How Do We Respond to Conflict in Pagan Communities?

Paganism, on the surface, seems like a retreat from the challenges posed by organized religion. Our great, mostly-pentacle-shaped umbrella, under which all shades, shapes and sizes of earth loving, god or goddess invoking creatures rest, looks to the untrained eye like a respite from bureaucracy, miscommunication, and any of the other ills of “The Church.”

It just isn’t so.

When people gather, organize and commit to being in relationship with one another, conflicts arise. This is an inevitability. The question is: how do we respond when those conflicts occur?

Conflict, by atomicity

When I was a child, I attended an Episcopal church in Englewood, Colorado called St. George’s. The church was small, but it was a home to me and my mother. She married my father in that little church, she had me baptized in that little church, and she struggled through a divorce in that little church, all with the aid of a kind, soft-spoken priest named Father Welsh.

I loved St. George’s. I was an acolyte, a regular at the Sunday hot-breakfast after service, and I felt completely at home inside that house of worship.

But then there was a conflict within the congregation; some political squabble I was later told. Father Welsh was making the church open to AA meetings in the basement, and that made many of the parishioners uncomfortable. Father Welsh was a recovering alcoholic, clean for years, but accusations were made against him to the bishop. They said he was drinking again.

My mother assured me these accusations were not true. She said that this was just politics. She said these tight-wad people didn’t want the dirty alcoholics to be sullying up their clean church, and that this was some way to live like Christians.

In time, and while my mom and I were away for the summer, my priest was removed from the parish. Father Welsh left the state, and we never went back to St. George’s.

I don’t suppose the people who took their complaints to the bishop considered the impact that their choice would have on me. I also don’t know if their grievances were founded on the truth. He could have been drinking. I don’t know.

But I do know that the removal of a priest from his congregation is no small affair. The ramifications are great, and extend outward in ways that are unpredictable. The repercussions might not always be “bad,” but they will always be uncertain.

Empty Chair by Bob Jagendorf

But What About In Pagan Communities?

This situation at St. George’s could have just as easily happened within a Pagan organization. I imagine that something like this may have happened in the groves, covens or organized groups to which some of you belong.

When we’re faced with this kind of situation, especially one that has yet to be completely resolved, we have good cause to refrain from snap judgement, and to hold space. “Holding space” may be a useful way for Pagans to practice discernment, for by holding space I mean waiting, listening, keeping in kind thoughts all the parties involved.

Our partisanship does not always contribute to the resolution of political conflicts. It often exacerbates it. The quick creation of an “Us v.s. Them” mentality makes it very difficult to consider all of the information with a clear head and without bias.

I’m not sure my mother was unbiased. She didn’t want for our priest to leave. He was an important man in our lives. I’m also not sure that the accusers were lying. I’d like to think they were, because that allows me to side with the victim (and in some ways, make the victim the ethical hero). But I was never given the opportunity to consider all sides of the story, and I really only wanted to believe one side.

In religious community, regardless of your cosmology, (poly)theology, or creed (if you have one), conflicts create opportunities to respond to one another with compassion; to hold space for the accuser and the accused, until such a time that you are able to learn the fullness of the truth. Exercising compassion in moments of conflict is a natural and necessary component of a healthy religious life, I think.

So I invite your compassion. When there is conflict, may your heart soften. May you be willing to listen clearly, without prejudice, and with a willingness to hold space for all those involved.

Feel free to share instances where you’ve been faced with conflict within your religious community (and please withhold the names and specifics in order to respect the privacy of those involved). If your response was one of compassion, was that challenging? If compassion was not your response, why?

If you are involved in a conflict at this time, I ask that you not air your grievances here, but rather take this opportunity to hold space and practice compassion.






26 responses to “How Do We Respond to Conflict in Pagan Communities?”

  1. VikingRunnerGirl Avatar

    “In religious community, regardless of your cosmology, (poly)theology, or creed (if you have one), conflicts create opportunities to respond to one another with compassion.”

    I really liked this sentiment. The church that I’m a council member on (don’t ask; long story…) just started with an interim pastor after our pastor of the last 20 years – a long time in the Lutheran church, I hear – retired. As we move toward calling a new pastor, we’re probably going to see a lot more opportunity for conflict come up. We have a council meeting next Tuesday and I’m hoping to find a chance to share a few of your words with everybody; the idea of conflict approaching and dealing with it well has been on all our minds since this began!

    “I keep hearing how the other side is dangerous, with a laundry list of how many puppies they eat in a day.” I just loved the arrangement of these words. 🙂 Not sure I can go along with the next… I’ve been following (NOT daring to participate in!) a pretty big conflict where one side has been labelled bullies for pretty much the reason you state (or at least, forcing people to choose sides is what some people are saying they’re doing). Except the problem is, the other side in this case literally is divisive, vicious, cruel and prejudiced in about every way you can imagine. It isn’t that listening to another side is bad, it’s that sometimes after you listen you can’t maintain an illusion that both sides have valid points anymore. Something to be careful with.

  2. Randy Weiser Avatar

    I don’t mean for this to be a plug of a book in dealing with this, but I DO have a chapter on dealing with “Witch Wars” and conflict in my upcoming book, “Magickal Manners: A Guide to Magickal Etiquette.” One thing that people have to realize is that if people listen, not just hear, things can be clarified. IF, however, people take sides immediately, it can and does get ugly. I’ve been in the Craft now for over 30 years, and have seen my share of groups, Councils and whole communities get into some NASTY things because people DON’T LISTEN!!!!

  3. Miraselena Avatar

    I agree with the concept of “holding space.” We teach that within our degree system.

    With that said, no community is immune – no community of one nor of 1000. I have seen conflicts that resolve smoothly and those that devolve into something out of “Mad Max.” And, I have heard expressed, many times, the disillusionment that solitary Pagans have with Pagan group-based community due to constant conflict.

    I do not believe that Pagans corner the market on hostility and in-fighting. We don’t have a lack of ability to, as you call it, “hold space.” However, I do think we have a unique hurdle in our community with regards to resolving conflict. This lies in our lack of solid infrastructure and the respect for it. Perhaps we don’t “hold space” because we don’t have to. Why bother putting in that effort when we can be solitary, join another group, start another group….?

    (BTW, Let me add that I’ve been with one group for over 15 years and I do believe in standing by structure.)

  4. Patchouli Autumn Avatar

    I preface these comments with the fact that I’ve been a solitary Pagan for the entire 10 years on this path. My “community” is the online Pagan community. When I began, Yahoo groups were prevalent, and I belonged to many. Eventually every single group fell into bickering and a degree of nastiness. I left the groups.

    Flash forward to today’s online Pagan community. It is a combination of groups, blogs, Twitterverse, and sites such as this. The “Wild Hunt” as well as this site, among others, keeps me informed about the happenings of Pagans that actually meet face to face. What I read is often troubling. The Pantheacon situation is an example. Instead of a harmonious gathering of Pagans, trying to find common ground, you find the Lilith Rite debacle. And worse, this gets broadcast widely over the Internet. It was the talk of the online community for weeks.

    I don’t mean to single out that one situation. Daily I see infighting about whose path is better or more legitimate. Newbies are often soundly thrashed, to the point that I worry about the future of our paths. Who wants to subject themselves to that when starting out.

    I’m not naive enough to think that Pagan online communities are any different than other virtual communities. Anonymity brings out the dark side in many. And I understand that Pagans are an extremely diverse group, which is why I don’t think there will ever be a cohesive Pagan presence in society. We tend to shun organized anything.

    But all this combined has led me to read far less online Pagan news. The economy, politics, conflicts between countries are bad enough, I don’t need more of the same from my spiritual path. I know it all can’t be Scott Cunningham’s version of Paganism, but perhaps there should be more of it. Honestly, I was happiest when I began, and all I knew was Cunningham, Buckland, Dorothy Morrison, among others. Naive, yes, but happy.

    There have been times where all this has nearly led me away from Paganism, to the point of considering atheism. But then I think back on those early days, and realize that I’m just letting outsiders influence what is in my heart.

    Sorry for the length here, but this is one of my foremost concerns about this path. I want to connect to some degree with others out there, but I don’t want to constantly come away feeling worse than if I hadn’t done so.

    1. Jason Hatter Avatar
      Jason Hatter

      The one problem with this view, and it’s one that is endemic to the “news” culture, is that the only time you DO hear about things is when they’re big. You don’t often hear the good times, the times when things are ok, or the small events that work well. We didn’t hear hardly anything about all the workshops and rituals that went well.

      I don’t deny that solitary is a valid choice at all, but just keep in mind that viewing from this perspective is a very skewed view.

  5. Silver Wolf Williams Avatar
    Silver Wolf Williams

    There has been many conflicts in the poagan community where I am and it comes down to certain individuals wanting things done their way and their way only. Myself I hate conflict and do not ever want to take part in any of it so I leave them to their own destruction with their destructive ways.
    I try to remain positive about things and to keep doing wht I can to help and guide others. Plus there is never any type of communication in the pagan community either which I see to be another big problem since people will not talk to each other leads to losing trust, untrue statements, intentions and leads to people hating each other.
    These are things I see all the time with no solution in sight unless people can get past their attitudes and self centered personalities

  6. Deanna Garcia Avatar

    I am a peaceful pagan who can do bad on my own and loose my cool, hey I will admit.
    This is just a thought to a possible solution. There are few things to keep in mind to prevent discord. We do not know each other. We are people who are joining each other as strangers on a chatboard who may not have ever sat down and had coffee with each other at the local café. We didn’t attend college nor do we work together. Or maybe we know each other but have lost contact with each other. We don’t know what each other is thinking. I like to apply the 5 agreements to these matters. DON’T ASSUME – as it makes an ASS of U and ME. AND DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Simple, people get caught up in their own worlds all the time. Take it as a grain of salt and move on. It’s the holding on to the pain that causes pagan to become solitary practitioners. This is unfair to us all.

  7. Kilmrnock Avatar

    so it goes , sorry ………….correction

  8. Kilmrnock Avatar

    i as a child, mid teens had a situation simular to what happen to your family , i was Southern Methodist . We had a well loved preacher/pastor at the church i grew up in , who was there for many years . actualy he helped found the church and was there thru all it’s growth 30 +years and all of my childhood , he baptised me , was there for my confirmation and i too was an acolyte.But this particular pastor was from a fairly wealthy family and he used his own money to help /support the church . The flip side of this tho , was he really didn’t consult to church board b/f he did anything .But all the members loved him and the fact he had been there from the beginning .The church board of directors , against the members wishes had him reassigned . This obviously hurt the church as a whole,we had lost our spiritual leader. Alot the equiptment the church took for granted , buses , stoves etc , actually belonged to the pastor the church barely survived , lost many members including me .this was the event that led me to my years of athiesism/agnostism. He was the only pastor i had ever known , literaly grew up w/ him around . To me and many others the place was never the same .and once the real reason he left us was known that board was dismissed . So i know exactly how you feel and the toll that kind of thing leaves behind . I have also been in a religious group that imploded violently , that left many scares as well . In this case. it was a power hungery leader HPS.She tried to control people and was willing to break up marriages to do it . Went after my wife and i as well …………the odd part of that is she handfasted us. My Current group has a strict code of honor / conduct so members know what is expected of them as does ADF which i am also a part of . We seem to avoid such nonsence with these kinds of policies in place . BTW, the group w/ the power hungery HPS didn’t survive .But in this case ” That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger ” actualy worked . as a result of that mess i found a warroir path , celtic recon CR, and ADF all of which has made me the man i am now .And the core of the imploded group are now our best freinds .Within our current ADF grove we had a member leave us due personal differences , but we survived just fine due having good policies to deal with such things in place .Some of us miss him , but si it goes ,He left by his own choice .

  9. Diane Vera Avatar
    Diane Vera

    I agree in general with the idea of “holding space,” listening to both sides, and not jumping to conclusions. However, some behaviors by conflicting parties need to be considered beyond the pale and promptly discouraged/reprimanded. One of these is violation of the other person’s privacy, e.g. by airing private information on the public Internet, especially if the person’s legal name is mentioned. These days, that’s an extremely harmful act, more harmful than some people may realize, given how prospective employers and clients commonly use Google.

  10. Virginia Carper Avatar
    Virginia Carper

    I am a witness to one conflict and was caught in the cross-fire of another recently. What I have noticed is that there are few conflict resolution mechanisms for people to work through. Also, there seems to be no process of mediation between groups.

    The other thing I have noticed is that many Pagans have few social skills or have not been trained to understand how groups work or don’t.

    What common thread that I noticed in several conflicts is the appeal to safety and dire consequences if the other side is not run out on a rail. I keep hearing how the other side is dangerous, with a laundry list of how many puppies they eat in a day. What I do not hear is how the one side contributed to the conflict or have any agency that they knew going in what the other side was like. In short, I keep hearing how they are victims, and they are standing up to the bullies, and how we should support them. What I see is that they are the bullies in their behavior in trying to force everyone to take sides.

    How does one go about having a holding space, when either or both sides insist on loyalty to their cause or grievance. How does one know what is a legitimate grievance and not a pissing contest? In short, how does one go about not getting caught in the cross-fire when both sides are contesting your loyalty?

    1. Ann Luloff Avatar

      Holding space is really hard when people want you to take their side and agree with them. I try to tell them that It isn’t my job to be in the middle of them and redirect the conversation to what that person could do for themselves, to help them through whatever the situation is. If they don’t want to here this, sometimes I need to hold space further away. So my way of thinking is don’t get involved, be a positive sounding board for a friend, but if you can’t been seen as holding space, then make space for your self to not be there.

  11. PhaedraHPS Avatar

    Not so many years ago, it was common for newer people in the Pagan community to express horror at any kind of conflict. “We’re Pagans. Pagans aren’t supposed to be like that.” Not sure what book or books or magazines encouraged that “we are higher, evolved people” meme, but it was surely out there. And I saw many people leave the community — either entirely or to become adamantly Solitary — because their ideals were not met.

    But Pagans are people. We Pagans reflect all the myriad flaws (and shining moments) of the general population and culture from which we come. It’s so important to separate the idea of “you’re acting just like the [Christians, Buddhists, SCAers] I left! How horrible!” from the benefits that might be gained by working through human issues.

  12. Serendipity Niner Avatar

    I have seen some groves whose congregants “take sides” (as is common in many non-religious social situations), and such conflicts tend to rip the social fabric quite cruelly when it happens. My grove has a “policy” of not getting involved if at all possible, and only minimally when necessary.

    Most interpersonal conflicts have to do with relationship breakups (mostly couples, sometimes longtime friends). Our “policy” is that BOTH members of the breakup are welcome to worship with us whenever they can, and that the person who has a problem being in the same space with the other is the one who should decide to stay away (and this *could* be an aggressor, who cannot refrain from causing problems with the “victim,” rather than the “victim” just feeling unsafe — we work to keep a feeling of safety and community).

    The only exception is when there is a restraining order involved, in which case the LAW dictates what happens, and we’d rather not have to be the ones to call the police, thank you very much. *IF* we are forced to do so, we’ll call the police (even with no restraining order, but assault/battery/etc.), but we’d much rather have an impartial grove elder attempt to convince people to do the right thing before we resort to that.

    Beyond that, both parties in a conflict situation need healing of one sort or another. Even if only one of the parties is “the Aggressor” (quite rare to be completely one-sided), that person needs to heal the aggressive feelings. We support those efforts to heal, but we admit that we are not professional counselors and that the individual bears the responsibility for directing his/her own healing. We’re just there to lend encouragement.

    It all boils down to this: individuals who are directly involved in a conflict have the majority of responsibility in solving it. Leaders and others who are peripherally involved are responsible for facilitating solution and healing, not further conflict (e.g. “taking sides”).

  13. Ywen DragonEye Avatar
    Ywen DragonEye

    There was a group of us that would gather at my home for the sabbats. I was in business with several of the group, one of whom was the manager and was taking liberties with business funds and trying to push one of the partners out. We were going to discuss these issues with her at a meeting, when a bombshell was dropped as she had convinced the primary financing party to call the loan if the partner she disliked did not leave. The remaining three of us decided to leave the business. However, as the hostess of sabbats I had to make a decision on how to handle this situation. I let everyone know that I was taking some time off. Holding space, if you will. During this time I pondered how I would restructure our group. A year and a day later I invited some people back to celebrate sabbats again. Our current group is happy and trusting and the time taken away made us more appreciative of one another and our sacred space.

  14. Ivy Latchford-Terrill Avatar

    I agree with most of the comments so far. Even in the smallest, hand-picked group, you’re going to have conflict, especially if you’ve been around for awhile. People’s lives can dictate behavior: grief, mental illness, physical health, etc. We, too, use bylaws and clearly communicated expectations so that everyone knows what’s unacceptable. When conflict arises, the role of the leader is key. While one can hold space, and feel compassionate toward all parties involved, compassion and empathy can’t always dictate what the next step might be. The leader (or leaders) has to make decisions that are for the good of the group. This might include temporary or permanent exclusion (or demotion) of a member, and that’s NEVER easy. It disrupts the group dynamic, but sometimes it’s necessary. So, while one may be compassionate and understanding, talking it out doesn’t always make everything okay.

  15. Mayah Crow Avatar

    Spot on, for members of any faith. I fell out of my Southern Baptist upbringing after they decided to boycott Disney for letting the “dirty” gays enjoy their parks – something that, even as a child, I could see had nothing to do with the way Christians were supposed to behave. I only survived the rest of my time as a Baptist thanks to some sane youth ministers who ignored the big Convention issues and instead listened to our teenage problems – a bit of holding space in Sunday school, if you will. (That, and Halo, and really good Fifth Sunday potluck breakfasts. Those old ladies made quiche so good then men ate it with gusto. And yes, we played Halo in church, insert one of the many possible jokes here.)

  16. Kaye MacArthur Avatar

    Sadly, conflict is our reality. I worked for years as a member of the EBoard of my uni’s Pagan group and, in the beginning, things were good. It wasn’t until my last year there that things began to go downhill. We had a sudden influx of…dynamic personalities. Not everyone got along, so I had to handle many issues that made me want to pull my hair out. And no, I never wanted to look like the bad guy, but sometimes, that’s what you have to do. Sometimes, one person has to play “bad cop” to make things run smoothly, but it is important to always be fair and try to remove your personal feelings from the equation. Which, let me tell you, is extremely difficult. That last year, I had to put a brand-new member on probation for one issue, which I won’t get into here, and expel another one due to sexual harassment of a number of members.

    In my case, though, I was lucky to have a support base. It wasn’t just me on the EBoard and, as an academic group, we had a faculty advisor to help in extreme situations, like with the member who was expelled. We also had a spiritual advisor, for whom I will *always* be thankful. We also had a Constitution that we could look to in unsure situations.

    It’s hard, being in charge of a group of people. Not everyone can handle it. I know for a fact that there were some situations that I did not handle as well as I should have or would have liked, but I did my best. Sadly, though, emotions tend to colour our judgements of others and ourselves. And sometimes herding Pagans is like herding cats.

  17. Sisterlisa Avatar

    Well said, Teo!!! I like that term “hold space”. Such wisdom you share here. I have seen a lot of conflict in many circles, mostly in Christianity (but that’s due to the amount of years I have been supping with Christ.) But I’ve also seen it in some pagan circles. I appreciate those in leadership and within the communities who will firmly (not abrasively) put their feet down when needed. Otherwise be hospitable and inclusive to all. We can grow and be strengthened while being protected too. If people can’t refrain from being abusive to others in the group then they need to move on when politely asked to do so.

    1. Kilmrnock Avatar

      I too like the idea of holding space , taking a step back……… fully examine the situation , hear all involved w/o taking sides . sounds like a wonderful concept.

  18. Marc Avatar

    I’m intensely cynical when it comes to Pagan groups working through their troubles. Looking from the outside in, it seems like we’re all the more ready to splinter and divide based around personalities and egos. I hear repeated stories of someone (or someones) coming into a group, coven, whatever, and just causing so much antagonism that it poisons the whole of the group. I read issues in covens, on people’s personal journals, and whatever, and it just does not bode well. It’s like our castles are made out of sand, and one scandal can wash it all away.

    It seems like our religious community has taken the ideas of the Reformation and ran with it, that we’re so attached to the PROTESTant part of the Western culture that we don’t try to keep cohesion. It’s like we know, at the back of our minds, that we can go do whatever we want, because we can, and nobody can tell us anything (Because we’re Pagans, dammit, and we’re NOT supposed to pass judgement on people’s religious beliefs). We do this instead of taking the harder road of working out our difficulties and differences in a rational community.

    1. David Pollard Avatar
      David Pollard

      You can pass judgement on people’s behaviors without judging their beliefs.

    2. Kilmrnock Avatar

      This is why having proceedures and codes in place helps defuse such Situations . everyone knows what is allowed and what is expected of them in advance.Conflicts are kept under control and dealt with more easily .. Kilm

  19. Eran Rathan Avatar

    So very much hate and discontent and conflict can be resolved or avoided if you simply take time to LISTEN. Hear what the other person says, not just what you think they are saying.

  20. Amber Moon Avatar

    How do pagans respond to conflict? Most that I have met, DON’T! I can’t understand it, not all conflict has to be a loud confrontation, but many run from it, like it will turn out to be a fight to the death. I have seen groups destroyed, because there is a problem, everyone knows about it, everyone’s talking about (in secret) but no one will put it out there to be discussed or the leader is worried they will look like the “bad guy” by addressing it. Resolving conflict without screaming or violence is a social skill, it can be learned. I left a group for this reason and the group I am in now has very little conflict or drama, but I think that is because we use bylaws and we have an ethics policy. People know what is behavior is allowed and what isn’t, so there is very little conflict.

  21. Dydan Waters Avatar
    Dydan Waters

    This is why its important for groups to establish a clear process for handling grievances. Conflicts ARE inevitable whenever you get more than 2 people together. Its rather shocking to me to see how few groups out there have any kind of procedure outlined. Waiting for an incident to happen and then scrambling to deal with it amid drama is no way to come up with a plan to handle conflict.