Defining Pagan Leadership

(Version 2.1)

Copyright © 1997, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

I first sent this to an emailing list a few years ago, with intent to spark discussion. Some recent comments I’ve read on several other lists and a few websites have prompted me to post this here, for the same reason. I will update this to discuss the events before, during and after the March 2001 “Pagan Summit,” Real Soon Now.

I am so tired of people in our community calling themselves “leaders” when they have a “following” of six or ten people at most, or who claim to be the “Queens” or “Kings” of imaginary Ancient Secret Traditions, the existence of which they can’t, naturally, provide any evidence to support (or it wouldn’t be a secret anymore). Apparently, if someone has a Polish or Swiss last name, and they write a book about Polish or Swiss Witchcraft, we are expected to swallow their claims of expertise and authority, and acclaim them as Pagan leaders.

Granted, I’m a curmudgeon, but I’d like to see the term “Pagan leader” limited to people (a) over 35 with (b) at least ten years of leadership involving (c) publically countable heads in the 100+ numbers, and (d) a track record of sane, sensible and successful public relations and educational work with the general public.

In other words, experience (not just interest) in leading (not just bossing) Neopagans, over a long enough period of time to allow others to judge their competance and to develop credibility within the community and with the secular media. Such leadership might be manifested through founding long-lasting organizations or institutions, writing books that are accepted as truly influential in a positive manner by large portions of the community, running major websites or print periodicals with wide distribution, creating networking systems that link large numbers of other leaders, etc. In other words, those we call “leaders” should be the makers, shapers, and transmitters of opinions and arguments that move our community forward towards healthy esoteric and exoteric growth, while showing the personal courage and stamina to face up to both internal and external opposition.

Pagan leadership can be seen as local, regional, national, or global — but as the arena grows, so should the standards by which we judge the experience, competetance and credibility necessary to be considered a leader.

Would I make an exception for a kid who has organized and led a national or regional “Teen Pagans” or “College Pagans” group, or a wildly popular website visited regularly by hundreds of young Pagans? Probably, if the only missing factors were age and years of activity.

But just having taken ritual roles and taught a few classes? My students do that in their first years of study — but they don’t become “leaders” by doing so. Running a coven of eight people for twenty years doesn’t make one a leader either — just the big frog in a tiny pond. Hosting a regular online Pagan chat probably doesn't count as leadership, unless there are scores of regular participants over a period of several years. (Eventually, we’re going to have to figure out ways to judge the “territorial size” of online events and resources, so as to distinguish between tiny “local” events with few participants, larger “regional” ones with many more participants, etc.) Publishing a book or two doesn’t make the author a leader, says this writer, for we all know thoroughly wretched, ignorant, plagiarized, and/or utterly forgettable books that have been published by Pagans. Okay, so maybe it could make one a bad leader!

I’ve often said that most of the best and worst things about American Neopagans have to do with us being Americans first and Neopagans second. The hyper-egalitarianism that plagues American Neopaganism is rooted in our national ambivalence towards “nobility” — Americans as a whole hated King George III but loved Princess Diana, despise artists and composers (unless they make lots of money) but envy corporate pirates, sneer at famous intellectuals and praise famous football players.

This ambivalence towards nobility/superiority/leadership combined in our overlapping Pagan, Feminist, LesBiGayTransexual, and other culturally marginalized communities, in the 60’s and 70’s with counterculture dogmas about the superiority of the peasantry or workers over all other parts of society. Our knowledge of the evil actions of secular and religious dictators, filtered through the Christian Dualism that saturates Western culture, has led (you should pardon the expression) all too many (of even the smartest of us) to the seductive conclusion, that if the tyranny of the minority is absolutely wrong then the tryanny of the majority must be absolutely right.

I believe that true “leadership” in a religious community is the result of particular individuals, with genuine talents, training, and experience, following an authentic vocation in answer to a real calling from a Divinity, for enough years to develop both spiritual depth and an instinct for making ever-improving decisions — in other words, “wisdom.” Leadership is not something you can buy, steal, demand or develop overnight. It takes time and sacrifice — another concept people in our communities are nervous about discussing — and all too often the first items sacrificed must be our pride, our families, and whatever hopes we may have had for privacy, dignity, and a good name.

We have a few score people like that in the Neopagan community and more who are trying to grow into that level of leadership. But our community also has an enormous number of poseurs, frauds, politically correct ideologues, and egotists calling themselves “leaders” and expecting to be treated as such immediately upon their physical or electronic arrival.

I would strongly prefer that we limit the use of the term “Pagan leader” to people who are already functioning as what I’ve described to be “true” leaders, with a verifiable track record. Is that democratic? Of course not. But it might be wise.

As always, these words are In My Not-So-Humble Opinion. Your Mana May Vary.

Copyright © 1997, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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