Boundaries, Events, and Event Planning

5984468_xlRecently Circle Sanctuary opened up registrations for Pagan Spirit Gathering, or PSG. However, in the ongoing process of hosting large-scale events, sometimes the event organizers have to change things. In the Pagan community, announcements of any change in how an event is run leads to feedback both positive and negative.

This post isn’t about PSG so much as it is about Pagans and Pagan events, and in specific, it’s about boundaries, accessibility, and the related challenges within event hosting in the Pagan community.

As a specific case study, PSG will no longer allow people to attend just the closing weekend of the traditionally week-long festival. The announcement sparked a 200-comment thread (and additional threads) with all of the types of things that I would expect, having attended and run many events. Some posts were supportive, some angry, some whiny, some downright confrontational.

As a Pagan event planner, I absolutely resonate with why Circle made this decision for PSG. But understanding the why–and the issues people have with the decision–is crucial for us to explore as a community.

Let’s give a bit of background for this particular case study. PSG is in its 35th year and has been a week-long (Sunday-Sunday) festival. Several years ago they began offering the option of weekend-only passes for the final Friday-Sunday of the event.

Here are the benefits of this:

  • Cost: This allows more people to attend who can’t afford the week
  • Time off: This allows people to attend who can’t get a week off of work (or can’t afford to take that time off)
  • New attendees: This allows people to attend for just a few days if they aren’t sure about attending a week-long event, which is a significant commitment
  • Accessibility: This allows people to attend who can’t cope with camping for an entire week

However, in the past years of offering this option, PSG organizers have observed several significant down sides to this option

  • Logistics: It was challenging for the volunteer staff to accommodate the influx of attendees at the final stretch of the event
  • Experience: People attending the final three days weren’t really getting the experience of the week-long event
  • Energy: An influx of new attendees impacted the energy container of the whole event
  • Behavior: Some of the weekend attendees (though certainly not all) seemed to be more interested in a party than a sacred experience

The complaints that I saw on the comment thread are the complaints I’ve seen any time a Pagan event organizer tries to enforce a boundary. They are the complaints I’ve fielded when organizing my own events.

Here are some of the common complaints that I hear whenever a Pagan organizer enforces a boundary on an event.

  • Cost: I can’t afford to attend that event (or the whole event)
  • Travel: I can’t afford to travel, or I don’t have transportation
  • Time: I can’t take that much time off of work/one of my family members can’t take that much time off
  • Discrimination: You’re discriminating against people who can’t take a week off/can’t afford to attend
  • Location: Why do you host that event there? That’s too far away from me
  • Timing: Why do you host that event then? I can’t attend at that time.
  • Accommodations: I can’t attend your event, my body can’t cope with camping.

Boundaries and Event Energy
Let’s talk a bit about boundaries and energy with a spiritually-focused event. I’ve been to a lot of different types of events. I’ve been to conferences, to festivals, to weekend intensives, to workshops, to coffee nights and bar nights, and to parties. They all have a different vibes.

When I was doing leadership and ritual training, any attendee would travel to Diana’s Grove (never less than a 3-hour drive) and stay on-site in cabins for 3, 4 or 7 days. It wasn’t generally allowed to arrive late or leave early. You were there eating together, sleeping in bunk houses, attending rituals and workshops together, and in general, communing together.

That communal experience was a core part of the work.

Let’s look at a similar style of event. I’ve hosted 1-day, 2-day, and 3-day intensives to teach ritual facilitation or leadership skills. While I typically offer these in a city and we aren’t staying together communally, the work still builds upon what was taught at the beginning of class.

There isn’t a single time that I offer a class where someone doesn’t ask me, “Can I just attend a few hours on Saturday?” Even for a day-long intensive. In fact, the last time I hosted a 3-day Ritual Facilitation intensive, I had several people register for the class who did not attend the Friday or Saturday session, and just showed up on Sunday. They had prepaid, and they were solid members of my local community, but in other circumstances I’d have asked them to leave. I first took them aside and said, “We’ve been working together for two days now so I’m not going to be able to backtrack and cover topics from Friday or Saturday.”

They said that they understood, but after about an hour or two they left looking very disgruntled.

I went into this a bit in my recent post on how you won’t learn the deeper mysteries in books, but in a nutshell–sometimes it’s important for an event to be set up the way it is. There are reasons for it that aren’t about how much the event costs.

There is a communal energy that forms during a weekend intensive, or during a week-long festival. The boundaries of the event and the agreements we share as a community during that time are important to the energy of the whole event. The organizers of the event are structuring boundaries…a container…a circle, of sorts…to hold that event and that community and that intention.

When you shift the boundaries of the event, you impact the energy.

Event Boundaries and Experience
Once upon a time, I offered the main ritual at a smaller festival. It was an intense ritual and people went to a place of catharsis and weeping. One of the attendees was organizing a Pagan Pride-like day-long fest in his local community and asked me to facilitate a ritual like that at his event.

I told him that I was good, but that I would not be able to pull that off. Why? Boundaries and logistics.

I’ve written about this in my book Ritual Facilitation, but the gist is, there’s a big difference in what I can do with group energy after we’ve been living together and communing for three days….and what I can do for a more casual day-long event. In that context, people might be there for workshops or they might just be stopping by for shopping, we have non-Pagans watching us in a public park, cars are driving by, it’s daytime, it’s noisy, and there’s no privacy. We don’t know each other, we haven’t connected.

Energy is sculpted. Event planning is all about sculpting the energy of an experience, whether that’s a conference, festival, intensive, workshop, or ritual.

Deciding what energy you want–what intention you’re focusing on–is a core part of event planning and leadership. And if you’re planning an event, you get to decide what intention you are supporting.

In other words, events are different. And you can’t please everyone–nor should you try.

Discrimination Against the Poor
On the other hand, we do have a real problem in our community that many true and genuine seekers don’t have the money to attend some of these events. Many teachers and organizers are not taking into account how to accommodate our less financially-sound attendees. While I don’t buy into the “Pagans won’t pay for that” mindset, or even the “Pagans are all broke” mindset, I have seen a lot of Pagans who genuinely don’t have the extra cash to attend events.

In Chicago when I’ve hosted events, I have a number of people who are genuinely broke. Like, finding bus fare money to get to the event is a stretch, kind of broke. For the folks that can’t afford to pay the event fee but are willing to help, I’ve always been willing to make accommodations. And, if you’ve ever been to one of my events, you know that I always need help with setup and takedown, because I like blinging out a space with the right decor.

At the same time, my “Sliding Scale/Scholarships/No one will be turned away for lack of funds” policy has also meant that I’ve had to cancel events. And it is, in fact, why I’m not doing as much traveling and teaching right now, and why I’ve taken a brief hiatus from offering events in Chicago.

Put bluntly, I can’t afford to be holding the bag on an event that doesn’t break even. I want to make events that everyone is welcome to, but I’ve run events where we didn’t make enough money to cover the costs of the event.

I’ve worked very hard to make offerings available to people no matter how much they can afford to donate, but in doing so, I’ve ended up covering a lot of those costs myself, and that isn’t fair to me. Nor is it fair to any other leader or event organizer who is doing this on a volunteer basis.

Events and Privilege
The truth is, attending events like conferences and festivals is a privilege. It’s not a right. And, that’s not how I want the world to work, but it’s how it is. In my ideal world, there are enough scholarship funds to go around so that those who have less income but who are dedicated seekers can still attend events.

Why someone has less income doesn’t really matter. Some, like me, live a lean life in order to live a dream as an artist or writer or activist. Others are underemployed or unemployed in the current economy. Some might be stay at home parents or have an ill family member. There are dozens of reasons why someone might not have the extra income to sink into attending a Pagan event.

And for some folks, yes, we can make the argument that “If you just cut back on one cup of coffee a week, you’d have $5 to sock away for XYZ event.” That’s true for some, and I’ve heard that argument from a few Pagan event organizers who run fairly expensive events.

But we can’t have this conversation without looking at both sides of the privilege issue. Privilege is one of those hot button words these days, particularly in the Pagan community.

Privilege is, essentially, the benefits and advantages that we have that are invisible to us. For instance, I was raised by parents who were always broke. We were on foodstamps and welfare, and I grew up thinking I was incredibly poor. And I was, in comparison to my classmates who were gifted cars on their 16th birthday. It took me years to realize I was very privileged; I grew up in a school where I got an excellent education. It was safe to play in my neighborhood after dark. Nobody was getting shot in my school. I’m well-spoken, I went to the doctor regularly, and I’m white so when I get pulled over by the police for speeding, they give me the benefit of the doubt. I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

Privilege sits next to entitlement. Privilege is the advantages that we don’t see, and entitlement is when we assume we should have those advantages.

Privilege and Making Events Accessible
It might piss you off to hear this, but attending a Pagan event is a privilege. You don’t have a right to attend for free.

It costs money to put that event on, and chances are that the people organizing that event is putting in a lot of hours without getting paid for their time.

Going further, while anyone has the right to complain about an event, ultimately how the event is run is up to the event organizers. And if they want to enforce a boundary on their event or change how things are run, that’s their prerogative.

On the other hand, I also don’t want to see Pagan events that are only accessible to the privileged. I don’t want to see Paganism lean the way of the New Age movement where events are only available to those who can pay hundreds of dollars.

Problem Solving: Inclusivity and Exclusivity
So what do we do? How do we continue to run excellent events while finding ways to include those who are financially struggling? The answer isn’t “The event price should be cheaper for everyone, it’s too expensive!” Nor is the answer, “Everyone who can’t afford the event should be allowed in for free.”

But the answer also isn’t, “Only those who can afford to attend should be there.” The answer isn’t, “If people just stewarded their resources better they could make it to the event.”

Check out Michelle Hill’s blog post on Pagan Activist about how she was ostracized out of several local rituals because she couldn’t afford to attend.

It’s appropriate to establish boundaries on behavior at events. It’s appropriate to charge a reasonable fee for an event. It’s appropriate to select a venue for the event. For instance, Pagan Spirit Gathering is a camping event. It’s a difficult event for people with physical limitations to attend. Heck, it’s a difficult event for me to physically do, and there will come a day where I’m not able to hack the camping.

The advantage is a camping event is less expensive than a hotel event. Pantheacon, Convocation, Paganicon, and Sacred Spaces/Between the Worlds are all events that might be easier for you to attend if you have physical challenges with camping–but there’s a price tag on it. Hotels are expensive, even if you’re sharing a room.

And when the pricing of an event eventually goes up–because, costs rise every year–people get irate.

Spiritual Home Vs. Capitalism and Consumerism
People get angry when costs rise, or when a family discount isn’t offered, or when there are other barriers to attending an event. And if you are attending an event that you consider to be your spiritual home, where you get to see friends you wouldn’t see any other time of the year…and especially if you’re not active in your local Pagan community and this is the one event during the year where you get to connect to other Pagans, I could see how terrifying that might be to discover you might not be able to go.

Maybe you have been going to that event for years but this year you can’t afford it. Maybe you could afford it if it was just you but now you have a family. Maybe you have physical difficulties this year that you didn’t have last year.

The difficulty here is that the event organizers have to pay the bills. And the event organizers can only do so much to accommodate people’s needs.

People don’t want to talk about money, so that makes it difficult to talk solutions. And Pagans tend to reject the notion of donating or tithing. But the thing is, the successful Pagan events tend to use a capitalist/consumerist model. In other words, you are paying a set fee for a good or a service, instead of donating a percentage of your income toward the hosting organization for them to utilize as needed.

The pay-per-good model tends to shut out those without the money to attend events and, by its nature, prevents the host organization from being able to offer discretionary scholarships.

I only wish that anyone who had the desire to attend an event was able to, regardless of ability to pay. But that isn’t financially sustainable for most groups/classes/events. If we build more of a giving culture in the Pagan community, things might be different. PSG, for instance, is a fundraiser for Circle Sanctuary. Not many people donate to Circle, and their operational costs are primarily raised through the registration fees for PSG. Circle does a ton of things for the Pagan community on a shoestring budget, and most of that shoestring budget comes from what they make from PSG.

We aren’t going to shift the financial culture of Paganism overnight, but it’s worth considering that there are alternatives. The crowd-funding model is one idea, but even that method largely hinges on people who are buying goods and services vs. just donating toward a worthy organization. At the very least, it’s worth considering how we charge for events.

  • For event planners, I ask the question: How might we encourage more sliding-scale payments and additional donations vs. a flat fee?
  • For event attendees, I ask: Would you donate the same amount to that organization every year if you weren’t getting something in return? What would encourage you to do so? Would you be willing to donate money toward a scholarship for those who need assistance?

Defining Boundaries
In essence, different events have a different focus, and it means that not every event is going to be for everyone. Some events are more focused on education. Some events are more of a party. Some are camping events that are really only appropriate for those physically able to attend. Other events are expensive conferences that are more physically accessible but have a higher price tag.

And until we build a culture of giving and philanthropy within the Pagan community, we’re largely stuck with the pay-per-thing model. There aren’t any “right” answers to this, but it’s something to consider when your favorite event raises their prices or changes how they are doing something–or, when your favorite event continues to run just as it is, even though that means you cannot attend any longer.

Remember that event organizers are largely volunteer and it’s a heck of a lot of work. Most event organizers do not have a nefarious plot to exclude you, it’s just that there isn’t always a great way to include everyone.

And if we want to change things for the future, we have to explore different models of doing things.

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