TommyElf has a thought-provoking podcast where, motivated by the passing of Isaac Bonewits, he discusses the future of Pagan leadership. He has some very relevant thoughts and I won’t attempt to summarize them so much as use them as a jumping-off point for my own ideas about what we have, what we need, and where we’re likely to go.
My definition of a leader is someone who has a vision of the future and who articulates that vision to others. The future in question can be very short-term and limited (“this is what we’ll experience when we do this Full Moon ritual next Friday”) or very long-term and broad based (“this is what the Pagan community can be in ten years”). A good leader doesn’t just say “follow me,” he or she says “follow me to this place via this route.” The days when someone could say “I am the great and mighty high priest” and expect blind obedience are gone – if they ever existed.
In a religious context the term “leader” can refer to many roles.
Teacher. Teachers are people who prepare and present material to students, and who work with them to insure they learn it. Books and websites are helpful, but they aren’t a substitute for a live person who can answer live questions and check for comprehension. As one cliché says, you can’t teach what you don’t know – teaching requires a thorough understanding of the material to be taught. That leads to another cliché which says you never learn anything so well as when you teach it – when you delve deeply into the material to prepare your lessons.
Counselor. A religious journey is a journey of personal transformation. Along the path people will encounter challenges and difficulties ranging from experiences common to all humans to experiences unique to one individual soul. When people have difficulties, they need help and frequently turn to their religious leaders. Sometimes a leader can offer helpful suggestions or words of comfort, but sometimes all you can do is to be present with a person and let them know that while they are suffering, they aren’t suffering alone. This is, to borrow a Christian term, pastoral care. It’s also being a friend.
Organizer/Facilitator. We can have the very best thoughts and practices on an individual level, but if we want to be a community and accomplish large goals, someone has to herd the cats. This is the very mundane but very necessary work of figuring out what needs to be done, who’s going to do it, and making sure it all gets done. These are the visible leaders that seem to have targets on their backs – they depend on the commitments and cooperation of others, and if those folks don’t come through, the organizer is left exposed. But without them, our community will cease to exist.
Ritualist. Anyone can – and should – perform their own daily and seasonal devotional rituals. But developing and presenting large group celebrations, worship services, magical workings, and rites of passage requires a special set of skills and experiences. This has been an interest of mine for longer than I’ve been a Pagan, and I’ve written about some of the keys to good rituals in the past. A good ritualist is like a good chef – she knows how to choose, mix and blend a variety of ingredients to create a meaningful and effective dish – or ritual.
Bard. The film industry likes to call what they do “magic.” They’re right, but their real magic isn’t their jaw-dropping illusions – it’s the same magic of storytelling our ancestors first practiced around the campfire thousands of years ago. A teacher can reach dozens of students with his lessons – a singer can reach thousands with her songs. How many people now have better thoughts about pantheism and reverence for nature because of Avatar? On a local level, remember that any religion is organized around its myths, and our bards are the keepers and tellers of our myths.
Theologian. Much of the work of a religious community is here and now. But as folks begin to contemplate the Big Questions of Life, they look to their leaders to offer possible answers and to provide a framework as they search for their own answers. Are the gods and goddesses of our ancestors individual beings or aspects of one God/dess? Both? Neither? This is one of many questions that are ultimately unanswerable but that we humans can’t stop asking – we need theologians to help us develop meaningful answers. Additionally, we live in a culture where religion is presumed to be about what you believe. We need theologians to help us articulate reasonable, helpful, and mature beliefs both within our community and to outsiders.
Mystic. Mystics are those who directly experience the wonder and awe we call by many names including Goddess and God. That’s all of us at one time or another, even those who don’t attach any ultimate significance to the events. People we call mystics actively seek out these experiences through meditation, trance work, and other dedicated spiritual practices. Many of them are more solitary practitioners than leaders, but I’ve included mystics in this list because it is from their experiences that many of our ideas about the nature of the Universe and our visions for the future of our world originate.
There are other activities that leaders perform and some of them could be considered leadership roles – this isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list. There is some overlap among the roles and most leaders fill more than one of them, but it is rare to find one person who excels in multiple roles, much less all of them. Those of us who are UUs know our congregations expect our ministers to be all this and more. But while a seminary-educated minister should know a little about all of this, not even our M.Div and D.Min friends are experts at all of it.
This is why Pagans need religious organizations – they provide a structure where folks with different skills and interests can work together to build, maintain, and grow a movement in a tradition that is meaningful, coherent, and consistent. What those religious organizations should look like and how they should be structured will be covered in a future post.