On Alchemical College, Soror MX noted that around 90% of her spiritual work is solitary. She may have purchased some books and attended a few lessons, but she has not established a serious life-changing relationship with any Pagan "elder." While she did acknowledge that there were people who had touched her life in profound ways, they were not necessarily part of a Pagan, Wiccan or magical community.
This is a very important point. More than Judaism, Christianity or Islam, Neopaganism is a "religion of the book." Many, perhaps most, Pagans are learning their religion primarily or exclusively from books, websites and online forums. If they are lucky, they may meet fellow Pagans face-to-face at occasional festivals, but the vast majority of their spiritual journey is a solitary one. They don't feel the need to support the elders in their Pagan community because they are not part of any Pagan community.
Once upon a time Pagan bookstores and magical supply shops served as a meeting place for magically inclined types. If you wanted an uncommon herb or some particularly rare volume -- which, in the 1970s and 80s, included things like the Farrar's Witches' Bible and Crowley's Book of the Law -- you had to go to a specialty store. There you could meet others who shared your interests: you might even be able to use their back room for rituals or join the owner's coven if you were deemed worthy. Thanks to Amazon, eBay and other online stores, many of these shops have been driven out of business. That is not to criticize the Web or online business: the automobile forced many buggy makers and horse traders to seek alternate lines of work. But it is impossible to ignore the way that meatspace magical communities have become harder to find as web-based communities have exploded, or to claim that a list moderator has the same kind of presence in a student's life as a face-to-face teacher.
Adding to this confusion is the Neopagan idea that "you can be your own high priest/ess." Within British Traditional Witchcraft (and other initiatory systems), attaining a degree required a certain amount of time, study and practice: it cemented your place within the community as a leader whose opinion could be trusted. Within non-initiatory strains of Neopaganism, anyone who wants to claim the title can become "Lord Sapphiredragon Twitchbottom" or "High Priestess Crystal Breakswind."
Quite a few of these self-proclaimed Grand Mucky-Mucks will happily assert their right to be treated as Elders, or at the very least claim that their opinion is just as valid and important as anyone else's. Sure, Priestess Y has been practicing the Craft since before Lord Twitchbottom was a Grand High Zygote and Priest X has written more books on the tradition than HPs Breakswind has read, but authority is for fascists. If your spiritual beliefs are true for you, then by gum they're true. After all, Priest X wasn't in Pre-Christian Celtic Europe, so how does he know the Druids didn't make pumpkin pie and potato casserole to celebrate the Revealing of the Threefold Law?
So how do you determine who the true Elders are in a world where everyone can be a High Priest/ess? I have some thoughts (and wrote an article on this question for newWitch a while back) but I'd be interested in hearing what others have to say.
In an upcoming post I want to address an important point which Alexandra and a few others have raised: how much responsibility should Elders (once we figure out who they are) take for their own well-being? I'd be foolish to deny that many spiritually minded folks have a lousy grasp of economics. There are many Pagan elders whose writings I admire but whom I would not entrust with large sums of money. Rufus Opus has posted some interesting thoughts on the subject in his blog and I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to check his post out.