How Leadership, Organizational Structure
and Agendas Affect Liturgy

(Version 3.1)

an excerpt from

Rites of Worship

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

The following is an excerpt from Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, my book on liturgical design, preparation and performance. Unlike my sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book.


These three interwoven factors constitute the soil in which your decisions about the other factors in liturgical design will sprout or wither, because they deal with the fundamental process of decision-making in a liturgical context. You and the members of your group need to decide who will be making what decisions, with how much authority, based on what your group’s obvious and/or hidden purposes are, before any other decisions — including liturgical ones — can be made.


Does your group have temporary, long-term, or permanent leaders at all? If so, how were they chosen? What were their qualifications? What roles — clergy, bards, therapists, polytheologians, choreographers — do they play? Are these roles predetermined by training and experience, or do they rotate among the members of the group?

Throughout this book I refer to “clergy,” as a short term for the people most likely to be leading the creation, preparation, and performance of liturgies. Obviously, I believe that the role of clergy is an important one, and that leadership, if based on genuine competence, is A Good Idea. Within the Neopagan community, however, and throughout the entire spectrum of liberal religions, the whole “question” of clergy is a hot one.

Among the Indo-Europeans, most cultures believed that anyone could contact the Gods and Goddesses or do simple folk magic, but that certain sorts of religious activities, especially those that involved large numbers of people or particularly difficult magic, required the presence of specialists (the druids, flamens, brahmans, etc.). During the rise of Christianity, the general population was discouraged from doing any sort of religious activities at all, other than private prayer and meditation, without the direction and approval of a priest. This eventually led to Martin Luther’s rebellion and his formulation of the doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers.”

Luther thought of it as a correlate of the doctrines of justification by faith alone and of the liberty of the Christian believer. Like other Protestant affirmations, this one has a positive and a negative meaning. Positively, it means that just as every Christian has an inner liberty of conscience that makes him a “lord over all,” so, too, every Christian is a priest or “servant of all.” By this Luther meant not simply that every man has his own direct access to Christ but that all Christians are “worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another the things of God.” Negatively, this means not only a rejection of the medieval tradition that practically identified priesthood with the administration of the sacraments but also constitutes an attack on the conception of priesthood as constituting a special class in the eyes of God with a special power and a higher morality. Luther insisted that the public ministry was simply a matter of practical function or vocation. It followed that it was not a higher or more religious form of life with a special standing in God’s eyes. The Anabaptists, that other part of the Reformation too frequently forgotten, took the phrase to mean the complete abolishment of any functional distinction between clergy and laity. No believer was believed to have any status or function not fully shared by all. (Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, Macmillan, 1964)

These concepts have saturated Western culture for the last four hundred years, affecting both liberal and conservative Protestants. When Gerald Gardner was creating what was to become Neopagan Witchcraft in the 1950’s, he was still Mesopagan enough that he took over large parts of this Protestant Christian doctrine and enshrined it into Wiccan duotheology and liturgy. In Gardner’s case, the concept became what we could call “the priest/esshood of all believers,” and every Wiccan was named “Priestess and Witch” or “Priest and Witch” at their first initiation into the faith.

Members of modern liberal religions, with their scientistic biases against magic, can be forgiven for clinging to Luther’s doctrines. But Gardner really should have known better. As a practicing ceremonial magician and amateur anthropologist, he was fully aware that magic is an art and a science that requires both inborn talent and arduous training, and that priest/esshood requires (among many other things) real skill in magic — making it something that not everyone is going to be equally good at as a career. Yet, rather than go back to the earlier Paleopagan attitudes about clergy, he chose to perpetuate the Protestant ones, perhaps as yet another tactic to make his new religion of Pagan Witchcraft grow as quickly as possible.

To this very day, Neopagan groups tend to be ambivalent about having clergy. Most have some sort of priests and/or priestesses, yet the degree of respect and authority granted to them varies widely. Those groups with radical political and/or feminist agendas (see below) often refuse to label anyone as clergy, having completely accepted the patriarchal Anabaptist doctrine about the nondistinction between clergy and laity. A given group’s attitude about leadership in general and clergy in particular is often a product of its attitudes about hierarchy and egalitarianism, as reflected in the internal structure of the group.

Organizational Structure

Every intentional group of people — a softball team, a sewing circle, a dental office, or a coven of Witches — has some sort of organizational structure, obvious or invisible, to regulate and guide their power relationships. In her writings, Starhawk has clearly articulated a philosophy of different types of power, and the institutions and organizations that support them: power that is exercised “over” other people is Evil, power that is exercised “with” others is Good, and power that comes from “within” each person is Best. We’ll take a look at her ideas about these concepts later in this book (see the ethics discussion), for now, it’s enough to note that her writings, which have been widely influential in the Neopagan, feminist, and women’s spirituality movements, show a clear bias against heirarchy and in favor of egalitarianism. Yet what do these terms really mean?

“Hierarchy” originally refered to “sacred rule” — a situation where the clergy made all decisions. Today it usually means any religious, political, social, and economic system where power is exercised by a minority, organized into levels of rank, with a few people near the top making the most important decisions. Examples would include any of the forty-plus Catholic Churches, most business corporations, a surgical team, most theatrical production companies, any army or navy, etc. The theory behind hierarchy is that the individuals with the most knowledge and experience should have the most power and need it in order to function effectively. The practice is that people in power are often reluctant to retire, even when better-qualified replacements are available, and they frequently object to sharing even a small portion of their power and prestige. Of course, they are in any event all fallible mortals, even if they decide to declare themselves “infallible” and excommunicate or kill all those who disagree.

“Egalitarianism” (“equal-ism”) was not a particularly positive word until the French Revolution. The theory, based intellectually on Luther’s idea (just discussed) and emotionally on the revolt against the corrupt French nobility, was that nobody was better than anybody else in matters that really counted — that is, everybody had a soul and a nobleman’s wasn’t any more valuable than that of a peasant (as long as they were both white, male, and Christian). Eventually the egalitarian theory expanded to include most human beings, and birthed the idea that people of good will could sit down together and pool their knowledge to make wise decisions. In practice, the idea that everyone in a group is equally qualified to make complex decisions, or that such decisions are always made best by a majority vote, has often led to disaster.

How do these ideas apply to liturgy? In some groups, the decisions about ceremonial matters are made by the person(s) believed (correctly or not) to be most knowledgeble about ritual — these people usually get called by some sort of clergy title. In other groups, all members discuss the issues and vote their preferences, blithely assuming that the majority opinion will be the correct one. Such groups may or may not have people named as clergy. In still others, conversation continues until a consensus has been reached (meaning until every single person says that he or she agrees with the others). Groups of this last sort may not have people who are considered to be clergy at all, and may not recognize any special knowledge or skill that entitles anyone’s opinions to be considered more important than those of the others in the group (although covert leadership almost always develops).

Each of these approaches to decision-making has strengths and weaknesses. Trained clergy usually do know enough about liturgy to supervise its creation and performance quickly and effectively; democratic majorities can at least balance out the desires of a congregation with the opinions of clergy; consensus opinion-forming does insure that no one feels left out of the decision-making process and that everyone feels empowered by having her/his opinion valued. Yet, as we all know, elites can easily become tyrannical, democratic majorities are frequently wrong about matters of fact and art, and the consensus process usually results in rule by the lowest common denominator — not to mention taking forever to achieve.

In each case, the quality of your decision-making depends upon the quality of your people: are they intelligent, well-educated, knowledgeble about ritual, and sensitive to the psychological nuances of group interaction? If so, any of these approaches will work. But if your people are not all such paragons, you may be in for trouble.

Groups that are hierarchical tend to emphasize results over process — as long as the ceremony, for example, turns out “well” (however the group defines that), the fact that some members might have gotten their feelings hurt is considered trivial. Consensus groups usually emphasize process over results — one consensus tradition of Wicca proudly claims, “Process is our most important product!” Indeed, with some such groups, process turns out to be the only significant product.

My personal, professional biases are towards a combination of the hierarchial and consensus approaches. I believe that every religious group should have a temporary or permanent ritual leader, who should be acknowledged as such, and who should be educated and competent at designing, preparing, and performing liturgies. She/he should spend enough time talking to the rest of the group to enable her/him to have a clear idea of their wants and needs, and should pay attention to the group dynamics involved. Then she/he should be allowed to make the relevant decisions, alone or with assistants, until such a time as the group decides that she/he is no longer producing powerful, effective, and satisfying liturgies of the sort that the group desires. Then a new ritual leader should be chosen, preferably by consensus (otherwise the new leader will have trouble getting everyone to cooperate psychically during ceremonies).

The ritual leader of a group does not have to be the philosophical, political, or emotional leader of a group, but she/he does need to have the members of the group trust her/him. Just as brilliant works of art are seldom created by committee, so too, magnificent liturgies are rarely the product of second-guessing your chief liturgist. Instead, “Give them enough rope…” and see if they produce macrame.


Even once you think you’ve settled the issues of leadership and group structure, you’ve got to make explicit all of your group’s agendas — both overt and covert. Firstly, because those agendas may force you to modify your decisions about leadership and structure, and secondly, because your agendas will determine just how important effective liturgy really is to your group. “Overt agendas” are the official reasons why your group has gotten together, and can be spiritual, political, ecological, social/interpersonal, artistic, theraputic/theurgic, healing, and/or recreational. “Covert agendas” are usually individual motivations that you may not want the general public, or even your fellow group members, to know about. They usually involve dysfunctional motives, such as an urge to be the constant center of attention, a need to rebel against authority figures, a desire to curse your enemies, wanting to fix all the world’s ills, or an addiction to ritual energies (I’m still waiting for someone to start a “Mana Anonymous” movement).

If your group’s overt agenda is a radical political one, for example, you may well decide to do without heirarchy and have only temporary leaders, if any, regardless of the impact this may have on the quality of your ceremonies. If it’s artistic, you may decide to have the best artist in the group be the leader on a fairly permanent basis, and give her/him strong authority to run the show. A group that is mostly interested in creating a schmoozy family feeling, or in having a good time, is likely to be less worried about excellance in liturgy than one whose primary agenda is to heal physical and emotional ailments.

Covert agendas are likely to have negative effects unless they are brought out and discussed in the group. If your group has an overt agenda that requires a strong leader and lots of heirarchy, while several of the members have covert agendas to resist authority figures and structures, or vice versa, you’re in trouble. You’re not only setting yourself up for a difficult time doing satisfying liturgy, you’re also setting the stage for an eventual blowup of the group.

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. Unlike his other sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book. Click here to buy it from

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