by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
In the last few months I’ve gotten a higher than usual number of messages from people interested in starting a Pagan, Witchcraft, or spirituality group, and wanting to know if I had any advice.
How long do you have?
Perhaps it’s the hope that the pandemic will end and we can resume social and spiritual gatherings that has people planning ahead and seeking deeper connection and the commitment and camaraderie that a group can create. People seek the mystery experience of a circle, coven, order, or temple. Despite all the wonderful bonds of friendship and magick, groups always pose risks and challenges, and sadly, we often enter into them totally ignorant of group dynamics, assuming the best possible experiences are the only possible experiences. Groups are extended relationships, and like all relationships, there are cycles, seasons, and times when things are smooth and when things get rough. How you navigate those times is the true measure of both the group and the individuals in it. Thankfully, some awareness upfront can help in the long term.
My own path in leadership within community evolved organically, without a lot of early awareness, as I had no real desire to be in anything beyond my immediate peers. My first coven was formed from peers who all graduated from a training program at the same time, consisting of my mother and my spiritual sister. We would gather for the Moons and do spells. I like to plan, and they were happy to let me plan, but they often led the ceremonies themselves. The “coven” had no structure, and it was easy to get along with each other since we all knew each other well.
Then friends who were interested in what we were doing wanted to know more. We would have “guests” to some rituals. A group who hosted sabbats that we were often guests of ourselves decided to withdraw, and turned over their semi-public Samhain to us, and then came as our guests. A book club was formed for those simply wanting to explore—dinner and discussion that turned more into dinner and less discussion. That turned into a study and meditation group that turned into a formal class that graduated into a new, larger coven. Years went by, and suddenly I was forming a nonprofit Temple with core people from that time. Looking back, there was a lot I wished I had known before embarking on any of these things, but I didn’t, as there were few resources. Covencraft by Amber K was my main guide, and I was thankful to have it and still recommend it highly, but I could have used more mentoring and guidance.
So here are some simple thoughts if you are thinking about starting or co-founding any kind of group, even if you think it will be only “fun” and super casual. Casual things often evolve into something else quickly when people feel the intense energy of magick and are touched deeply.
Defined Purpose – What is the purpose of the group, and does everyone agree? It’s easy to assume everyone has the same unvoiced idea, but usually, they don’t. We all bring expectations and assumptions to the table. The biggest problem with groups is that everyone thinks they think the same thing, but everyone has their own definition of what the group actually is and their role within it. You can do it however you want as long as people have clearly agreed. “Circle” and “coven” mean different things to different people, and we come with unvoiced expectations from reading, movies, and our projections about what we want, so it is easy to be disappointed and then blame others. Determining how formal or informal the group is and having some sort of mission statement is good. Is it social, educational, celebratory, or to provide moral support? All those things?
Defined Roles – What is everyone’s role in the group, in light of the defined purpose? What are the responsibilities we each hold? Are they the same? Are they different? Are they equivalent? Simple things can go unnoticed; for example, if you are all meeting at one person’s house, there is a burden for that person to “host” by cleaning, preparing the space, and even having food. Will that burden be shared? What are the time commitments and schedule? How much notice do people need? What happens if you miss a meeting? Is there magickal and/or mundane prep work? In larger groups, are there written “job descriptions” that can be passed on when someone steps down?
Leadership – Is someone in charge? Multiple someones? What does “in charge” mean? What is their responsibility to the group? What is the group’s responsibility to them as a leader? How do they step down? How are they removed? Often the most well-read member becomes the leader in occult groups, but well-read doesn’t always equate with wise. Sometimes the most public and personable person becomes the leader, but personality also doesn’t equate with leadership skills. Thrust into a new role, new leaders can be insecure and make mistakes, or present as what they think a “leader” is, and people will accept that…until they don’t. Make sure you are really clear in what you are doing and presenting, and when you don’t know something, be clear that you don’t. A lot of new leaders of groups assume, unintentionally, an air of mystique because they do know more, but present themselves, without realizing it, as more advanced than they really are. Even if they are “advanced” in comparison to the group, all leaders of groups have clay feet, so be prepared for the process of people putting a leader on a pedestal and knocking the leader off the pedestal. How you handle that is the mark of a wise leader. I was taught that while we are responsible for ourselves, if we take on a leadership position, we have to be prepared to be responsible for the whole, the container of it all. When someone fails to do their agreed-upon part, it’s up to you to make it work.
Dealing with Mess – While physical clean-up after a meeting is important, the bigger concern is the emotional-social mess that can be created. No matter how clear you are, be prepared for the group to be messy. People are messy, and it’s a part of life. I’d be more worried if there were never a problem rising up because that means there probably is a problem, but you don’t know about it. There will be misunderstandings, some that can’t easily be resolved. There will be drama, and if people are social outside the group, their social relationships will impact the dynamic of the group. Is there any thought to conflict resolution? Decision making? It can be as formal or informal as you’d like, as long as everyone knows what they are agreeing to when they join. Often someone assumes it’s absolute consensus or majority democratic, and when it’s not, or a leader makes a final call autocratically, people get upset. How do new people join? How do members leave in good graces?
Relationship Dynamics – Be prepared for family dynamics to play out in a group. Sometimes it can help, but sometimes it’s a big problem. People will work out their parental issues with perceived authority figures and sibling issues with other members. If you don’t personally have those same issues, it will all look foreign to you until you get to know their story. As an only child, I was often bewildered at group dynamics. Even once you do understand, pointing it out to those doing these unconscious behaviors is not always successful because it’s unconscious, and people don’t want it pointed out. Age, in relationship to you, doesn’t always matter. I found myself often taking a parental role to people chronologically older than me. Traditional covens often have structures and agreements that hold the container of these processes. Modern covens and informal groups do not. One of the most destabilizing things for a community, not often clearly taught, is when the group leaders look to the members in a training process for support and friendship or come to rely on them for personal support. While a student is in process, there is always a period of challenge where everything related to the work is a test of the work. Some members get tribal, framing everything in terms of personal loyalty to the group or leader, or the opposite, and rebel against the group and leader and stir problems with other members that were not there previously. It’s easy to take it personally when you think they are your friends who happen to be taking a class, rather than initiates in process in a mystery tradition.
Neglecting Personal Practice – For many, the group becomes everything, and any personal practice or development gets sidelined for the work in the group. Even if doing personal work is part of the group—say, homework or individual parts to prepare before the group meeting—for some people, if it’s not happening at a group meeting, it’s not happening. Don’t neglect your own personal practice and digging deeply into yourself in exchange for helping others. You have to do your own work continuously, often outside of the group. Leading others through a sabbat is not the same as experiencing the sabbat yourself. Guiding others in meditation, when you are responsible for the psychic safety of a group, is not the same type of gnosis you will personally receive when meditating alone.
Isolation – Some formal groups require you focus entirely on them. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you know that, and you know how long that process lasts. For some, you can’t go to other groups or teachers until you finish your first degree, or even third degree, but there should be a clear process and container; it shouldn’t be an indefinite amount of time with a “you can only speak to us” commandment from the group or tradition. When you are able, keep studying with other elders and teachers. Find support in other groups. If you are a leader in your group, develop a peer group outside of any group you lead. Despite any personal relationships you have, if you are in a formal leadership position, it is quite difficult to be personal friends with people in the magickal group who are not also leaders. Having outside support creates perspective.
Ulterior Motives – Ulterior motives makes it sound like someone in the group is truly sinister, and while that can happen, most often it is unconsciousness that makes a motive ulterior, and as it slowly rises to consciousness, the member doesn’t know how to address it. Some might be issues of power, authority, and self-esteem, but the most common is when a group turns into a therapy group, blurring the line between sharing, support, friendship, and co-dependence. If that is what everyone wants, it can work for a time, but it’s worse when it turns into a therapy group for one person alone. How does that get addressed if it’s not what the majority wants? Having clearly defined purpose and responsibilities helps. It doesn’t mean you don’t help a person in need, but determining what you can and cannot do, and what happens in and outside of the group, is an important step.
Identity – Once a group is formed, people will strongly identify with it, often sharing with others that they are members of the group, for a variety of reasons. Some are simply proud of the work being done, or feel excitement about the new adventure and want to share that feeling. Others will have a strong need to do so, to bolster their own esteem and identity, borrowing more strongly from the group’s collective esteem, identity, and energy, often without realizing it. People often come to Witchcraft seeking belonging and will compromise themselves to fit in, even when not asked to do so, because that is what they do in many other social groups. There is healthy compromise for the collective focus and unhealthy compromise. In our early days, we had many members exploring Witchcraft who were obviously not a good fit for it, but they had to come to that determination themselves. They just wanted to be doing what their friends were doing. The process of embracing and rejecting an identity can be rough on the individual, and on the group, and graceful ways to navigate it should be explored.
Contemplation of these nine points can be helpful when thinking about group work and starting new groups. Even if you are informal and dismiss most of this, at least you have given it thought, and if the issues arise, that forethought, rather than surprise, will aid you in the process of navigating what’s next. Despite being a tradition of psychic practitioners, the dynamics of groups will often lead us into realms we did not expect, and part of our magick is to be properly prepared. Deep thought about community dynamics is one of the ways we embody the love and respect we have for our fellow practitioners on the path.