For seven years Temple of the River has been near to my heart. Most days, regardless of work or family obligations, I spent at least a little time thinking about or working for the Temple. As it grew, a lot of that time was spent working with students who stepped up to take over some of the work. It was never an easy project. But it was always worth it because we were building something that would help people.
Temple of the River began as an experiment. It was founded in 2004 as the first temple of the Old Belief Society. Like any nonprofit, the Society has a mission statement: a clear reason why the organization exists, that guides what the organization does.
But I’ve never liked the term “mission statement.” Mission always sounds a little churchy to me, like we’re going to convert kids in India. Lucky for me, there is a better word in Irish: dán.
In modern Irish dán simply means “poem.” But the history of the word is much richer. In the Dictionary of the Irish Language, the definitions for dán run across seven entire columns. In Old Irish the word can mean anything from a divine gift, to a poem or song, to a talent or skill, to a profession, to fate itself. The overarching meaning of this term is “purpose.”
In the teachings of the Old Belief, every individual has a purpose. This is not a destiny stamped on them by a god, but a purpose they choose for themselves: something that fills them with passion, that leads them forward in life.
An individual following their dán feels fulfilled and full of energy and certainty; their faces beam with an inner light. This is their purpose, their art, their poem, the song they are meant to sing. Mine is the Heroic Life. Yours might be music, or cooking. Cultivating that purpose is the highest value of the Old Belief.
In the spirit of that teaching, we did not give the Old Belief Society a “mission statement.” We gave it a dán. It reads:
To teach and promote the Old Belief by building a network of temples regulated by professional, uniformly trained draoíthe priests.
Draoíthe means “druids” and we use that word in a very traditional sense. Many organizations view druids as philosophers, and anyone who fills that role gets the title. However, in early Ireland druids had to meet a number of prerequisites to earn the title:
- Complete an apprenticeship lasting 12 to 20 years (varies by source)
- Memorize literally hundreds of poems and stories
- Perform expertly in one or several specializations, which seem to have included astronomy, divination, sacrifice, magic, medicine, law, filidecht (ritual poetry), and history and genealogy
- Exhibit a broad competence in all of the above specialties
- Learn to live in the wild completely without luxuries, tools or food (it’s unclear whether all druids had to do this, or only a subset)
- Master a variety of spiritual practices, including awareness meditation
It’s important to note that by this definition, literally zero of the practicing Pagans in the world today are druids. It’s a very strict definition.
We figured we could do it.
There’s a lot of talk about how no one really knows what the ancient druids did. But the sources available – for those who take the time to find and read them – give a detailed account of what druidic training was like, what practices they used, what was expected of them, and what made them so valuable to their communities. We dove into those sources, and constructed a druidic apprenticeship program.
Our dán – our purpose – was very specific. It was to train that kind of druid, so they could teach the Old Belief. And the purpose of the Old Belief? Above all else, to help people find their own dáin (that’s the plural). The temples we built had to be dedicated to that purpose. Guided by that song, we got to work.
And we impressed a lot of people.
But this week, seven years after opening its doors, I announced that Temple of the River is closing. What changed? There’s been a lot of speculation. To correct a few of the guesses I’ve heard:
- I haven’t gotten bored. If I simply wanted to leave the Temple, I would have made sure it could continue without me.
- We haven’t lost the Irish cottage building. The cottage is now privately owned and we were offered a very generous lease, which we chose to turn down.
- It’s not a cash flow issue. When we were offered the lease we considered our funding in detail, and we negotiated a low monthly rent. Affording our expenses was not an issue.
- It’s not burnout. Over the last three years my students have done a wonderful job of stepping up and taking over almost all aspects of Temple administration. We’ve also learned not to commit to more events than we can handle.
Instead, the events that led to the closing developed slowly over time. As years went by, more people reached the point in their apprenticeship where they were offered the chance to initiate into draíocht (druidic practices). But they didn’t end up initiating. There were a variety of reasons: in some cases they felt it wasn’t their dán. In other cases, they simply weren’t able to put in the time commitment to pursue initiation – jobs, school, and other obligations made it difficult.
All of these are excellent reasons not to embark on such a challenging path. I have nothing but the greatest respect for my students. But it did leave the Temple with a dawning realization: we were not, in fact, creating draoíthe.
In the absence of a growing body of druids, the other programs we offered had limited impact. Since 2008 the Temple has been dedicated to a strong series of holiday festivals, but that was the limit on what we could effectively offer to the general public. Holiday events are often social occasions; they’re terrific fun, but they don’t help people grapple with their spiritual questions, and they don’t teach practices like meditation or trance. In the Irish tradition, the holidays are a time for craic (pleasant conversation), music, dancing and customs like carving turnips or playing games.
We attempted to launch a free meditation program, but we don’t have the person power to sustain it. Adding more programs would overwork the students and leave them burned out. And with no other priests initiating, the Temple would have to run as a “solo project” of mine forever—hardly a sustainable model. After a series of internal conversations, including one where we discussed the option of alternate Temple structures, there was only one conclusion:
We weren’t fulfilling our dán, and we couldn’t make the changes needed to fix that.
Closing the Temple was a momentous decision for all of us involved in its leadership – and one we didn’t take lightly. It was not a decision I could make myself; I talked with all of my students and each of them agreed. Rather than running an organization that could not fulfill its mission, we chose to shut down.
Many people have told me how sorry they are or said how hard it must be. I deeply appreciate that, but in my heart I feel we’re making a positive choice. Running a temple takes a great deal of funding and many volunteer hours, and it’s unfair to ask those things of people if we’re not delivering on our mission. It is far better to close the organization.
We have done many wonderful things in the last seven years, and for nearly two years we’ve been able to celebrate in a traditional Irish cottage. I know that we’ve touched many lives, and I hope the teachings we’ve given will live on with those who received them. Those accomplishments mean something, and they can be remembered as they were, as shining moments, long after the Temple is closed.
Even after the Old Belief separated from the Pagan umbrella, many Pagans continued to look at Temple of the River as a symbol of what a community can accomplish. That is deeply moving to me. But with ten years of nonprofit management behind me, I hope that our closing is just as much of an example as our opening. Frequently, organizations continue on after they have outlived their purpose. No nonprofit, including churches and temples, should exist if it is not fulfilling its mission. When a nonprofit reaches this point its responsible options are to realign or close.
I wouldn’t dream of telling Pagans how to run their own organizations, but I do hope that by sharing this inside view it can be a learning moment for others. It’s possible to develop great attendance, strong funding, and wonderful community relations. I hope to write about how we did those things. But it’s also vital to have a clear sense of purpose that everyone understands, and to build all of your programs around that purpose. All the work that an organization does should support its mission in some way.
Equally important is communicating that vision to others. I’ve heard a lot of people say that we shouldn’t close our doors, but I haven’t heard that at all from within our own Temple community. The people who attend the Temple have been supportive and understanding (and many thanks to all of you for that). I can’t speak for every person in our community, but the message I’ve gotten from them so far is that they understand.
If you run an organization – or plan to – these two things are perhaps the most important to focus on. Your mission statement is a summary not only of your purpose, but of your values. Are you a community gathering space? A hub for mystical practice? A center of academic learning? Choose your focus carefully and make sure everyone in your community is in agreement with it. Communicate it constantly to others, and regularly review your organization’s programs and activities to make sure they are on-mission. Remember religions are apps, and they work best when purpose-built.
I wish many good things for everyone out there who runs or hopes to run a temple. Your temple may have a very different focus than ours has, and serve a very different purpose. No matter what that purpose is, keep it firmly in mind and make your decisions based on it. If you do that you will always act with integrity.