Over time, I’ve seen people ask questions about issues that don’t necessarily matter as much as they look like at first glance. Paganism isn’t quite like anything else – so some legal, religious, and organizational structures don’t actually help groups or teachers function well.
Below are a few things you probably shouldn’t worry about – and what you should pay attention to instead.
- 501(c)3 tax-exempt status (instead, look for good fiscal management)
- formal academic/professional credentials (look for relevant references and experience.)
- formal by-laws or documents (look for aligned practice and explanation.)
- dedicated space (look for a plan that works for the group and members).
- an always available leader (look for good communication)
People can assume that a group that has 501(c)3 status (a particular IRS non-profit designation for religious and educational groups) is better than a group that doesn’t. 501(c)3 allows people giving money to the group to (generally) deduct it on their taxes, and also has some benefits for the group itself. However, it also limits some activities (like the group endorsing a particular political candidate or cause), and requires someone to make sure appropriate reports are filed and records are updated.
The status is complicated and relatively expensive to apply for as a small group (between $400 and $800 depending on the group’s income). It takes many groups a year or more to get the paperwork completed and accepted. As a result, many small Pagan groups (covens, study groups, groves, teaching circles, and so on) find their time and money can better be spent in ways that have more direct benefit for the people in the group.
Groups that focus on larger events (such as festivals, conferences, etc. where they’re regularly handling money in the thousands of dollars in a year) often find that it starts making more sense to consider applying. (And it’s worth asking about if you’re talking about larger amounts of money.)
Instead of looking for a specific tax designation, look for groups that:
- Are clear about how whatever funds they take in are used.
- Are clear whether any donations are tax-deductible (and why).
- Show good fiscal management (are not lurching from money crisis to money crisis.)
If you’re curious, you can search for a group on the IRS website to confirm a 501(c)3 status. (Note that the name might not be quite what you expect so try a few different search terms or ask the organisation.)
Formal academic/professional credentials:
These days, there are a number of people with formal academic or professional credentials in the Pagan community. Sometimes these are wonderful things – however, sometimes, they’re really not incredibly relevant to the Pagan setting.
For example, completing a Ph.D in a scientific field tells you that the person can follow through on long-term projects and research – good skills – but it doesn’t tell you much about their knowledge or skills in their religious path. And even when the degree is in a related field (anthropology, sociology, religion, psychology), that doesn’t automatically mean someone is going to be a good ritual leader, religious teacher, or spiritual mentor.
Instead, look for:
- A clear description of their own experience and training in a Pagan setting.
- People you can talk to about their experience, training, and current offerings (references)
- Material about how they currently approach teaching (like the topics they cover, expectations, teaching style, etc.)
Very formal by-laws or other organizational documents:
A number of organizations out there have formal by-laws and other documents. These are often required for state or federal recognition (if a group chooses to do that for any reason.)
However, I’ve seen a lot of very small groups, who don’t have any formal legal recognition, get caught up in these standards in weird ways. And there are groups who focus on the details of the process, but never actually get much done. Formal documents aren’t bad – but they’re not enough to sustain a group.
Instead, look for:
- A clear description of how decisions in the group are made. (It can be simple: “The High Priestess decides if we can’t come to an agreement”, but it should be clear.)
- What the process of dealing with conflicts looks like. (Again, this can be quite simple.)
- What the group actually accomplishes (over a reasonable span of time).
- And how the group handles challenges (again, over time).
A dedicated building or other space:
Many Pagan groups are small: some rent space, others meet in private homes. Sustaining a permanent space can be extremely expensive, and not very practical, depending on how often the group uses the space. What makes sense for a particular group depends a lot on the group, the members, and especially any needs or limits of the group leadership.
Many small groups meet in private homes. These have some challenges (especially around accessibility and health issues), but they’re often more sustainable on practical levels. In Wiccan-derived groups, it’s common for the space where rituals are hosted and classes are taught to be called the covenstead. Some covensteads welcome group members much of the time. Others are open only by agreement (so that the people who live there can have time to themselves, etc. )
- Look for a space that works for the group’s focus and members.
- Look for clear communication about when the space is available.
- Seek out a group that treats the space well – people help clean up, offer to help out, etc. rather than leaving everything for one or two people to deal with.
Leadership who are always available:
Many Pagan group leaders hold down full-time or part-time jobs doing something else. We have families and friends who like to see us, and we even like to have time for hobbies, a trip to the movies, or other things like that. And like everyone else, we need a chance to sleep, to make our meals, have a shower, and get some exercise. And of course, some Pagan leaders have children at home who need their time, attention, and help.
This can be quite a shift from some religious traditions where the religious leader (or someone on the church/community staff) is always available, or can change plans at short notice in an emergency. Pagan priest/esses and leaders will do what they can – but they might need to negotiate a day off from work, or figure out a way around other existing commitments.
Instead, look for:
- Leaders who are clear about their other commitments, and what those mean for the group. (For example, being clear what kinds of calls they can take at work, or when they’re free to meet.)
- Leaders who set boundaries that allow them to honor their commitments at work and at home as well as their commitments to the group – even if this means it may take a few days longer to deal with a situation that isn’t urgent.
- Leaders who do take time for their own self-care, and who encourage those they’re training to find ways to do so. We’re not a religion of either ascetics or martyrs: joy in our lives is a good and sustaining thing.
To give you an idea of where my own limits are, I’ve generally been open to calls at work in case of hospital or death, or to set up a time to talk later that night or in the next day or two. I’m clear that email usually reaches me faster than the phone (for various reasons). And I make sure not to schedule more than 2 nights of group related activity in any week, unless there’s a time-critical need (like a serious illness or other crisis.) These all help me keep a balance.
[last edited on December 25, 2016]