Pagan Leadership: Dissent, Feedback, and Group Leaders

8934795_xxlIn the previous posts in this series, we’ve talked a bit about the challenge when you have issue with a leader. I’ve focused primarily on leaders who are in the level of incurable jerk, in other words, folks who aren’t going to listen to any feedback.

Dissent is part of a healthy group. There’s a difference between dissent and dissension–dissent is a disagreement, dissension is a quarrel. The problem in our communities is twofold; leaders don’t always provide a way to offer feedback about their leadership. So people gossip behind their backs. Feedback happens. But, how can we make it more constructive?

My mentors had a rule of thumb, that if people don’t have a way to complain about leadership, a way to offer feedback, they’ll find one. And this is where we cross over into that realm of the conflicts that rip a group apart, or, spread out amongst many smaller groups within a local community. If there is a local leader who’s acting in an unethical way, or even just making some mistakes, but if that leader is coming from a place of egotism and arrogance and isn’t willing to listen to feedback, it’s a powder keg waiting for a spark to explode it.

Thus, a pretty simple piece of advice for any group leader is, if you want a healthy group, provide a method by which people can offer feedback. Feedback about your leadership, feedback about the ritual you facilitated. Often it’s as simple as being open, honest, and approachable. But the second part is, you really have to be willing to hear that feedback and not jump down someone’s throat for it.

As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve told them that you’re not actually open to that feedback.

Now–This is easily said, not so easily done. Many of us taking on leadership roles are putting our blood, sweat, and tears in, and we can be really emotionally raw sometimes about hearing how we screwed something up. Or even just hearing that someone didn’t like the ritual we did, even if we didn’t do anything wrong. I sometimes have a hard time hearing negative feedback about events I’ve hosted. So this is a piece that can take rather a lot of personal work. My article on Hypersensitivity might be of value to those of you who value hearing people’s feedback, but who also feel like negative feedback is a kick to the gut every time.

It’s a tough balance. Some feedback isn’t really useful. “You can’t host a picnic in that park, it’s in a bad neighborhood.” Yeah, sorry, I hosted a Pagan Mabon picnic in my neighborhood where there are people of color, so automatically it must be a bad neighborhood. “Why don’t you host events out in XYZ suburb where I live?” Because…I don’t live an hour and a half away in your suburb. Some feedback you can easily discard. Other feedback is useful, if painful to listen to. And a lot sits in that gray area between. On the one hand you have the advice, “Don’t let the haters get you down,” on the other hand, you as a leader do need to be able to hear genuine constructive feedback. It’s a tightrope, I won’t lie.

Then there are those situations where there is a leader who may or may not have one of the major personality disorders, or who is just completely unreasonable. Some group leaders seem to genuinely have no idea how destructive they are, but my goodness. You try to give them negative feedback and they will singe your ears back. They tend to lean mostly on the “Don’t let the haters get you down” side of the spectrum…but the truth is, some of these leaders really are making big mistakes that are harming their group, or even the broader Pagan community.

Sometimes a local group leader doesn’t just affect their own group, they affect their whole region because they are involved in every single local Pagan thing. I’ve been asked before how you “stop” a leader like this who is really harming the local community by their actions. If you’ve read the previous articles In the Pagan leadership series, you know there aren’t a lot of great answers on this one.

Some very few of these leaders can be reasoned with. Let’s use the Pareto principle and say 20% of them. The rest may simply not budge. Some of them may have severe and untreated mental illness. Whatever the reason, you have to make a judgment call about how to engage this person. Often the only tool you have at your disposal is to simply not engage that person, to not support their events, to not send people their way.

In some cases, however, the most damaging leaders are the ones who are convinced that they are doing amazing work and that they need to be involved in everything. And here’s the sad thing–they may have initially built something really incredible. They may have started a local Pagan festival, a temple, a church, a Pagan pride.

In many instances, over time that leader’s behavior has a consistent negative impact not just on their own group, but on the rest of the community. Other community members and leaders feel the need to respond, to decry them and speak out. And this is where you end up with one of those untenable “witch war” conflicts that has no end. There is no solution.

Remember–you cannot make anyone stop. You have no power to do so, except in the rarest of circumstances.

In some rare instances, particularly when there are multiple witnesses to (and victims of) of poor behavior on the part of that group leader, it’s possible that raising all the voices together can have some impact. But again, you can’t stop their inner circle from following them–even if you know the likelihood of that inner circle eventually getting betrayed by that leader. You can’t take away their title, you can’t make them stop running a Meetup, or take down their web site. The only exception to any of this would be collecting evidence of illegal behavior.

It should be pretty clear at this point that we’re not talking about dissent any longer, because there’s no viable way to voice that dissent in a way that it’s going to be heard. We’re talking about dissension, a quarrel that really has no winners.

In some cases, I’ve seen a local community gang up on a particular leader to the point that that leader’s will broke and they retired from community leadership. However, there’s two sides to that. Often the times that this tactic is the most successful is when it’s employed by relentless bullies, not by the community members who are on the right side of that conflict. Very rarely do I ever see this tactic work on a community leader who is clearly engaging in harmful behavior.

There is always a line. There’s always a time when an abuse becomes so extreme that you (and others) may have to stand up or you can’t look at yourselves in the mirror. But understand that there’s really no way to actually make that group leader stop.

Just because you stand up and speak out doesn’t mean it’ll have an impact. And, that sucks.

Once things get to the point of dissension the conflict, by its nature, spills outside of appropriate borders and boundaries. Well–given the Pagan community’s structure and lack of structure, it’s useful to look at it as “when” that happens, not “if” and thus, how to handle it when it does.

Dissent and Group Structure
Ideally, each group creates a strong group structure with very clear agreements about how things are to be handled, and builds a group culture that’s in alignment with that, so that when something like that comes up it can be handled in-house. Not so much a sweeping under the rug, but more of a, this is the most effective way to handle this. I look at that as compassion and effectiveness rather than secrecy.

Once a conflict spills out beyond the boundaries of one group, it becomes more problematic and more damaging as more gossip and more hearsay enters the fray.

Here’s an example of how a group leader is accountable not just to their own group, but to their local community.

I lead public rituals in Chicago, and slowly over time my leadership team and committed group members are beginning to form what I suppose you could call an inner court, or rather, a more stable group that could become a working group. I’m not teaching any one tradition, so that becomes a bit more challenging to define.

However, I take a lot of interest in the local Chicagoland Pagan community, I’m a resource for other groups, and I also teach and travel nationally. I do consider myself a servant of the broader Chicagoland community, and thus if people would have challenges with something I did, I feel that I’m accountable beyond just my own small group.

If someone’s in a position like I am, where I’m often a more broad resource, there’s even less of a specific way to offer feedback because the further out from me you go, the less people know me and the less they might feel comfortable offering me negative feedback.

Thus, we have the situation where people get so mightily pissed off that they use the only avenue they feel they have a voice on–they post publicly on Facebook, Yahoo groups, or talk loudly at events, because they feel powerless. They feel they have no recourse.

However, going back to feedback…when I get hatemail about my Environmental blog posts, it’s certainly not going to stop me from writing them. That’s feedback that I dismiss most of the time. If I had feedback about my leadership, I’d take it more to heart.

However, because of the lack of structure in the broader Pagan community or in a regional Pagan community, you basically have the passive aggressive problem where 1. people hate to offer small negative feedback, they only offer feedback when they are pissed, and 2. people offering me feedback would ultimately have to trust that I’m not going to come down on them like a ton of bricks and “excommunicate” them. The only way they can know that is if they get to know me and my ethics and my integrity.

Most of the time when I experience folks who are really frustrated, it’s because they either
1. have no method of offering feedback, or
2. feedback has been consistently discounted.

As I posted in previous blogs on this series, there isn’t really a good way to remove a leader who has acted consistently in a way that is detrimental. One exception within a group that has a legalized Not-For-Profit structure is if the bylaws provides for removing a group leader or group member for specific misconduct.

People in a local community might get really frustrated by the actions of one leader. However, there’s a fallacy that crops up. Let’s use the example of a Yahoo group or a Facebook group. People there will begin referring to the Chicago Pagan community, or whatever region.

And here’s the challenge–here is no such thing. There’s the hundreds of people on a Yahoo list or FB group. And there’s the vocal 10-20 people on any of those kinds of lists. But, those people do not comprise the whole of the community. There is no central place where that entire community gathers. Those vocal few are but a subset of a local community, but when those vocal few start butting heads, the quiet masses retreat. People say, “The ___ community is just a wreck, it’s terrible.” No, it’s not terrible, it’s just that the really vocal 10 people are being upsetting. You could do your own thing. But, those fisticuffs tend to neutralize any desire to build community because they are seen as “the” community.

There is no one community. There’s individual groups, and there are leaders, and cliques, and popular people. There are vocal people. But don’t ever mistake a group of vocal or popular people on FB for “the” community. There’s the idea of “Trial by Facebook” to get rid of a group leader, but there are hundreds of people who will never see it, never hear about that. Or, see it and never speak up. There is no community, there are communities. One of the great sins of FB and Yahoo groups is the illusion that the internet group IS the community. It isn’t. It just tends to be the vocal people who spend time on FB.

I have seen the several Pagan communities (ie, the interconnected individuals and groups) basically shatter because the primary local FB group had massive fighting on it, and many of the solitaries went back undercover, and several of the long-running groups stopped organizing because they couldn’t take the drama. Nobody’s willing to step in and do anything new, no individual is inclined to get involved, because of the explosion on a FB group of 10, maybe 20 people at most.

In a word, the verbal asshats demonstrate to all the people on the edges that drama and arguing is what community will ultimately lead to. The vocal people are seen as leaders, whether or not they are. And here’s the thing–sometimes the vocal people are genuinely pissed off for good reason. Maybe they’ve been seriously wronged. But in coming out in that forum, it’s not like a court of law where some judge will come down from on high and say, “Hmmm, yes, your Facebook post is more valid than Fred’s, you are right and this leader shall be taken down from their pedestal and banned.”

What happens is the urge of the truly wronged butts up against the urge of the egotists and narcissists and the “I cannot cope with being wrong or being shamed even if they are right” folks.

And there’s no way for someone on the edges to know the difference.

Thusly why trial-by-Facebook usually fails. There are only specific instances where it can work, and that’s rare. And typically requires people who have been egregiously harmed to stand together and tell their story truthfully. When that kind of evidence is seen as being consistent, and when the people telling the story have nothing to gain from a power play, that can change the situation.

It’s the deep need of the wronged to have their pain heard and witnessed, to have justice served, to offer feedback, that is why many Pagan groups blow up particularly online. This is very common in Pagan communities where there are a number of people frustrated with a situation where they feel they have no control.

One of the most common questions that I get when I teach Pagan leadership, involves people dealing with a local situation where someone’s doing something that they morally object to, or something similar, and they want that situation to stop, but they have no control over that other person.

We want to talk about the thing we didn’t like. We want to be heard. We want to be able to effect a change. And when we can’t, our frustrations mount.

The answer is pretty clear. If you want to have your own group be healthy, spend the hours it’ll take to set up a process of feedback. Find a way to accept anonymous feedback if need be. And find a way to deal with hearing that feedback. In my case, that’s exploring techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy so that I can separate “You did this thing I don’t like” with “You suck and I hate you forever and I want you to die.”

Learn how to give effective feedback. And then, teach your group members what effective feedback looks like. I’ll likely do more articles on that in the future, but a good place to start is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.

2 thoughts on “Pagan Leadership: Dissent, Feedback, and Group Leaders

  1. Excellent article Shauna! Thanks so much for posting this. We have a rather large pagan community here is Cornwall NY and I have seen a lot of politics over these many years. I will be re-reading this often!

  2. I know what you mean, Shauna. I wish the ‘leaders’ who sweep serious problems under the rug would take responsibility to address them instead, as their titles suggest. However, even if they read these words, they will find a way to rationalize their unacceptable behavior, as usual.

    Thank you for the reminder that just because a certain bunch takes over a number of groups in one area, they still don’t represent or comprise ‘The Pagan Community’ in that area. Best to be a good example, with or without a specified role, and rise above all that.

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