The project began as a conversation between Pagan leaders* at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions, and has made headway since then under the direction of Lawrence Lerner. Lerner is a Wiccan priest who serves the Washington State community, and he has extensive experience in business and finance.
A former executive at PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Lerner has some 25 years as a digital payment pioneer and executive. He has run multi-national businesses, served as a public board director for entities like the Washington Blockchain Council, been featured as a keynote speaker, and has launched new financial technologies. He has also worked as a consultant with a host of companies, such as Motorola, Discover Card, and Dun & Bradstreet.
Lerner feels that many in the Pagan and polytheist community “avoid traditional money systems for several reasons. It’s considered one of our community shadows, things we have disowned and don’t want to face.” But he thinks that it is critical that finance and community come together in mutual trust. That understanding of financial literacy and potential for economic strength begged the question from the group conversing at the Parliament of World Religions: “What if we had a bank or credit union of our own?”
Such a bank would need to be sensitive to the varied and sometimes complex values of Pagans and polytheists. Some individuals embrace financial systems, others are skeptical of them, and others still have serious reservations with interacting with and supporting capitalism. While these varied views may be challenging to navigate, the practical need for banking and financial services remain a part of modern mundane life.
Lerner adds that a Pagan-led financial institution would create transformative opportunities. It could provide financial resources, like loans and credit, but in a way that is consistent with the Pagan and polytheist community’s ethics. Such a credit union would not be unlike what other faith groups have done, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
Lerner also believes the services a credit union could provide to the community could be serious and impactful, but still delivered in a manner consistent with common Pagan values. Among such services could be goal setting and budgeting, debt management plans, home ownership education, and mortgage delinquency mitigation, as well as more traditional services like online banking, savings plans, and loans.
What is a Credit Union?
A credit union is similar to a bank, in that it offers banking services such as taking deposits and providing financial products like loans. Unlike banks, which are for-profit entities, credit unions are non-profit organizations. They are financial cooperatives whose earnings are returned to their membership.
The idea of membership points to another important distinction between banks and credit unions: banks have customers, whereas credit unions have members who elect a board of directors and in turn name the credit union’s executives. Credit unions operate to promote the well-being of their membership, rather than shareholders, so profits made by credit unions are returned to the community of members who have joined it. As a result, they often provide better returns on savings, lower fees for services, and sometimes offer lower loan interest rates.
Credit unions are administered federally in the United States by the National Credit Union Administration. The NCUA’s mission is to “provide, through regulation and supervision, a safe and sound credit union system, which promotes confidence in the national system of cooperative credit.” The NCUA monitors compliance with federal rules and provides consumer protection against fraud. It also supports credit unions by providing the necessary insurance to secure deposits. In other words, deposits in a credit union have the same safety net found in traditional banks.
Similar credit union structures exist across the world. In Canada, for example, federal credit unions were recently established with the Bank Act of 2012, but they have been available for decades under provincial and regional traditions and legislation that recognize credit unions and caisses populaires.
Membership and Process for Pagan Credit Union
Starting a credit union is a complex objective, but it begins within individuals expressing interest in creating and joining one. First, the NCUA asks the organizer to define the “field of membership (FOM),” a “single common bond of association.”
“It’s not enough to say all Pagans or Wiccans or firefighters, for example,” says Lerner. The FOM must be discrete. It’s not much more complicated, but members need to establish they are part of a ‘church.’ For solitaries, covens, smaller groves and kindreds, this may prove to be a barrier.” He notes that this will be an ongoing conversation. “There would be work on both sides. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge.”
Once the definitional components to the FOM are established, who can then join is somewhat less challenging; membership is generally extended to immediate family members and members of the household. For Pagans and polytheists, that could include personal and spiritual definitions of “family” – membership could extend to unmarried partners, polyamorous relations, and intentional communities.
Despite the likelihood of consensus on membership, there will still be some substantial obstacles ahead of a Pagan credit union. The first of these is that the NCUA looks for a minimum of 250 individuals who express interest. It is important to note that 250 is a minimum number. “Ideally,” says Lerner, “they’d like to see 3,000, but that can come over time.”
Achieving the target number of petition signers represents just the first challenge. The other challenge is funding through deposits. It is important to underscore that deposits are insured, so deposits under certain amounts are not at risk of loss; the NCUA guarantees deposits of up to $250,000.
Credit unions rely on deposits to build their assets, however, which then back the financial products they offer. In other words, one person’s deposit becomes another person’s loan. The interest charged on those loans is one way the credit union returns profits to its members.
Ultimately, individuals will need to make deposits for such a credit union to function. The hypothetical 3,000 persons joining a Pagan credit union would need to bring with them deposits to their new savings accounts. The higher the amount of savings deposits, the more working capital would become available for financial products. For example, with about $1,000 in savings deposits per member, the credit union would have a working capital of about $3 million: a sizable amount to make certain kinds of loans, but likely not enough to make larger loans such as mortgages.
Status of the Project
Lerner underscores that the credit union project is still in its infancy. He is inviting those interested to join a Facebook group: The Pagan Credit Union Project. There, around 400 Pagan and polytheist colleagues are discussing the basic components of creating the credit union. Lerner is providing some financial literacy material in the Facebook group as well as disseminating information about financial issues.
Lerner is already reaching out to a number of groups and organizations. The project has support from the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, the Church of All Worlds, and the Correllian-Nativist Tradition. He is now reaching out to other Pagan churches and organizations to consider supporting the project.
Lerner is enthusiastic about his work and the future of a Pagan credit union. He cautions that the process will take time – it may take up to three years for approval before the credit union can take deposits, even after all the documents are completed.
Still, he underscores the importance of the project and the transformative effect its realization could offer the community. “Here,” says Lerner, “is an opportunity to come together and make positive intent.”
*Editorial Note: The Credit Union Facebook group was launched by Jason Fletcher after conversations with Oberon Zell. Beth Laf and Belladona Laveau joined soon after the discussion at Parliament in November 2018 and have formed the core team working on this project.