Pagan Elders and Abusive Dynamics

shutterstock_34345969Ironically, just hours after I sent in my quote to the Wild Hunt for their “Elders” post, I found myself in a position where I could either tacitly ignore a Pagan elder’s behavior, or I could confront it. I hadn’t quite scheduled a big confrontation into my day, but I found myself ethically obliged after someone messaged me to ask whether or not I supported that elder based upon that elder’s stance on something.

The words I had sent to the Wild Hunt in an email just hours before ended up being almost prophetic for at least four situations that hit my inbox and news feed, including “Big Name Pagans” like Z Budapest and Christian Day, or local Pagan community leaders behaving badly.

Let me see if I can sum up one situation I faced in a way that keeps names out of it, and yet describes a situation that you may have personally experienced.

There is a Pagan org that is fundraising for a good cause. However, their leader has a real temper. Now, I had initially made excuses for this leader because this leader–like me–is an activist. And I definitely understand that when you’ve been an activist for a long time, it can begin to feel like nobody listens to you unless you’re screaming.

This particular group (via this leader) has one particular stance on a community-related issue. I disagree with that stance, however, it’s in a gray area where I feel it’s a little beyond my pay grade. It’s part of a larger question of that gray area between inclusivity, civil rights, and a religious group’s sovereignty to decide who can join. I understand both sides of the issue from outside–meaning, it doesn’t personally affect me. My stance is different than this elder’s, and I had made that clear with this leader in the past. I believe that I had made my perspective clear in a polite way.

In retrospect, I realize that I had dropped the subject because this leader’s temper was getting riled up and I was a guest in their home, and I didn’t want to deal with a big fight.

What’s Stubborn and What’s Bullying?
Since that time, I had also come into private knowledge of more than one example of this particular leader engaging in a dynamic that could only be called bullying and abusive. The leader threw a temper tantrum, the leader used the excuse of past abuses they had suffered, the leader’s close followers soothed the leader, and the leader got their way. I’ve found that people walk on eggshells around this person.

I also had knowledge about an initiative that this leader had been involved in. Basically, this was a worthy initiative, and this leader had asked a separate Pagan group for assistance. What actually happened at that point is confusing. I’ve tried to gather information on both sides of the story but some of the information I have is vague. It sounds like the Pagan group did not offer assistance, possibly because of the temper/reputation of the Pagan leader I’ve been discussing.

(It’s worth mentioning that the other Pagan group also seems to have failed to effectively communicate at all, or apologize for failing to communicate, and that’s on them, not on this leader I’m speaking about.)

This leader claims to have asked several other notable Pagans for help and believes they were brushed off. I’m not clear on those details.

That particular situation was years ago, but the Pagan elder I mention has been going on and on and on about it–sometimes vaguebooking, sometimes directly attacking that other Pagan group. And it’s pertinent to their fundraising effort.

When Respect Gets Complicated
I had worked with this Pagan elder in the past; we haven’t known each other long but I respect the work they are doing and I’ve worked to find some ways to help them. Since we met in person, this leader and I have engaged in some really good conversations.

However, I’ve also witnessed this leader engaging in conversations on Facebook that get pretty tense/shouty when people disagreed with that leader.

Recently, the leader in question had posted something about their fundraising efforts and their anger at the Pagans/Pagan groups who had failed to support them or who had badmouthed them. Making a long story shorter, I have been asked by several people about the specifics of the ethical stance I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Now, I don’t feel comfortable lying and saying I agree with them, because I don’t. So I offered the information that I had and where I disagreed with them, but that I supported their fundraising. And then, because I value clarity and due diligence, I posted a polite comment on the referenced Facebook thread asking for clarification on their stance.

Lashing Out
The answer I got back was vague but angry at me for daring to question them. I reclarified that I was asking on behalf of others, and, I pointed out how I understood both sides. Specifically, I tried to point out how the “other side” on this issue might feel hurt and angry by this particular stance, and not be in the wrong about that.

More angry responses followed that were also rants to the point of being vague and unclear. Despite my having supported the org in the past and having a generally good relationship with the leader, I got the full temper tantrum.

The second in command of this group immediately private-messaged me to apologize for their leader’s actions.

I’m going to hit pause on the story here for a moment.

That right there is a significant red flag. If you are feeling the need to consistently apologize for the temper of your friend/lover/spouse/boss/leader, that’s a pretty good indicator of an abusive/codependent pattern.

Speaking Up About Abuse
Thus, to the second in command, I pointed out that everyone dancing around the leader and apologizing for them was 1. codependent and enabling abuse and 2. that their leader’s actions and temper were likely a significant cause of their inability to fundraise for the worthy cause. The second in command agreed especially with the latter, and said that they’d tried to talk to the leader about it and planned to again.

Moments later, the leader began messaging me. The writing was in an angry rant and talking about all the abuse they had personally suffered and essentially implied that that excused their stance on this particular issue. I took a breath, and realized that I’d already probably blown up my relationship with this elder, despite respecting their work.

I know that in a situation like this, confronting the person whose temper has gotten abusive isn’t likely to change anything. But, there’s that darned integrity thing, and I also at the core am an optimist. I always hold out that people might be able to recognize how their own actions are harming themselves and their group.

So I confronted the leader and pointed out that I was fine disagreeing with them and still supporting their org/worthy cause, but the temper tantrum and attack was something I had a real problem with. I went on to say that there were people who were afraid to speak up to the leader, and that the leader’s temper had caused them specific problems (I outlined those and the specific scenarios) and that I found their temper and behavior pattern to be abusive.

I pointed out that I had apologized for their behavior in the past, and others I knew had apologized for their behavior, and that this was not ok.

As you can imagine, that didn’t really go over well, though I did have a good conversation with the second in command of the organization.

Pagan Leader Shenanigans
I can’t often post about it when I go through something like this. I have rather a lot of days where I’m dealing with either someone coming to me with a story of abuse by a Pagan leader, or someone coming to me asking for help with how to deal with a group leader who is causing problems, or where I see a Pagan leader or elder acting in a way that is (I believe) harmful.

As I posted in my Whistleblowing article on Pagan Activist, people come to me with some heavy stuff. And, not having witnessed either side of what went on, it’s not like I can do much about it. It’s a rare circumstance where I feel that I can ethically post about a particular Pagan leader or group and something they’ve done that is harmful.

Even in this case, you’ll notice I’m not naming the organization or the elder in question.

Given that I have some direct experience of the poor behavior, wouldn’t it make sense to speak out about this leader? Honestly, I really ethically struggle with this one because I want this org’s fundraising to be successful as it’s for something important, but the leader tipped the scale into acting in a way that I absolutely can’t ethically support.

The sad thing is, many of the strong Pagan orgs out there have leaders with at least some emotionally abusive tendencies.

Strong Visionary Leaders are Stubborn
I have my theories on why this is. For some reason, only the strong or even bullying types seem to have a strong enough personality to create a lasting Pagan group. I think you have to be that strong to last through all the Pagan naysayers and people who will attack you for your success. But it sure isn’t the behavior we want to reward, and it’s not what I think any of us want in the long term.

I endured a situation like this for years when I was doing my training at Diana’s Grove. And I don’t really want to get into that in depth now, other than to say, I have experienced first hand a group that defers to the leader, and the leader is a charismatic visionary who is just dysfunctional enough that every once in a while they do something like throw a temper tantrum, fail to meet a crucial deadline, or engage in some emotionally abusive behavior.

And everyone on the leadership team would work to cover it up, to make it ok, to keep her on an even keel so she wouldn’t lash out.

Because, everyone on the leadership team knows the secret:
If we don’t make excuses for the leader, if we don’t calm everyone down and keep the peace, if we don’t keep the leader from blowing up in a temper, then we don’t get to have the group. Ultimately, Diana’s Grove sold their land and ceased to exist, and that leader’s dysfunction was a significant contributor to that.

Why Leadership is Important
Which leads me to why I write about these things with such passion. Because within myself I have the seeds of the ills of these leaders. I am the visionary who’s a bully enough to make the thing happen. I struggle with depression and I’m, at best, a moody artist. I have the long-term issues of self esteem that, when my ego gets poked, cause me to get defensive and lash out.

In short–I write about these things because I am petrified that this is what I will become. That I will continue that cycle of abusive behavior.

So when I write about these problems in our leadership, it’s not from my high horse. It’s not even from my soap box. It’s from a terrified place inside me. It’s from the part of me that has looked into my own dark mirror and seen what I could do, what I could become, if I don’t do ruthless personal growth work. If I don’t mitigate those behaviors.

Our communities deserve better than bully leaders. But, I don’t know what that model actually looks like, or how we get there. I get angry and frustrated that so many Pagan leaders doing good work also carry these seeds of egomaniacal, narcissistic, bullying, and abusive behavior.

And we reward it with our silence.

Consequences of Speaking Up
But, if we aren’t silent…if we speak up…there’s a consequence. Yes, we might stand in our integrity. Yes, we might stop one leader from abusing their group members. But–we also lose the asset of that group. And with so few Pagan community assets, most of us are unwilling to rock that boat.

And I have compassion for that. We’re in a precarious time with our first solid organizations that can really help Pagans.

Going a little further, we (Pagans) actually have no mechanism to remove a bad leader from power, except for the limited circumstances of Pagan leaders that are part of a hierarchical tradition where a leader above them can strip them of their title. And most of the hierarchical Pagan traditions take a hands off approach. Once a HP/HPS is initiated, they are on their own and their initiators/superiors will not take a hand in correcting their behavior.

There are really only a few mechanisms we have for removing a bad leader from power. One is if they’ve done something illegal that you can prove. That, too, is rare.

The rest of our options are pretty crummy and are based in mob justice. We can ignore the leader and shun them, and hope that they eventually give up. This usually becomes a popularity contest vs. any actual meting of justice.

In one scenario, it means that the other Pagan groups and group members in an area have to suffer through various ambient abuse from that abusive Pagan leader. And it’s a whole separate blog post to discuss the kinds of abuse that a Pagan leader–even one not involved in your group–can dish out to you and your group members. In short, that creates long-term trauma and that scenario alone can be the death of a group because they just can’t cope with the stress.

The other option that has been attempted at times but usually backfires is the full-frontal assault, wherein those who have been harmed by a particular group leader try to speak up. Except, usually there’s only one victim brave enough or angry enough to speak out, and they usually are shot down by an arsenal of victim blaming.

Because, the victim speaking up must be trying to stir the pot, right?

I’ll write an entirely separate post on mediation. Many people raise up the banner of, “Oh, but mediation, mediation!” And, when it works it’s beautiful. But, it typically doesn’t work with a leader who’s engaging in a repeat pattern of abuse.

Pagan Elders and Big Name Pagans

The connection between Christian Day, and Z Budapest, and the Frosts, and a few other situations of Pagan elders and leaders is that abusive behavior gets tolerated. Harassment gets tolerated. Bad things are said and it’s tolerated.Cognitive dissonance is the first line, it creates denial. “Oh, but ___ is a great teacher, they couldn’t have ____.” Or, “I’m sure they were just out of sorts.”It’s the same thing as the pattern of grooming. Nobody starts out being ok with being punched in the face. They keep making the verbal abuse “ok,” and then the light slap is excused, and then the punch.While this article specifically deals with abusive dynamics in relationships between men and women, try reading it from the perspective of the abuser as the coven or group leader. And you’ll start to get a sense of why people stay in an abusive group.

Perfection and Excellence
Here’s the thing–nobody’s perfect; gods know I’ve hurt people and made mistakes in my life. I try my hardest to learn from it, to do better. And I’ve worked with others who have made mistakes. I’m not saying, “Oh, you made a mistake, you are banished for life.” But–the consistent pattern of abuse, and the lack of intent to change that pattern, is a problem.

And when that’s happening, most people are still stuck in cognitive dissonance/denial/enabling land. I spent three years doing what I call the codependent shuffle with my own mentor at Diana’s Grove. Was she evil? Nope. She was brilliant, actually. And hardworking. And she built something beautiful. But, her dysfunction also led to the destruction of Diana’s Grove.

The economy was the trigger, but she laid the rotten foundation.

I watched a skilled, educated group of leaders dance around my mentor and make her dysfunction and dry-alcoholic abusive behavior “ok” for years. I stuck through it because I wanted the training. I knew the training was good, even if my mentor couldn’t live what she taught. And I’ve spent the years since that time trying to adapt the leadership training to make it actually viable.

We don’t need perfect leaders, but we do need leaders and elders who are working on their shit. We need leaders and elders who have ethics and integrity and are coming at things from a place of service. Not from a place of deep wounding and soothing their egos. Not from a place of severe and untreated mental illness. Not from a place of bullying to get the job done.

And that’s a tall order, but I’m an optimist.

Going Forward
As for the Pagan elder I mentioned at the beginning of this post, where am I at? Truthfully, I’m sad. I’d like to blow the trumpet and support their initiative, but given the way that elder is behaving, I have serious ethical qualms about it. I hope to sustain a good relationship with that organization, but I realize that in speaking up to the leader about their behavior I may not get to have that option.

I’ll be transparent. There are times that I will support a Pagan group or organization despite my ethical qualms about a leader’s behavior because I believe in what that organization can be and what it offers to the community

But, I also hold out hope that we can be better. That we one day won’t have to make those ethical compromises. That the Pagans out there joining groups will have the discernment to see their leaders not as being perfect, not as being up on a pedestal, but as real people. I want to see a community where we can forgive our leaders for their mistakes, but where our leaders are also held to a higher standard of responsibility and service. I want to see Pagan communities where we can speak up about abuse and be heard and not victim-blamed.

And–putting my big-time optimism hat on–I want to see Pagan leaders who can break through the cycle of their own bad behaviors to become more excellent leaders. After all, I believe that I can be better than I am…and so I believe each person out there can as well.

15 thoughts on “Pagan Elders and Abusive Dynamics

  1. Elders are a tricky thing. I’ve had the good fortune to go through only two bad groups, but I learned a lot from the experience about identifying problem behaviors within the first few months of involvement now. Dry-drunk behavior is so prevalent. I almost think an ACOA/Al-anon course should be mandatory for anyone looking to get involved in Pagan groups. I’m not sure what it says about our larger Pagan culture that I seriously consider dispensing that advice.

    One point where I’d differ, or perhaps put a finer point on, is that an elder isn’t necessarily a leader, and likewise being a leader doesn’t automatically make you an elder. They are both positions (potentially) of respect, but I think it’s more of a Venn diagram that an equivalency of terms.

    Great post, thank you.

  2. Thank you for your article. I don’t know how to address these issues. I spoke up as long as possible until the victim blaming shut me down.

    This really hit close to home. It could have been written about me. Blessings to you.

  3. “The second in command of this group immediately private-messaged me to apologize for their leader’s actions.

    I’m going to hit pause on the story here for a moment.

    That right there is a significant red flag. If you are feeling the need to consistently apologize for the temper of your friend/lover/spouse/boss/leader, that’s a pretty good indicator of an abusive/codependent pattern.”

    It suggests they like having someone fuss over them, proving their loyalty – and it makes normal interactions and small arguments from those who don’t fuss appear as terrible betrayals in comparison.
    You aren’t a bad person to have had a small disagreement in viewpoint.

    A possible other disquieting behavior is having someone that “protects” them from hearing about issues within their group. It’s fine to have a hierarchy and have delegates, but it’s ridiculous to have someone (who isn’t Bill Gates) not handling their own emails.

  4. Excellent post. Personally I think abusers need to be spoken out against. If it isn’t us who takes a stand, who will?

    You hit the nail on the head when you said we need more leaders who lead out of service and not ego. We need to encourage those leaders and stop feeding into big head (not big name) Pagans. However, those who lead out of service are usually not those in the public eye. Which makes finding them more difficult.

    For me, an elder is not someone who places themselves into an assumed role. Most of the people I consider elders do not even consider themselves as such. They are people who I can take the good, bad and ugly to and know they are coming from a place of good intent.

    Again, great post. These are the discussions that need to happen.

  5. Blake (and everyone) you’re welcome to forward these articles along to anyone who you think would find them interesting. Send links, post it on your facebook, all that good stuff. If you want to print it out and use it as materials for a class, shoot me an email first. I’m probably fine with it but I’d like to get a heads up. (ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com ) Eventually this article will end up in another compilation book. My books “The Leader Within” and “Ritual Facilitation” are both compilations of blog posts and articles on ritual that I wrote over the past years up til about March, and I’ve addressed this topic in some detail in “The Leader Within,” though to be clear, there still aren’t great solutions.

    To be totally transparent and up front, book sales help me bring in income so that I can keep taking the time to write about topics like this, as well as so that I can take the time to field the many communications I get from people who have been through really bad group situations or who are dealing with leadership challenges.

    My goal is to continue to write resource materials like blogs and books, as well as teach workshops, that will help people deal with these types of situations. There aren’t great solutions, but sometimes just being able to frame the problem can help.

  6. Pingback: Conflict, Mediation, and Victim Blaming | Shauna Aura Knight

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  8. I recognize the group you speak of. I watched that, and felt the fundraising requests were disrespectful, as if I owed them something because of an affiliation with being Pagan. On a more personal experience, our group has recently recognized what we call “hero” worship and many red flags with our own leadership. To add to your comment, many of us believed ourselves being too sensitive, and that it’s possible we are not being objective. We were willing to give a reasonable doubt because the behavior was a one time thing. Our group of 5 coalesced when we were forbidden from meeting outside of the larger group for fun, and the flood gates of conversation began regarding past behavior (which ended up being shared experiences by all) of the leadership and those supporting them. It was cleansing, and clarifying as to what we wanted. My hope is that at the end of our training we (or I) can approach the leadership with our concerns and be done with it. I do not want the same experiences passed on to others if I can help it.

  9. These cycles do indeed tend to repeat themselves. It’s really great that you recognized the behavior that was happening when the five of you spoke about it. I’m sorry you went through that, but (as you probably well know) it’s so easy to fall into “this is the way it is” and not even see what’s happening, so to get out of the spiral is worth noting. I hope you are able to approach your leadership with your concerns; all too often, leaders engaging in such behavior are absolutely unwilling (or unable) to hear it.

  10. No, they would not appreciate it. I also think that they believe they have done nothing wrong and everything is right in the world. In some ways it makes the situation worse, but we chose to walk away. Thanks for listening!

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