Last fall, I attended the Gaia Goddess Gathering near Kansas City with several friends as I have done for six of the last seven years. It’s a great little women-only festival that is affordable and recharges my spiritual batteries.
One night the small group of us who came together – ranging from 14 to 40-somethings – huddled around a small campfire chatting. Most of us have a connection to a specific women’s group, and one of the ladies around the fire was preparing to be inducted as a member. Mentioning how she needed the structure, another friend was shaking her head.
“All we need,” she said, emphatically gesturing to the ground on which our humble fire and group sat, “is this. Right. Here.”
I got what she meant. I think.
We Pagans/Earth-loving folk often try to find groups of like-minded people. Christians, Jews, Hindus, and other religions have their churches and temples, but most Pagan types don’t have an organized community like that. And though many of us are drawn to the strong individualism and lack of dogma of Pagan and Earthy traditions, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone.
I remember when finding community was so stinking hard! I began my Pagan journey in 1997 and the only connection with others I had was a subscription to Sagewoman magazine. To learn of a practicing group in the area, you might have found one close to you on the Witch Vox website, but you usually had to learn about them by word of mouth. If you were lucky enough to have a Pagan Pride Day or Pagan Picnic in your area, you could meet folks that way.
Now, many groups are created online (or members find each other there), but just because we can find each other easier via the Internet doesn’t mean we’re any better at staying together. There are some reasons for this, some of them come from the core of Paganism and some from the core of being human. In many cases, they can be overcome with self-awareness and thought.
For what it’s worth, I’ve outlined a few issues I’ve noticed over the years in case it helps any groups out there having difficulties.
I’m Pagan and You’re Pagan, so We’re Good, Right?
Well, maybe and maybe not. It’s really not enough, in most cases, for everyone involved to simply be Pagan or Pagan-friendly. There’s no dogma or religious rulebook for us, so what Pagan means can be different to every single one of us. In other words, just being Pagan isn’t necessarily a unifying concept.
I’ve seen many groups – online and in person – fall apart or flail about because they tried to be too inclusive and had no guidelines of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior (or just very weak guidelines) for the group.
While being all-inclusive sounds like a wonderful thing, the sad fact is that there is always a troll, narcissist, or energy vampire waiting for an opportunity to present itself. Groups like this are chum for those types.
Rising Numbers of those Intolerant of Focus – or a Challenge
With information readily available (either as online content or as books for sale online) about different traditions, more people are doing a smorgasbord approach. And I’m not saying this is bad – I have gone this way somewhat too, as you may remember.
However, I’ve found that the more Pagans there are who have never worked within a specific tradition for any real length of time, the fewer Pagans there are that have learned to have patience or respect for those with different opinions and practices. You present them with something they disagree with and they’re gone. Or they simply balk whenever they are challenged spiritually or mentally, which is often something mentors and teachers do to help us learn. I know my primary mentor in the Avalonian tradition challenged me plenty – and grow I did!
Can’t We All Just Stop Bickering? (AKA: Group Dynamics)
I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities to work within several group structures – from highly structured and organized groups with a mission statement to small and casual social groups.
The first group I was a part of met weekly but had no unifying identity other than being some type of Pagan. It fell apart in the typical “witch war” situation. Then there was three years coordinating the local Pagan Pride Day and then several more years as a PPD volunteer. There was a very short stint in the Sisterhood of Avalon, and then almost nine years of being highly involved (and I’m still involved but to a far lesser degree) with the structured Daughters of the Sacred Grail.
Then, there’s the online folk magic group that went gang busters for a year or two and then petered out to nothing (actually, there were several online groups like that). There was also a long-lived social group that met in our local bookstore’s café once a month – and it would probably still be going if the bookstore hadn’t shut down.
Currently, the only Pagan/magical group I really meet with is a small group of friends that occasionally gets together to do a study or to celebrate holy days. This is my spiritual family, and I’m a bit bulldoggish in guarding it because of the drama I’ve seen in the past.
From these 19 years of experience, there are things I’ve noticed working against groups of any kind:
• Absolutely no rules or guides – As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been part of a group that really had no direction or guidelines. Most people seem to need a focus or tradition to avoid issues like different camps in the group from going to battle. And if you’ve ever seen the love-and-lighters trying to philosophically battle the left-hand enthusiasts, you know what I’m talking about. Even a few basic rules outlining an expectation of behavior is a good thing.
Then there’s the other extreme.
• Rules gone crazy – Sometimes group leaders dislike the behavior of some members of the group: poor attendance, showboating for attention, etc. So, they create rules. Mind you, I’m not opposed to a few rules myself, but sometimes leaders can get on a kick thinking every problem in the group can be solved with a rule. They want the group to move forward in unison and be productive.
But they forget to listen and to see the deeper issues at hand and to solve them in other ways. Instead, their rules sow more division between the “good” members and the “bad” members. They forget to keep their own egos in check when they believe they are all right and the others are all wrong. Sometimes, these folks start feeding off this power to control others, which is never good. And they also:
• Forget the Pagan individual – Forgetting that many Pagans are drawn to the individualism of our spirituality is a big problem for groups on a mission to grow, develop structure, etc. Much of what makes Pagan group ritual effective and beautiful is the creative energy of those members who know when to throw a scripted ritual to the wind and work with spirit. What makes a Pagan study group so interesting is hearing from those who come from different perspectives and paths.
With us, you cannot sacrifice the individual spirit for the good of the group – you must learn to balance the two. After all, we are not sheep to be herded.
Further, you cannot forget to feed ALL the members spiritually. It’s easy to get caught in a cycle of sabbat celebrations, full moon rituals, and studies, but some people need things to be shaken up now and again. Some people need deeper studies to stimulate their spiritual minds while others are perfectly OK going over basic information with new members every time. Again, there must be a balance to make sure everyone is fed. Too many groups (and even churches) have groups splinter off because of this very issue.
All Bickering Aside, What Do You Really Need?
Now, back to my friend’s statement by the campfire.
When all is said and done, all we really NEED for community is this: a small group of people who have your back and who you can trust to share your experiences. The campfire is optional, but sharing lunch or teatime or an informal ritual is equally satisfying. We may WANT more structure – this is often attractive, especially for those that have trouble with motivation or have been out of practice for a while – but we don’t really need it for spiritual community.
All we need to do is to find our people and treat them with respect and love. To share when it is helpful. To make your limitations clear and don’t feel bad for having some – if they love you as a brother or sister, they will understand. To support them in whatever ways you can, but to never forget to add to your own spiritual stewpot so you’re not running on empty. To be fucking nice to each other. Yes, I said that, and I mean it. A real community built with love and honor won’t as easily default into gossip and battles.
Until next time, I wish everyone the warmth of community in whatever way you connect with it – and, of course, blessings of Avalon.!