“I’ve been running a ‘pagan’ organization complete with a paid clergy and a permanent temple building for 15 years. Is it because I don’t identify as Pagan or go to this ‘pagan community’ for membership and support? Or is it something else? I dunno.” – Rev. Tamara Siuda
Temple of the River
Temple of the River (TOR) was the first official temple of the Old Belief Society, a community intended to train Celtic priests by combining academic and spiritual teachings. Founded by Drew Jacob. the group originally occupied a space in Minneapolis before moving to Jacob’s home. In 2006 the group decided they wanted to build their own temple.
The temple was open to the public for monthly scheduled events, holiday feasts, and classes. The group appeared stable, as did its finances. In June 2011, Jacob wrote, “In less than six months we shifted from a small clique-like organization with no public presence to a bustling, dynamic community … It was because of this surge of enthusiasm and interest—from a primarily non-Pagan crowd—that we were able to finally realize a dream of seeing ancient Irish religion alive and practiced as closely as possible to its original form.”Less than a week later after writing that, Jacob announced he was closing the Temple of the River, disbanding the Old Belief Society, and leaving on a spiritual quest. In a press release Jacob said, “We have a large community and terrific events, but the Temple isn’t making the [spiritual] impact I want to see it make.”
A lack of improving enough lives and changing spiritual needs are the reasons Jacob gave for Temple of the River disbanding and the Temple closing its doors. He sold his home and the temple’s property in January of 2011 and was living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Minneapolis at the time of the announcement.
The temple closed in June only nine months after opening. Members of the temple were surprised by the announcement and, as far as is known, have not formed another group.
Takeaways from the Temple of the River:
- The building of the temple followed all local zoning and building codes. If you don’t, you run the risk of having your building shut down or incurring fines.
- The group was formed around a capable and knowledgeable leader, but there was no succession plan in place to continue if he left, had a profound change of heart, or died.
- While the group contributed to the creation of the temple, both financially and in sweat equity, the main financial burden were borne by Jacob, and the temple was located on his privately owned property. Therefore, the property and its temple were legally solely his. This meant Jacob was solely responsible for all costs and legal obligations, but it also meant he could sell it or close it at any time.
The Celtic Temple was beautiful sacred space to which members felt very connected and for which they were willing to contribute time and money. The Old Belief Society was an organized group with clear goals and regular meetings. Yet, when a shared piece of infrastructure is owned entirely by one person, the group can lose it at any moment. The person owning it can hit hard financial times, could die, there could be personality conflicts, or they could change their spirituality – which is what happened in this case.
It’s often difficult for group members, or any potential donors, to decide if a project such as this one, owned by one person, is something in which to get involved. On the other hand, that’s usually the only way projects, such as this one, get started. One person is willing to take the risk and has the resources to accomplish the task.
Tawy House Kemetic Temple
In 1994, Rev. Tamara Siuda filed paperwork to make her religious group, the Kemetic Orthodox House of Netjer, a legal non-profit in the state of Michigan. By 2000, the group had achieved federal 501(c)(3) status.
Also in 2000, the Tawy House, Kemetic Orthodox retreat, was created out of the childhood home of the group’s founder, Rev. Siuda. The house sat on 2.5 acres of woods in Michigan and was mostly open during the summer months. That same year Suida began drawing a modest salary as the group’s spiritual leader.
By 2003 the group had grown larger and started looking for a larger space that they could use year round. In October of that year, they had raised enough funds to purchase a former convent in Illinois. The 100-year-old three-story brick building was converted for their use and now contains a full-size temple chapel, a library, a dedicated kitchen and dining area, the permanent residence and offices for Rev. Siuda, and short- and long-term guestrooms for visiting clergy and temple members.
A core group of around 50 members donate on a regular basis, and these donations add up to between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. Last fall, when the temple’s boiler broke and a ceiling, damaged by leaking water, needed to be repaired, a special appeal for funds was pitched to members. They were able to raise over $3000 for the repairs and also buy a new refrigerator.
The temple got its start by using property owned by its founder. However, it was able to grow past that point within a fairly short time and buy property specifically for use as a temple. The group is still formed around the founder, who lives in the Tawy House temple, and doesn’t appear to have a succession plan.
While it’s generally commonly known that groups are likely to collapse after the loss of the founder, its equally uncommon for groups or organizations to put a succession plan in place to not only preserve the group but also preserve whatever infrastructure they have built.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt (TWH), although different from a temple or community center, is one such organization with infrastructure that has survived (so far) intact.
Jason Pitzl-Waters started The Wild Hunt back in 2004. He had been looking for a reliable blog that would link to news stories that were either about modern Paganism or would be of interest to Pagans. He noticed there wasn’t much out there. At first he didn’t post every day, but as the readership grew, so did the frequency of his posts.
In 2011, he held his first fundraiser for the site to gauge if readers valued his work enough to donate. In the summer of 2011, still looking for a modest funding model, The Wild Hunt moved to Patheos. The popular religion site was attracted to The Wild Hunt due to its readership numbers and high quality of reliable, daily content. This continued for almost exactly one year. Then, in the summer of 2012, The Wild Hunt became an independent entity again.
Since that time, TWH has used a yearly Fall Funding Drive hosted on Indiegogo as a way to finance its operating costs, which include robust hosting, an editor, and modestly paid contributors. In the 2012 funding drive, 161 people donated for a total of $9,483. In 2013, 305 people donated to TWH for a total of $12,984. In 2014, the number of people donating dropped to 285, but the total amount raised rose to just over $15,000. In each of the funding drives, TWH clearly lays out its proposed budget for the next year.
None of this happened overnight. Jason Pitzl-Waters wrote almost daily articles for seven years before he engaged in his first funding effort. He slowly added other writers to prevent burnout and then created a succession plan so he could pursue other interests. In spring 2014, Pitzl-Waters handed TWH over to its editor Heather Greene, demonstrating a successful succession plan.
Will TWH continue to survive and thrive without its founder? Will Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists continue to find value in and support the content TWH puts out each day? Only time will tell.
“I wonder if the data shows that Pagans really only fund projects with a clear deliverable they can consume?” Dr. Kimberly Kirner, Department of Anthropology, California State University, Northridge
Dr. Kirner notes that The Wild Hunt has a clear, consistent deliverable which contrasts with organizations that need regular funding to operate programs. “Everyone loves funding something new with a clear timeline. It is much harder to get people to fund things that happen more or less the same, month after month, year after year. People tend to take this for granted and not find it very exciting. I think many Western religious organizations get around this through a concept of tithing, which then integrates this not-so-exciting ongoing giving with spiritual values,” says Dr. Kirner. She wonders if, in the absence of an acceptance of tithing as a concept, if Pagans are only going to support projects with a short-term deliverable that they can use.
In the case of a community center in Minneapolis, the answer was yes, Pagans were willing to contribute regular funding to a longer term operation. Yet it still failed.
“In Paganistan we need meeting space. It was easier when the Eye [of Horus store] had a room but now groups are meeting at the library or a members house or renting occasional church space. Only one group I know has a permanent rented dedicated space and they do that by charging membership dues.” – Larissa Bedazzler
Sacred Paths Center
After three rocky years, in May 2012, the Sacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center in Minnesota, announced it was closing. Shortly after the announcement, I spoke with past and present Sacred Paths Center (SPC) board members, volunteers, and their last financial auditor. I looked over financial records and minutes of board meetings, and interviewed Director Teisha Magee to find out what happened.
To find out why the center closed, you have to examine how the center was created. In January 2009, after a few weeks discussing the idea of a community center with family and friends, Teisha Magee signed the lease for what would be the Sacred Paths Center. The $1500 raised in a personal Paypal account allowed her to cover moving expenses and open the doors February 13.
Most of the flaws in SPC were formed at its birth, and contributed to its cycle of funding crises.
It was set up as a private business, and the financial accounts of Magee, the owner, and the center were mingled. Magee was unskilled in bookkeeping, and there was little to no documentation of the center’s finances. According to the person who audited SPC in 2011, this was routine and it caused difficulties that plagued the center for the course of its existence.
The center never converted to a 501c3 and was instead registered as a corporate non-profit in the state of Minnesota. This meant Magee owned the center and the center’s board was more of an advisory council rather than a governing board with fiduciary authority.
The start-up funding of SPC consisted of the private funds from Magee and $1500 raised from supporters after a few weeks. With fixed expenses coming in at around $4000 a month, that was insufficient cash reserves. Small business experts suggest a new business have between six months to two years operating expenses saved and in the bank before they open their doors. SPC started out, almost from the beginning, behind in its bills and without a cash reserve built up. The center experienced repeated financial crises.In summer 2009, just six months after SPC opened, the community was told that SPC was holding an emergency fundraiser to help pay its outstanding bills. The funds were raised. During the next year, the center was barely financially stable, and ans August 2010 fund raiser was held to build up cash reserves. But only a modest $3000 was raised.
To make matters worse, a two-year construction project began on the road leading to SPC. As a result, revenue from the front store dropped. In July 2011, the center said it needed $12,000 within a month to pay past due bills or the center would close. Pagans from across the country donated and the amount was raised. But the center could not get ahead of the bills or create the needed reserve.
In July 2011, when the center had its second financial crisis, the SPC underwent an independent audit. The auditor recommended education on financial best practices for Magee and the board, stronger financial oversight by the board, and that two persons approve all expenses. The director and the board didn’t act on the audit’s recommendations. The auditor believes a lack of financial knowledge and skills prevented them from implementing the recommendation.
Volunteers are one of the reasons the center stayed viable for as long as it did. Every person who staffed the center was a volunteer, even the owner and Executive Director Teisha Magee, who worked all day, on most days without drawing a salary. This is a considerable savings as the average community center director in Minneapolis brings home $78,000 a year.
The location seemed like the ideal place for a Pagan shop and community center, but it wasn’t sustainable from the start and would only grow worse. The neighborhood was welcoming and eclectic, and the landlord was friendly. It was on a bus line, had ample parking, and was very spacious. It was also expensive and only grew more expensive. The rent, set at $1500 when Magee signed the lease, rose to just over $2000 in 2011, and was negotiated back down to $1500 for 2012. Utilities averaged barely under $1000 a month.
The center adjusted to the expenses during the last part of 2009 and seemed to hit a stride in 2010. The store was bringing in the lion’s share of income, but memberships and room rentals were also up. They learned the business cycle and knew how to plan for slower summers and busier winters.
Then construction for a light rail track started. It was a very large straw that broke the camel’s back. Getting to the center became increasingly difficult. Parking was harder to find. In 2011 memberships started to drop as did store revenues. What little cash reserves they built up in 2010 were quickly used. Other businesses around the center struggled and a few of them failed.
By late 2011, the center considered moving and, in early 2012, it became more of a priority. Which brings us to May 2012, with three months unpaid rent, the phones shut off, and Magee facing up to $25,000 in debt when all accounts were finally settled. SPC had to close, so it did.
Takeaways from Sacred Paths Center:
- The community gave significant monetary and volunteer support to the center. In 2011 the center brought in approximately $50,000 in revenue. In February 2012 they generated $4000 in revenue and in March, the center received $440 in membership dues alone.
- The center was heavily and consistently used, hosting between 45-50 scheduled events per month. There were weekly gatherings, such as the Monday night potluck and the Thursday night Mentoring Elders program. Witch wars were laid to rest at SPC; the most notable being the rift healed between the Minnesota Church of Wicca and the Wiccan Church of Minnesota. Photos and ashes rest on the memorial ancestor shrine. Fundraisers were held for community members facing costly illnesses.
- The center diversified revenue streams. The store brought in the lion’s share of income, but there were also memberships with perks and room rental income.
- Almost every person involved, from the Director/Owner down to many of the board members didn’t have basic business skills. And didn’t take classes to learn basic business skills.
- The center was launched quickly, without enough start up funds. SPC was behind on its bills from almost the very first day.
- The center’s expenses were too high.
- It depended too heavily on volunteers, which lead to burnout and mistakes.
- It hoped for the best, but was unprepared for obstacles, such as the road leading to the center being torn up.
It’s clear that the community center quickly became the center of the Pagan community in the Twin Cities area and that it was heavily utilized and supported by the community. With better management, upfront cash reserves, and more modest expenses a community center could once again open in the Twin cities because local Pagans saw a need. The question now is, will area Pagans be willing to support another community center after the ups and downs of Sacred Paths Center?
My area DESPERATELY needs meeting space. My group is always at the mercy of library spaces. And now that we’ve gotten so big recently, 200+ active members, we are the largest pagan org in DC, it’s getting harder and harder to find spaces that can accommodate all of us. Now we can only rent out one library’s auditorium because its the only space we know of indoors that can fit more than 50 people at a time. – David Salisbury
Star and Stone Druid Fellowship
Many groups are experiencing similar growing pains as David Salisbury’s group. One such group is Star and Stone Druid Fellowship, an OBOD Seed Group. They are still too small to build much infrastructure, but too large to keep operating in a casual, pass-the-hat way. Too big for the living room, but too small to regularly rent a venue.
Dr. Kimberly Kirner, who’s part of the grove, says that the group funds its operations in three ways. The 12 initiates pay annual dues of $40 per person, passing the hat at each gathering brings in another $10 to $20 per person per gathering, and a few members routinely pay out of pocket to host rituals or provide the necessary supplies. The funds go to pay website hosting, reservations or the annual Lughnasadh camping trip, and food for regular gatherings.
The group is growing. In addition to their twelve members, they also have two other persons who regularly attend festivals plus friends and family of initiates. With 20 or more persons now attending events, they need a regular space to meet.
They’d also like to host larger public rituals and rent cabins or park space more than one time a year, but they are limited by money. They’re also limited by time. Most members work full time jobs, which means the time they can devote to volunteering for the group or for the wider Pagan community is in short supply.
Often, I see Pagan communities having to compromise, and to center themselves around who has a resource, like a large plot of land, that they are willing to share, whether the person with the land and resources is good at being in community or not. With time, hopefully we’ll be in a position where stronger, more cohesive Pagan communities will begin to attract some of the resources to themselves, rather than having to center around a few folks with the money or land to be able to subsidize us–because even though such people can be great, that does get in the way of that feeling like our communities belong equally to us all.”– Cat Chapin-Bishop
Mt. Toby Meeting House
Better known as Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends has infrastructure lessons that emerging Pagan communities and groups can learn from. Yet there are challenges Pagans face that Quakers do not. Quakers place great value in coming together for regular, mostly silent, worship. Pagans may come together in worship, but the differences in types of Pagans means most Pagans only come together in very small groups and do so fewer times a year.
The 120 acres of land and the meeting house Cat Chapin-Bishop attends was donated as a gift, as was the financing to build the actual structure back 1964. Additional gifts over the years helped expand the meeting house and maintain a burial ground. The fact that Quakers have been around for over 500 years makes gifts of these sorts more likely than a religion that has been actively practiced for only a few decades.
There are around 60 to 70 Friends who attend meetings each week at Mt. Toby and this particular meeting house has about 200 to 300 people who regularly support it. They donate about $58,000 per year. Funds are not raised by passing a collection plate, attendees are simply reminded what an average family contributes and what the financial needs are.
Every member or attender of the meeting is responsible for a week of cleaning during the year. While some volunteer up to 20 hours a week to help out, others primarily just attend the meetings. Everything that can be done by volunteers, is done by volunteers.
The major expenses are maintaining the meeting house, utilities, and monetary support for members to attend workshops and conferences. There is no paid clergy among the Friends.
Members have a feeling of ownership toward the meeting house; a feeling that the Society of Friends encourages through their actions. Once you volunteer to clean the meeting house, you have access to the building’s keys. Members care for the property. There is no leader in charge, no one person owns anything. And since worship is held each week, a feeling of community develops. The meeting house starts to feel like a second home.
Takeaways from the Mt Toby Meeting House:
- This type of self-sustaining infrastructure takes generations to build up, but a gift of land or money for land happens first. The group is able to keep expenses low through the devotion of its members.
- The Society of Friends is known for having a culture of openness and trust. If you show up, you’ll be welcomed in. If you clean the meeting house, you’re given a key. Want to see the finances? Attend a business meeting.
- No one is pressured to donate. They list out their needs and trust that people who can afford it will donate funds to take care of one another. Cat Chapin-Bishop says it simply feels natural to give.
Mt. Toby is luckier than many Quaker meeting houses. For instance, they have a larger membership. Some older meeting houses can no longer afford to maintain the space, and the property is becoming more of a liability than an asset. It’s important to constantly evaluate if your infrastructure is helping you or hurting you.
Every group and community has to decide if an potential infrastructure, of any kind, addresses an actual need, or is just something they want. They need to plan carefully, have a detailed business plan in place, and have competent and trustworthy people in charge.
Having the physical assets owned by the entire group or a whole community can protect not just the organization, but the founder, as well. And none of this happens quickly. It takes years, decades, and generations to build something that will last well-past the original founders.