Covensteads and Clergy

During a recent series of conversations with a Pagan group I was strongly reminded of a quote common in polyamory circles: “Love is infinite, but time is not.”

We were discussing the treasured dream of establishing a “Covenstead”. Dedicated ritual space, meditation gardens, shrines, classrooms, accommodations, the whole deal. Parts of the discussion even started veering off into theoretical water systems! It was all interesting and stimulating, but struck me as putting the cart way before the horse. There are reasons very few Pagan groups manage to maintain this kind of setup, and I think most of them boil down to the finite nature of time.

Let’s assume that the average American sleeps 8 hours a night, or 56 hours a week (oh, fond dream!). Statistically, they also work an average of 50-60 hours a week. Just work and sleep account for 110 hours of the 168 weekly hours available. The time remaining is eaten away by significant others, children, other family, laundry and cooking, connecting with friends, exercise, grocery shopping, and all the other demands juggled by people on a daily basis. Relaxation has to fit in there too, somewhere. No wonder people feel so rushed!

Those following any spiritual path have all of the above to deal with, and then have to somehow add spiritual practice to the mix. Meditation takes time. Study takes time. Ritual, devotional workings, and magick all take time. It can easily add up to an hour or two a day – 14 hours a week, or a part-time job in itself. Taking on students or working with a group adds even more of a time burden.

Then add in the time required to maintain and use that dreamed-of Covenstead. Someone has to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, pay the bills, plan the rituals, run the classes, tend the shrines, polish the altar tools, and clean the bathrooms. These same people then have to attend and/or facilitate everything so all that effort isn’t wasted.

All of this, on top of everything else, is damn near impossible. It’s not a question of “dedication” or “priorities” but math – there are simply not enough hours in the day for any one person to do all of it.

There are two ways to approach this problem. One is to share the work out. Even the largest task becomes more manageable with more hands, right? This is the path chosen by most Pagan groups, and if everything runs exactly as planned all should go smoothly.

The problem with this approach is that life happens. Those who could volunteer this week might not have availability next week. Work gets hectic, people transfer or move, children get sick, and personal projects have to get done sometime. And while the hours volunteers can contribute vary, the hours required do not. The only way to successfully cope with this is to have a huge pool of potential volunteers from which to draw, and very few groups have those numbers. So when life happens those with a bit more flexibility try to cover for everyone else, either burn out or just can’t sustain the added work load, and the whole thing implodes in spectacular fashion.

The other way to do it is to designate a small part of the group to do most or all of the work. For those few this is a huge time commitment. So huge that those who take it on typically have to give up standard employment and/or family – on average, life’s two biggest time consumers – in order to make it possible. The members of the group not making that kind of time commitment balance it out by contributing financially instead. Since the financial burden is borne by the much larger group, no one has to contribute more than they can afford and everyone is a part of things.

And thus we have the birth of a dedicated clergy.

Religions all over the world have adopted this method as they’ve grown, and it has been successful for centuries. The clergy system is similar to a kind of religious insurance. The layperson can go about their daily lives, secure in the knowledge that when they need a rite of passage or holiday observance there’s someone to facilitate it and a place at which to do it. And we certainly have enough people who identify as members of the greater Pagan/polytheist/magickal community to support a similar system for ourselves.

However, Pagans tend to shy away from the entire idea of a dedicated clergy. From what I’ve seen they either fear some sort of religious oppression or don’t want to support the work of those who don’t practice the exact same way they do. As a result, the closest thing to dedicated clergy we have as a community are published authors, which are not the same thing.

This is unfortunate. We need clergy.

We need people who understand as many different paths as possible, so they can understand and adapt to the needs of everyone in our community. We need people available to meet those needs, whether it’s conducting a hand-fasting or visiting a solitary practitioner in prison or the hospital. We also need shrines to our gods, sanctuaries for the land, schools for our children, cemeteries for our dead – and all of those require dedicated people to tend them. None of this is possible without the hands to do it, and we can only get those hands if they have the time to develop and use all the necessary skills.

I’ll agree whole-heartedly that Pagans and polytheists of all paths could seriously benefit from having our own dedicated ritual spaces. We just need to approach the issue from the other direction – people first, land/structures after. Otherwise all the time spent to create the space will be wasted, and none of us can afford to waste time.