Pagan Leadership and Witch Wars

5169119_xxlIt’s not a Witch War. Let’s get that out of the way. In fact, let’s get rid of that term completely, because it aggrandizes conflict and makes it sound magical, powerful, cool. What is a witch war? It’s a fancy-schmancy word for an interpersonal conflict.

Why do we need the cool word for it? Well…put bluntly, and making a lot of assumptions, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that many Pagans out there have poor self esteem. Heck, a lot of people have poor self confidence.

Drama is a coping mechanism to feel better about yourself. Think about this; if you have another Witch who is gunning for you, hexing you, psychically attacking you…that must make you pretty important, huh? 

Let’s face it. Drama is exciting. Humans like drama and we like story. Otherwise novels would be pretty boring, as would movies. They’d be about a character who makes some toast, and then watches tv, and then goes to sleep without facing any conflict. There’s a reason that movies and books sell well. There’s a reason why people have been telling stories about warriors and battles since language began. We like stories. Drama and conflict are a part of stories.

However, many people gravitate toward drama in their lives. They often stir it up, even though they aren’t consciously aware that they’re doing it.

What I’ve noticed is that the people who seem to stir up the most drama in their lives often have a certain measure of self loathing. They may hate their own lives; unhappy in their relationship, their job, their family…the list could go on. Drama is a pretty exciting distraction from the parts of your life that you’re not happy with. And again, if you have a nemesis, that’s at least a relief from your own life’s worries. It can be pretty exciting.

I’m certainly not writing this from the arm chair. I’ve been that person. Heck, I write fantasy novels, and dramatic conflicts of my past (realistic or imagined) inspired some of my epic fantasy stories.

I’ve worked with a lot of Pagans, enough to see this pattern happen pretty commonly. And being in a “witch war” is way more exciting than saying, “I’m entangled in a no-win situation with a coven leader.”

Competing for Market Share
I hate to say it, but this is a core part of many witch wars. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious; I know a number of cities, like Salem, where there are big public conflagrations between store owners, because the drama brings in business. But more than that, by discrediting the “other guy,” your store and services look better and you make more money.

Usually it’s a bit more altruistic. Or, rather, seems more altruistic, but it’s the same model.

Let’s say you’ve just started up a new group. You aren’t interested in forming a coven, you just want a networking thing at a local coffee house to meet up with other Pagans. There are a few covens in your area, but nothing like that.

Much to your surprise, a bunch of folks show up, and over the course of a few months, you form a group. Things are going well. Until…

Another local coven leader starts grilling you about what you are doing. Over the next months, you discover that they are badmouthing you around town. You go to a local Pagan bookstore to propose a fundraiser there, and they give you a weird look. You finally start to figure out what’s been happening.

Why is this leader doing this?

Many times, it boils down to this; you are stepping on their toes. You are doing something that perhaps they wanted to do. People are going to your group. The other leader worries that your group will be more successful than theirs. This isn’t about money–this is about attention. It’s also about boundaries, vision, and ego.

Ego Annex
I’ve explained this concept in my boundaries articles, but basically, any visionary who starts a group, reaches for a dream…we get attached to that vision, to that dream, to that thing we created. Maybe it’s a group, maybe it’s an annual event. Maybe it’s an art project. We get attached to it like it is a part of ourselves–because it is. And when that thing is threatened, when we fear that something else will take people’s attention away from that thing, we get angry, just as if someone insulted us personally.

So it’s egotism from a somewhat altruistic place.

A leader like this genuinely feels they are protecting their group and the work they are doing. But the truth is, when a leader works to undermine another group in order to protect their baby, their event, their group, their project…it’s usually a red flag for some serious issues with self esteem or with personal boundaries.

Boundaries meaning, there is a separation between you and me. And, the group I run is not actually me. A subset of me, sure, but it’s not actually me. I understand this from the inside; I’ve gotten way defensive about other groups scheduling an event at the same time as mine, for instance. However, I had the skills and tools to take a breath and realize one important thing.

It’s not about me. They aren’t personally attacking me.

They just scheduled their event over mine because they didn’t know. I can’t get mad at them for that, I can be mad at the situation, and work to establish better communication with that other group.

However–getting back to these community disputes that we won’t call witch wars, that’s a tactic that many unstable, egotistical leaders will put into play. To undermine another group, these leaders will badmouth them. They will schedule events at the same time to make the community “choose” which event to attend.

Whether the conflict is about who is bringing in donation money, who has the more popular group, who is stepping on toes, or even an actual interpersonal dispute…what it is not is magical, neat, or cool.

Dating in Groups
Let’s play “it’s a small world.” Person A and Person B are in a coven together and they are dating. Let’s hope that neither one is a coven leader. Person B completely loses it. Maybe they are a really angry person. Maybe they are Bipolar and went off their meds. Whatever the reason, A and B break up and Person B just goes bananas, disrupts coven meetings, the whole thing. The coven leader asks person B to leave the group.

Now–some of you advanced players in this particular dance know one of the next moves. What does Person B do next? Yes! Form their own coven, of course!

As you can imagine, this isn’t going to be a group that is based up on a strong core skill set of leadership, or even a grounding in any particular tradition. Nor is this going to be one of our more stable leaders. However, this person–whether we like it or not–is out there recruiting people for their group.

So, one strategy is telling people around town that she’s unstable and her group will be bad. However, then you get a rep as a gossip monger and for having sour grapes. You can also just ignore them, which works until they start spreading rumors about you and your group.

The other thing that happens perhaps more frequently is that Person B bails on your group and joins another coven in the area, and badmouths you to those people, and they take Person B’s side. Then that coven begins to undermine yours by badmouthing you around town.

Calling it a witch war perhaps  is the balm to ease the frustrating truth. There’s no good way out of that conflict. There’s no clean resolution for it.

What To Do with Bad Leaders?
With the examples above, there isn’t really a way to oust a bad leader. You can try to go and talk to them, but making the assumption that this person is not stable (and I have some forthcoming article on this process via conflict resolution)…let’s make the assumption that no conflict resolution process has worked.

What do you do?

The only thing that most leaders can even do in that instance is shunning, just ignoring the bad leader and not engaging with them.

Most leaders who are acting poorly don’t see it about themselves. And there’s a dozen reasons for that, but I think most of them center around wounds of the ego. Leaders harming their community cannot see their bad behavior, they cannot accept that they are “bad.” Ego doesn’t cope with it well. “It’s not me, nothing’s wrong with me.”

And if they can’t recognize that their egotism is causing community rifts–or, if they don’t care–what do we do with them? What do we do with those people, other than try to ignore them?

They will still keep leading groups, finding newbies…they will still undermine the other leaders out there…they will continue to cause problems.

Accountability and the Catch-22
When you’re dealing with leaders who are jerks, or unstable, the rub is–in order to speak out against them, you have to cause the drama you were trying so desperately to avoid. Some of the so-called “witch wars” are attempts to hold leaders accountable that created inter-community disputes that leave rifts for years.

Most people I know were raised to be non-confrontational, to be passive aggressive. When someone is more aggressive and blunt, it’s really obvious, and it’s usually (not always) someone who held their tongue before and finally blew up.

A lot of Pagan leaders have learned to sweep the bad stuff under the rug because they are afraid of starting a witch war. In fact, whistle-blowers who call bad leaders on their stuff often get blamed and shamed.

I often tell people is, the truth will almost always eventually out. It did for me. But, don’t speak out against someone like that unless you’re prepared to burn in the court of public opinion. Really ready.

And know that there are going to be conflict avoidant people who are going to beg you, who are going to demand, that you stop tearing down XYZ leader. They are going to talk about how they have trauma from all the community conflict. And they are going to bully you into not speaking out against the abuser.

Most community leaders with any compassion are going to cave, they’re going to back down from calling another local leader on the carpet for behaving badly.

We have no authority over other leaders. All we can do is speak out…except in our conflict-avoidant community, the person who blows the whistle often becomes the “antagonist,” the bad guy. And the unstable leader who caused the original problem and is being spoken out against, gets to play the victim card.

Let me tell you–it’s a mess of spaghetti. It’s really difficult to tell who’s “right” in a conflict like this once it gets tangled.

What Do I Recommend for Leaders Dealing With a Bad Situation?
I want us to have healthy groups, and healthy institutions. I want those institutions to not be institutions that betray our values. And for me, part of that is that we (Pagans) need to figure out better methods of learning how to build institutions and groups, how to be better leaders (and group members, or be leaderful group members), and how to hold each other accountable without it being a “witch war” of he said/she said.

I hate it that sometimes the best advice I can give someone is, “Keep doing what you are doing, accept that you will need to downsize your efforts, and just ignore that unstable leader.” And then, hope they disappear, otherwise, you have to wait for them to retire or die.

But in all likelihood, the really stubborn unstable leaders won’t quit.

Is There a Solution?
I’m an optimist with a broken heart. With the people who step into Pagan leadership, there is no assumption of competence, maturity, and stability. I wish I could lean on spirituality here, and ask for people to be moved by Spirit, or hold faith in the idea of Karma, or that people will eventually be accountable to Spirit.

However, I’ve seen many leaders, Pagan and not, who are absolutely convinced they are doing the “right” thing. I’ve seen Pagan leaders convinced (or at least, doing lip service) to the idea that “God/Goddess/Spirit” told them so.

There’s a saying I’ve heard in a number of fiction writing workshops, that a good villain/antagonist is actually the hero of their own journey, just a hero that made different choices than the protagonist. I use that a lot in the personal growth work that I teach; we’re all the hero of our own journey, and in the course of that journey we sometimes might trample others in the quest for our individuality, our personal sovereignty.

We aren’t necessarily trying to, but it happens. I think the mark of a mature leader is trying to do less of that trampling, but that requires self awareness. That requires self reflection.

Self Transformation
The leaders who cause the most problems are not self aware. They are not stable. These are folks who are not seeing their impact. Some, with personal reflection, will be able to. Many won’t. Maybe they have untreated mental illness. Maybe they are just egomaniacs. What I see over and over is, they aren’t going to change how they act any more than any abuser in a relationship is likely to change.

No. you cannot “fix” them.

And that’s the category of leader that I just don’t know what to do with. You can’t “make” them get help. You can’t “make” them stop leading. If they’re doing something illegal, you can try to get them arrested for it, but that’s not usually the case. Going postal on another leader who steps on their toes (ie, starts a new group in “their” region isn’t illegal, it’s just destructive.

Waiting for these leaders to die and go away is not a solution. Ignoring them and suffering their abuse is not a solution either.

Ending the Wars
However, Paganism has no central gatekeepers. Or at least, gatekeepers are fairly rare. If you went to a UU seminary, one of your teachers might say, “ou really aren’t suited to this work, come back to seminary after 5 years of therapy.” We don’t have that, and won’t.

Yet, we can do better. We must do better. I’m just not sure how.

One strategy is, stop playing the game. Witch Wars is a game. It’s a distraction, and it’s a conceit. And it’s a no-win scenario.

I think the best strategy is to do relentless personal work. To train the stable leaders and community members in leadership skills so they can at least cope with this crap when it crops up.

Harvest a new generation of ethical leaders and teach them how to do it well. And, over the next generation, look at ways that we can actually collectively work together to get past “he said/she said” into true conflict resolution.

The series continues! There will be another Pagan leadership in a few days.

12 thoughts on “Pagan Leadership and Witch Wars

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head; a person wrapped up in their ego and unwilling to hear ‘hey you’re screwing up’ or ‘you’re going too far’, etc. won’t and will probably actively try to deny it. Speaking from experience on both sides, this is toxic in a leadership position. Thank you for calling a spade a spade, despite how hard that can be, and often is.

    “However, Paganism has no gatekeepers….We don’t have that, and won’t.”

    I actually disagree that we won’t have the gatekeepers. Every person trusted by the community who teaches is a gatekeeper of some kind, i.e. it is yourself in community leadership. What is lacking is the formalized structure, and attendant institutions. Yet, this has been around for some Pagan groups, i.e. the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and many polytheist groups for some time. It can be done, and it can be done well, but people need to be willing and able to be responsible and accountable to the people, the communities they serve, and to their own ethics, teachings, etc.

    Unfortunately you are right in that a lot of the pain of calling people out and demanding responsibility is that it makes the whistleblower the antagonist.

  2. I was in the situation where a small group of us would meet at a local coffee house only to have another group talk about what we were doing. It is extremely frustrating when you never even met any of them and they judge you based on who you are hanging out with.

  3. Can I ask the question from a different perspective? My local community does nothing but bicker and act like children. Both groups start it and both groups feed it. What do you do if you are a solitaire looking for some fellowship and these are your only options?

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  5. @ConfusedWitch – Find another group? 🙂

    In all seriousness, there are probably others, like you, who are tired of the bickering and childish behavior. Find them and invite them to join you for coffee. Pursuant to Shauna’s post, be prepared for the leaders of these groups to decry you as trying to tear the community apart, and be prepared for a lot of acrimony.

    Alternatively, you could commute for fellowship. Find a group you like in a somewhat nearby town and hang out with them.

  6. Thank you for attempting to answer but your suggestions are easier said than done since there are public negative commebts on google map reviews and a petiron on that everyone within driving distance from me participated in.

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