Community Before Clergy: My Resignation from Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship

Growing up, I always wanted to find something to be passionate about, something that would make the world a better place.  In High School, I looked to some of my classmates who had found causes to be passionate about with yearning. All throughout my twenties I looked at different causes; the LGBT Rights Movement, Religious Tolerance in a post-September 11th World, the Environment in a culture of Climate Change Deniers; worthy causes to be sure, but all of these causes felt too big, and as a person who tries to stay as far away from politics as is possible, way too political, so I continued my search.

During this time, I discovered a world previously hidden from me.  I was eleven when I left Christianity behind for Wicca, and over the intervening years grew to discover both British and American Traditional Witchcraft and finally, Druidry and Heathenism.  I somehow stumbled across a post for Phoenix Pagan Pride Day (PPPD) on WitchVox and decided to attend, thinking there would be a handful of others there. Well, I was wrong.  There wasn’t a handful of people there, I had discovered a large, diverse, and vibrant community that I had absolutely no idea existed before. While in attendance at my first PPPD, my shy and introverted self, met the Grove of the Rising Phoenix, a Druid group associated with the national organization Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF). Being the skeptic and knowledge hungry person that I am, I decided to check them out and do some digging first.  What I found was everything I had been looking for in a religion: A local group to socialize and study with, the structure provided by a national organization, and a study program to help me learn more about my path and, most importantly, myself. I joined the Grove and ADF about a year later after working up the courage to actually attend a few of their public rituals; I am, after all, an introvert.

Just a few short months after joining ADF and the Grove, my life changed.  I was promoted at work and was relocated from Phoenix to Denver. I bemoaned leaving the community I had found in Phoenix, but vowed to find a community in Denver. As it would happen, working sixty hours and six days a week is not conductive to building a social life, something that even as an introvert, I discovered that I needed and craved. After eleven months in Denver, I resigned from my job and came home to Phoenix in July of 2011. It was the best decision I have ever made. I immediately dove back into the Phoenix Pagan Community and the Grove. I was so happy.  Though I wouldn’t realize it until late 2014, I had found my thing to be passionate about.  My diverse and vibrant community.

In 2012 I started back to school to finish my Bachelor’s Degrees in History and Religious Studies while simultaneously embarking on ADF’s Dedicant’s Path which I finished in 2013. ADF’s Dedicant’s Path is an optional introductory program that gets those members of ADF who choose to take it up, to think about the cosmology associated with ADF, its roots in Indo-European paganism and its existence as a neo-pagan church.  I think, more importantly, it gets the Dedicant to think about what his/her own beliefs are.  In addition, I began doing a lot of volunteering with the Grove, including running for a seat on the Executive Committee, the board of folks who run the day to day operations of the Grove, and learning to come out of my shell and operate beyond my introverted-ness.  Over time, I became instantly recognizable in my community as “One of the Druids,” a distinction which has come to mean someone who can be trusted in a community that had never had something like that, or if they had, it had been a very long time.

During the years after my return to Phoenix from Denver, due mostly in part to my position on the Executive Committee of the Grove, I paid very close attention to the goings on of our mother organization, ADF. It seemed to me that once or twice a year, some scandal or drama broke out in ADF.  One year, an entire Grove withdrew from ADF. It was around this same time that a priest of ADF counseled membership to “pay your dues to keep ADF and the Mother Grove (ADF’s Board of Directors) away from you.” This was a priest ordained by ADF saying this. Year after year, drama after drama, I was getting fed up. ADF was becoming an organization that was leaching money from its membership without giving any appreciable benefits in return. The sense of a national community that I felt when I first joined ADF had quickly been kicked out of me by the toxic nature of the forums that were active, and the moribund nature of those that weren’t.  You’d think, in an organization that expounds excellence and scholarship, that internet trolls would be dealt with quickly and that the Scholar’s Guild (The Scholar’s Guild, for the sake of the Gods!) would not be one of the most moribund forums in the entire organization!  The dream was over. I should have left ADF right then and there, but I held on for the Grove. As a member of the Executive Committee it was necessary for me to be a member of both the Grove and ADF. So I kept throwing money at ADF hoping they would leave me, and the Grove, alone. It was not to be.

In late March 2015, more drama ensued. On its website’s home page, ADF posted a revised and updated Mission and Vision Statement.  In a statement I made on my personal Facebook page, I vented my frustrations.

 

“The very first bullet point states: “Public temple worship with a skilled priesthood.” While this is a lofty goal for a pagan church, your organization is run by VOLUNTEERS. At most, there are maybe half a dozen people in administrative positions who are paid as contractors. This being said; requiring that first, that there is a public temple, is ludicrous. Unless ADF is going to furnish the cash for such an endeavor, local communities simply don’t have the funds to support the planning, building, furnishing and upkeep of a Temple. Second, requiring a skilled priest from among your VOLUNTEER organization is laughable when you don’t even require your membership to complete the [introductory] Dedicant’s Path coursework, but now you want every local congregation to be led by a skilled priest? Surely, you jest. I have helped lead my local grove for years now. Between work, my two bachelor’s degrees, Grove, Kindred, and Community; I barely have time to spend with my family and sleep let alone commit a goodly amount of time to becoming “Skilled Clergy.” You have within the organization, many skilled priests and others who are on the path to becoming clergy. When your organization prides itself on being “As fast as a speeding Oak” then you try to make fly by night changes to the very core of the way the organization functions, without first running such changes by your membership either for vote or comment, you open the door for much of your membership, many of whom have already had it with the politics and bullshit that goes on behind the scenes, to walk out the door and never look back. Congratulations.”

 

As was expected, the Leadership of ADF’s organization did not appreciate the way I exercised my First Amendment rights. This is also when I began to realize that ADF was clinging like moss to a crumbling cliff to the Founder, Isaac Bonewitz’s, original vision for the organization…an organization which had aged three decades in the interim. For an organization that espouses orthopraxy over orthodoxy, this is dangerous territory. Isaac may have believed himself a god and may have set himself up to be the Archdruid for Life (hmm…reminds me of that Julius Caesar fellow…it didn’t work out too well for Rome either), but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to buy in to ADF on that level.

Now, maybe it’s just me, though I doubt it, but in order for an organization to grow it has to embrace change on some level, and if something no longer positively contributes to the organization, even if that something is the founder’s vision, change needs to occur. I discovered after this “discussion” with Leadership that the membership of ADF has remained relatively constant for at least the past decade. On a line graph, it would look like a flat line. For as many new members as we were getting to join the organization, just as many people were leaving. Membership had flat lined. In addition, those who occupied leadership roles in the organization have done so for at least a decade.  New blood that managed to get into leadership positions either didn’t stay long, had drunk the Kool-Aid, or as I suspect though admit to not having any evidence beyond hearsay, were bullied into toeing the line. This is what a Good Ole Boys Club looks like.

Then in May, a new drama broke out.  I kept quiet for the first few days on this, the most recent affront to the Membership of ADF, after all, I’d just raised a stink about the Mission and Vision Statement, and I didn’t want it to seem as if I was trying to incite dissent.  Then, one of my colleagues posted to ADF’s Facebook discussion group, pointing out to general membership that the Mother Grove had changed the bylaws, the governing document of the organization, without asking for input from the Membership.  In fact, in the meeting minutes it is recorded that one of the Mother Grove members even suggested that such a change (requiring the Archdruid and Vice Arch Druid to be clergy) should be taken to the membership first. From the sixth piece of business of the February 2015-April 2015 Mother Grove Minutes (emphasis is my own):

 

“* Motion to add the question “Should any of the following mother grove positions [Archdruid (AD) and Vice Arch Druid (VAD)] be limited to only clergy or non-clergy?” followed by options for each position as web programming allows…

    * Opinion stated that while feedback is a good thing in general, putting this question on the ballot would be a bad idea.  The MG should be in charge of the criteria of who runs the organization, that is what the members elected them for. 

  * This would bring to the forefront the few with authority issues and negative opinions of the Clergy. 

  * Doing this would be like putting a referendum on the ballot, and even if we’re not bound to follow it, people would expect us to. 

  * Point was raised that by making the proposed changes to the positions of AD and VAD, by a board of mostly clergy members, this would look like the clergy protecting themselves. 

  * It was pointed out that adding the requirement of clergy would shrink the pool of candidates to approximately 30 people, that are their own gatekeepers to whom gets into the group without any input from the membership. 

  * It was speculated that the majority of the members don’t care one way or another, but without asking, we can’t be sure, and this would also possibly bring to our attention any issues that the membership have with the clergy so that can be worked on.”

 

So, in other words, the Mother Grove knew this was a contentious issue, they knew it had the possibility to blow back in their faces if they didn’t take such a monumental change to the Membership first, yet although this particular motion failed, an almost identical motion at the Mother Grove Retreat would pass after waiting for the completion of ADF elections as per the bylaws.

The following is from the minutes of the Mother Grove Retreat March 27-28, 2015 (emphasis is my own):

 

  1. AD and VAD required to be clergy

Motion to require that the Archdruid and Vice Archdruid are required to be clergy…

  • It was pointed out that this could be considered changing elections methods during an election

which is forbidden by the bylaws. Motion was discussed, but a vote cannot be held.

  • Everyone present agreed to this motion in general.
  • It was pointed out that we should have member buy in for this. Without that buy in, it is likely

that it will cause issues with the membership, and perpetuate the idea of the MG and the Clergy being the “old boys network”.

  • The point was raised that we should not fear the perception of the old boys network, it is likely a perception held by a small minority of the membership.
  • Point was raised that this perception issue is because the clergy are gatekeepers for who becomes clergy and for the general member it is a hidden process with no general membership input. This change may be best coupled with requiring the Clergy Council officers to solicit comments from the general membership before approving new clergy.
  • Question was raised if the Clergy Council officers would actually listen to non-clergy members.
  • An idea was raised, and expanded on for adding requirements for becoming clergy that would bring in membership participation. For a new, first circle priest, require the endorsement of 9, non-clergy Pagans. For second circle, require the endorsement of 1 grove. For third circle, require the endorsement of 1 grove not in the local area.
  • It was pointed out that the Clergy Council officers don’t have any firm idea on what requirements can be used to not approve a clergy member. The Mother Grove can give them requirements.
  • It was mentioned that the Clergy Council officers are now asking for video of performances of those that the officers have not seen perform rituals before voting to approve.
  • The ways the AD can be nominated are:

◦ Nomination by the Mother Grove

◦ Nomination by the Clergy Council

◦ Nomination by the Council of Senior Druids

◦ Petition with 50 signatures.

A straw poll to judge support for the requirement was run.

Vote will occur after the elections are over.

 

As promised, after the election, the Mother Grove, without so much as a by your leave, amended the bylaws. The following is taken from The February 2015-April 2015 Mother Grove minutes as the second to last piece of business (emphasis is my own):

 

            Motion to change the bylaws:

   Article 5, Section 3, Subsection 1 Archdruid (AD), add number 8. “The

Arch Druid must be an Active ADF Priest”.

   Article 5, Section 3, Subsection 2 Vice Archdruid (VAD), add number

  1. “The Vice Arch Druid must be an Active ADF Priest”.

  * It was pointed out that this is not the best place to change the

bylaws, it should be in Section 4, Subsection 5, Item 7.

  * Motion amended to be:

  * Change Section 4, Subsection 4, Item 7, qualifications of the AD and VAD

    From:

      Candidates for Archdruid or Vice Archdruid must have their

Dedicant’s Path completed.

    To:

      Candidates for Archdruid or Vice Archdruid must be ordained

members of ADF Clergy in good standing, i.e. Active ADF Priests.

  * Amended motion by Jean, accepted by Kelly.

  * Point raised of what would happen if we lost all clergy due to some

disaster.

  * It was pointed out that if a clergy member cannot be found to lead

the church, is it really a church?

  * Point raised we are limiting who can run, and limiting choice by our

members.

  * Point raised that we may be better served at times by a secular leader

  * It was stated that the Administrator is supposed to take care of the

administrative.

  * It was pointed out that a significant portion of the AD’s job is

administrative, not just spiritual.

  * It was pointed out that this is being done with no input from the

members.  It is likely most don’t care, but a change this large really

should have the input of the members.

    * Motion Passed

 

Judging by the uproar of quite a number of members, clearly, the membership does indeed care. For a number of days after my colleague’s initial post the membership engaged in polite, if passionate, discourse.  Not only was the amendment to the bylaws itself discussed, but the fact that the membership was not consulted with before these massive changes were made. After a day or two of uproar, the Archdruid released an apology on the ADF-Discuss forum, one of the most toxic, troll ridden lists that ADF has. Not only was the apology limited to a single list when it could very easily have been forwarded to all the lists and to the  ADF Facebook group where a great deal of the discussion was taking place, but the Archdruid and the Vice Archdruid refused to take part in much of these discussions.  Of those members of Leadership who did participate, one had just retired from the Mother Grove (after passing the bylaws change) and at least two of the others are the list moderators, so it’s literally their job to take part in and monitor such discussions.

Throughout the various discussions on the ADF Facebook Group, my own personal Facebook page and face to face with my fellow members of ADF, I was insistent that it wasn’t the content of the bylaw changes that most concerned me, but the fact that the Mother Grove made such changes without asking the membership. I compared it to US Congress forcing through an amendment to the US Constitution bypassing the People completely. Now, I’m not overly fond of my country’s legislative branch as of late, but Pigs will fly if Congress ever manages such a breach of trust of its constituents and the Constitution. The fact that the Mother Grove felt empowered to make such changes without a period of comment from the membership shows how corrupt the leadership of ADF has become. Yes, we elect the Mother Grove to run the day to day business of the organization, yes; we empower them to make changes on our behalf. But not this.  This change to the bylaws changes the very fundamentals of the way ADF functions. This bylaw change should have been brought to the membership for consideration.

There were dozens of members who filed formal complaints with the Member’s Advocate asking that at the very least future procedures to change the bylaws should include input from the membership.  I know at least one member asked that the bylaws change be invalidated then submitted to the membership for comment, after which time the change to the bylaws could be reconsidered.  The response from the Mother Grove and the Member’s Advocate was cold. Essentially, the response was: Yes, we did it. No, we won’t take it back. Shut up and stop whining. Very well then.

 

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God[s] entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” –United States Declaration of Independence

 

As ADF no longer represents in any way, shape, or form my beliefs and ideas of what a national organization should be to its members as I have demonstrated above, I resign. I have waited quite some time from the start of the most recent drama.  I did so to give myself time to think about the impact this resignation will have on me, the Grove of the Rising Phoenix and most importantly, my ability to serve my community.  For when it was threatened, I found that thing I was most passionate about. My community.  My tribe. My people. My chosen family.

ADF threatened to impede my service to them first with their implication in both the Vision Statement and then in the bylaws changes, that it takes a priest to serve a community.  I loudly, passionately, and yes, angrily, beg to differ. A priest is more than an education. It is more than knowing the legalities of what can and can’t be done.  It is service to the people and to the Gods you represent. It’s recognition by your community that you serve them in that capacity. You can be forehead-palm-slapped and declared a priest, but if no one trusts you to minister to them, are you really a priest? No. You’re just another holy roller with Reverend before your name. It takes recognition from the people you serve to make you a priest. And the implication that if you are not a forehead-palm-slapped minion of the church, you are worth less than the refuse in a gutter is not only demeaning, but flat out wrong.

I hope someday, the Membership can right the listing ship that is ADF.  I hope someday they can find their way clear of this storm.  ADF fills a vital role in modern Paganism, but I fear the toxicity stemming from the mismanagement of the Mother Gove will be the end of an organization which has brought hope and community to so many. I know there are many who disagree with me, and I respect that. ADF no longer works for me and I hope that those friends that I have in ADF will respect my decision to leave and the reasons for it. However, I know that I will lose people I once called “friend” over this post and this decision. Sometimes, what is best for us is also the thing that hurts us the most.

Rev. Sara J. Gavagan
A Priest of the Pagan Community of Phoenix, AZ

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