So you want to start a church?

So you want to start a church? July 30, 2018
(c) 2018 Sam Wagar The little Anglican church that my family attended. Like many rural churches, it closed down recently.

For many years I have followed a vision of a Wiccan movement centred on legal church bodies, that consciously seek out interested people and engage them in their activities, that serve the Gods and the community with no apologies for their beliefs and practices. The particular spiritual insights of Wicca and the kinds of actions and responsibilities assumed by us are valid and worthwhile completely regardless of whether they are like or unlike those of some other religion, and there is no need to justify them in the terms of any other religion.

I won’t diss institutions, as a founding member and Priest of a small church, but the vitality of a religion (or any other social structure) comes from the movement surrounding the institutions. When a back and forth exchange happens between the various institutions and the movement surrounding and sustaining them, both are healthy, when one or the other comes to be too dominant, both falter. Those involved in institutions tend to believe they own the religion or the movement, while those principally involved in the amorphous movement don’t see the value of social capital stored in long-lasting impersonal structures.

In the recent past there has been a great emphasis on the role of solitary practitioners of Wicca and on informal and “non-hierarchic” community groups as the main form of the movement. For a variety of reasons, covens are rare, and only a minority of Wiccan-identified Pagans belong to one. The neo-Pagan folk culture centred on open community rituals and on the music and art that has been produced for them is vibrant and lively. In the areas where a large neo-Pagan movement exists people only loosely connected can readily come together in community celebrations (if they can find them).

The weaknesses in this approach don’t appear until general foundation work is exhausted and people and groups want to do something more specific. Most groups are unwilling to change their structure when they change their task, so when people tire of lowest-common denominator, groups collapse. People in the movement have thoroughly accepted the idea of do-it-yourself without realizing its limits. Informal ritual and loose community events are used for purposes for which they are inadequate from belief that no other means could possibly be anything but oppressive. Informal groups aren’t very good for getting deeper into the spirit, developing theology and a way of life based on religion, nor nourishing leadership.

(c) 2018 Sam Wagar. A Backyard wedding.


If our religious movement is to move beyond an elementary stage, it will have to disabuse itself of its prejudices about organization and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. By rejecting them out of hand because they are sometimes misused we deny ourselves necessary tools for further development.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a community group and to participate in its activities the authority must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can only happen if they are formalised, and leadership must be transparent both in their training and in their responsibility to the group they lead. And groups must be public. Some public and semi-public groups led by Wiccan clergy, often involved in covens, have existed since at least the early 1970s, when Chicago’s Pagan Way group was founded to “create a Pagan society” and “to build our temples in the towns…”

Developing methods of Temple organization and leadership growth from a Wiccan foundation must include adapting ideas from other sources, filtered through our theology, needs and sensibility. Frankly, the methods that we have used (to the extent that any word as systematic as “method” is appropriate) have been ineffective.

(c) 2018 Sam Wagar. My home temple’s altar.

Those Temples which exist in the Wiccan communities (Temples meaning bodies whose rites and services are available to the general public), have principally functioned as Outer Court student groups and recruitment pools of covens or as private projects of individuals. They do not necessarily reflect the needs or priorities of the communities that they serve because they are not rooted there, nor formally responsible to them nor even to the people who participate in and support their activities financially or with their labour.  Leadership is frequently inconsistent in training, with great gaping holes in skills, inadequate theological and organizational understanding, chosen by friendship or affiliation to the founders of the project instead of by rational spiritual and leadership criteria.

This hobbyist model is limited by the enthusiasm and resources of the group founders. Groups do not plan to transition to new leaders when the interest of the founder flags so mentorship is ad-hoc and inconsistent. Long range planning is absent, planning and record keeping of any sort is minimal. Temples are run as hobbies, not as serious religious bodies and organizations. They are not a good foundation to a religious movement or community. “Teachers” we don’t need; clergy and congregations we very definitely do. And good intentions, which the great majority of New Age ‘teachers’ and Wiccan spiritual hobbyists possess, and some genuine charisma and spiritual insight, are not enough, by themselves, to create healthy and effective clergy and viable congregations. Some organizational thought and planning are needed for that.

(c) 2018 Sam Wagar. Stained glass at the Alberta Legislature.

That the great majority of Wiccans do not worship in groups and that very few of them have much connection to a religious community demonstrates the ineffectuality of these organizational and leadership choices in building our religion. The dodge of saying that a religion can be, or even should be, built on the basis of unconnected “solitaries” whose only community is through the books they read and spiritual products that they consume will not be entertained here – the abdication of responsibility for leadership by Pagan and Wiccan Priestesses and Priests is what really is masked by that dodge.

The Gods deserve more than “I Read A Book” instant Priestesses who, although they may be sincere, simply don’t know what they’re doing or where to go to find out how to do it better. These people, and the solitary would-be-Wiccans, also deserve the opportunity to develop their religious understanding and to deepen their connection if they wish to.

(c) 2018 Sam Wagar. A goth wedding altar.

The established communities of Pagans and Wiccans are full of factions and would-be leaders, ancient and frozen feuds, and distinctions based on personality conflicts rather than genuine theological or organizational differences. These factions are also audience and client cults centred on services provided by charismatic individuals, fundamentally flawed by New Age dislike of rigor and by puerile anti-authoritarianism. It is important that any serious Temple movement principally look outside of the established Pagan communities for potential leaders and members, and also consider carefully the experiences and insights of other religions and their organizations – not everything can or should be adopted holus-bolus or rejected out-of-hand, but church-planting is the same thing as Temple forming and clergy fulfill similar roles in most religions and so on.

For the next few weeks, I am going to write about how I founded a legal church that now has temples in three Canadian provinces, and which is controlled by the membership, not by me. I’m interested in passing along some nuts and bolts and suggesting some reading material as well. Legalities differ from place to place but key points of organization remain the same.

Making A Temple To Last (and grow)

About Samuel Wagar
I've been doing this Witch thing for a long time (since 1982) but I'm still having fun. Now that I'm an old fart, my focus has switched from doing a lot of things to mentoring, teaching, and writing. I'm a chaplain at University of Alberta, in charge of the Congregationalist Wiccan Assembly of Alberta's clergy training program, a doctoral candidate in theology, and the dean of the baby Edmonton Wiccan Seminary. You can read more about the author here.
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  • kenofken

    This is another rehash of an argument which says we “have to” have clergy and congregations and to “just get over” our objections to them in order to be a “real” religion. It is an argument raised almost exclusively by Wiccan clergy who feel crave the status of their Christian counterparts on local interfaith councils. The other 99%+ of us aren’t having it, at all. The overwhelming majority of us have no desire to re-create “church” in any form nor to recreate another barrier or intermediary between us and the gods. We are not lost, nor spiritually deficient nor in need of “shepherds”. For the minority who do want congregational churches, best of luck, but you’ll never find me darkening your door.

  • Sam Wagar

    Thank you. I’m pretty sure that we would not be a good fit, and I am pleased that you wouldn’t make yourself miserable by visiting our temples.

    According to research by Gwendolyn Reese, published in “The Pomegranate” (16.2 – 2014, pp 150-177) issues that are connected to the lack of organized temple groups are a concern for a majority of Pagans – lack of groups(65%), access to workshops (63%), lack of upper level educational resources (59%), access to qualified clergy and leaders (58%), access to chaplaincy (52%). Sizeable minorities felt the lack of training (48%), interfaith work (46%), access to ritual space (42%), leader burnout (41%), inadequate training for pastoral and counselling responsibilities (36%), inadequate theological understanding of leaders (31%), inadequate training for ritual leadership (29%). Reese’ further article in 2017, also in “The Pomegranate” (19.1, pp 25-46) dealt in depth with leaders and clergy – both pieces used a large scale survey of American Pagans (3318 people). So, I’ll have to say that quite a few Pagans find value in the services of temple groups.

  • Ross Harty

    @Kenofken, sadly the reality of the current world, is that there are situations where national organizations need a united national body that they can consult with. Chaplainacy in the Canadian Armed Forces, Corrections Canada, and the R.C.M.P all are looking for guidelines that can be applied on a national scale, and ‘Qualified Persons of Representation’ of each religion that desire acknowledgement, and as you pointed out status as a ‘real’ recognized religion. Even on a smaller provincial level, most provinces in Canada look for provincial corporate bodies to decide who can be a marriage officiant in a religious context. These bodies are less about you or bossing you around, and more about giving context to hospitals, schools, & other public service institutions who have growing numbers of pagan employees or wards. These corporations need guidelines and a framework to process and deliver a fairly consistent service. I still appreciate the variety of smaller local religious organisations, but without these larger bodies pagans are being denied the ability to practice. I know first hand. I am a chaplain.