And now we come to the real blog for this week: the formation and organization of Pagan churches. More specifically, I'd like to talk about how Pagan groups can become churches through the use of a widely sucessful model. This is something I believe I am uniquely qualified to speak to because I have been in the pulpit of a number of churches in several faith traditions, first as a church officer, and now as an ordained minister. This in no way means I think I am an expert on the subject, but I have been an interim minister, and usually one of the tasks of that position is building and in some cases, regenerating community.
|Thankfully, none of these!|
The descriptive, universally accepted definition of the word is this: A church is an organized body of religious believers. It is the people within that body of believers and not just the building they meet in. Some groups prefer other names such as congregation, circle, assembly or fellowship, but in the common vernacular and for legal purposes they are known as churches. Pagans often tend to shy away from the word because many of us have negative, bad memories of the faith tradition we grew up in: for a fairly large segment of that group that generically means Christianity. We associate The Church as a proper noun for Christianity and specifically for some that is the Roman Catholic Church, but in reality there are many, many groups of believers of differing faiths who consider themselves a church. It is simply a benign word- what we otherwise chose to associate with it is how we give it power, for humans empower words. If the word church has a negative connotation for you, it's because you are projecting your personal junk on to it- and that's not me being judgmental, it's basic analytical psychology speaking. No matter how hurt and damaged you may be from the past, there is a point where healthy individuals choose to heal. Only you can do that, and if you find you can't, then I suggest speaking to a professional to assist you. The word church is no more owned by any particular religious group than the words clergy, theology, liturgy, ritual or rite.
I feel our Pagan identity as a legitimate religious entity, e.g., as a church, is imperative for recognition and enforcement of our Constitutional Rights. This is not an original idea on my part, and is indeed exactly why religious communities such as Circle Sanctuary, Church of All Worlds, Sanctuary of the Beloved and the Aquarian Tabernacle Church exist. It is why the Lady Liberty League and the Covenant of the Goddess continue to serve clientele legally, and why individuals like Selena Fox, Peter Dybing, Phyllis Currott, Laurie Cabot, and many others are politically and socially active representing Paganism. Let's take a clue from the example of the world's indigenous peoples, numerous tribes who- in order to retain their spiritual heritage- have found it necessary to organize and brand themselves as religions and churches.
Becoming a church takes a bit of work, but it is a rather straightforward process. I highly recommend jumping through the legal hoops if your group has been meeting for a time and has accumulated goods shared by the community such as ritual items, a reference library, or real estate,and particularly if your leadership wishes to have their clerical credentials recognized by the state in order to perform legal marriages. The integrity of the group will be less likely to be questioned publicly, and it may help stave off a visit from the IRS down the road if your group incorporates and seeks charitable organization status. This will also give much needed credibility to your religious leadership and establish you in the community and with the general public.Usually the names of the minister and those of two church officers such as the secretary and treasurer are required. You are able to both incorporate (which is relatively inexpensive; many large corporations have taken advantage of the simplicity of filing in the State of Delaware) and file for 501 status with the IRS (takes a bit more effort because the paperwork is a bit tricky) and retain your group's independence, although it might help things along if it were an affiliate of a larger umbrella organization, such as the Covenant of the Goddess(http://www.cog.org/) or the interfaith Universal Life Church(http://www.ulchq.com/). The ULC Seminary site has a clear and concise section about forming an individual church on it's website http://www.ulcseminary.org/faqs/generalFaq.php.Amber K also included examples of these forms in her book Covencraft: Witchcraft for Three or More (http://www.llewellyn.com/product.php?ean=9781567180183), which is an excellent resource.
Any group of faith believers may form a church. This is guaranteed by the Right to Freedom of Religion under the First Amendment of the Constitution and subsequent legal rulings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_religion_in_the_United_States). Every state has it's own code which governs the recognition of churches, but this mostly pertains to issuing clerical credentials and marriage licenses. In some states this falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice of the Peace or the Office of the Recorder of Deeds. Sometimes a letter of good standing is required from the church, but this can easily be obtained from the umbrella organization or written by the Board of Directors or what ever you choose to call the governing committee of your church. For the sake of avoiding a hassle, I recommend that clergy filling out the forms for credentials write the word 'interfaith' in the box under 'denomination'. (While it is actually none of his or her business what religion you represent, a savvy clerk will be on the lookout for those attempting to circumvent taxation by the creation of a bogus church- yes, it still happens. Some folks are under the mistaken belief that clergy do not pay taxes and proclaim themselves ministers for just that reason; nothing can be farther from the truth.) Trust me, it will save a lot of bother and frustration if you happen to live in the Bible Belt or a fundamentalist stronghold where you could possibly get into a heated debate with a clerk and subsequently be denied approval. I'm by no means encouraging dishonesty, but sometimes it's more prudent to fly low on the radar in these matters. As an illustration, in North Carolina, where I live, the language in the State Code ( Article 51-1) has just recently been changed. The former language described a legitimate member of the clergy as a minister of the Gospel, and while I'm fairly certain no one made a fuss when a Rabbi, Buddhist or Hindu pastor signed off on a marriage license, the potential for denial was still there. [ If you're interested, I blogged about Pagan clergy in an earlier post, the link to that archived piece is here:http://amethjera.blogspot.com/2011/09/pagan-clergy-and-ethics.html.]
Call your group what you like. Choose a name that is descriptive and meaningful- but not too long. The Church of the Golden Chalice Under the Silver Moon on a Cloudless Night may sound cool, but no one is going to remember who you are if the name is too long. You risk becoming that group in the common vernacular, which is, in my humble opinion, far worse than being ignored .Our group is known as the Church of the Earth-COTE for short. We follow the tenets of earth-centered spirituality and are intra-faith. The name tells others who we are in just four little words. There is no need for further embellishment. We have written by-laws and a statement of faith, specific committees for things such as grounds upkeep and liturgy ( among others), a website, a Facebook page and use Meet-Up online for general announcements. We also have a senior minister, several associates, and a Board of Directors; we are incorporated and have 501-c status with the IRS. It's all pretty straight forward.We don't think we're " all that" because we're organized and identify as a church. Far from it- we are just as Pagan as the next group. We use a corporate model that is followed by many other religious institutions and it doesn't diminish our standing in the Pagan community. It's just another tool. It does, however, give us a source of identity and positive enforcement in the mundane world. We are active in the local community, attend city council meetings and are not viewed as a bunch of kooks who are airy-fairy dirt worshipers when we do. Having this kind of positive community identity has allowed us to participate in outreach in the prison system and local hospitals. We have been asked to sponsor a circle at one of the nearby military bases. There have been a lot of positives using the corporate model-so what if " the Christians use it"? So do a lot of other groups-because it works.