspire changed behavior. 

We need to pull the ableism out. Our community is diverse of body and mind, and we need to meet that diversity with support. Yes, many of us love the “walk a quarter mile to a mystical circle in the woods under a full moon” idea. It’s super aesthetic, I grant you. Do you know who it shuts out? Everyone who’s unsteady on their feet, uses a walking aid, or wrestles fatigue or illness. It shuts out everyone whose vision or night vision is poor. It shuts out everyone whose trauma makes walking in the woods with a bunch of people they don’t know very well a terrifying experience. It shuts out people whose neurodiversity requires more direct communication in order to feel safe. It shuts out a LOT of us. 

Here’s what my own organization is trying: 

  • All High Holiday and large rituals occur in flat, wheelchair accessible (and wheelchair friendly) spaces.
  • All rituals include seating for everyone. Our current layout is a large double ring of chairs marking the boundary of our ritual space. 
  • Ritual leadership and board members model being seated as people arrive for our ceremonies. It’s important to remember that humans are natural mimics. If the ritual team is standing, participants will stand whether there are seats present or not, often to the detriment of their health. 
  • Rituals that include any element of mystery – a reveal or surprise of some sort – also include trauma-informed handouts that participants can choose to read or not as needed. 
  • All rituals include ways to connect for different bodies. A ritual that includes dancing around a center fire also includes shakers and rattles for those who are seated to use to raise energy. 
  • All rituals include a sheltered space a distance from the ritual for those who are experiencing sensory overload. From that space, participants can still see and hear the ritual, but are able to process in a less stimulating environment. 

I know that’s a lot to take in. My own group has had over a decade to experiment and to try different policies and practices in an attempt to meet the changing face and culture of Paganism. We benefit from being a UU Pagan group with a building and grounds to work with, an incredible advantage in this religion. Are we perfect? HEL no. There’s still so much more to do – we need deaf translators, we’re still a good 80% white, we haven’t figured out how to manage a big hill on the grounds that impacts accessibility for Frederick Pagan Pride Day, and so many more issues large and small. 

But we are trying. 

We are learning. 

We are building the Paganism to come. 

So tell me, what is your vision for the future of Paganism? What are your groups and organizations doing to manifest it? Hit me up in the comments. You never know when your idea is exactly what another witch needs to read. 

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