Yes, but what do we NEED from our Pagan leaders?

The discussion around the post, What do we want from our Pagan leaders? was enlightening for me. Admittedly, I have a close, personal connection to the subject, as I’m seeking to discover what it might mean that I am, as a friend told me, “called to lead” in some way.

This comment really stood out to me:

I think that’s one of the basic yardsticks of spiritual maturity: can what you offer to others be about what’s needed rather than all about self-promotion? Or self-effacement, or self-absorption, or deprivation, or justification, or any of the other funky little trips we can run that get between what we have to offer and actually offering it, freely and lovingly, as we’re called to do?

– Cat C-B

Ah…the need. I started out with the want, but the real answer may lie in the need.

Religious leadership can be complicated, I think, especially within a community that isn’t in agreement about our collective identity, our purpose in the greater society, or even if we should classify what we do as religion. By and large, the comments reflected that what we want is a co-creative, egalitarian model of group interaction rather than one which relies on a single leader. We want all of our strengths to be put to good use, we want our fellow coven or grove members to support us as we support them, and we want to experience our community without the sense that we are being governed.

This is what we want. But, is this what we need?

Another commentor, John Beckett, started off with a slightly more active tone:

Any leader has to begin with a vision. Who are you going to lead? Where are you going to lead them? Who and what do you serve?

A leader has to articulate his vision. If you keep it to yourself, you aren’t leading anyone.

A leader has to implement her vision. Talk is cheap – how are we going to do the work necessary to make the vision a reality?

I find this connection between vision and leadership to be interesting, especially in contrast to the idea that leadership functions best when it serves the needs of the community. I wonder if this idea of “beginning with a vision” would be better phrased as “beginning with vision”.

Should the vision of a leader be thought of as more of a quality of seeing; a refinement of one’s faculties of observation? Perhaps we need our leaders to see what is happening in our communities and in the lives of individual with greater clarity. In this way, their “vision” isn’t a noun. It isn’t a platform on which they can run for election. Instead, it is a tool which they use in order to better understand their brothers and sisters.

But then the question is, what do we do when, through our clear vision we recognize a specific need? Is that the moment where leadership begins?

I like the idea that leaders should be teachers, or possessors of knowledge. They shouldn’t be so bookish as to be unapproachable, but I like to think they’ve put in some time learning about the nuts and bolts of their practice or tradition. I also feel that pastoral care should be a primary focus of religious leadership. If we’re going to work in service to the community, we should understand how to serve the real, human needs. I’m talking about skills of compassion and empathy.

To be clear, in all of this musing I’m not feeling conflicted about the subject of Pagan leadership. I just find the discussion to be fascinating. I think there’s value in stepping back and thinking about the difference between what we want and what we need in all aspects of our life, but particularly when we’re thinking about the leaders of our covens, our groves, or our larger Pagan institutions.

Do you see a difference between what Pagans want from our leaders and what we need from them? If you have led a group, have you found it challenging to discern the needs of the group, or did you have clear vision from the start?

This blog is a safe space to unpack your ideas and experiences, and I encourage you to do so in the Comment section.






19 responses to “Yes, but what do we NEED from our Pagan leaders?”

  1. Kilmrnock Avatar

    See my post from the previous article , my post was more to answering this question . About what i think this community needs from it’s leadership.     Kilm

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you, Kilm.

  2.  Avatar

    I think I’d like to bring up the issue of passion.

    If you want a job, learn to do plumbing. It pays a lot better, and people ALWAYS need your skills.

    Leadership — IMO — derives first from passion. You see something, you are moved to do something, and there it is: you are leading. Often it’s a combination of compassion and disgust that drives you into leading: you say “Someone oughta do something….” just one too many times, and then, with a frustrated expletive, you take the reins and do it yourself.

    I think you “become” a leader after that because people follow you. Not because you wanted to be a leader.

    At that point, you either have to tell your followers to piss off (e.g. Life of Brian), or you can accept your leadership role (even revel in it) and worry about your “leadership skills.” You don’t have to do any guesswork about that: you are already leading, whether well or poorly. Cultivate just a little common-sense humility, and you’ll see exactly where you’re ill-prepared, or need to work on skills. One of which should be delegation — let other people become passionate and drive things, too. Otherwise you’re looking at swift burnout.

    One of the things that really struck me when I first looked into shamanism is that you don’t get to decide to be a shaman. Oh, you can train, and study with elders, and prepare for a life in service to a community, but if the community doesn’t want you, you aren’t a shaman. Even if you’re passionate about it.

    So what’s the need in your community you actually SEE? A need that isn’t being met — a need you can get fired-up passionate about, and actually feel moved to do something about?

    If you don’t see any of those, you aren’t going to lead, even if you get assigned a “leadership role.”

    I caution that is this only my opinion, and I am a person who despises the leadership role, though I often find myself driven into it — more often by disgust than by passion. As a result, I’m not a very good “leader,” and that is just perfectly fine by me. So please take these comments with a good helping of salt.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you, Themon, for sharing your own personal experience and for offering these insights into leadership. I don’t suppose I’d considered passion when I wrote this, but I certain recognize the feeling. I have felt passionate about a cause, an idea, or the health of a community, and I feel passionate about the work being done here at Bishop in the Grove. This passion grew during my PantheaCon weekend, and it continues to spill over into other areas of my life.

      Pairing this feeling of passion with the spirit of service makes sense to me. When you’ve reached out, motivated more often by disgust than by passion, did you feel as though you were serving others or simply righting the perceived wrong?

  3. Glenn Turner Avatar
    Glenn Turner

    “you began more as leader, and moved into the role of a of facilitator”

    It’s an interesting distinction you make between  leader and facilitator. I went to two workshops on leadership at PantheaCon this year (there were a few I had to miss too). One was a powerpoint lecture such as you might get at a business meeting, the other was facilitated by Patty Layffate (sp?). She expertly called on all the various leaders in the audience, including Starhawk. I think I got more out of Patty’s than the other one. One thing from it sticks in my mind, someone suggested that a group can be a leader. That’s a very thought provoking idea.

    I think there are many kinds of leaders – teacher, councilors, writers, facilitators. I suppose  I count myself as being a facilitator.

    The vision I followed as I’ve organized PantheaCon over the last  17 years is one of a space to interact, to shine, to party, to meet other like-minded pagans. And in the spirit of imperfection, I suppose it doesn’t always work perfectly, as in the controversy of the last two years. But it is making us all think, about inclusion, exclusion, and the need for safe space to explore our selves and our areas of miscommunication and preconceptions.

    Thanks for bringing up and interesting area for discussion.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you, Glenn, for being a part of the conversation. This blog is written to create and sustain meaningful dialogue; that’s the primary focus. In the spirit of imperfection, however, I’m not always successful at that. But, that is what I try to facilitate, and I do the best I can.

      This last Con was my first, and I found the experience to be tremendously rewarding. It was, for me, everything you intended it to be. I interacted, I shined, I partied, and I broke bread with like-minded Pagans of many different traditions. I felt whole, as though in the environment which you helped to design and facilitate I was able to be all of myself. For everything you did to make this experience possible, for the gift of your time, your energy, your creativity and your sacrifice, I offer you my sincere thanks.

      The controversy is an invitation into deeper dialogue. This is what I believe. I trust that, as a leader and facilitator, you are already engaging in that process. I hold you up, and I hold up all those who share in the responsibility of organizing PantheaCon. I offer you my support in spirit, for you have a great task ahead. I pray that you, the Group, can continue to be the leader you are called to be.

      Bright blessings to you.

  4. Kate Dennis Avatar

    As Pagan clergy I don’t so much see myself as a leader as a resource. My  knowledge and experience is something for others to draw from so they can enrich their own experience of spirituality worship. In the larger context, I am only one of many resources and not an absolute.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I love this distinction, Kate. It makes a lot of sense to me.

      I wonder, though, if there are moments when you are sharing that knowledge or experience that you are faced with the choice of how to be resource. Does it feel passive to you, or active? You are more than a book, of course; more than a Google search. Would guidance be a better word to describe what you do as Pagan clergy? Mentorship?

  5. Ywendragoneye Avatar

    I have led a small group of eclectics in Northern Cali for about eleven years now. Determining the needs of the group has been a challenge on occasion. I found that some participants, even after years of attending, did not even know the directions or their corresponding element. This became very discouraging to me, and along with some other issues that came to a head I took a year and a day off from hosting ritual. During this time I contemplated the next incarnation of our circle. I realized that people needed to be more active, to participate more. I invited back a small group of people who I felt were serious and dedicated, and we now rotate composing and leading ritual. After a couple of years, now that we are all comfortable leading, we occasionally have others join us. But it is mainly safe space for us to practice and learn and make mistakes. We have had some wonderful encounters with spirit, some rituals that just didn’t work and some that brillianty did. And that’s all OK, no pressure, just love and companionship and joy in our path.  

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your experience here at BitG, Ywendragoneye. It sounds as though you began more as leader, and moved into the role of a of facilitator; you took the steps necessary to inspire all who were dedicated and serious about their spiritual path to lead and serve.

      Would you say that your group is better equipped to teach now? If you are all becoming experienced at leading rituals, are you sharing what you’ve learned with the new attendees?

      1. Ywendragoneye Avatar

        Yes, I would say each of us is better equipped to teach. Even if that means we only learn from each other, it is a success. We have only had three new attendees who have stayed any length of time. Two of them went on to lead ritual as well, but have since moved back to Scotland (though they will always remain a part of our circle). The third is the only man who has joined us, and he wishes not to lead ritual but instead serves as consort to whichever priestess is leading at the time. We keep a book of shadows where our rituals are recorded for use by all of us in creating our ceremonies. We can then reuse what has worked in the past. It is my hope that people are more confident in their solitary work, or if they choose to move on and start their own circle to feel comfortable in a leadership role. We will be trying something new for the upcoming Winter Solstice in that we will gather and create that ritual together as a group. I am looking forward to that new experience!

        1. Ian Phanes Avatar

          he wishes not to lead ritual but instead serves as consort to whichever priestess is leading at the time. 

          Can you unpack that a bit?  What does a consort do that’s different from leading?  What does a consort do, period?

          1. Ywendragoneye Avatar

            He acts in whatever capacity the leading priestess needs at the time. For instance, I will be leading Beltane this year, and as he is a ballroom dancer, I plan to have him dance with me as representatives of the Lord & Lady while the rest of the group dances the Maypole. He has acted as the god for the great rite. He has acted as the Holly King while one of the children was Oak King. That sort of thing.

  6. Shea Thomas Avatar

    I also think it might be helpful to make a more bright-line distinction between spiritual and mundane leadership. There is a bit of overlap, certainly, but counseling someone in a time of grief, or planning a really moving ritual, is not the same skill set as designing a yearly budget, or running a volunteer staff meeting. I think one of the most helpful things the Pagan community could for itself it to quit confusing the two jobs, and to recognize that someone very good at one may not be automatically good at the other, and that training in both areas is needed if our leaders are going to continue to try to fill both sets of shoes.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      These are very good point, Shea. Thank you for bringing them to the conversation. I guess the question that comes to mind for me is: should our leaders be filling those shoes? 

      I’m reminded of the leader of the Episcopal church I attended years back, who was an inspirational figure to me for some time. He spoke often about how the real work he does is the business of keeping the church alive. I found that very difficult to stomach at the time, but it was true. There were bills to pay, programs to support, and on top of all that there were a set of weekly rituals for which he needed to prepare himself. It seemed like too much.

      There’s also the question about what happens when a person is good at one thing – say, leading ritual – but not good at the other – like, budgeting, for example. Do we have established ways to support that person, and to allow them to serve in the way that is best for them while still taking care of the essential, practical matters of group sustainability?

      Again, great ideas. If you’d like to speak any further on these, I’d love to hear more of what you have to say.

      1. Shea Thomas Avatar

        Thanks Teo. I appreciate you bringing up such an interesting topic. As to the question of whether or not we have established ways to support a person that is trying to fulfill both roles (which for purposes of this conversation let’s call “spiritual” and “administrative” roles) I don’t believe we do. In fact, I think that many Pagan leaders often get involved in group leadership on the spiritual side of things (leading ritual, teaching, counseling, etc.) and then find themselves thrust unwillingly into situations where they suddenly need to know about conflict resolution, group dynamic theory, delegation, volunteer development, promotions, budgeting, and the thousand other things that go along with having any group more complicated than a casual gathering of friends. In fact, I’ve seen more than one group self-destruct over the years because of these administrative issues despite the fact that the group was led by person of deep spirituality.

        There is a yearly conference in Richmond, Virginia (called the National Pagan Leadership Conference) that tries to get at some of these nuts and bolts issues, but absent any formal bifurcation in our group structures (such as they have in the Presbyterian Church where they have “Elders” that deal almost solely with policy and spiritual issues, and “Deacons” that deal almost exclusively with the daily operation of the church) I think we are left with trying to learn about these various “admin” skills on our own.

        Likely it would start with recognizing that there is an art to these mundane forms of leadership (just like there is on the magickal side), and that if we’re going to go down the road of trying to lead a Pagan group we need to be forming opinions on Roberts Rules of Order vs. Starhawk’s consensus model just as much as we need to know the precise difference between invocation and evocation. This so, I wouldn’t mind seeing more things like “how to delegate effectively” and “best practices for budget management” in our various traditions’ training programs. I know that some of the more formal programs, like Cherry Hill Seminary, are already doing things like this.

        1. Teo Bishop Avatar

          What a great comment, Shea. Thank you for joining in the dialogue. I wasn’t familiar with the Presbyterian model you shared, and I think that could be very, very useful in certain Pagan groups.

          So, would you say that if a person feels called into spiritual leadership they should also invest the time and energy into learning these other practical, “administrative” skills you speak of? And, should we be encouraging this across the Pagan community?

          1. Shea Thomas Avatar

             Yep. I think so. 🙂

  7. Sisterlisa Avatar

    This is beautiful. I see the same scenario in many Christian circles too. Your thoughts inspire me.