Why do so many Pagans end up avoiding Pagan community? Why do so many Pagans speak out very vocally about how they are now solitary, or even about why they left the Pagan community? Every time I teach Pagan leadership classes, I hear the same things from participants, the same patterns, over and over.
A consistent one is, “Why do we build things and then they fall apart?” People also bring up leadership burnout, the constant frustration of wondering why more Pagans don’t come out to events much less volunteer to help out more, among many other complaints.
I have lived in the Chicagoland area for a while and spent a lot of time and energy working to build a Pagan unity organization consisting of a Roundtable of all the local Pagan group leaders and major community resources. For instance, store owners and elders even if they aren’t a leader of a group, as well as the folks stepping in to take on community tasks.
I read an article on Witchvox once about “Beltane/Samhain” Pagans. In other words, the counterparts of Christians who only go to services on Christmas and Easter. I’ve heard from a lot of folks, and I read a few blog posts at around the same time. There’s Kriosalysia’s Post and Diane Sylvan’s Post, and others that I’ve seen that I can’t link to or are no longer live.
Having heard so many Pagans complain about these related things, I find myself with a huge amount of anecdotal data, and I wonder what patterns to make out of it. I believe I can start to make a few generalizations that begin to paint a picture of why our communities have some of the difficulties that they do.
Pagans, Outcasts, and Rejection
Largely, I think the pattern begins with what drew us to Paganism. Many of us are outcasts from other social groups, and certainly from any religion of origin. Many Pagans I interact with come from a childhood where they felt they were rejected by their peers. Pagan community becomes, simultaneously, the magical place where they are finally accepted, and also the paradigm shift. If you’ve identified your whole life as being the different one, the unique one, the one who was rejected by others and nobody liked you because you were different…and, if you built that difference into armor, into your identity…then when you join a community of similar people and you are finally accepted for who you are can fundamentally screw with your ego, your identity, your sense of self.
Your self identity is invalidated; you are not rejected because you are different, you are among people who are just like you. So the part of you that likes being different and special–because, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, and for many of us, it’s what kept us sane in high school–suddenly has an error loop. There’s nobody to reject you. There’s nobody to rebel against. Our ego/self identity is a simple creature, and this particular human psychological function isn’t great at dealing with a radical change in identity.
Fear of Structure
Similarly, if there’s a bunch of people coming together in community who are afraid of the structures they grew up in, then they don’t want those structures and throw them out wholesale.
Except, it’s the structures of a Church that keep the congregation together. We don’t have to keep the structures of a church that make it stifling, but what about the lifespan education? What about the soup kitchens? What about the paid ministry that have time to offer pastoral counseling and spiritual guidance to the community? What about the central point of connection, the monthly and weekly discussions, the socials, and the place of belonging? I believe that churches work because people feel like they belong. They bring what they have to community by helping out to cook for bakesales and potlucks, by organizing food drives, by rotating kids education, by leading a covenant group.
I believe that a church structure doesn’t need to be disempowering, even if it has a paid minister.
Bootstrappers and Volunteering for Leadership
Largely, I believe that the people who step into Pagan leadership are not trained in leadership. Some are, but most are bootstrappers–motivated people who want to see things get done and are willing to make it happen. However, an entrepreneurial spirit can build up a group, and run a few events, but is eventually subject to burnout.
The two contributing factors to burnout, sadly, come from the bootstrappers themselves. If the bootstrapper doesn’t also step into learning tools and skills for leadership, then burnout’s usually inevitable. And, how can they learn the leadership skills they need?
If they’ve just thrown in every spare dollar and moment they have into running a Pagan Pride event, or trying to run public rituals and classes, they might not have time to learn how to be a better leader, much less money to pay for leadership classes.
Given that the personality profile of a bootstrapper/entrepreneur is usually that they have a lot of fire in the beginning, they usually aren’t the folks who inherently know how to build sustainable structures. They know how to git’r’done.
Control Freaks and Perfectionists
People who step into leadership under their own initiative also tend to have strong vision, and in my experience, tend toward being control freaks and perfectionists. So again, here we have a pattern where the entrepreneurial beginnings of Pagan groups are their downfall. A control freak (or a recovering control freak like myself) isn’t likely to give a task to someone else if I know I can do it better myself.
In the past, if I’ve seen someone screwing something up I’ve been known to take the job right back out of their hands. Granted that was before I did a lot of leadership training and personal work, but most bootstrapper/visionary leaders don’t even realize they do this. I’ve also just kept all the jobs for myself because I can’t trust people to not drop the ball, and I know I’ll do a better job myself.
This energetic dynamic does not set up a community to want to participate–it sets up the community to say, “Oh, Shauna’s doing all the work so I don’t have to, I’ll just come to the event.” Or, “Shauna’s such a control freak, she won’t even ask for help on that event. I tried to do something and she snatched it right out of my hands.” Boy, have I lived this pattern a few times. It’s a whole separate blog post how that scenario ends up like that.
The Meltdown Email
Thus, when the bootstrapper gets to the point where they’re burned out, the pattern I’ve seen in other leaders, though I’ve not done this myself, often results in that overwhelmed, stressed-out leader sending out an email that sounds something like, “This community can’t possibly happen unless some of you get off your lazy asses and step in. If you want Pagan Pride to happen, you’re going to have to step up.”
Or some kind of similar email that chastises the community for not helping. And, an email like that never encourages healthy community–people may step in to help out of guilt, but it spells a deathknell for many groups because anyone helping out of guilt will resent it, and you, later.
The tragedy of this scenario, which of course has many variants, is that it’s the initial leader stepping in who sets the fall in motion by acting out of a place of service and love to help their community.
Why Do Pagans Leave?
I believe the solution is, leaders who get appropriate leadership training, communities that are given ways to be involved and are encouraged to adopt a value of community service, service to the community if they want to be served, as well as setting up healthy structures for the community that help it become sustainable.
Most Pagan communities I’ve witnessed are created by the above bootstrapper structure. They blossom and then fall apart. They are populated by Pagans who have a history of feeling rejected and who don’t know how to cope with not being “the different one” and also who resent structure.
Add into this toxic mess our generally poor communication skills and we have a recipe for disaster. Most people seem to have learned their relationship and interpersonal communication skills from watching how people speak to each other in movies and sitcoms. A situational comedy hinges on a communication problem that leads to a humorous scenario but usually with disastrous results. Thus, we end up with communities that are ready for drama.
Of course people leave.
Why Did we Join?
I became Pagan when I was 15, and didn’t involve myself in Pagan community for 12 years because all the Pagans I met were really unhealthy, really flaky, or really unwelcoming. I kept hearing the Call, though, and after going to a Gaia’s Womb retreat, I found the kind of community could want to be part of. I felt warmly welcomed, had transformative experiences. Largely it was the warm connections with the women present that connected me.
I new that I wanted to be part of work like this, and a few months later, became involved with the Reclaiming community in Chicago. There I found a home. I fell in love with ecstatic ritual. While I could care less if we work with a circle and elements, or some other format to get us into sacred space, the inclusive, ecstatic nature of the work really called to me.
I began attending intensives at the Diana’s Grove Mystery School in Missouri. While certainly not all of their rituals touched me emotionally deeply, the combination of the Reclaiming-style inclusiveness, the ecstatic energy work, and the incredible friendships I made with the community, helped me to really find a tribe, a place I looked forward to ritual every time.
Communities With Healthy Structures
Much of the staff and attendees at Diana’s Grove were people who are either midlife or older and who got sick of their local Pagan community, or younger people who had either never involved themselves in their local Pagan community or who got sick of it faster. What I found at Diana’s Grove was a higher percentage of people who were professionals in their work life, and also, people with far less propensity for drama or BS. Certainly where there is community there is drama and BS wherever there are people, but with Diana’s Grove I found more people willing to work through it rather than have it explode.
I believe that the folks who attend groups/events like Diana’s Grove are very similar to the folks who have pulled out of the public Pagan community—these are folks who aren’t satisfied with the current Pagan community and who want something more, something different.
Places like Diana’s Grove in many ways function as a replacement for a local community. I call it the “escape pod” style of community–it’s people who ran away from the dysfunction. And that’s not to say that it’s wrong. Creating a healthy group and having structures and boundaries is totally appropriate. However, I’ve only rarely seen it work in any kind of a local community. One example is Gaia Community in Kansas City.
The only problem with the “escape pod” model is that those people who pulled away from their local community because of drama, aren’t bringing their more mature, grounded presence to their local community, so things can have the tendency to get even worse.
You can see the self-fulfilling spiral we’ve entered into at this point. Our own unhealthy communities drive people away into being solitiaries, or joining distant communities with more mature people, and that can make the local Pagan community even more dysfunctional.
How do we fix it?
For my part, I’ve worked to teach leadership and community building skills including communication and group dynamics to anyone who will listen. I believe that by making these tools available, we may be able to make a community space that is more welcoming to people who are more mature and who have less tolerance for drama.
I’ve done a lot of direct work with people who have poor communications kills and who are bringing drama to their groups to teach them other ways of communicating and help them be more constructive in their community. But, it’s damn hard work. And some people are above my pay grade, so to speak.
I believe that the whole Pagan community, from leaders to teachers to ritualists to volunteers to community members who are attending events, need to be taught skills like communication and other tools for building community, and how each one of us can step into leadership instead of waiting for the bootstrappers to do it.
Communication skills are not, for the most part, inborn. I believe most of them are learned. And most of us learn communication from watching Sitcoms and movies, and from middle school and high school. Because, when I look at most of the disagreements I’ve seen in Pagan community that turn into a “witch war,” they read like a sitcom that doesn’t have the happy ending. What if we learned to actually communicate with one another, work with each other? Talk to each other when things aren’t working out and address it? It’s harder work, but this is the critical piece if we want someone to stay in a community and work things out instead of leaving and starting their own group, or just going solitary.
More Professional Events and Rituals
I also believe we need to revamp our public rituals and somehow make them more inclusive, as well as provide more opportunities for deep, meaningful spiritual work in them.
I think the above points are really critical. I think that as leaders and organizers of events, we need to provide people a clear line of communication to us so that they can offer feedback about what they’d like to see, or, offer feedback about why part of a ritual turned them off. The capacity to review ritual and event feedback is huge. Similarly, I believe that as leaders we need to foster in our communities the sense that they can come to us with feedback–and that feedback, vs. bitching off to the side, is a gift to the whole community.
I know for myself hearing negative feedback about a ritual or workshop or event is hard, but it makes me better at what I do.
Also encouraging a community of do-ers, where people feel empowered to step forth and offer programming they would find meaningful, is important, though this is very much a long-term process when working with a community full of people that feel disempowered.
Work that Has Meaning
And the fourth point, do they themselves know what is meaningful? That one is harder than it looks. I know for myself I’ve complained about how a ritual didn’t touch me, but could I have identified what would make it meaningful for me? Nope. Took me years of personal growth work to get that self aware.
I’d love to see more programs in Pagan community that go along the lines of a mystery school, that are more focused on personal growth vs. straight up magical tools, to help people get to a place where they can articulate for themselves what is meaningful, as well as learn to step into their own power, learn how they can contribute to the community, and maybe learn some communication and group dynamic tools while they’re there.
What have you seen working in community? What doesn’t work?
How can we make Pagan community stronger? Why do people leave? Why are they unsatisfied?
What can we do ourselves, as leaders, to become stronger community builders? What do you make of some of these patterns?