I always wondered what it must have been like to be a part of the early church, to meet the apostles, to see this little tribe of misfit disciples grow into a religion. I often wished I could travel back in time, just to get a glimpse of the excitement, the challenges, the rawness of a growing fledgling religion. I thought I would never know, but then I became a Witch.

It’s not that I discovered a spell for time travel. But I joined a young religion with old roots in which many founders of traditions and elders are still among us. And sadly I have been seeing eulogies on The Wild Hunt for elders I had just met or was hoping to meet some day. Our founders are aging and dying and a new generation is bringing different interpretations and ways of being Pagan. While we are culturally different, some of the letters that comprise the New Testament of the Christian Bible were written a a time when early Christianity found itself at similar crossroads.

I could really feel a shift at Pantheacon this year. People I saw last year are no longer alive. The list of recently departed Mighty Dead we remembered at the closing ceremony was long. Then there was the panel Turning the Wheel on supporting young leaders. And my personal experience of Pantheacon was centered around my acceptance of a call to leadership and the struggle against ageism.

After Pantheacon I wrote about my journey and described an event that felt very unwelcoming to young people. Unsurprisingly older Pagans responded by 'addressing my concerns' based on (mostly false) assumptions about me, providing unsolicited and often patronizing advice, and thus perpetuating the unwelcoming ageist culture I was critiquing in the first place.

One thing, however, I did not expect. I was given a 'reality check' that "Paganisms have no institutional support for activities beyond their own" and that an event we were discussing "costs plenty of money." I didn’t understand how this was related to my experience until someone mentioned that there must have been an assumption that I was looking for financial support for the event in question. A false assumption, since I was already registered and had paid my own way, but the comment continued to occupy my thoughts.

Here were the old arguing that Paganism was in need of institutions for the sake of younger generations. I also had several conversations at Pantheacon in which elders lamented the lack of institutions for themselves, communities to retire, land to bury the dead. Elders longing for institutions for themselves, but also for the sake of the young. But what do the young and those in the middle want?

I know what we do not want. We do not want to see our Paganisms go the way of Christianity. We do not want paid clergy telling us what to believe. We do not want to sit in pews and listen to someone preach. But what about institutions that help us address issues of justice? Every year since I have been going to Pantheacon the programming includes more offerings centered around issues justice. This year we had panels on racism, ageism, cultural appropriation and capitalism.

As a young white person with a stable job, decent health, and a great community, I personally don’t have a desperate need for Pagan institutions. I am able to pay for most events, but it is true that many Pagans younger than myself (or older, for that matter), are not so privileged. Scholarships for young leaders are rare in our communities. At the same time we have elders who served the Pagan community their whole lives but cannot afford to retire. Many rely on state or Christian institutions as they age and will receive Christian funerals and burials.

Interestingly the first institutions the early Christian church built were not churches. For more than three centuries Christians met in homes, catacombs, or privately owned spaces. A few decades after Pentecost (the founding of the Christian church) institutions were built to benefit those in need, both Christian and otherwise. In the early days Christian institutions fed the hungry and clothed the poor, a community working together for justice, with no thought of domes or crystal cathedrals.

It is those kinds of institutions that I would like to see us build in our Pagan communities. Those who are well off, able-bodied, privileged may not need them, but we need them if we are to form communities that care for each other. I long to see Pagan eco-villages where our elders can retire and our young can grow up supported. I want to see us offer more scholarships for events and classes for those in need. I want to see us sponsor leadership training for new and young leaders. I want to see more places where we can bury our Beloved and Mighty Dead.

And yes, I want to see paid clergy, but not for imposing rituals on us, preaching or instilling doctrine. Leading ritual, preaching, and teaching are only aspects of what clergy practice in other religions. Clergy are also trained in leadership skills, mediation, and counseling. Those of us who can afford it pay for trained psychotherapists, why not pay for spiritual counseling to support us (if we want it) and others in times of need? We may be able to find support from our friends or pay our therapist, but what about those in prison, in hospice, the homeless, traumatized, and poor?

Institutions are scary. The very word produces a knee-jerk reaction in many of us. We have seen them oppress, fossilize, and become irrelevant in other religions. It seems that we are even beginning to see the same within some of the few Pagan institutions we have. When organisations are preoccupied with reciting the achievements of their past, their descriptions read more like tombstones than invitations into living and thriving communities. But we have also seen new groups form, grow, and flourish, and then fall apart suddenly and painfully when their founders burn out or move on. Neither approaches are sustainable. If we are to build institutions that last, we need to learn from elders who have succeeded and failed and succeeded again. And we need to listen to younger generations, their needs, their ideas, their unique ways of expressing their Paganisms and support and empower them to step into leadership.

Building healthy institutions is shadow work. We have plenty of examples of oppressive and toxic institutions in our overculture. For us to succeed in re-envisioning and building healthy and sustainable communities of justice and empowerment, we will need all the collaboration we can get, of the old, the young, and of all of us in between.