What makes a group “good” or “bad” is not what you think it is

Nowhere is that more evident than when pagans talk about groups. Remember, we don’t have a Pope. We don’t have a set dogma or theology. People make much of “elders” and “traditions” but they don’t have much authority beyond those that choose to subscribe to them. Many of us chose this path because it is not the rigid, dogmatic, patriarchal faith we were forced to participate in when we were kids, and because of that pagans actively resent being told what to do, what to think, who to listen to, or how to practice their beliefs. They’re going to make up their own minds and do it their way, period.

And yet, we’re humans. And if we’ve learned anything about that condition during this pandemic, it’s that humans do not like to be alone. They want to form groups. They want to belong. And sometimes, people will go to great lengths in order to feel like they fit in.

Pagans have opinions about groups. If you’re new to our world and ask about joining a tradition or a group, you will get lots of advice. You will hear some people tell you that traditions that have secret memberships and hierarchy are bad and evil and outdated. You should avoid those and join a group that is more transparent and where decisions are made by the collective, they will tell you. Others will tell you that groups that have hierarchy are the only ones who can offer “true leadership” and “real learning” and you should avoid more consensus based groups because they are just too messy and lack direction.

So who’s right?

My answer is going to be disappointing to some. They both are right. And they both are wrong. Because if the only question you’re asking about a group is whether it’s hierarchical or more consensus based, you’re missing the real issue on group structure. What makes a group work well for its members and what makes a group a dysfunctional mess isn’t how it chooses to handle structure. It’s about how it chooses to manage the risks that are inherent in those structures.

I have seen oath-based, hierarchical groups that function well — they provide stability and structure for their members. The fact that everyone knows who’s in charge, and the fact that the people in charge are actually empowered to lead provides a structure that streamlines decision-making, and provides a defined container within which the work of the group can take place. The fact that there are ranks and degrees means that people have some idea of where they stand within the group, and they can know what to expect. The rituals that mark these milestones also provide a sense of satisfaction because your progress is being acknowledged and celebrated. And for less advanced members of the group, the fact that more advanced members have had to actually run through the demands of the program to succeed provides some assurance that they come by their authority through some kind of system that they too can navigate.

But as we all know, the very things that can provide structure and a sense of security, can also be used to terrorize and harm people. When you give someone authority over others, there is the risk that they will abuse that power and take advantage of those they lead. The sense of structure and the fact that there are boundaries can become stifling, can inhibit creativity and innovation. It can make people feel trapped and insecure. When there is too much structure, or when the authority that is conferred by it is abused, people are disempowered, and they don’t learn as much.

Groups that have hierarchical structures have to address those risks by having strong accountability mechanisms for their leaders. They should look for opportunities to create transparency, and to build connections between the levels of hierarchy, so that leaders are not placed on pedestals that become dangerous to fall off of. They need to find ways to give junior members confidence and encourage them early to stay creative and to think expansively. The fact that you have a well-defined path to offer does not mean that there is no room for innovation or for experimentation. A strong sense of structure does not automatically have to translate to conformity. A hierarchical, oathbound group that is keeping a watchful eye on the risks that come with that structure will successfully avoid most of the worst problems, or at least address them expediently.

I have seen open, consensus based groups function well. They provide a sense of freedom to their members. With the shared leadership model, members can feel seen and heard. Members’ opinions are valued and sought after. There is a strong sense of collective ownership which leads to strong bonds between members and group action is stronger because of that shared sense of responsibility. More diverse ideas come to the fore, because members do not feel they need permission to do things. Members can explore whatever they like, and feel empowered to share their knowledge with the group. Because decision making is a shared endeavor, people have higher levels of satisfaction with the decisions when they are made. Younger members who have raw talent can get more opportunities faster because there are no set paths or milestones or boxes to check. Because leadership is shared, it’s much less likely that leaders will burn out, because they are not constantly in a place of having to be “on” or “in charge” all the time. There is usually no shortage of people available to take the reins when a project needs someone to shepherd it along.

But as much as open, consensus based groups can be an incredibly positive experience, they can also become dysfunctional very quickly. The fact that everyone needs to be heard and acknowledged in order to make decisions means that sometimes opportunities are missed because decisions cannot be made quickly enough. Mechanisms that are meant to encourage open discussion can be abused by members who are overbearing or who lack social awareness. Infighting and cliquishness can take over quickly when there is no obvious decision making authority who can mediate disputes. And when there is no organized system of identifying and recognizing those of heightened ability or expertise, its hard to create opportunities for advanced study. The emphasis is on making everything accessible to everybody, which means that it’s hard for members to find opportunities to advance beyond the level of the lowest common denominator. And the thing is, humans are gonna human — which means that even when there are no identified leaderships or there is a leadership committee or group, there is often one person that emerges as a de facto leader, and that can cause tension as they draw power to themselves in an organization where power is meant to be shared. In the worst situations, those de facto leaders actually fly under the radar within the group, leaving newcomers confused because the way the group says it makes decisions and the way they are actually made do not match. When open, consensus based groups become dysfunctional, they will often implode in a fairly dramatic way.

To successfully avoid some of these problems, open, consensus based groups need strong foundational principles that are clearly stated and which everyone who participates in the group agrees upon. There also needs to be a strong set of processes in place that members can rely on to govern interaction and ensure decisions are timely. A strong sense of internal culture that emphasizes diversity can protect the group from infighting and make the space feel safe enough that those who want to carve out their own path within the confines of the group can do so. This allows those who are interested in advanced or specialized study to pursue it without alienating the other members of the group.

But the first thing to understand as you consider a group and whether it’s going to be a good experience for you to be part of isn’t even the group. It’s you. How do you respond to authority? Do you like lots of structure, or do you prefer to have less restrictions? Do you learn best when there is a plan and a formal teacher, or do you prefer to explore things in a more free range sort of way? How do you feel about decision making? Do you like to feel part of all the decisions, or do you like it better when most of the decisions are made by other people? How important is transparency for you? Do you feel more motivated if there is a ladder to climb with definite rungs and milestones? Or do you find such things constraining and frustrating? Think hard about other groups you’ve been a part of. What have you found helpful? What has been infuriating?

It’s important when you ask people about groups that you might be interested in that you recognize that you’re dealing with second hand information. This is particularly true if the person you’re asking is not actually a member of the group, and merely knows about the group from hanging about in the larger pagan community. Even if the person you’re talking to has first hand experience of what it’s like to be a member of a group, they are still filtering that experience through their preferences. Remember, there is no one right way to be as a group, just as there is no one right way to be a witch. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a hierarchical or better about being consensus based and vice-versa. It’s about what works for you. But if the person you’re asking doesn’t like hierarchical groups generally, they’re going to be more likely to speak with distaste about the group, no matter how great it is. Most people have trouble hiding their biases. No matter how neutral they’re trying to be, if they don’t like something or someone, it will still show up in the tone of their voice, the words that they choose, the faces they make, even as they are trying to be “objective.”

You don’t want to make snap judgements, however, even if you have a distinct preference. Because you can’t really know whether a group functions well simply based on what the structure is. The choice of governing structure is not nearly as important as whether the group has taken steps to handle the risks that are inherent in whatever structure they have chosen. You’ll want to take some time to really explore how the group has chosen not just to structure itself, but how it actually runs in practice. How does it manage the challenges that are inherent in the structure they have chosen? It helps to know some history, and watch a group manage a problem. Don’t be fooled by a group that tells you there are not or have never been problems. Humans are gonna human. Which means problems will come. Be inquisitive about what tools a group had or used to handle them.

There’s a reason why many traditions in the Craft require that an individual wait a year and a day before taking any oaths or binding themselves to a group, and it’s because you really want people to have seen the group and themselves go through a full cycle of seasonal changes before they make a hard commitment. The choice that you make to join a group will have a profound effect on your life as a witch and a person. Choosing poorly can have a far-reaching impact, and having to break ties with a group can be devastating. There is also nothing more thrilling than finding a spiritual home, a group of people who can support you on your path, and with whom you feel able to explore to the limits of your potential.

So look closely at a group before you join it. Ask lots of questions that not only probe at how the group is structured, but how it handles the risks inherent in that structure. Watch closely when the group handles conflict and discomfort. Groups with a healthy understanding of risk management will not be conflict free, but they will emerge from the inevitable problems stronger. They will have a resilience that lets them move forward, even after great tragedy. No one can promise you that things will never go wrong. They can only promise that they will handle it as best they can. Check that promise against the practice before you join, so that you can make the best choice possible for you.

A believer in magic and justice and the right to be exactly as you are. Anything passing for wisdom here is likely the product of surviving my own stupidity.

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