Challenges and Transitions for a Pagan Community Center

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 26, 2014 — 24 Comments

Back in the Fall of 2011, the Open Hearth Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 1999, signed a lease for a long-planned Washington DC Pagan Community Center. The goal of this new space was simple, provide an open community space for local Pagans.

OHF logo.

OHF logo.

“The Open Hearth Foundation (OHF) was founded in 1999 with the mission of launching a Pagan community center in the Washington, D.C. region. The organization was granted 501(c)3 tax-exempt status in 2000. “Town hall” meetings were conducted that year to determine what the Pagan community needed and wanted to see in a community center. [...] In January of 2011, Pagan leaders from the area were called into a summit to weigh in on what they needed from a Pagan community center. In July of 2011, the Board began exploring rental properties, and signed a lease for a rental property in September. Organizers and members went straight to work on outfitting the space, and the DC Pagan community center opened its doors on December 31, 2011.”

In the Spring of 2012, OHF installed a library as well, and in the years that followed, several public events and private group meetings were held at the space. However, it seems that fiscal hard times have befallen the Pagan community center, and on February 18th local writer and Wiccan Priestess Literata Hurley reported at her blog that OHF’s current space would be closing down.

“For those who were not able to attend the Open Hearth Foundation town hall meeting last weekend, the biggest news is that OHF will no longer have its current location after the end of March. The board is currently working on making decisions about what OHF will do after that. [...] During the last year the board went through a period of overhaul in order to keep the center afloat. The work that they did is why OHF has some assets and options at this point rather than having gone bankrupt around October of 2013. The current board deserves a lot of credit for that work.”

Considering the fact that dedicated community space for Pagans is still quite rare, this closure, like the closure of Sacred Paths Center in 2012, has far greater resonance beyond the immediate geographic area. Reaching out to the current leadership of OHF about their future, I received the following public statement.

Evelyn Wright provided professional facilitation services for the OHF 2014 Town Hall Meeting held Sunday, February 16th, 2014 in Takoma Park, DC.

Evelyn Wright provided professional facilitation services for the OHF 2014 Town Hall Meeting held Sunday, February 16th, 2014 in Takoma Park, DC.

During the meeting, OHF explained that it had reduced its footprint in a move to balance income and expenditures. The current business owner wishes to expand its business and will not allow OHF to renew a lease on the Library space. OHF announced that they would be vacating the space they currently occupy when their lease expires on March 31, 2014. Current donor income does not provide the resources to continue operating a full-service community center, a library and an art gallery. In order to maintain current assets (approximately $10,000; furniture, furnishings and equipment; and 3,000 library items) the board is using the move as a pivotal time for reevaluation. Participants in the meeting undertook a SWOT analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to provide a community perspective on the community center.

The board presented three restructuring options and participants discussed each with the following criteria: evaluating facilities, programs, services, timelines and costs in balance with the current community response. The board explained that it would review the Town Hall’s considerable input, the generous level of donor support and a variety of available options. To close out the meeting, each participant was given the opportunity to answer the question “What do you think is the most important resource OHF has to offer to the community?” The responses summarized OHF’s three main resources: A Pagan Community Library; A Resilient Leadership; A Hope for the Future. Town Hall participant and former OHF Governor Sherry Marts noted, “This meeting provided an excellent forum for direct communication between the OHF leadership and the community the OHF serves. I am leaving the meeting feeling assured that the resources and future of the OHF are in good hands. I’m hopeful that the DC Pagan community will step up to meet the needs for increased volunteer involvement as well as financial support for the OHF.”

When asked about her thoughts regarding the meeting, Vette Parker, current OHF Chair, stated, “I felt energized by the number of people willing to venture out on a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon to participate in this important discussion. The OHF Board is facing some very big decisions regarding the future of the organization and the information exchanged allowed us to get thoughtful, productive feedback and suggestions from all of the attendees before undertaking the decision-making process.”

As noted in their 2013 year-in-review, OHF had been working to keep part of the space open, namely the library. However it too will go into storage with the rest of the center’s possessions. OHF librarian Eric Riley, in a statement sent to me, said that whatever plan the board undertakes it will, quote, “require rebuilding our capital fund.”

Views of the OHF collection.

Views of the OHF library collection.

I have no doubt the board and supporters of Open Hearth Foundation will work hard to find a new direction, and hopefully a new space, in the near future. That said, their difficulties, and the difficulties faced by other Pagan infrastructure projects, are something that needs to be addressed on a larger scale. To be blunt, it all comes down to money, and our sense of what, exactly, we want “Pagan community” as a joint movement/construct to do. I have no doubt that questions will be raised by some as to why their funding wasn’t sustainable, but no matter what the reason, it is clear that such endeavors are fragile to the point where no income stream can be easily lost. We simply do not have a pervasive ethos of tithing for such things, and as much as some may love a community center, they do not inspire the same wide-spread devotion as a temple or tradition-specific house (like the Temple of Witchcraft’s new headquarters).

There are ambitious Pagan infrastructure projects underway, like the New Alexandrian Library, but the bulk of our fundraising efforts are still reactive, uniquely pressing in their need or urgency, or (relatively) small in scale. Maybe this will change as initiatives like the Pantheon Foundation mature, but we are still some distance from many of the fiscal safety nets, well-funded events, services, and buildings that many crave. Do our interconnected communities have enough cohesion to rally behind these dreams of infrastructure? The struggles of OHF make this an open question.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Deborah Bender

    It sounds as if the Open Hearth Foundation spent a long time preparing before they signed a lease. What a shame.

    Perhaps knowledgeable readers of this blog could post lists of the best organizations and resources that provide advice to small non-profits.

    I wonder whether studies have been published about what kinds of financial support are required to keep a community center or a special interest library running after it opens. If people knew in advance how much funding will be needed, where and how to raise it, and how to plan for the business cycle, it would be easier to scale a project up or down.

    • Franklin_Evans

      In this case, Deborah, the complaint Corvus makes is much more relevant to the outcome at OHF, or so I would expect to find.

      I had the honor and privilege of direct, personal contact with OHF near its inception. They did their homework at best as it is possible to do so. They shared what they learned with others, including myself and others in our efforts to create a similar organization in our city.

      I would offer the opinion that they could not have done more or better to maximize the potential of their success. In the end, absent specific stories from them, the simplest explanation I expect to be true is that the community for which they worked failed to contribute enough money.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        I’ll second that last paragraph, but suggest that it is supported by several businesses, rather than just the one.

        It also helps if the people pay for services.

  • Corvus Black

    What is the shame here is the Pagan community failed to financially support the center it asked for. I’ve seen this many times: The hue and cry comes up about wanting land, space, a church , etc. and instead of putting actual cash up, members cry poverty and instead buy jewelry or pagan bling.

    Until this changes, we can only seem a marginal movement that can’t get its act together enough to organize a bake sale and save its own community center.

    Pity, it would have made a nice showpiece of community organizing.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I would cut community members a bit more slack. As a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation that just got a building of its own, I know I can go there not just for weekly worship but to put my (hypothetical) kids in a Sunday school, sponsor outreach to the UUs and UU-curious at the local retirement community, sponsor the same among students at the local college, and know that I’m part of a network of congregations, others of whom will be there to offer me a haven in my (very real) old age and reach out to my (hypothetical) kids at college. All of which was already in place in the congregation before it got the building; we gathered in a series of rental venues for decades. A free-standing Pagan community center, an idea I love in principle, simply cannot offer all this, and thus cannot attract the same wallet-deep loyalty.

  • Cornerstone Pagan Fellowship

    This is so disheartening to hear. Hopefully as the community continues to mature we will all be able to share best practices for fundraising, group organization, organizational psychology and other similar skills that the Pagan community needs to move forward. With these skills in hand, perhaps we will all be better prepared to receive such wonderful projects like this.

    • kenofken

      We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. The principles of starting and sustaining successful non-profits are well established and widely available. The problem is that pagans, like so many others, refuse to take them seriously.

      Successful non-profits require a unique, crystal-clear mission statement and purpose, a business plan really. That mission has to be something that no one else is doing, that serves a well-defined constituency, that does something measurable, and that will attract donors. Success requires a board of directors who have serious business savvy and deep political and financial connections. People who have their own gravity field when it comes to fundraising.

      You have to have a mission and purpose that will draw donor money because it’s doing something compelling, not out of some ephemeral sense of obligation from “the community.” You have to have a diverse source of funding streams – user fees, sales of something, corporate money, planned giving, a big annual fundraiser, private foundations and, if you can serve a true need in the wider community, government grants. You need to spend a minimum of six months getting these things up to snuff before you actually launch. You need to assemble some money in order to make money, so that you look like a solid and credible organization, not a gang of beggars.

      All of the long list of pagan “community centers” have, to one extent or another, arisen from the “build it and they will come” model. Their death spiral began the day they opened their doors. Their commitment from their target constituency amounted to agreement with the proposition “wouldn’t it be cool if we had our own space?”

      Their missions have largely boiled down to cool hangout spaces, and most of them are (or were) damn cool. What pagan doesn’t like to hang out among books and statuary, but how in Hades is that ever going to generate the cash flow to maintain it full time? How do you get people to pony up serious cash every month to maintain a place they might drop in once a week or less? How do you write a grant for a hangout center (unless perhaps its for at-risk teens or something)? How do you get people to coalesce around a fuzzy “pan-pagan” focus?

      You don’t. The “funding model” for these things has amounted to crushing personal expenses for the dedicated organizers, largely empty pledges from many others, the small “love offerings”, a few weekend rentals and the inevitable “OMFG, we need $10,000 by Tuesday or we’re gonna fold” appeal.

      Self-recrimination is not the answer, nor is cynicism. We need to get real about what we really want, not what we think we should want, and then do it the right way.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        I think that looking at how established religions and organisations manage to do the things the Pagan communities want would also help.

        • Nick Ritter

          Yes, that’s a good point. I’ve spoken with some Hellenic reconstructionists who have had fruitful conversations with the local Hindu communities on communities and temples.

          For me, this whole situation raises the question: are community centers what the “pagan community” needs? After having read a few descriptions of Coru Cathubodua’s Temple of the Morrígan at Pantheacon (especially Anomalous Thracian’s [http://thracianexodus.wordpress.com/] particularly moving one), I start to wonder if perhaps there is a more basic need to be filled than that which community centers address, that we should be building temples to fill instead.

          The fiscal realities of building, staffing, and maintaining a temple still need to be addressed, and I wonder if the model of crowdsourcing that the multiple failed community centers have faced is just simply not a viable plan for this kind of endeavor. A much older model of patronage might be the way to go; i.e. that those with resources to fund, build, host temples, support religious specialists, etc. do so, perhaps in return for some financial contribution from those who use that temple, etc.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            This suggestion is tempting (being part of a UU congregation that has just acquired a building and buoyed by the buzz around that) but the first problem would be that a temple would serve one tradition, a much smaller base. Of course one could try for a Pagan interfaith (aka intrafaith) temple, but that starts to sound like the same base and financing of a Pagan community center.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            A church is not just open for Christians (of the right denomination), it is there for anyone who wants it.

            The same should be able to be said for any other religion’s buildings.

          • Nick Ritter

            I’m not sure that I see that so much as a problem, as much as that the solution has to be applied differently: I think that the solution of multiple buildings or spaces serving multiple traditions is viable. Of course, this probably means that these buildings or spaces will be more modest – at least at first. However, a more modest, scaled-back approach may be more viable in the long run.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Building Hofs and Heargs is one of my major interests, for the future. (It is a significant reason why I went back to college to retrain as a carpenter.)

            To do this successfully will require a lot of organisation and fiscal outlay. I am convinced that it is achievable, though. It just needs the initial will.

          • Nick Ritter

            I think that is a laudable goal. I have recently been researching the structures and placement of pre-Christian Germanic religious structures (and comparing these to Slavic, Celtic and Roman structures), and will be attempting to put my findings into practice on my own land, and within my own means. I think that this sort of a modest beginning can lead eventually to a loftier sort of accomplishment down the road.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I have found that trying to research pre-Christian Ænglisc religious structures somewhat problematic, thanks to Augustine.

          • kenofken

            Crowdsourcing is great for one-off big pushes. They can work for a capital campaign. You can’t however use emergency appeals as the basis of your ongoing operating costs. Those have to be built into the business plan on day one

        • kenofken

          I think we could do well to look at the membership model used by synagogues. You pay dues if you want to belong. That doesn’t mean you can’t walk in the door if you don’t pay, but if you want a vote, and a guaranteed spot at the high holiday services, you pay up. One can criticize the model for making religion “all about money”, but there’s a realism in it. Running a building, paying a Rabbi etc. costs money, a fixed amount of money that is known and not optional if you want the things they provide. There should be no guesswork in who is going to “come up” with the money each month. It’s probably the most grown-up model of religious finance I’ve seen yet. There’s no huffing and puffing about who didn’t support what. If you want it, you pay for it, if not, no hard feelings. It’s not cheap. It can run $2,400 a year per family. That can vary with discounts for limited income and the size and scope of your building and services, but temples cost money. That’s the real deal. I would put it into simpler terms. If you’re not willing to commit, at a minimum, the same money as you spend on your cable bill to your temple, every month, you don’t want a temple that badly.

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            To be honest, one of the reasons I stopped attending the synagogue I went to years ago was that one of the people on the board chastised me one Shabbat after service for not being a paying member (keeping in mind that I was in college at the time and not rolling in money, and I was also very active there and gave lots of my time doing things). That experience left such a bad taste in my mouth, as it were, that I basically stopped going to temple.

          • kenofken

            I can see why that would rub you the wrong way, but they had a point. If the benefits of membership accrue to everyone, so should the costs. There should be consideration of income levels and life situations, but once you start exempting entire classes of people from contributing anything, the message you send to those who are is that they are chumps, basically. It also creates a class of people are literally are not invested in the enterprise in any serious way. Should your labor have counted? Probably, to the extent it may have saved the congregation from having to pay someone else to do it. Almost nobody is rolling rich in college, but unless you are truly destitute as in living in the street, everyone can afford something. That became a point of contention at a pagan meet and greet at a local bookstore some years ago. You were supposed to bring a dish or snacks, or else contribute $20. There got to be a few who never brought anything. It wasn’t a big problem per se. A few of us were making good cash back then and brought in four or five pizzas etc. The owner, rightly got annoyed because it was disrespectful. Yeah, the guys in question were pretty broke, living on disability or limited incomes, but they had some disposable income. They had their little pool of splurge income, and they certainly could have brought a bag of chips or a 2-liter of generic soda.

            Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really an advocate of temples and big infrastructure. I do think to the extent we have them or the conversation around them, we have to get realistic and we have to let go of the nebulous concept of when are “we” or worse, “the community” going to pay for these things. The question for everyone who wants institutions is will “I” pay for them?

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            I’d say, though, that there’s a difference between the fact that I probably should have contributed financially and someone approaching me post-service and chastising me about it, which is inappropriate in and of itself, but even more so since talking about money is inappropriate–if not a violation of halacha–on Shabbat. Additionally, I had been a paying member in financially better years, so it’s not as if I’d never contributed.

          • Deborah Bender

            I agree, that was rude and crass.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I am pretty familiar with the structure of the Church of England, and they seem to do pretty well for themselves.

          • Deborah Bender

            Doesn’t the C of E get tax money? It’s an established church, and one of the titles of your monarch is Defender of (the) Faith. The C. of E. also owns a lot of real estate, although the upkeep probably makes that a mixed blessing.

          • Deborah Bender

            I agree with that. OTOH, there are Jewish congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area that have not been able to muster the money to hire a full time rabbi or to acquire a building of their own. These congregations have been in existence for years and have 100+ member families, but they meet in spaces rented from churches or other Jewish synagogues/temples.

            American Jewish culture favors formal organizations, democratic governance, pooling resources for the sake of community, and from-each-according-to-his-means. Congregation formation does not have to overcome a lot of anti-institutional mistrust. Despite that, it’s a big jump from developing an active congregation to keeping the doors open at a dedicated meeting place and retaining the staff needed to run it. These congregations know better than to attempt it without both a roster of dues paying members and some deep pocketed supporters.

            If there is not an identifiable, organized congregation that has already demonstrated its willingness to show up and be financially responsible, I suspect that a community center would need some other kind of anchor tenant to pay the bills.