Fundraising in the Pagan Community Part 1

227987_8496Many Pagan groups have a story, a myth. “Pagans are broke,” Pagans will tell me sagely. And…they are right and they are wrong. I’ve run Pagan events that make money. And, I’ve run Pagan events that didn’t break even.

I’ve posted about Pagans, money, and paying for community events before, but it’s a topic that begs further exploration. As an event planner, and as a traveling teacher, this is quite honestly a maddening process.

There’s various methods of fundraising involved in the Pagan community. Some are purely donation based, but many are capitalistic, ie, charging for a class or a festival. My experience of Pagan fundraising is that most groups have raised funds by charging for classes and events, or by selling items.

In many groups, the leaders cover the cost of supplies and venue rental out of their own pockets. I’ve heard a number of group leaders tell me, “If we charge for our events nobody will come, so we just donate the money out of pocket or the group will disappear.”

There are some not for profit groups that have done larger fundraising efforts over the years accepting donations and larger gifts for their efforts, and many groups (like Pagan musicians, the Wild Hunt blog, and myself) have done fundraisers through Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund their efforts. But most of the folks out there trying to raise money are probably doing it on a fairly small scale—but even that scale is sometimes more than they can raise money for.

For some groups, raising $200 to rent a venue is more than they can manage.

Fear of Charging
I find that when I travel and teach, so many group leaders don’t want to charge their attendees for the class. Some are afraid to even ask for a sliding scale donation (ie, “Sliding scale $5-$25, no one turned away for lack of funds.” What they tell me is,”People won’t pay,” and asking people to pay will mean that people won’t come.

In fact, several group leaders I’ve talked to preferred to just pay my travel/teaching fee out of pocket rather than charge for it so that they wouldn’t alienate their group.

I know that in my case, I worked (in several groups/cities) to build a culture of donations on a sliding scale. It took years, and, it doesn’t always work, but raising $300 at an event is better than raising $50, or $0. I don’t always break even on my events that I host in Chicago, but I almost always do.

However, I have noticed in the past years that far less people seem willing or able to donate for a class. I used to regularly see sliding scale weekend intensives ask for $75-$150 sliding scale, and offer some scholarships, and the classes would fill with 15, 20 people without a problem and have no problem paying for the teacher fees or the venue. Of late, I’ve seen far less people able or willing to make the time for a weekend class, and of those who attend, far less are willing to pay even at the middle of the scale. Many pay at the $5-$25 level, or need to attend on a complete scholarship.

I think that that is partially the recession, and also partially because people are busier, but I also wonder what else is a factor. Friends of mine with not for profit fundraising experience suggest that the current generations have the least interest in philanthropy.

What Encourages Donations?
I wonder what would help events to raise more money. Is it the language? I know when I suggest a range of fees on a sliding scale, I get more than when I just put out a donation jar. However, I know of some Pagan teachers who charge a flat fee in a more capitalist model (only those who can afford to attend get to attend) and their following will pay that fee.

It’s also worth exploring what types of events make more money, and also what other methods of fundraising can work to boost revenues, such as raffle/auction, readers donating their time, vendors, etc.

Though I admit, what I see over time is that the successful classes and events seem to be hosted by teachers with a big name. Also, the classes and books that sell well are typically focusing on intro and mid level topics, as well as what we’ll call “sexier” topics. Classes that promise phenomenal magical power sell better. The classes  that seem to make money aren’t the intensive, advanced, deep exploration classes…they are the ones that sound “cool” and like you’re going to learn magic spells to get what you want.

How Much do Events Cost?
Different events have different costs. It depends on where you’re running the event. Some Pagans are able to secure free venues. Others have to pay for the venue. Some Pagan presenters and authors charge more than others. And then there’s performers like musicians. Bringing a Pagan band into town, or a Pagan author, can be a very expensive prospect.

However, they can be a big draw.

There’s a big difference between doing a workshop out of your house and running a day-long festival. And there’s also what people value and are willing to pay for. I’ve noticed that many Pagans will pay for trinkets before they pay for a class. And many Pagans will come out for a Pagan band, for entertainment, who won’t come out for a community event or a ritual.

Honestly, every time I plan an event I’m nervous. I never know if it’s going to break even until the event is done and we count the donations. And I can’t continue under that process, I really can’t. It’s too stressful.

Add to that the complexities of running an event, and working with a lot of local presenters and performers who–by all rights–should be paid for their time. Except,running a small scale Pagan event with no headline (famous) presenter, and no headline musical act, doesn’t bring in a lot of money most of the time. Not unless there’s additional fundraising. Some of the challenges are:

  1. It’s hard to get people to actually come out to an event. People have busy lives and not everyone prioritizes Pagan events. Low attendance means less money. 50 people paying even just $5 means $250, and that almost covers my venue cost in Chicago for a day-long rental. But if only 30 show, I might not cover the costs.
  2. Getting people to actually donate. Some just don’t have the money–times are tough. Others don’t value spending money on a Pagan event. They’ll leave the event and go out for drinks, drop $20 on dinner, $5 on coffee, and not think twice. Ask them to drop $25 on a ritual and they think you are scamming them.

But Paying for Events is Bad!
I’m not out there to shake anyone down for money. I’m not promising salvation. I’d just love to get paid a reasonable full time wage to do the work that I love–organizing events, teaching workshops, writing blog posts like this and writing books.

However, in my experience, there are only a few Pagans out there who are making (any) income off of their Pagan work. They fit into 3 main categories that I’ve seen

  1. Leaders of a large institutions or owners of Pagan lands (and we have precious few of these)
  2. Authors and Teachers
  3. Vendors, store owners, and readers

Now…in any of these categories, you can have the ethical folks who are doing good work, and you can have the people who are just trying to make a buck.

People charging for services is not bad. People charging for events is not bad.

Embezzled money? Bad. Expensive sweat lodges that kill participants? Bad. Pagans are so gun shy about donating and it doesn’t serve us. However, there’s a reason–without controls and accountability, you have no idea where your money is going. And, with the epidemic of bad and unstable leaders out there, no wonder Pagans are gun-shy. Yet, unless we Pagans culturally drop our fear of donating to Pagan teachers and organizations doing good work, those organizations won’t survive, those teachers will give up.

I’m on the edge of that myself, as I’ve posted before. I’ve paid out of pocket to teach for years. We’re talking infrastructure problems here…and this is the reason we don’t have more leadership classes and advanced classes out there.

I suppose some organizations and teachers just need to hang in there and prove that they are one of the good guys…but goodness, is it a rocky road to get there.

Doesn’t Money Corrupt?
Again, money isn’t bad. We (humans) have a lot of cultural shame biases that get in the way. Money is a Pagan shame bias. Anyone who wants to make a living doing this kind of work must be “bad.” Money isn’t bad–money is energy. Money represents time and work. You can volunteer to help a group with your time and energy, or you can donate money. It’s the same thing, and Pagan groups need both.

But when someone is making a living doing work like this, there can be challenges holding a balance. I saw some of my own mentors having this challenge; they were forced to focus on what would pay the bills. They would often allow people to continue coming to events who were disruptive…but those folks were paying to attend, and they needed the money. In fact, that organization and retreat center no longer exists because it wasn’t financially sustainable. And it’s hard for any Pagan organization to reach financial sustainability.

I have focused mostly on the work that called to me–ie, teaching leadership and rituals, and leading rituals. I certainly could make a lot more money as a Pagan author and teacher if I catered to the Pagan-101-Teach-Me-Spellwork crowd. If I was willing to be a guru and subtly imply to people that they can become way powerful witches and spellworkers and get phenomenal cosmic power but only if they pay me a low-low fee….But that’s not who I am.

Money does always raise the huge question of authenticity. Yes, I need an event I’m running to make money or I can’t keep running them…but once I start compromising my authenticity to run events or teach classes just to make money, that’s where it starts to enter the gray area.

I’ve heard Pagans suggest that “true teachers” shouldn’t do it for the money. They should do it because they are called, they should do it whether or not they are getting paid. Well–I’m here as a teacher and leader who has done that. I taught because I was called. Where did it leave me? Financially destitute, to be honest. Yes, I made those choices, so I bear that responsibility. But to answer the question, would I do this work without pay?

Obviously yes, because I have. But the consequences to my life and health have been significant. I’ve found myself as a Pagan organizer and teacher at a crux, a crossroads. I have a choice to continue doing this work and finding a way to get paid for it, or to significantly downscale the work that I do for the Pagan community and focus on work that brings in more income.

Money and leadership and raising funds is a big topic! Part 2 will explore more of the issues of Pagans and Fundraising, and I’ll post that tomorrow.


First–a quick plea for assistance. I’m in the final days of my Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a car so I can continue traveling and teaching leadership and writing articles like this. I’m offering cool perks from $1 and up, including leadership resources. Every dollar helps me to get a safe, reliable vehicle for those long road trips. If my writing is useful to you, please consider contributing so I can keep doing this work. If everyone who read my blog this week contributed $1-$5, I’d have a pretty reliable car.  http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/leadership-education-and-writing-for-pagan-community/




Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: community, community building, event organizing, event planning, fundraising, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, sustainability, sustainable

Assumptions, Expectations, and Boundaries

7898846_xxlIf you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it. But asking is sometimes the hard part.

“Let’s meet at ___ location at about 6pm.” What does “about” mean here? Does “about” mean, “I want you to meet me exactly at 6pm?” Does it mean that we might be there by 5:45, but that it also is acceptable if we aren’t there until 6:15?

“I like it when someone else takes the trash out.” What does that mean? Does that mean the person is hinting that I should take the trash out?

“Someone needs to design a flyer.” What does that mean? Is someone being asked to design a flyer?

“We need to clear the debris out of that room.” Who’s being asked to do this? What’s the plan? Am I being asked to help, or is this just a statement about the need to clear the debris?

“I have a train that is leaving at 6:30 am.” Is this even a question? If my intent is to procure a ride to the train station for myself, shouldn’t I be asking a specific question of someone? Something more like, “Hey, I have a train leaving at 6:30 am, would you be willing to give me a ride to the train station?”


First–a quick plea for assistance. I’m in the final days of my Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a car so I can continue traveling and teaching leadership and writing articles like this. I’m offering cool perks from $1 and up, including leadership resources. Every dollar helps me to get a safe, reliable vehicle for those long road trips. If my writing is useful to you, please consider contributing so I can keep doing this work. If everyone who read my blog this week contributed $1-$5, I’d have a pretty reliable car.  http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/leadership-education-and-writing-for-pagan-community/


Back to the article….I experience that many people are afraid to ask direct questions, particularly when they are asking people to do something–or worse, to do something for them. It’s part of this whole cultural passive aggressive baggage that really hinders communication efforts.

Why are we afraid to ask for help?
I can speak for myself on this one—I’m afraid that if I ask for help that someone might say no. That someone might resent me or judge me for asking for help. That I will then be stuck owing that person or be labeled as needy. There’s a whole host of reasons. Every once in a while, my deeply-hidden people-pleaser rears its ugly head. People who ask for help are judged as needy and helpless, I think. People will resent me for asking for help.

Energetically, it feels better if I hint and then they offer. That way I’m not owing them, right? Or at least, it feels more that way. Many communications lack the specifics that would actually get us what we want.

“Let’s meet up at 6pm” is at least somewhat specific. However, if Person A said “Let’s meet around 6,” and then Person A gets pissed off that Person B didn’t show up until 6:15, that really isn’t fair. “About” is a pretty vague word. If Person A needs something to happen by no later than 6pm–such as a departure–what would work better is, “I need for us to leave no later than 6pm, so please be there by 5:45.” It’s more clear and puts their needs forward. They are setting themselves up for someone to fail them if they are vague.

Why might they be vague? Well, let’s face it, being that specific and clear can be taken as being confrontational in our culture.

Here’s something that makes it more difficult is when someone asks a question when they already know an answer. Here’s an example. Let’s say Person A knows they want to leave by no later than 6pm to get somewhere else by 7pm. But they first ask Person B, “What time do you want to leave?” If Person A already knows they want to leave by 6pm, why bother asking?

And yet, we learn how to do these polite things that actually get in the way and cause micro conflicts and set us up for frustration.

Similarly, we learn that to be clear and to hold boundaries is to sound controlling and bitchy. “We need to leave at no later than 6pm, so be there at 5:45, please,” can come across as sounding harsh and unyielding.

And yet, it puts forth a clear need. If it’s actually going to tick you off to leave at 6:05, or, cause you to risk being late, it’s really your responsibility to communicate that up front.

“Let’s meet around 6ish” is something we learn to say, but it isn’t really what we want. I experience that people get really ticked off at people who don’t do what they wanted.

However, you can’t know what someone wants unless they tell you.

Expectations Uncommunicated
In fact, I notice this a lot in relationships when one partner has an expectation of another partner but never communicates it. One partner I was with expected that if someone didn’t jump up to take care of a problem that was hinted at, that that person didn’t love him. We finally came to be able to talk about this after therapy. It was an expectation he’d learned from a family member. His frustration could be anything from, the laundry pile was too full, to, he wanted to go out to dinner.

He just held the expectation that if there was something he wanted me to help with, that I’d somehow telepathically know. And when I, of course, did not read his mind to know what he wanted help with, he’d get increasingly frustrated but not tell me that he was frustrated until he exploded in anger.

You can probably start to see how something that’s really fairly miniscule like doing laundry becomes a major conflict. We’d end up in this cyclical argument where ultimately he’d say, “If you really loved me you’d just know, I wouldn’t have to ask.”

Perhaps you too have had relationship arguments that just ran around and around the barn like this.

Expectations in Groups and Leadership
The point is–you can’t expect something of someone if you haven’t asked them or told them what you want. I’m using an example from friendships and romantic relationships, however, this happens in a group setting just as easily.

“Someone needs to design the flyer” is not asking anyone to actually do that work–but you can bet that the group leader who mentioned this is going to get upset when nobody reads their mind and creates the flyer. Or the silent expectation that everyone knows they need to be at the venue 2 hours early for setup.

If you don’t ask people to do something specific, you can’t expect them to know you needed the help. I talk to a lot of group leaders who get frustrated with people in their groups who aren’t stepping up to do the work. And yes–volunteers often drop the ball, it’s the nature of the beast. However, many of these group leaders are not properly articulating the question, they are not asking people to do a task.

Here’s a mistake I’ve made in the past–I’ve put out the email to “everyone” listing the things that need to be done for XYZ event, or the Facebook post saying, “Can anyone do XYZ?” And then I get no responses. What gets a better response is, “Hey Pat, I know you’re really a great graphic designer, would you be willing to design a flyer for the event? I understand if you are busy.” When you actually ask people for help, you might get it–and you might get the help you are actually asking for.

But if I sit there and angrily stew that nobody is helping me with tasks–and I never asked them explicitly to do those tasks–that one’s on me.

Sometimes the Answer is No
Going further, you can’t really expect someone to act in a way that goes against their nature, against their values. I’m not talking about high-minded values, I’m talking about, what you value in the sense of, where you are willing to spend your time, energy, and money.

I value having time to spend working on writing, artwork, and community building. I’ve simplified my life in order to reflect those values. I don’t value expensive food, going out for dinner, or drinking, for instance. A former partner of mine was an extrovert (I’m an introvert) and greatly valued hanging out with people, going out for dinner. He was a foodie, I wasn’t. He liked to drink, I didn’t. He would get mad at me for not caving to his wishes and coming out with him to social events that I didn’t want to spend the money on. They were events that I wasn’t going to enjoy, and I didn’t value spending my time or my money on them.

“If you really loved me you’d do things you don’t want to do because I want you to do them,” was among his ways of trying to manipulate me.

And here’s the thing–group leaders sometimes do this. Visionaries, stubborn group leaders, we do this, and we don’t mean to. It’s a mistake I’ve made in the past and I’ve worked to correct that. I’ve tried to pressure people into going against their nature, guilting people into doing something “for the event” or “for the group.”

Sometimes, when I ask someone for help, the answer is no. And as a group leader, I have to be ok with that, I have to respect someone’s “no.”

Manipulation and Expectations
Let me take a moment to step back and point out how putting pressure on people to do what you want them to do can be incredibly manipulative whether it’s a friend, lover, or someone in your group. The person who is trying to hold a boundary and say, “No, I don’t value that,” is made to feel horrible by the guilting.

When my own former partner tried to get me to do what he wanted, I began to  doubt myself. I was pretty clear at first that I was just holding a boundary. After a while, I began to wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Am I really that terrible?” Sometimes, my partner’s words led me to going against what I knew was good for me. In the context of a relationship, this can end up into a very abusive, codependent spiral. In my case, this exacerbated my existing depression and made it worse.

However, group dynamics and relationships are very similar, and a leader who is pressuring people to do things in a group–even for altruistic reasons–is still sliding on that slippery slope into an abusive dynamic. Pressuring people to taking on event planning roles might get your event done, but it’s ultimately not going to build a healthy group. I’ve learned that the hard way.

Groups are a Relationship
So when the group leader (Person A) really wants people in the group to volunteer to take ritual roles but nobody does, Person A is going to get frustrated. However, Person A didn’t communicate their need clearly, and then usually ends up browbeating people for not volunteering.

If they set up the expectation up front–or better yet, walked through what they need, and listened to their group members who might not want to take ritual roles–there would be less frustration all around.

Nobody likes the abusive dynamic of waiting for the group leader/parent to blow up at them. If the group leader puts out there, “We put on 8 sabbats, and I need at least 5 people to step in and take ritual roles each time or I won’t be able to facilitate the sabbat, how many of you are interested in volunteering?” and then perhaps also asks, “Are there any of you who really don’t want to ever take ritual roles?” and then listens to those folks share why, a conversation can happen. Negotiation can happen.

Maybe some of the folks don’t want to take roles because they are shy, but would be willing to take really small roles and learn to get better at public speaking work, but they are afraid to take on the bigger roles that the group leader is offering. Maybe some of the folks just have absolutely zero interest in facilitating.

Help people in your group build healthier boundaries–a healthier sense of self, and the ability to say no to you, the leader. And yeah, as a visionary, sometimes that sucks. Sometimes it means the event isn’t going to be as grand as your vision. I’ve been there. I have another T-shirt.

Organizing Events
Pagan Pride or another local festival is a great example. I hear from a lot of PPD organizers that they have a hard time getting volunteers, and have a hard time getting local people involved. They get frustrated when their local community doesn’t even show up for an event, or when local community leaders don’t take an active part.

But I wonder, how many PPD and festival coordinators actually work to establish relationships with local community and leaders by going to other folks’ events? Some do. Some don’t. How many festival organizers actually make the time to research local groups and go and introduce themselves? How many ask for specific help? Putting out a post, “I need help with XYZ day-long festival, I need volunteers,” is vague. “I need 10 people for 2-hour shifts at the info table greeting people” is specific.

I’ll be clear–volunteer management is not my strength. If I’m working with a skilled volunteer coordinator I can help break tasks down simply like that, but it’s not an area where I have as much skill. However, it’s an important factor in breaking down tasks because volunteers are much more likely to help when you outline exactly what you need.

Getting Other Groups Involved
Many Pagan organizers find it challenging to get other groups involved. One thing that I can say–and I’ve worked with a lot of groups in a lot of regions–is that most groups tend to get tunnel vision.

Now–sometimes this is just boundaries and focus. People only have so many hours in the day, and when you are running a small group or an activity as a volunteer, you may not have time or resources to do more. Remember–sometimes the answer is “no.” No is the answer you are giving when someone asks you to help with their project and you just never get back to them, it’s just an indirectly communicated no.

Event organizers and visionaries also get the tunnel vision of “I want everyone to like my project! I want everyone to want to donate time to this cool thing that I’m doing!” I see a lot of Pagan leaders do this. I’ve done it myself. What happens is, a leader gets a great idea for something, and gets upset that everyone is not as excited as they are, and that their requests for help aren’t met with overwhelming enthusiasm. Much less people jumping on board to read the organizer’s mind and take on tasks like vendor coordination and fundraising and programming.

However, the truth is, that not everyone is as excited about that thing as the person/group that came up with it. And other groups have other focuses. What’s also ironic–and this is something that I see a lot too–is that the folks organizing a bigger cool event, like a Pagan Pride or other day-long festival, get upset when more local leaders and groups don’t get involved, but then those organizers themselves don’t reciprocate and support what other groups are doing.

I have seen local event organizers get snippy when more people don’t support their event, and then they themselves plan fundraising and other events and other events right over the top of what other groups are doing. They don’t do it out of malice, just carelessness.

But what it can look like to a local Pagan leader is something like, “So you want me to donate my time and energy to your event, and then you just scheduled a fundraiser at the same time as my open ritual/class/event/thing and you never come to my events. Nope, not going to support your event.”

Which…is part of why we have so many petty conflicts, because scheduling accidents happen and people take things personally, but a lot of it boils down to awareness. Keeping track of what other groups are doing is a mighty challenge, and we have little infrastructure for it.

There’s that old saying about assumptions, and it really is true. Whenever we have an expectation or assumption about someone else–an assumption about their motivation..”They are doing this because they hate me, they are out to get me,” or an expectation, “Why aren’t they doing this thing that I need them to do for this event?” In these instances, we’re setting ourselves up for conflict and failure.

So what can we do? First is strengthening our own healthy boundaries as leaders, and working to help members of our groups strengthen their boundaries. Then there’s checking our assumptions. Is that true? Or are we just pissed off? There’s our expectations; did someone fail to live up to your expectation? Did they betray you? Or, did you never effectively communicate your expectations to your group members?

What we can do is work to be better. Notice the places where we’ve been hitting our heads against the wall and are frustrated, and work to change things so that it’s better next time. For an excellent resource on boundaries, I recommend the book “Where You End and I Begin.”

If you want things to happen, begin by asking for them. Clearly, and without ambiguity. You might get a yes, you might get a no. But at least you’ll know, and you aren’t setting yourself to be ticked off at someone later for dropping the ball. When a volunteer drops the ball, it often means that they should have said “no,” but they felt pressured to say “yes.”

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: Boundaries, clergy, communication, communication skills, community, community building, expectations, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, personal transformation

Common Leadership Problems: Honest Mistakes

7597600_lThere are a lot of problems common to leadership that trip up people who haven’t had training in group dynamics, communication, or who haven’t been encouraged to do self-reflective work. Or even just people who have poor self esteem and have no idea how that impacts them and the group they are running.

We’ll call this “honest mistakes.” These are the honest mistakes that can cost us a great deal; they can blow up a group, and leave us wondering what happened.

The assumption for this article is that we aren’t talking about the incurably egotistical and unstable leaders I’ve mentioned in past articles. Largely we’re just talking about a few different types of things that pop up in the realm of Pagan leadership that are general challenges of a few different types. They may seem a little hodgepodge, but they do overlap fairly heavily.

First, a quote from someone who posted a comment on one of my Facebook conversations on Leadership:

“Leadership in the pagan community isn’t about stability, capability, or qualifications. It’s about charisma. Having rejected churches led by people with Phd’s in divinity and counseling credentials, Pagans tend to gravitate to a leader who makes them feel important themselves, and fulfills their fantasies on some level. A lot of coven leaders of both sexes therefore end up using sexuality to “teach” their followers. Some of them also encourage the paranoia and tribalism of their group, offering “protection,” training in psychic self-defense, and an “us” to belong to that will take fighting “them” seriously, playing on fears and capitalizing on drama to encourage dependence. I think when you have unpaid clergy, you’re gonna get narcissists, because the other rewards of the position have been stripped away, along with its demands. “

Immaturity and Codependence
I think this rather sums up a lot of the challenges we face. When anyone can be a leader, just by stepping up and organizing a group, we end up with a lot of folks with no training at all. And, ultimately I’ve seen this to be true…many of the groups that seem to cohere together are around a charismatic leader. And I do see a lot of Pagans–and I’m going to stick my neck out here–that are really emotionally immature. I know I was when I started out.

Many Pagans want someone to tell them they are important. They want someone who fulfills their fantasies. They want someone charismatic and magical and powerful. They want someone who can teach them powerful magic so that they can be powerful. And why is this? Because we live in a scary world. In fact, I think the scarier the world is–or, the more of a place we are in personally where the world seems scary–the more we want to believe in magic, that we can somehow control the scary world and keep us safe. But, that goes more into my hexes/psychic attack post.

So even if you are a pretty mature, grounded group leader, some of the people coming to you will be wanting things from you that you aren’t prepared to give. And when people don’t get what they want out of a relationship, that causes conflict. One of the root causes of any conflict is expectations that never got communicated. I have another post going up just on that topic in a few days.

If you stepped in as a group leader with any number of your own personal issues–and, many of us do–those issues are going to rise up. If you have issues around self worth, that’ll come up. And most of us have these issues. They are honest mistakes. But if you want to avoid the above dynamic, those are things you’ll need to work on. I’ve touched on ways to do that in previous articles, but therapy is always a great place to start.

Peer Support, Training, Resources
What often comes up in conversations about challenges with Pagan leadership are the things we often don’t have access to. Peer support, leadership training, salaries, sabbaticals…things that religious leaders of other traditions sort of take for granted.

It’s why I do a lot of the work that I do to teach leadership skills. We also have Cherry Hill Seminary which is offering great classes via distance education, and a few resources here and there, but it’s not (yet) enough and it’s not really accessible for most Pagans out there. I’m a big advocate for Pagans getting over the “We can’t pay for that” but, I’m a little bound by it too–because I’ve given over a lot of my life to teaching leadership, which is often unpaid, I myself can’t afford to take classes at a place like Cherry Hill. I’m a huge supporter of their work, but I can’t afford it, and neither can a lot of the leaders out there who desperately need more training.

If you were a UU minister, you’d go to seminary. You could get financial aid, and when you were done, you’d be placed with a congregation and get a salary.

Without that leadership training, pastoral care training, leaders are often flying blind. Plus, they aren’t getting paid for what they do. Basically, any Pagan leader out there has to pay out of pocket for leadership training without any reasonable expectation of being able to get paid back for it.

However–the more we talk about these issues, and the more we collaborate, the more we can begin to build some of these resources to share with each other. Sometimes it’s useful to vent a little bit about the resources you don’t have access to, or the problems you are facing, because that’s a place to start. That can help you recognize what resources you need, and from there, you can work to find them.

No surprise here. Poor communication is one of the core issues that I see in community conflicts. I often say that we have this theory we’re all speaking the same language. Truth is, we all were raised by different families. What’s ok in one family isn’t socially acceptable by another. And yes, people do have different communication styles and needs. You can do a little Googling on “Multiple learning modalities” and also the book “The Five Love Languages” may offer some insights into how people “hear” things.

One leader I regularly work with, for instance, is prefers verbal–he likes to talk things through. Visual aids do nothing for him. Me, I’m a visual person, I’d rather work things out via email or chat, but he has a hard time working that way. We compromise by planning things on Skype.

Exploring communication styles is assuming that all the parties involved are fairly stable. When you’re working with someone who has unmedicated Bipolar, for instance, it may not matter how much you work on your own communication skills. It won’t even matter if they have taken a communication class themselves. If they are in a deep mood swing, all bets may be off. I say this as someone who has worked with people with unmedicated Bipolar, and someone who’s been in groups with people with Bipolar who were doing a great job of managing their illness.

As leaders, we have to learn the communication skills to try and be able to work with many different communication styles. But, we also have to recognize when no amount of healthy communication will help a situation. Sometimes we have to just cut our losses. That goes more into the articles I’ve written on Conflict Resolution where I detail the types of folks that you, unfortunately, just aren’t going to have much success in working through things with, no matter how hard you try.

However, assuming that we’re talking about generally sane, reasonable people, it’s amazing how many conflicts pop up just because people have different communication preferences and aren’t “hearing” each other. Are you sending emails to someone who doesn’t respond or who doesn’t answer all your questions? Are you calling someone who hates talking on the phone? Perhaps it might be time to talk frankly about communication preferences to find a way to make things work.

Getting Leadership Education
Leadership classes tend to have a bias toward corporate leadership, possibly a focus on not-for-profit leadership, but in both cases they are typically assuming a hierarchy, and beyond that, assuming that there are bosses and people who are being paid to obey their boss. They aren’t usually working with the many different models of leadership that grassroots (Pagan) groups might utilize. They are assuming that you have a mission statement, corporate bylaws, and a host of other structures and assumptions that aren’t necessarily true for a small Pagan group.

Now, there are models of leadership that many people are trying to infuse into corporate culture but that Paganism is actually ripe for, and that’s transformative or transformational leadership and servant leadership. This is the idea that a leader is a servant of the group, there to steward the group. There are a few books out there on the topic but admittedly, they are weighty tomes.

However, for anyone taking a regular leadership class, keep in mind that there is probably an inherent bias toward hierarchical leadership and an assumption that you have paid employees. There’s often the assumption that you are a corporation working toward profit, or possibly a Not-For-Profit which is a little more accurate. Working with volunteers vs. paid employees is a wholly different structure with different challenges.

So if you have the rare benefit of having taken some college-level leadership classes, or leadership seminars through work, many of the “best practices” you were taught are not going to directly apply to your Pagan group. There are things that work, and things that don’t, so it’s a mistake to try and take those techniques right “out of the box.” It’s apples and oranges sometimes, so before you try to just use a technique you learned in the workplace or the military, think about how it might be different for your group.

Leadership, Serving the Group, and Impact
When I teach Pagan leadership work, my goal is for every person to see that they are a leader, to see how they are a leader within the group. Someone who picks up a broom is a leader, someone managing potluck is a leader, the visionary spearheading things is a leader. This is from the perspective of servant leadership.

If each person who is volunteering, managing, working toward the health of the group stepped into their own responsibility and saw how they are a part of the group, a part of the leadership of the group, and worked to act accordingly, a lot of the petty disputes might simmer down. I can’t tell you how many people have joked with me, “I picked up a broom to help clean up after ritual, and suddenly I was in charge of the group.”

When we take responsibility to help, we are leading. And when we are leaders, our words have more impact on the group. We have to be more responsible for our impact. We have to be more mature, we have to think ahead to the impact of our words and actions. If everyone who is engaging in leadership in a grassroots group owned that they are leaders, and learned how to be better leaders, some of these conflicts would be reduced.

Many people resist being a leader. And I get why; a lot of people never wanted it. Some don’t want to be visible. Some are so afraid of stepping into a position of egotism that they reject any overt leadership role, even though–by their actions–they are clearly leaders.

This sets up tensions in your groups as well as what’s sometimes called a shadow hierarchy. Fred isn’t the formal leader of the group, but everyone looks to Fred for what to do. Fran isn’t the leader, but she’s the most verbal and opinionated and willing to speak up. Chris isn’t the leader, but whines the most, so people do what Chris wants. If we actually talk about leadership and power in our groups we can prevent a lot of that–and this is the stuff that causes a lot of those petty little conflicts that escalate fast. Pretending that you don’t have a leader or you aren’t a leader doesn’t help anything.

Knowing Ourselves: What Type Of Leader/Volunteer Are You?
It is important also to be self reflective about the skills we bring and our role in a group. Some people are naturally visionaries, some are better at managing a task, some are better suited to just helping; they don’t want a big leadership commitment but they can do a grocery run or help with setup. A lot of leadership problems crop up when people are not aware of what they do well, and what they don’t do well. And when people ask others to do things that are way outside their comfort zone. It depends on

  1. People’s natural talents, skills, and inclinations, as well as
  2. Their level of motivation.

I’m a good graphic designer, but that doesn’t mean I want to volunteer my graphic design skills for every initiative I’m part of. Just because I know someone in my group does XYZ doesn’t mean they have the time (or group investment) to do that for my group.

This is even an issue that can crop up in brainstorming. Some people are abstract thinkers, others are concrete thinkers. Abstract thinkers are good at envisioning things and brainstorming from scratch. Concrete thinkers can talk about ideas already on the table but have trouble visualizing new things.

Often times leaders burn out because they take on a lot of leadership jobs that they are not inherently good at, or, they really hate doing. And yeah, we all have to slog through some annoying tasks to do this work. But if you are stuck doing way more work that you hate, over time it’s going to get to you. This is why volunteers leave, and it’s why leaders burn out.

I’ve worked with people that I think would be great workshop facilitators or ritualists, but their interests don’t lie that way, or they don’t care enough to do the work to become better facilitators. This isn’t a snide judgment, just an observation that some people will want to do things, and others won’t. Self reflection is really key here; we have to know what we are good at, and how much we want to help a group, so that we don’t commit to things we’re bad at.

For instance, if I ever volunteer to manage food at an event, run away! You won’t be happy with how things turn out. When I take on tasks that I’m not skilled at and have no interest in, that’s when I’m most likely to drop the ball as a volunteer or as a leader. Knowing yourself–and helping your group members know themselves–is really

Stubborn, Focused Visionaries
The people that actively step into being leaders are the few left standing who are stubborn enough, who have the drive and motivation to do this work, whether or not they are qualified, or reasonable people, or stable, or even nice. They are the ones who had the vision and the drive, but…the nature of stubborn visionaries is just that–they are stubborn. Maybe they had a vision, but in many cases, it seems like that vision is wrapped up in their own egotism.

That could so easily be me. It’s the dark mirror I face all the time. I’ve been there, I understand it from inside. I’m absolutely the stubborn visionary. And I find that visionaries like me tend to have a problem where we connect our own ego/self identity with that of whatever event we’re planning. To sum up rather a lot of personal work I’ve done, I used to be in more the position of “People will like me because I did this event, so this event has to be perfect.”

I think that a lot of the people who end up as leaders are the people who are defensive and have something to prove. They need to get their drive and motivation from somewhere I suppose; it’s thankless work a lot of the time. It’s certainly where I used to get a lot of my drive.

Too Much Selflessness
Conversely, there’s also a bit of a problem with people who are too selfless. Leaders are often admonished to be selfless, however, too much selflessness is actually a bad thing. There are leaders I know who define themselves by their service and selflessness, but it’s actually an ego crutch. “If I’m seen as selfless, people will like me.” It can be indicative of huge holes in the self esteem. Ego is self identity, it’s not a bad thing. (Egotism/arrogance is the problematic one.) Self isn’t bad. Service isn’t bad. They have to be done in balance otherwise there are other consequences.

In some situations, I’ve seen caregivers (usually moms) who gave so much of themselves that they lost themselves, and then they end up with problems because they don’t know who they are. Or others who served so much they lost needed income or developed health problems. I know of Pagan leaders who let people in desperate need of a place to live into their home, only to have their home get trashed. Or Pagan leaders who’ve offered their services as pastoral counselors and had group members berate them for not getting back to them while the leader was at their day job. These leaders burn out eventually.

Where do Mature Leaders Go?
The mature people who would be excellent leaders if they were doing that work full-time and had leadership training…well, we don’t get to see too much of them. Many of them get frustrated and bail from the community. Some become Buddhists. Or the motivated, defensive, egomaniac leaders undermine them, and they respect themselves too much to put up with that and go solitary.

I suppose part of my mission is to give those leaders a shot, give them the skills to at least not get bowled over by the jerks out there. I can’t make the jerks go away, but I can work to raise up the people they are tearing down.

Honest Mistakes
A lot of these scenarios bring up places where people just make honest mistakes. Where things happen and we don’t know why. There’s lots of other honest mistakes out there, but hopefully these offer some things you can explore for yourself and the groups you work with.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

Abundance for Leadership


Later today I’ll be putting up another post in my current leadership series. But I wanted to send a note out to highlight my leadership fundraiser which is moving into its final two weeks. In fact–I’ll be writing a leadership-related blog post just about every day for the remainder of the fundraiser.

Many of you know that a few months ago my car was totaled and I’m now stuck in a rural area without any reasonable way to travel to my various teaching engagements in the Pagan community.

For the past years I’ve traveled the US and Canada teaching leadership, community building, public speaking, ritual facilitation, and personal growth work., but I need help to keep doing this work. So I’m offering some really cool perks for people who are willing to contribute to my Indiegogo in order to help me keep teaching (and writing about) leadership for the Pagan community.

I’m also trying to help prove that we, indeed, can raise funds for important initiatives that will lead to future infrastructure and resources for our communities.

You can find all of the below info plus a little more on my Indiegogo page along with the listing of perks along the right-hand side. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/leadership-education-and-writing-for-pagan-community/

Grassroots leaders have a tough job; we step into leadership without a lot of training, and when our groups blow up, we don’t know what went wrong. I dream of healthy, vital grassroots groups and Pagan communities. I have worked to make leadership training more broadly available.

My challenge: in following this calling, I’ve taught for many groups that couldn’t afford to pay me much–often I even paid gas money out of my own pocket to be able to travel and teach without pay. In the past years I’ve spent more in car repairs than I’ve ever earned in class fees. This has left me without any financial buffer.

I’m stuck in a Catch-22. I live in a rural area in order to minimize my expenses so I can focus on writing and teaching. Without a car, I can’t get to my upcoming teaching engagements. There aren’t even viable jobs within walking distance of me. I’ve sacrificed so many creature comforts in order to bring the leadership work out to the world, but now I need help to continue offering leadership training. 

CoverRitualFacilitationRaising Funds:

I’m looking to raise enough money for a car so I can continue to travel and teach leadership. Optimally that’s about $6,000, though I could buy a less reliable vehicle for about $2,000.

I have listed more extensive details on the bottom of the Indiegogo page about specific goals and what work I will do including some cool “stretch” goals if I surpass $5,000.

While more than 75% of my mileage is from traveling for teaching or running Pagan events in Chicago, having a car also allows me to sell my artwork and bring in other freelance income that will in turn allow me to fund future leadership training work and resources like videos.

In addition, I hope to raise additional  for my living expenses in order to have the time to finish writing several books on leadership and facilitation, or even create videos and recordings to offer further resources to people who cannot travel to attend leadership classes in person.

You can help me achieve more leadership education. I believe that it is crucial for grassroots groups to have access to leadership and facilitation skills in order to do the work that calls to them.

What I’m asking for is help so that I can continue to assist in building stronger leaders and stronger communities.

What You Get

I’m offering some cool things in return for your generosity. I certainly welcome donations from folks who have benefited from my writing and leadership training in the past, and those who want others to benefit in the future.

I think one of the cool parts of an Indiegogo campaign is the ability to offer you—my supporters–some tangible, nifty perks that tie into the work that I’ve already done, and that offer you some resources as leaders and community builders.

Perks Include:

  • MP3 files of chants and guided Trance Journeys,
  • eBooks and printed books of my collected articles and blog posts on Leadership and Ritual Facilitation,
  • Perks also include one-on-one or small-group Skype calls with me to talk through leadership issues,
  • I’ll write articles or do a Youtube video on leadership topics of your choice,
  • My own artwork and digital collage images, or having me come to town to paint a mural in your home or even having me build a shrine in your back yard or other installation,
  • Bringing bringing me to town to teach workshops, or even having me help you organize a leadership conference in your area.

GrailLarge2Check out some of my artwork if interested in those perks:
Mythic Mixed Media:
Digital collage Images: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ShaunaAuraKnight

A note about the perks:
If you choose one of the perks that involve my travel, we will arrange for a time that works best, this year or next year. For any of the perks where I’m traveling out of town, pricing reflects the assumption that I’ll be staying in a spare room locally. We’ll need to negotiate specifics–for instance, I need to stay in a smoke-free space. Please feel free to contact me with questions if you are thinking about selecting one of these perks. ShaunaAura (at) gmail DOT com.

The Impact

We need healthier communities. Whatever your spiritual background, whatever your particular interests…you are doing work that matters, and I want to help you grow stronger, healthier groups.

Sometimes leaders need help figuring out group dynamics, or be a better public speaker, or how to facilitate a workshop or a ritual. There are so many challenges to small group leadership and most volunteer leaders can’t afford to spend the time and the money to take college-level leadership classes or attend expensive seminars. For that matter, most leadership classes don’t address the special needs of grassroots groups.

I want to help more communities succeed. I want to see us change the world, build a healthier, beautiful world of cooperation and connection. I’ve seen the positive impact of my leadership work when I travel and teach and I want to help grow more leaders and more teachers.

Let me help you build stronger communities.

BigChalice2Other Ways You Can Help

Money is tight for many folks, and I of all people get that. There are lots of cool fundraisers I’d love to donate to myself! I want to let you know that truly, $1 or $5 really does make a difference.

However, other ways you can help include getting the word out about this campaign. You can:

  • Post a link to the campaign on your Facebook wall
  • Post a link on your Twitter
  • Mention this fundraiser to friends in person.
  • Mention this fundraiser on a Yahoo group or Meetup group you are a part of
  • Do a blog post about this campaign
  • Share one of my leadership blog posts on your Facebook, Twitter, or blog, with a link to my campaign. https://shaunaaura.wordpress.com

Here’s a Twitter post you can copy and paste:
Help @Shauna_A_Knight raise money to offer more leadership, facilitation, and community building education http://bit.ly/1fjFejs

Collaboration: You can also collaborate with other members of your local community to raise money toward the larger goals, such as bringing me in to teach leadership. I know of several communities that were planning to host a bake sale to help bring me to their area to teach leadership classes.

Books: You can also buy or post links to my already published books, or recommend my books to your friends. https://shaunaauraknight.com/books/ 

I make about $1 per book sale on any book where I’m the sole author, and word-of-mouth is how most people learn about new books. It might sound silly, but more book sales in the coming months would make a big difference in what kind of car I can buy.

BigShieldofEarthWhat Will I Use The Money For?

This depends on how much I raise. Optimally, I’d like to raise about $5-$6,000 for a reliable used Dodge Grand Caravan. It’s a car that fits all of my event supplies, it gets good mileage, and it’s also the car that kept me alive in an accident that the police say should have put me into the hospital.

When I drive long distances alone, it’s nice to know that my car is going to keep me safe and not break down during a trip. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. If you want, I’ll tell the story via a Youtube video :D I can buy an ok car for as little as $2,000-$3,000, it’s just that that car is likely to rack up more in car repairs more quickly, but at least I’ll have a vehicle.

If I raise enough money, I plan to use about $1,000-$2000 to cover some of my living expenses for the next months so that I can finish up several of the books on leadership and ritual facilitation that I am close to finishing.

Stretch Goals

I’m nothing if not a dreamer, and this is the fun part for me. I’m always thinking up cool ideas for what I could do if I had the time and the money. All of these projects are things that are on the horizon for me, but here are some projects I’ll commit to doing if we zoom past $5,000 together.

If we make:

BigDagger of Fire150$6,000:
I’ll write a series of blog posts based upon topics suggested by you folks who become backers. You’ll get to vote on what I write about.

I’ll create a Youtube video or series of shorter videos on the topic of your choice. Backers will get to vote on what I do the video on. The video will be available for free download as a community resource, so I’m thinking topics like leadership or ritual arts. But, I’ll read the phone book or play didgeridoo on a pool noodle if you want. (No really, I’ve done it, it’s my only party trick.)

I’ll record a whole bunch of chants that I regularly use in ritual and make them available for a free download on my site so that it’s easier to learn them. Some of these chants I’ll have to check in with their copyright holders, others I already have permission to do this.

I’ll set things on Fire. Really. I’ll replicate some of the “ritual leader setting things on fire” accidents I’ve either been personally responsible for, or witnessed others doing. I’ll film these in a safe environment and post them on Youtube for educational purposes to first understand 1. How the fire accident happened, and 2. How to prevent them, 3. How to put the fire out once it happens, and 4. Some tips on how to recover as a facilitator and re-center the group to move forward with the ritual after the fire is out.

Wow. If we hit 10K on this fundraiser, I’ll have the time to do something pretty cool. I’ll organize a Pagan leadership conference in Chicago (or the nearby Midwest) that will have registrations available on a sliding scale (ie, no one turned away for lack of funds) so that people, regardless of income, can better afford to attend.

Backers will have the opportunity to attend some kind of VIP party or have access to a VIP package at the event. In fact, if we reach this fundraising goal, the backers can vote on what kind of a VIP package you’re interested in, or what presenters (and maybe musicians) you’d like to see at this event.

BigSpearofWindWebWhat Do I Dream Of?

Beyond all of that, here are some projects I’m working on (or would like to devote time to) that become far easier for me to do if I meet or exceed my funding goals:

  • A series of books on facilitating rituals
  • A series of books on Pagan leadership
  • Videos that go along with the books to make training accessible to people who can’t travel or pay to attend workshops
  • My ability to travel and teach to even more places to offer education that many  Pagans don’t have access to

Thank you for your assistance in helping me build my dream of healthier and more effective communities. And good luck to you in the work that you are doing, whatever your community, whatever your calling.


Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

Authenticity, Boundaries, and Shadows

393673_xlAuthenticity is a complicated word. We are told to be authentic. However, we also face a lifetime of expectations, of being conditioned by the cultural norms to try to meet the expectations of others.

When we begin to first stretch our wings, to be authentic to what we really want, there’s sometimes a clash between trying to continue satisfying everyone else’s expectations of my actions and doing what I have previously committed to….This sometimes conflicts with our desire to live an authentic life, to follow the dreams we may have only just admitted we have for our lives.

And those dreams may be very different from what everyone around us “wants” for us or expects of us. Trying to become more authentic is where many of us first learn to say, “No, that’s not what I want for my life.”

Authenticity, needs, and shadow do a particular dance. A great deal of shadow is more accurately described as, cultural shadow. They are things that are genuine human needs, things it’s realistic to want. Like, sex, affection, comfort, or even people’s attention or respect. But, culturally, we’re taught that it’s “bad” to want these things. And then they work their way into shadow, where we try to resist wanting them–because, our ego knows that it’s “bad” so “we don’t want that, right?”

Except, then we do work to be more authentic, and we start to recognize, “No, I really do want that.”

We slowly start to learn that it’s reasonable (not inherently dirty) to want sex. To want physical affection. To want people’s attention and respect. To want to be seen for being unique and special. To be told we did a good job. It’s not bad to want these things, we’re just told that some of these things are bad. “Only Show-Offs want that,” “If you want that you’re a whore.” Etc, etc.

However–there is a balance with authenticity, needs, and shadow. I hear a lot of people using the “authenticity” smackdown to articulate why they can be a total jerk. “I really want this, I’m being authentic and true to myself.” Well–yeah, your need for _____ might be overwhelming in this particular moment.

But, how does that need impact or even harm others if you indulge in it? And is it something that is going to serve you for just this moment, or is it going to serve your larger life’s purpose?

For me, authenticity is more of a long-game type of word. I can be authentic and say that, yes, right now, I’d like to go eat some terrible-for-me fast food. I admit it. I’d like a sub sandwich and some ice cream, and seriously–screw all the people who would judge me for being just another fatass.

However–this does not serve my long-term health goals. In my case, it’s not about weight so much as depression and other health concerns. When I eat healthy, I feel better. So there’s authenticity/honesty about our shorter term needs, but there’s also looking at the larger picture for ourselves. Food’s a really great, clear example because in some cases (like mine) there might be the short-term instant gratification, but in the longer term, I’m going to suffer through exhaustion and depression symptoms.

Authenticity: Sex
Here’s a more emotional example. Since in my last post I was talking about sexual ethics in groups, let’s look at that. Let’s say that I’m a group leader, and there’s someone who came into the leadership team via attending one of my classes. Let’s say he hits on me, and I’m attracted to this guy, and I decide, yeah, this is authentically what I want right now, and sex is not bad so let’s go for it.

Maybe we go out a few times before I realize that we’re really not compatible. Maybe he’s really immature. Or maybe he falls in love with me and wants to settle down, and I don’t want that. Or maybe he has a very different communication style. For whatever dozens of reasons, I realize that this was a big mistake. One of us breaks off the relationship during a fight. And then we’re both left with the aftermath–now we’re both in a group together, and one or both of us is pissed off at the other. Ultimately this usually means one party leaves the group, and usually if that happens, it’s bitter and frequently involves gossip and backstabbing.

So in that one moment, maybe we both authentically wanted sex…but, the longer term impact to the group certainly isn’t what I wanted, but in the above scenario, I didn’t take the time to get a better sense of the other person and where they were at and what our compatibility was…nor did I ensure that that person and I were on a peer dynamic.

It goes on and on. I think sex is a good example for the authenticity/needs discussion because

  1. There’s so much cultural shame around wanting sex, so when we discover that sex isn’t bad and want to explore it, we can kind of pendulum swing to the other side, and
  2. It’s one of those things that tends to happen rather impulsively when things heat up, but can have various consequences when the morning light hits the pillows.

Authenticity: Anger
Let’s go to another emotional example. Anger. Rage. There are people in my life who have hurt me badly; I’m sure anyone reading this has had moments where they were in the same place. There are moments where I wanted to hurt them the way that they hurt me. Was that emotion authentic? Yup.

However, part of authenticity is not just what I feel in that moment, but who I want to be and what values I want to live. I’m authentically pissed. Hurt beyond words. Maxxed out to my limit by what was said to me or done to me. But yet, I have worked in my life to be authentic to my larger self, to my values, not just to that brief feeling.

Now–since the above scenario can get pretty complicated if we’re talking about issues of emotional or physical abuse, I’m going to clarify that I’m not in any way judging anyone who has totally blown up at someone who’s been emotionally or otherwise abusing them. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I have the t-shirt.

What I’m talking about are when we have the opportunity to look at the emotion we are feeling, and the different ways we could react, and instead choosing to respond in a way that is in alignment with our values. A specific example might be if another group leader starts yelling at me because he heard that I had done XYZ. If I just start yelling back because I’m pissed, I don’t really get the opportunity to dig into what’s going on.

But if I listen, and figure out, oh, he has the wrong information, then I can clarify that indeed, I didn’t do XYZ, I did ABC. I can de-escalate the conflict if I can keep my cool. I’m authentically angry that I’m being shouted at, but I can choose to not escalate things by shouting and try to figure out what’s actually happening and work through the conflict.

Of course, if the other person never stops shouting at me, I can’t really do much about that–but I can control my own response.

Authenticity, Anger, Needs, and Societal Consequences
The benefit of having a dominant culture and social consequences to our actions is that it does keep certain bad things from happening–or at least, happening as frequently. Like murder and theft. The way we treat each other are part of the laws that we have. Such as, theft is illegal, murder is illegal, rape is illegal. Those are all laws theoretically to protect people. However, there’s a certain overlap between our laws and expectations, and the dominant culture and the social pressures it represents.

We generally want the social pressure that people shouldn’t be murdering and raping each other. But that same social pressure is wrapped into the dominant culture’s expectations and judgments of each person. Each person should be heterosexual and get married and have babies and go to church and dress like everyone else and not be promiscuous and not be a show-off and should keep a steady job and…etc.

Those societal judgments are part of what cause our individual struggles with our own needs. And that’s where shadow comes in, and why we struggle with personal boundaries–even with our identity, who we are.

Boundaries, Identity, and Pleasing Others
These are things that are both fascinating to me, as well as frustrating. If I’m doing things in my life to please/satisfy others instead of to please myself, what’s the impact there? See–one of our problems is that humans don’t tend to do gray areas very well. We tend to do black/white thinking. Something is either Awesome or Terrible. Good/Bad. We polarize really quickly.

Authenticity is not turning into a self-centered jerk who only does what pleases them. But nor is authenticity bending over backwards to please everyone else in your life at the expense of yourself.

Authenticity is looking at what you want in a particular moment, and looking at what you want for your life, your goals and dreams, for your larger/deeper self, and determining if that momentary desire is in alignment with your life’s desire.

In our society, we don’t develop very good boundaries. That is to say, we often have a vague idea of self. Typical parenting extends identity from the parent onto the child–meaning, a parent has expectations for their child. That child either is “good” and lives up to those expectations, or is “bad” because they rebel against them.

Good boundaries means you have to know who you are. And that might sound simple–and it’s really, really not. Most of us have utterly terrible boundaries. We’re a mess of the expectations placed on us by our parents, expectations from the school system, expectations from the dominant culture, and expectations from our friends, partners, and others in our lives.

Boundaries: Changing Your Life
I have a number of people I know–usually women hitting middle-age–who suddenly change their lives. They have been care-taking their family their whole adult life, and suddenly they realize, they hate their marriage, they hate their job, they hate how people treat them, they hate their life. Sometimes they get divorced, or switch jobs, or start going to spiritual retreats.

Basically, they never fully got to individuate. At age two, we learn to say “no.”  But if we’re taught that it’s bad to say “no,” then we’re stuck with poor boundaries. And then it’s really hard to say “no” because what we’ve learned is, “If I say no, they will hate me. They will judge me, and excommunicate me, and I’ll be alone forever.”

But for these folks, they get to a point where the rock met the hard place and they exploded. They couldn’t keep saying “yes.” Often this blow up results in an attempt to re-negotiate an unhealthy dynamic with an overbearing parent. And–as you might expect–that renegotiation rarely goes well.

Once Person A says, “I know I’ve always bent to the pressure from you, but I want to do my own thing,” whether Person B is their parent, spouse, teacher, or some other relationship, Person B usually gets pissed off. Sometimes, they are able to renegotiate the relationship. In most cases, it ends up with family estrangement because the person who has worked to negotiate their boundaries can no longer put up with the behavior from Person B, and Person B won’t respect the new boundaries.

Saying No
I think a lot of our societal problems would be different if we could say “no” without huge social consequences. Angeles Arrien writes about tribal cultures where “no” just means, “No, can’t help with that, good luck,” and there’s no cultural judgment around it. That’s not the case in the culture I grew up in.

A lot of authenticity work ultimately boils down to figuring out who you are. Healing the wounds of your past. And, once you know who you are, establishing healthy boundaries with the people around you and learning what you truly want to agree to do, and what you don’t.

Again, healthy boundaries and authenticity doesn’t mean being totally selfish. Yes–it’s still a good idea to bow to the social pressure to help a friend move into a new house even if you don’t want to. Why? Because you value that friend, and even if in the moment you really would rather do something else, you’re working to support your larger values of friendship and community support.

Authenticity and boundaries might be starting a new job, even though your family or spouse doesn’t agree with the choice. “That work is beneath you,” someone might say. “You’ll never make a living doing that.” “You won’t get any time with you family.” Or a host of other complaints. Authenticity is figuring out what it is you want to do–part of who you are. Boundaries is that line between you, and someone else. You don’t have to do what someone else wants for you.

This also comes into play romantically. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been dating someone and had people tell me, “Oh, he’s perfect for you. Don’t let that one go.” Or, “You should marry that guy, I like him.” And if I broke up with the guy, there was the pressure that I had somehow screwed up because that other person liked the guy. This is, again, more of that subtle social pressuring and why we have problems with boundaries.

People Pleasing
If I’m living my life authentically, and others are pleased by it, that’s cool. I’m probably not living my life for them to be pleased by it, but if that’s an impact, ok. If it’s the other way around, and I’m running around people pleasing, that’s probably not on the authenticity side of the fence.

Going back to the issue of shadows, authenticity, and sex in groups, we’ve got a lot of paradox there. Is sex inherently bad? No. But, sex does lead to relationship complications. And specifically, the shadow side of sex is when someone is so desperate for affection that they are acting compulsively. It’s usually referred to in our culture as sex addiction, though sex therapists that I know have told me there’s no such thing, and that the behaviors of sex addiction are usually symptoms of one of the major personality disorders or another untreated illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, often display the symptoms of compulsive sex, compulsive spending, theft, property destruction, and other compulsive behaviors.

Sex isn’t bad. If you’re using someone for sex because you are desperately trying to get that love/affection need met, and you are manipulating someone into sex or lying to them to get sex or are having unsafe sex with multiple partners and lying to them, or cheating on your partner…that’s where we are looking at shadow.

Shadow is when our genuine human need (love/sex/affection) is so unmet–and we are so desperate to have it met–that we act out in a way that’s unhealthy for us and those around us.

Authenticity is a complicated thing, but if we can get there…imagine the positive impacts, the healthy relationships, the healthy groups. If we:

  1. Work to know ourselves,
  2. Work to know our deep selves and our dreams for the future,
  3. Look at our current relationships and how we are living someone else’s identity/desire for us,
  4. Work to understand the difference between our short-term needs and desires, and our longer-term needs and desires and values, and
  5. Work to negotiate our boundaries with those around us so that we can live our own life, establish our own identity…

Ultimately, this is why beneath every leadership tool and technique is intensive personal growth. It’s knowing yourself, and identifying what really needs to transform in order for you to be a healthy, whole person and to bring that healthy, whole person into service of your deeper life’s purpose, your dream, your community, the world. This is why we all need to work on our baggage. That’s the world I want to live in.

**Some of my understanding of the concept of boundaries comes from the work of Dr. L. Carol Scott, who has a great blog and newsletter with fantastic articles. Very much worth checking out.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth

That Festival has an Orgy Cabin!

houseI admit it. The first times I’ve heard about an “orgy cabin” at particular Pagan festivals or gatherings, my hackles went up. “Eeew,” I thought. “That can’t be ethical, can it?”

Yes. I’m actually talking about an orgy cabin. A cabin (or tent, or room) at a Pagan (or other) event where people are free to express various kinds of sexual touch and sexual contact. Yes, these things happen.

No, I’ve never been invited to one. (We can laugh about that part later.)

When hearing about group leaders being participants in the orgy cabin, I thought, “Whoa. No way that can be appropriate for a leader, right?” But then I put on my sex positive hat and think about it. If everyone in there is of age and consenting, is freely expressing sexuality inherently wrong?

I think a key problem comes in with consent. Specifically, with the peer and leader pressuring that can occur–even unintentionally. Just because a group leader doesn’t intend to pressure a newer/younger/more shy person, doesn’t mean they aren’t pressuring them. And, just because that’s happening, doesn’t mean that leader is a bad person or a predator.

To sum up–it’s complicated.

My first question for any event hosting such a thing is, how is it managed? How are minors kept out? And if leaders are involved, what safeguards are in place to ensure that no group member feels coerced to be sexual with a group leader?

I’m also curious how sexual contact is kept safe. Are condoms and dental dams provided? Does everyone there have to previously agree to safer sex or receive any sexual education? Is there any educational process around consent and agreements and ensuring that it’s enthusiastic consent, not “iffy” consent? Is alcohol present, and are there any safeties there to ensure that someone who might be too drunk to consent is taken somewhere to sleep it off?

Sex Positive Vs. Dominant Culture
My gut reaction to an orgy cabin is definitely rooted in the dominant culture, but when I think about it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it if it’s handled ethically. Of course, handling it ethically is the challenge.

How do you invite people without pressuring them? How is a safe space maintained? What agreements are in place around safe sex and appropriate touch? And of course, who pays for the Crisco? (Kidding, kidding. Crisco is gross.)

I can’t really speak to the specifics of how you might ethically run an orgy cabin, or any other kind of venue where people can freely explore their sexuality in a safe space that isn’t constrained by the dominant culture norms, as this isn’t something I myself have experienced. But, like anything else, there are agreements, there are boundaries.

Someone has to hold those boundaries–free isn’t really free.

What Does Ethical Look Like?
For my part, and I’ve said this in other posts, I generally tend to lean toward the ethic that leaders should not engage in sexual contact with group members and students. Even if that leader isn’t intending it, there’s too much potential for there to be a subtext of a power dynamic where the student/group member feels they have to say yes to things in order to not get kicked out of the group.

I do think that it’s understandable that relationships grow over time between group members and leaders, but it’s important to be on a peer dynamic as friends and to be on equal footing before beginning a romantic or sexual relationship.

There’s just too much potential for one party to feel powerless in a situation and later regret it.

Some groups ban any type of sexual relationship between any group members. While I don’t think this is feasible long-term, because people are going to develop feelings and then you’re just setting them up to betray a promise to the group, I do think that it’s generally useful to employ caution. Sex, relationships, even friendships among group members can cause difficult group dynamics.

And, something that might seem like a really good idea often ends badly. Something that might seem really sexually freeing can end up being an ego-maniacal manipulation.

Normal Group Turns into Sex Cult
Here’s an example I’ve heard of (or witnessed) in different forms. Person A joins a group. She’s older than some of the other group members, more worldly, more experienced. She’s very friendly, takes people out to lunch, eventually starts taking some of the women out to a spa or to get their nails done or for makeovers. She is very generous.

She then begins to flirt with them. It turns out she and her husband are swingers. Eventually (and you can probably see this one coming) she starts bringing some of these women home with her for herself and her husband to play with. Some of the young women are married, so she invites the husbands over too.

The group begins to instantly shift. The young women begin flirting with other group members. There’s more sexual touching at events, enough that it makes the people not involved in the sexual relationship uncomfortable. This continues for months, and some of the group members begin to leave.

The people involved with Person A and her husband feel sexually free, empowered, liberated. That is, until they aren’t the focus of attention any longer. Once Person A begins seducing someone new, they get jealous. Factions form. Person A plays the group like a finely-tuned instrument, pitting people against each other. She has essentially manipulated the group into her becoming the center of attention.

Women who were previously excited and empowered are now angry at each other. Some begin to leave the group after the backstabbing and gossip get to them. Some feel used. A few hang on, loving that feeling of having Person A’s attention–when they can get it.

Once the process has begun, there’s no way to remove Person A without losing at least some group members. The group will eventually blow up, it just depends if there are enough group members left who want to keep going. If the leadership of the group tells Person A to leave earlier on, Person A’s devotees get irate and threaten to leave too. If the leadership lets this continue on, it’ll destroy their group anyways. Most of the people won’t even realize how Person A manipulated them.

And, don’t I wish that it didn’t play out like this. But, it can and it does.

What’s the Answer?
The answer is not being totally prudish and saying “no sex.” That’s what we call, “Setting ourselves up for failure.” But neither is the answer to pressure people into sex all the time.

What About That Orgy Cabin?
Well…I think it’s possible to handle it in a mature, ethical way. I think it would be a lot of work. It would require boundaries, agreements…possibly the most ethical way to handle it would be as part of a weekend-long workshop on sexual intimacy and boundaries. Freedom to express sensuality and sexuality is a beautiful thing, but packaged with that freedom is recognizing that everyone else in the room also is free to choose what touch they want, and don’t want.

If you’re participating in something like this, you might consider all the agreements and boundaries and ethics. You might look at how people might be feeling pressured to participate. Perhaps your Orgy Cabin may need a rehab with some refreshed agreements and education. Or perhaps you have a healthy dynamic going, in which case, good for you.

If not, think about adding in some layers of safety for all the participants there.

It’s true, thinking about things like safe sex, boundaries, agreements, and ethics might take some of the fun out of a more spontaneous Orgy Cabin. And yes–I probably did just manage to take most of the fun and sexiness out of the idea. However, things could be worse. I’d rather have the agreements and safeties than deal with the consequences of a group member who felt pressured into having sex.

What you really don’t ever, ever want is someone who felt empowered by being singled out to join the Orgy Cabin and was nervous but consented, and later feels that Group Leader A pressured them into sex. Or, everyone got really drunk and Group Leader raped them; they said no, but Group Leader A didn’t stop. And I’ve heard of situations like that.

As with anything, you have to look at the long-term sustainability of your group and your community. You have to think beyond the short term, “This would be sexually satisfying and fun and freeing,” into the longer term effects of how this will impact your group. A bunch of people who get trashed and screw around one night might be embarrassed later on and leave the group. However, if this is part of a longer-term commitment of group members to explore sensuality and boundaries with intention, and is coupled with intensive personal work, that could be a very different situation.

For further reading:
I have more thoughts on Sex, Ethics, and Community, as well as an earlier post detailing more on the process of how group members can be groomed and pressured into having sex with group leaders.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: impact, Leaders, leadership, orgy, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, Sex activism, sex positive, sexuality, shadow work

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.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, personal transformation

Conflict Resolution Part 6: Red Flags

86155_2332Here are the red flags that I observed about the problematic person I mentioned in Part 5 (and others in similar situations) that allowed me to paint a fairly accurate profile of how they were going to behave. You’ll really want to read at least Part 5 in the Conflict Resolution series, if not the whole set of articles, to get context for the profile of behaviors below.

There’s a difference between offering a different opinion, and whining all the time. And then, when people offer that they are frustrated about the whining, backpedaling and profusely apologizing and making it about yourself. Sometimes there are people with that engineering mindset that challenge a group’s ideas about how to do something, and that doesn’t make them a bad person. Those folks can generally learn how to phrase things in a way that doesn’t come across as “You’re wrong” all the time. A constant whiner, or someone who never likes the group leader’s ideas but who never has any useful ideas to offer of their own. The pattern’s easiest to observe if the person is constantly tearing down the group leader’s ideas. If so, it’s possibly a power play, even if it’s unconscious.

Always Having Problems
The problematic individual in the group is always having problems. Now–it’s not to say that many people don’t go through struggles. However, this person never has gas money, never has time, computer is broken, is always sick. I’m not saying that someone who is broke and sick is always a red flag. Think of this as a mosaic; it’s one piece in the pattern. If the group leader points out, “If you’re sick, you don’t have to attend the meeting,” or “We can have you phone in if you can’t afford to drive,” and their response is either a swift turnaround, “No! Of course I’ll come,” or hostile, “Why do we always have to meet where you want to?” Those are both serious red flags.

It’s All About Them
This individual can make any conversation about them. Usually about their problems. Or, about how nobody listens to them. Or about how the group always goes with someone else’s idea. In particular, they will lay blame and ascribe particular motivations to people. “You guys don’t really care about my opinion, you always go with what ___ says.” They are willing to entertain any notion that it’s someone else’s fault, not that 1. their idea might be bad, or 2. the group decided to do something based upon the needs of the rest of the group without any malice toward this individual.

Victim Mentality
This person also typically approaches everything with a victim mentality. People are out to get them. In fact, they usually come into a group with stories about how they got kicked out of previous groups by jerky leaders. Do yourself a favor and check out their story, even if you don’t know those other group leaders yet. These folks will also frequently be cursed, hexed, under psychic attack, their boss is out to get them, their mother in law hates them, the man is always trying to stick it to them…you get the drift.

Pathetic Underdog
The goal of being pathetic is to get attention. People aren’t stupid, and we learn pretty quickly that there’s different ways to get attention, and one is to be pathetic. People like to caretake an underdog. The problematic individual in a group works to be so pathetic that they get their way. The group may come up with an idea ABC for an event, and the problematic individual hems and haws, and talks about how broke they are and can’t do it, or, about how nobody listens to them, or some other sob story. They work to be so pathetic that they not only get time and attention and cosseting from the codependent caretakers in the group, but, people go with their ideas.

Very Important Magical People
This person may pendulum swing from being the most pathetic person in the group who is always having problems, to a very powerful Witch. Either they know a lot about spellwork and hexing, or, they are desperate to learn powerful magic to control others. Often these are folks who have amazingly gained the skills to harm others with magic, or to psychically attack others. Also, they were powerful people in a past life. Or, they are a reincarnated Babylonian God. They can sink into a trance and get possessed by a deity without any effort, in fact, sometimes it causes them, you know, severe problems because the Gods are always trying to get into them. They aren’t responsible for it, it just happens, and then they aren’t responsible for their actions, of course.

No Therapy
When they are in victim mode talking about all their problems, some well-meaning person might suggest therapy to this person. “My therapist was trying to kill me,” they might say. Or, “My therapist wanted to commit me. I had to get away.” Some version of therapist/psychiatrist conspiracy theory conveniently leads to why this person is no longer on their medication. Now–here’s the challenge on this one. Certainly Pagans, as members of a minority spirituality, face discrimination including discrimination from psychological professionals.

Talking to gods and spirits, casting spells, sounds like a bunch of superstitious nonsense and for a therapist, that can be a red flag for schizophrenia, among other things.So certainly it’s possible, however, these days I don’t really hear many first-hand stories of Pagans who have had issues with therapists. I have heard of medical doctors and therapists trying to scare their patients who had chosen a polyamorous/ethical non-monogamous lifestyle, but no direct discrimination against Pagans.

The actual red flags in this are the paranoia of the psychological professionals being out to get the person, and the big red flag is “I’m not on my meds, I didn’t need them.” Again–none of these on their own are a reason to kick someone out of a group. But taken in concert, they paint a larger picture of someone who is going to consistently cause conflict in your group unless they get help. And–as I’ve pointed out over and over, you can’t fix anyone. You can take them to the door and offer to help, you can’t make them go through it.

Backstabbing and Gossip
This one probably is no surprise; this person is going to feel threatened by anyone in power, and they will either charge at them head on in meetings or online discussions to try and discredit them, but more commonly they will work behind the scenes to gain a coalition of people onto their side. They will trashtalk anyone to make themselves sound better.

This person also is usually the first to volunteer. If they have money, they often put forth money into the group, but it’s a donation with a catch. They donate money, and what they want is power and especially attention. There was one person I worked with who volunteered to bring in an expensive band from out of town for an event, but it had to be a band of her choosing, and she later used the band as a way to take the group hostage and to get people to do things the way she wanted. If the person is not financially abundant, they might take on a lot of volunteering roles.

An experienced group leader will see someone taking on a lot of volunteering not as a positive thing but as a red flag; very often, this is a sign that someone is trying to have attention paid to them. Because, 1. Volunteers are “good.” They are loved. And given that the problematic person has a huge core of self esteem issues, they need all the external love that they can get. 2. Their ideas get used. Nothing feels better to a person with poor self esteem than the illusion that people love them, and seeing their ideas take shape and the group working to make them happen can be a balm onto that gaping wound of self loathing. But it never lasts, because they aren’t healing that wound, just numbing it for a time.

Dropping the Ball
We all have things coming up in our lives, and sometimes we can’t meet the obligations we agreed to, and volunteer tasks usually get trumped by paid work, family, and health. However, someone who consistently drops the ball is a red flag. In fact, the Grandiose Volunteering is so very often followed by Dropping the Ball. It’s a one-two punch.

I should point out that I personally have been guilty of a number of these in my life. I used to volunteer to help out groups as a web designer and graphic designer. People didn’t like me, of course, I knew that. Nobody liked me, I was the outcast, the reject, the unpopular one. But they liked my artwork, they liked my web design. They liked that I helped.

Of course, I had said “yes” to way too many projects and got overwhelmed and dropped the ball. In fact, that’s something I still struggle with. But that’s the core difference here–the problem person we’re talking about is largely unaware that they are doing all of this. I’m here to tell you that some people, when made aware, can work to change their behavior. Relentless personal work and some therapy can go a long way.

Other folks, however, are not going to change. Or, not easily change.

Big Emotions and Oversensitivity
I posted a couple of blogs and links to articles about hypersensitivity. The problem person will typically have emotional reactions that are a few orders of magnitude outside of what is appropriate or reasonable. Again, they are always the victim, so they are always going to see that people are out to get them. So when someone suggests something that opposes what this person wants in the group, they are going to throw a big drama fit about it.

It’s emotional hostage taking, and it works. The codepedent members of the group will want to “fix” the agitated individual by caving to what they want. Codependent folks cannot stand big emotions. And that’s a whole separate set of dysfunctions, but you can begin to see the interplay of group dynamics and how someone as problematic as this type of individual can survive and thrive in a group even when they are causing so many obvious problems. People hate to kick out the underdog.

Sometimes you can catch this red flag early on by watching this person’s Facebook and Twitter posts or their blog entries. I know a few folks that, after reading their LiveJournal, I realized I would never, ever want to work with them, because they laid out enough red flags right there that I was pretty clear that working with them would be impossible.

This person is hypersensitive, defensive, and always has to be right. They can’t cope with being wrong and will either bully people into their point of view, or cry and be pathetic to “win” the argument.

Highly Creative and Disorganized
You are probably asking how this is bad. And–again, like any of these red flags, it’s not the whole picture. However, someone who constantly has big ideas, but is completely disorganized and cannot realize any of them, may not be the influence you want in your group, particularly if your group function is planning a festival or Pride event. This person tends to come up with huge ideas and start them, but not finish them. Their big ideas leave messes in other people’s laps.

Here’s where this flag becomes more obvious. This person gets kicked out of a local group, or gets dissatisfied. So they create their own group. Now–this could be a physical local group, or a Facebook group. Sometimes it’s a grandiose vision to create their own tradition, other times it’s a plan to create their own event. But then they vanish; they get sick, or are dealing with a chronic illness, or their computer broke, or…or….something always comes up.

The person tries to hide under the veneer of pathetic, but they actually come across as pretty spiteful if you watch. They will rarely have anything good to say about people with more power or creativity than them. They betray jealousy and anger in their comments about others. They gossip. They tear others down. Why? Well–let’s remember, these people have terrible self esteem. Tearing down is easier than stepping into responsibility for themselves and becoming the person they dream of being, the person who could lead a group and be successful and manifest their dreams. Instead, it’s easier to blame everyone else.

One-on-One Time
The problematic individual will take more of your time than every other member of your group. They will be hurt or upset by something someone said and need to be talked down a wall. Or they will message you all the time wanting to know what’s up, wanting to connect to you socially even though they don’t hold that role in your life. They will take umbrage at something you said and cry on the phone with you for hours while you comfort them. Or they will want to bounce some ideas off of you and take up still more of your time while they are looking for validation.

Summary, and Personal Growth
I’m going to let you in on a little secret; and, if you regularly read my blog, it probably won’t be much of a surprise. I, personally, have done many of the bad behaviors that I listed above. I’ve been a problem person in groups before, although it wasn’t my intention. I can honestly say that I wasn’t usually belligerent or spiteful, nor was I throwing big drama fits. I was never claiming to be a reincarnated Babylonian god. However, I was often the person who got heard by complaining. I’m the eager volunteer who dropped the ball.

Why? well, I had the worst self esteem you can imagine.

I came out of the public school system a suicidal self-hating mess. I was fat with acne and so stressed out that when I was 12 I pulled out half the hair on my head. It’s called Trichotillomania, and it’s a behavior that emerges as a coping mechanism for extreme stress. It took me years and years of personal growth work to get past a lot of these things. And, the old wounds don’t ever fully heal, in the sense that, I can’t go back in time and undo what happened to me. What I can do is decide that my life is going to be different going forward.

I’m really good at picking up these red flags because that’s how shadow works–we see the dark mirror of ourselves and our own bad behaviors in others. In fact, one of the best lessons (if painful) in personal growth is to observe the people around you and what annoys you about them. And then ask yourself, “Do I do that?”

Often enough, the things that annoy you in others are actually things you do that you secretly fear will annoy others.

Only once you acknowledge these things by looking in the mirror can you even begin to address those shadows. And I cannot encompass the entire process of shadow work here in these articles, though I can offer beginnings. T. Thorn Coyle writes eloquently about working to embrace and integrate our shadows. Or you can find a good Jungian therapist.

I often say that the secret to leadership–and to conflict resolution–is relentless personal work. I’m the poster child for it. I have worked to become a more whole person. Is my work done? Heck no. I have tons of issues. But I have come a long way. So I’m here to say that people who are engaging in the above harmful behaviors can change. It’s not pretty, and it takes a long time.

And many won’t. You can’t fix them. And if someone is engaging in consistent behaviors that is going to harm your group, you may have to ask them to leave, because otherwise, in a year you won’t have a group to build, it’ll implode or explode. And then you can’t help anyone.

More articles coming up in the leadership series, so stay tuned.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 5: Don’t Bother

HPIM1977.JPGI touched on this a little in the previous 4 articles on Conflict Resolution and the rest of the leadership series. However, it’s worth stating more explicitly. Sometimes, it’s not worth bending over backwards to try and sheepdog people into a conflict resolution. Sometimes, people are just going to keep causing drama.

In fact, the very drama of trying to get them into a mediated session is the drama that they want. Usually these are the egomaniacs and unstable mentally ill people I’ve mentioned before. Typically they have no idea that they are literally bending situations to create even more drama.

Some people crave attention. Going back to the underlying needs addressed in Part 2, their need is for attention, to be seen and valued. However, they aren’t getting that need met, in part because their attempts to get that need met typically involve them being whiny, annoying, irritating, or belligerent.

Here’s a couple of quick examples of “Do not pass go,” followed by a longer profile of behaviors to watch out for.

Stuck In Mythic
So once upon a time, Person A was convinced that Person B hated him. “She came into the room, and when she saw me, she left.” I asked if he’d ever talked to Person B about it. “No, of course not. She hates me.” Despite several hours of working through the Four Levels of Reality tool to get him to Physical Reality, he could not separate his mythic reality. “I just know she hates me.” He wasn’t open to me talking to Person B to find out, he wasn’t open to a mediation session, he was just convinced that Person B hated him. And in fact, suspected that many other people hated him.

In this instance, despite a lot of effort to work with Person A, who was motivated to help and be part of the group, it turned out that Person A had a number of issues. He was diagnosed Bipolar and not in any treatment, he had been abusing his partner (spitting on her, choking her, verbally and emotionally abusing her), and he had been repeatedly hitting on women in the group, or staring at their chests. I also discovered that he’d been kicked out of two previous groups for being belligerent and he had problems with female authority figures.

As I’ve said before, I always want to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but, I also have to be realistic. With treatment for his Bipolar and a few years of therapy, he could be a functioning member of a group, but he’s way past my pay grade. The primary red flag in this situation that led to me understanding all the rest was that you couldn’t talk this guy down off a wall. Once Person A was convinced of his Mythic Reality, no amount of Physical Reality would sway him. If you spend several hours talking to someone and they just can’t wrap their brain around the idea that their version of The Truth isn’t set in stone, that’s a big red flag.

Stuck in Mythic plus Antisocial Personality Disorders
Person A was convinced that Person B was out to get him–same scenario as above. He’d dealt with her before in a previous group and she had betrayed him and others. After spending several hours with Person A trying to get him to articulate what Person B had done in terms of Physical Reality (ie, taking him through the Four Levels of reality and out of Mythic and Emotional space and into Physical Reality) he literally could not articulate what Person B had done. “If Person B is there, bad things happen. Person B will betray people. Person B is a sociopath.”

Now–here’s the rub on this one.

Person A is going to consistently cause group conflicts because they literally cannot get out of their own Mythic Reality. They are stuck in their own story of other people’s motivation. However–in this particular instance–Person B really was a sociopath. You might begin to see why conflict resolution is so difficult. Often times, both parties enmeshed in a conflict are escalating things and making it worse.

In this particular example. Person B had done such a number on me by playing the victim that I allowed her into leadership positions in my group, ultimately giving her the leverage she needed to help build a coalition against me. There were other factors, including my former partner, but this led to the complete implosion of that particular group. If I’d understood the red flags for the Antisocial personality disorders and Person B’s behavior, she’d never have gained a foothold in the group.

Rule of thumb: If someone can’t articulate things in terms of Physical Reality, despite four hours (yes, four hours) of discussion on the matter, this is probably someone who is going to continue causing conflicts because of their paranoia and being stuck in mythic reality.

However, here’s a caveat. Sometimes the inability of Person A to put their finger on what Person B did may actually be a flag for Person B having one of the major personality disorders, like Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder, or being a sociopath. All of those fall into the “Antisocial personality disorders” and you will never regret learning more about those. Once you know some of the flags for them, it can help you keep your group healthier.

If you have someone in your group who has one of the antisocial personality disorders, it may be extremely difficult for other group members to put their finger on exactly what is wrong, what that person did. This is in part because people with any of the major antisocial personality disorders are extremely good at manipulation. They twist people around and if you aren’t familiar with the red flags, you’ll get caught up in it. Heck, even when I do know the red flags, it’s still hard to unravel the knots on what’s happening.

Personality Profile: Problematic Group Member
Below is an extended example of red flags of a problematic individual that many of you may recognize in your own groups. Starhawk would call them the “Power Under” person. This is the person that is repeatedly causing group conflicts. I’m not going to say there is no help for this person, however, the likelihood of any conflict resolution is pretty limited. If someone is on the extreme end of these red flags, I might skip the attempt to do conflict resolution entirely and just skip to the end game and kick them out of my group.

That’s harsh, and it’s something I would only do in extreme situations, but sometimes, the game of the problem-causer is to create further drama by drawing you into a process of conflict resolution. Sometimes, the only way out is to hold a boundary and say “No” and end the cycle of drama.

Some folks I know in a semi-rural area are working to create a coalition of local groups. Sort of a unity council. They all live about 2-3 hours apart, but they’ve seen how hard it is to run events and try to attract people to come to rituals and put things on when there are just so few Pagans in any one area. However, if they band together and go to Town A for one sabbat, Town B, for another, and Town C for the next…you get the picture. They can share resources, not have to run all the rituals themselves, get helpers…it’s a good idea.

Of course, you can also see the challenges organizing over that big of a distance. One of the group members early on started whining a lot. She’d complain on the group page. She didn’t like the logo that one member had designed. She frequently complained that even when this coalition met closer to her side of the state, she still had to drive 45 minutes and she couldn’t afford it. She frequently complained that people weren’t listening to her ideas.

The person who is in the role of the organizer of this merry band has spent hours and hours and hours talking to the group member with the problems. In fact, I spent several hours talking to that group member on the main organizer’s behalf, since I know all the parties involved.

When the group opted to meet at the central town’s location, which was even further from the complainer’s location, the group member (unsurprisingly) complained about that, and how they always had to drive. The main organizer pointed out that people from her town had been doing most of the driving so far, and it was only fair to bring things central. Further, they were still trying to get people involved who were even further away, and that would require driving to that side of the state at times.

Some of you will be unsurprised that ultimately, the complainer left the group in a huff.

Cutting the Cancer
Now, I knew this would happen long before it did. In fact, the group organizer and I spent a fair amount of time discussing how to handle this particular complainer. She, and many other group organizers facing someone like this, want to hear how they can help that person become involved without them being a major pain in the ass. This person meant well! She volunteered for things, she wanted to see better resources for her community.

However, she also was completely the source of her own problems. She was causing the very things that were distancing her from the group, and making her feel less and less heard, making her act out more. Again, it goes back to those needs, and ultimately, to our issues, particularly around self esteem. It’s a vicious cycle.

What I’ve told to many organizers dealing with someone like this is, you’re going to have to kick them out of the group sooner, rather than later, if their behaviors are that disruptive and they are not receptive to any feedback. In this particular case, the small group of leaders was new, and having to kick someone out could have devastated their momentum. When a group is new and unsure, dealing with a major group dynamics issue can be the kiss of death. People get too angry and frustrated and bail after a big conflict.

Delay the Inevitable
You can delay how long it takes for someone like this to throw a big fit by focusing attention on them, praising them frequently, and bending over backwards to give them important-sounding tasks that they enjoy and then praising them for doing that work. And–for that matter–though I might sound dismissive when I say that, as a leader, that’s sometimes the work I have to do with group members who are not that disruptive. Some people have poor self esteem and need a little bit of extra handholding. Some group members can work their way out of the whiny power-under place.

But that’s not the type of person I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the person that no attempts at skillful leadership on your part will help. In my own leadership hubris, I’ve worked with folks like this and though, “But I know all this stuff about leadership. I can ‘fix’ them, I can help them see how they are the source of their own problems.”

With some folks who just have poor self esteem and need to build some confidence, you can. For someone who has way more red flags and is more disruptive, you can’t. It’s above your pay grade, and the sooner you recognize that, the less time you’ll invest into someone who can cause a major blow up in your group.

However–with someone like this, the longer they are in the group, the more likely they are to build a coalition against the primary leader, or anyone whom they perceive as a threat. I liken it to a cancer. You can cut off a finger, or you can cut off a hand, or you can lose a whole limb. When you kick someone out of a group it’s always disruptive and painful, but if you do it sooner rather than later, it’s less disruptive.

Red Flags
Of course–this means you have to understand the differences between someone who can change their behavior, and someone who is way above your pay grade. Ie, someone who is not going to change. I’m not going to tell you this is easy. And as I’ve said so often before–good grief do I wish that I had more capacity to help the people who are acting out in this way. Because, I believe that many of them can be helped with time, patience, pastoral counseling, therapy, and love. And if our group leaders had better training, and infinite time and infinite resources, we could help some of these folks.

But sometimes, my job is to create a stable group so that in 5, 10, 20 years, that group does have the resources and the training to help people like this. A group that is strong and sustainable can actually handle someone more problematic. A newer group with leaders without a lot of training doesn’t have a chance.

Description of the red flags for this particular group member/type got long enough that that will be Part 6.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution Part 4: At the Table

8240974_xxlNow that we’ve talked about a lot of the underlying causes of conflicts and the needs beneath them, lets talk about the actual process of trying to resolve a conflict between two or more people in some kind of mediated session.


By the time a conflict has gotten to the point where people are pissed off and not speaking and it’s a struggle to get them into a room with each other, your chances of positively resolving the conflict are pretty low, which is why the rest of the series of articles focuses on understanding conflict and unraveling it before it gets that far.

Now, there’s lots of different ways of getting people to the table. A mediation is different in some ways from a facilitated session where you, as the group leader, have the power to render a judgment and kick someone out of a group. It helps to understand what type of conflict resolution session you’re engaging in.

First, before there’s ever a conflict, it helps if the group has an agreement for conflict resolution. I’m amazed at how many groups have no behavioral agreements at all, much less an agreement about what behavior would lead to a mediated session. Such as, if 2 people have an issue and can’t resolve it, they must go to one of the 2 mediators established by the group. If this is a conflict between two sovereign group leaders, there’s no such hierarchical commandment that they must follow, but let’s assume for the moment that the agreement exists within a group and that the parties involved must agree to the mediation or resign from the group. Or, that the people in question are reasonable enough to agree to a mediation.

Thus, the first step is, you learn about the conflict. You will have the tendency to “side” with the person you know best, or, the person whose side you heard first. I’ve heard this called Polarizing, and it’s pretty common. It’s why in a community conflict people rush out to tell people their side first; we seem to instinctively know that people believe the first person they hear. We will also tend to “side” with the underdog, or the person who portrays themselves as the underdog. (Keep in mind that the one who comes across as the victim, isn’t always the victim.)

Don’t get mad at yourself for the instinct to take a side. Just acknowledge that yup, there you are falling for the polarizing thing. And then, work to gather more data and understand the whole situation. Just be aware of your instincts and whenever you find yourself taking a side, question it thoroughly. Interview all the parties involved. Try to do this in person, because you can learn a lot from body language, but, sometimes Skype or email are the only way to go for the data gathering, particularly if the parties live far away.

You’ll be doing a lot of listening. And fact checking. You want to understand those underlying needs. And, though your job as a mediator isn’t necessarily to lay blame (or, for that matter, to be someone’s therapist), understanding what happened is crucial. It’s important to understand if one of the parties is blatantly lying, because that impacts the next steps.

If you catch one of the parties in big, blatant, or consistent lies, it’s unlikely the conflict resolution is going to have any kind of positive outcome. I hate to be a Debbie Downer about that, but if one of the parties can’t be truthful, that’s a pretty big red flag. I’ve been in a mediated session (I was one of the two parties, not the mediator) when the other party began lying to gain the sympathy of the mediator. At the time, I didn’t know he was lying; he was talking about how his mother was dying of cancer and he was going to have to leave town in order to be with her.

So sometimes the lies aren’t necessarily easy to suss out; a chronic liar is usually a pretty good liar. Some of us have the instinct to sniff out a lie, some of us don’t. One of the best ways to suss out a liar is to get them to tell you about some things that someone else said, and then actually follow up and talk to that other person. You’d be surprised how many lies become clear when you take the direct approach.

One of my biggest pet peeves in any conflict is the “Well, people told me that they hate what Person B is doing.” “Who is people?” I ask. “Well, I can’t tell you that, they don’t want me to give their names.” In most cases, I ignore this as any kind of useful evidence. Sometimes, a liar will give out names if I pressure them, assuming that nobody would be direct enough to actually contact those people.

And the house of cards falls apart when you do, indeed, contact those folks. That’s why investigation is important, because you need to understand the story beneath the story.

Another red flag is abuse. In so many cases, there isn’t enough evidence, it’s Person A said, Person B said, however, sometimes there were witnesses and there’s a consistent pattern of behavior. In a situation like that, particularly involving physical abuse, your services as a mediator aren’t really what’s required–getting the victim out of the situation is. Oddly enough, it’s often the victim, who is stuck in the codependent spiral, who is trying to make the mediation happen so that they don’t have to acknowledge that it’s time to leave the relationship. The mediation is actually a stalling tactic on the victim’s part.

This is one of those areas that starts to stretch beyond my pay grade, but if I tend to look at my “job” in an instance like this as the same obligation that a therapist has. A therapist holds the things shared with them as confidential, unless they learn of someone’s intent do do themselves or another harm. If I feel that someone is in danger, then it may indeed be my obligation to involve the police, or help the victimized party get out of that situation. This is an extreme situation, and honestly, this is why I wish I had more training.

I’m not going to go into the nuances of what you should do in this situation as that’s a whole post on its own, and in this case, if I stumbled into something like this, I’d probably ask the advice of Selena Fox or someone else who has far more pastoral counseling training than I personally have.

Getting People to the Table
Making the assumptions that while there’s gnashing of teeth, there’s no blatant lying, and there’s no risk of escalating physical abuse, once you have gathered all the info you can, your job is to get the affected parties into a room together. Now–depending on the nature of the conflict, this meeting might involve a larger group, or, just two people. A larger group might be warranted if two members of a coven are fighting, and have been fighting in a way that has been disruptive to the whole group or involved the whole group. Or, if there’s a complicated family dynamic with multiple injured/angry parties.

However, what I’d suggest is that you try to first meet with the core affected parties, and meet with as few of them as possible. Often the primary conflict boils down to just two people. The reason to meet with them alone is pretty simple; people will put on a bigger show with an audience, and will be less likely to be vulnerable, less likely to back down. If you can actually get the two main parties to listen to each other, and communicate, and open up, then they can resolve their issues with each other first without any group shaming going on, or perception of group shame.

Remembering those underlying needs, and shadows, always keep in mind how people’s egos and self identity will drive their actions. The poorer someone’s self esteem, the more they will be driven by wanting people to have a “good” opinion of them. The perception of loss of status is tied into our ego identity and people will dig in their heels, even if they know they are wrong, rather than face the perception of the group shaming them for being wrong.

Example: The Core Components
I was once asked to do a conflict resolution process for a family in a dispute. Once I started gathering information about this particular dispute, I realized what a mess it was, though the dispute followed a fairly logical escalation. The person who asked me to intervene had been subject to the “I’m not speaking to you” end game by the other party and wanted to find a way to keep the communication door open. She wanted me to meet with the whole family in a mediated session to address the issues of the “Black Sheep” family member.

Except…as the information unraveled, the nature of the conflict became clearer to me that it was really a conflict between two primary players, and everyone else was just caught up in the fallout. Neither one of those players was going to back down in front of the rest of the family, so to address anything, I was going to need to get the two of them alone in a room together.

That’s about as far as I got in the info gathering process before one of the parties pulled the plug on the mediation.

Is it Mediation or a Judgment?
Now–I’m using the terms mediation here, and I should clarify that I’m painting with big brush strokes. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that sometimes I’m negotiating a conflict; if I were a true mediator, I would have no stake in the conflict. If I’m a group leader facilitating a session for two other group leaders, I still have a stake in it because I want things to go well.

Similarly, if I’m a group leader facilitating a mediated session for two of my group members, it might be more accurate to call me an arbiter or even a judge, because I will at some point be rendering a decision. A mediator is just there to make a safe space to listen and gets out of the way, letting the two parties come to terms with gentle guidance. If I’m a group leader, it may ultimately come to me to render a decision that one or more of the parties might get asked to leave the group, for instance.

And yes, that can be a wrenching decision particularly in Person A said, Person B said, when you don’t have all the data. In that case, I tend to make my decision based upon how people act within the process of the conflict resolution itself.

However, I am more than happy to render a decision based on people’s behavior during the mediation process itself. How we act when we are under stress tells a lot about us. And if someone turns into a raving jerk, I may realize that that person really wasn’t a good fit for my team in the first place.

Mediators, Arbiters, and Power Dynamics
You should be aware of how the power dynamic shifts depending on your role. If you’re a group leader arbitrating a dispute, then you have a dog in the game. The people involved in the conflict will feel more pressure to be believable, for you to be on their side, since you have power to make a decision about their involvement. So they may feel more pressure to lie, for instance, or fib. Whereas, the idea with a mediator is that this person has no power to render a decision, and thus, is a safe place to vent about what happened.

In many cases a mediation will be between two parties who have a vastly different power dynamic. For instance, and employee and employer, or, a coven member and coven leader, in which case, a neutral mediator is really important, since the person without power has to feel that they will be heard. The mediator also has to have enough respect that the person with power is willing to come to the table and listen and not just brush this off as their group member whining.

In a dynamic like that, your job as the mediator is probably (depending on the situation) to help the powerless person have a voice with someone who may not be willing to listen. On the other hand, part 4 of the conflict resolution series deals with when the underdog is the problem person in the group. More on that later.

Conflict Resolution and Communication
Essentially, your job as a mediator, negotiator, or arbiter, is to unravel the truth as best you can, and to get people to listen to each other. You’re trying to help them hear each other. Sometimes, what one person is saying sounds like “Wa wa, wa wa, wa wa wa” to the other person for various reasons.

It could be that they each have a different primary learning modality, or that they are the exact personality types on the Enneagram that shouldn’t work together.

Here’s a few examples.

Jumping to Conclusions
Let’s say that the conflict in this case is that Person A believes Person B hates them and is out to get them. When you have interviewed the various parties, the best you can understand is that Person B is a little annoyed by Person A, in large part because Person A is so defensive all the time. However, Person B doesn’t hate Person A.

Now, here’s a pickle, because ultimately the conflict is resolved by convincing Person A that Person B doesn’t hate them. However, future conflicts are kept from happening if Person A realizes that their own behavior is exacerbating things and that they are jumping to conclusions. So really, this is Person A’s nightmare; nobody is that defensive without self esteem issues, and to find out that people are irked at them, annoyed by them…major blow to the ego.

The Four Levels of Reality tool that I’ve mentioned before is a big helper here to help Person A to understand that Person B doesn’t hate them. But, a further commitment to personal growth work or therapy is ultimately going to help Person A be a healthy part of the group. And perhaps that’s outside of the scope of a mediated session, but it’s part of the process of longer term conflict resolution in a group.

What Did You Say?
Another example is when people just are failing to communicate. In one instance, I was asked to facilitate a board meeting of a group that just wasn’t on the same page. The group leader was strong, ambitious, a little harsh, definitely a control freak, and motivated by a drive to be a professional. She had been putting in long hours to run events on her land, and she wanted people to step in and help, but her volunteers always seemed to drop the ball. One volunteer in particular wanted to help with things like the newsletter, but she blew deadlines and failed to get things done. She had great ideas and was highly motivated on the idea level, but she had terrible follow through. Basically, the two of them were a personality match made in hell.

When this group leader sent out long emails about her ideas for future events to the board email list, she would hear nothing back from the board, and she would sit there and wonder if anyone cared and fume and get frustrated and sad.

Let’s look at the group’s side. They had volunteered their time to make the event happen, but then the group leader became a task master and was demanding more from them than they felt they agreed to. She wanted regular meetings which they had to fit into their schedule, and she sent out long emails that they didn’t have time or patience to read. Or, the emails seemed like the group leader had things in hand, so they didn’t feel they needed to response.

They had no idea the group leader was looking for a response from them.

So what I said was, “Can you guys hear that Group Leader needs more feedback from you guys, that even if all you have time to type is ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’ that that is what she’s looking for?” And they nodded and understood. They hadn’t realized that was what was needed.

And then I said to the group leader, “Can you hear that your group is a little overwhelmed by all the communication and structure you are throwing at them? That they may not have stepped into the level of volunteering that you are asking of them? Can you work to make more space for what they have time for, and to listen to their needs?”

And she understood that. It hadn’t really occurred to her that she was asking too much, given that for years she had taken on the entire task of putting on the event. I pointed out that she was a driven, motivated individual and this event was her baby, but just because she wanted it and was willing to put in the 80 hour week, didn’t mean that everyone else was, and that she had to downscale what she was expecting of her volunteers.

I also pointed out the obvious tension, that the group members were always on edge, waiting for the group leader to snap at them. That the group members wanted to help, but they were also afraid of how angry the group leader seemed to get. However, I also pointed out that some of the group members were not meeting the obligations they had agreed to, and that this had caused stress for the group leader.

Basically, as a neutral party, I was able to communicate a lot of the subtext messages in a way that took the tension out and helped them look at it not as the two sides in conflict, but as outsiders, so they could see how they got into the spaghetti snarl and how they could find their way out.

If you really want to learn how to mediate disputes, I highly recommend getting training in Nonviolent Communication. Restorative Justice Circles are another method, and many areas offer classes in mediation training, though the rub is you’ll have to pay out of pocket in order to get training that you then won’t be able to charge for. Don’t worry; I have a longer series of posts addressing leadership, fundraising, and money coming up.

When You Shouldn’t Bother
I’ll offer an example of many of the behaviors of a problematic individual who will cause repeated conflict in your group in Conflict Resolution Part 5.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 3: Is it Resolvable?

12653654_xxlWhen a conflict resolution works it’s a great thing. However, the reason I started out the leadership series by talking about unsolvable conflicts, and in specific, talking about intractably bad leaders who are egomaniacs, jerks, or who have major untreated mental illnesses…is because with anyone in these categories, it doesn’t matter if you are a master at conflict resolution. Nothing is going to heal that conflict. Nothing is going to change someone who isn’t aware and willing to change.

Love, Listening, and Boundaries
There is a power–an extreme power–in listening. In letting someone talk about why they are upset, in hearing them. Sometimes someone who seems like an intractably bad KnowItAll  can come to understand what they did and do, reflect on their behavior, and work to be better.

Some people have literally never had anyone just listen to them. Compassion and love and support can also heal some of those old wounds that lead to behavior. Another toolset that I’m less familiar with, but that I know has had a tremendous positive impact, is the form of the Restorative Justice circle.

Pagan author Crystal Blanton facilitates these when she teaches at festivals, and she uses them in her workplace. You might do a little digging around in your area via Google to see if there are any ways to experience or learn how to facilitate Restorative Justice circles. One of the hallmarks of an “RJ” circle is listening. The idea is to pass the  talking stick/stone/object around and get people to talk, and, to get people to listen.

There is a tremendous power in being heard when you’ve never felt like anyone listened to you or cared what you thought. Sometimes that’s all that someone wants in a conflict–to feel that their voice is heard.

There’s a tremendous power in hearing the pain of the other party. When people yell at each other over a computer screen, or through a third party who’s been triangled into the drama, they aren’t always hearing and sitting with and feeling compassion for what the other party is going through.

If you can actually get people to sit together and speak their pain and be vulnerable, that’s half the work right there, and sometimes just the act of them speaking and listening unravels the conflict.

However, it’s a knife’s edge of balance. I want to listen to what someone’s going through. And I want to give someone the time and space to heal and to do better, but I also need to understand when I’m spinning my wheels with someone and just giving them more opportunities to hurt me and my group. After repeated work with someone showing them compassion and giving them opportunities to make a different choice, sometimes it is time to hold a boundary. Sometimes, the answer is, “No, you can’t be a part of this group/event/community any longer.”

I do wish this historically worked better in the Pagan community. I’ve agreed numerous times to be a mediator for several disputes, and I’ve very, very rarely been taken up on the offer.

As I mentioned in Conflict Resolution Part 1, typically there’s one party interested in mediation, and the other party refuses. To recap, most of the time when someone refuses mediation, that’s a big red flag for me. If they aren’t willing to sit down at the table and talk things out, then there’s probably no resolving the conflict anyways.

The exception to this is if someone has been abused, for instance, and the abuser is trying to use mediation as a method to re-engage the cycle of abuse with their victim. If someone has been abused and refuses mediation because they have cut their abuser out of their life, that’s a different situation.

In almost any other case, the “I’m not speaking to you” tactic is unfortunately a death knell to the possibility of any future healing. No conversations can happen, no agreements can be made, no needs can be explored. At that point there is just stewing and no way to resolve the tension.

It festers like a big boil under the skin with no way to lance it.

Sometimes I have been taken up on my offer to mediate, but sometimes the end result isn’t what the parties had in mind. Sometimes the end result is, “Yup, you guys are really a terrible mix, personality wise, and you probably shouldn’t work together.” What people want is the perfect, pretty result, and that isn’t always possible. Sometimes the result is that some folks are just a bad combination, and the pressure cooker of working together to plan rituals or events or put out a newsletter is going to continually cause a conflict.

But I Heard Mediation Doesn’t Work
The only thing that’s worse than someone refusing mediation, though, is unskillful mediation. There’s a number of situations I’ve heard of where someone was used as a mediator who wasn’t at all skilled, or who was clearly biased, and that situation managed to cause a further rift. What makes this one worse is that then everyone sees that “Oh, mediation didn’t work,” and then they don’t want to employ mediation in the future.

Or, someone who didn’t like the outcome of the mediation, will talk about how mediation is biased. When, it wasn’t biased, it just didn’t go their way.

Like with many things, the story of bad mediations gets more elaborate with every telling. The game of “telephone” can create quite an epic rumor of how terrible mediations are. Not every regional community has had something like this happen, but in some regions, because of past drama, mediation is not even seen as an option.

Trash Talking the Mediator
A bad scenario is when one gets so upset that they begin to trash talk the mediator. And yes, this does happen. The idea of mediation is that the mediator is an outside party without a “dog in the game,” so to speak. In the Pagan community, I often clarify that I am not a true mediator, because we have too much “It’s a small world” syndrome, but that I will try to come in as unbiased as I can. And there’s a benefit to having a mediator who at least understands the local politics without an hours-long history lesson.

However, the disadvantage is that if one of the parties involved gets disgruntled enough–or, if they were genuinely unstable to begin with–they may try personal attacks against the mediator. At that point it usually becomes pretty clear how the original conflict exploded in the first place, but it can cause entirely new rifts. This is why I’ve heard a number of Pagan elders say, “No way am I getting in the middle of that.” Because, they know that one of the “end games” is to try and draw in the mediator.

Too Much of a Soft Touch
Another mediation failure is when the mediator doesn’t ask the hard questions. I know of one mediation where the mediator basically seemed to just listen to the two parties talk to each other.

One party felt aggrieved and took the lead, cowing the second person into apologizing, when the situation was actually far more complicated. The aggressive person used the mediator to make the second person look like the aggressor. It’s grade-A manipulative and abusive behavior, and a mediation is supposed to provide a safe space.

While it’s true that a mediator is in general supposed to help the parties in conflict solve their own problems, there’s also a point where a mediator needs to step in and ensure a safe space for both parties. I’d offer that it’s really tricky some times to suss out abusive and manipulative behavior, particularly with people who play the victim in other to manipulate others. This is why it’s important to gather data ahead of time from multiple different perspectives.

You want to give people space to work out their problems, but you don’t want to let one party steamroll the other. A lot of mediators express that they are afraid to be perceived as taking sides, but bad behavior needs to be called out in a mediation session or you’ve just lost all your safety agreements.

In Part 4, we’ll look at some actual mediation and arbitration processes.

Meanwhile, here’s a short article on projection (ie, projecting our inner landscape onto exterior people/events) from an excellent weekly facilitation newsletter I subscribe to. http://facilitatoru.com/blog/training/what-are-you-projecting/

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 2: Understanding the Need Beneath the Action

4290805_lNonviolent Communication (or NVC), and other tools I work with, are about understanding the need that underlies the action. If I can understand why someone just did a really mean thing, I can understand why, and we have an opportunity to resolve it.

It’s still not okay to be a jerk to someone, but, without knowing why it happened and why, we can’t even get at a forward momentum for resolution, everything we do will just be rehash.

Nonviolent Communication is a technique that I frequently use. The book by the same name by Marshall Rosenberg is an excellent resource. The tool does have a bit of a learning curve, but it’s especially useful if many people in a local community are working to learn and practice it.

In the Conflict Resolution Part 1, I focused a lot on conflict avoidance. I have found that the simple strategy of “when, not if” helps tremendously. Not looking at it as, if a conflict happens, but when. That tends to lower the stress level around addressing the conflict, because I’m not looking at it from the squeamish perspective of, “Maybe I can get out of addressing this.” It’s more, “When will I choose to address this?”

Because that conflict is not going to go away. What you have to do first is understand the nature of the conflict to determine how to address it.

Person Causing the Drama
The person who’s frustrated and whose needs aren’t being met is likely to consistently keep beating their head against the wall engaging in ineffective strategies to try and meet those needs.

Effective strategies is a keyword here. A lot of the process of therapy is centered around trying to reprogram ourselves to stop engaging in ineffective strategies and harmful coping mechanisms, and move towards actual effective strategies to meet our needs.

But first, we have to understand what our needs are, and acknowledge them. And we have a lot of cultural shame around certain needs. For instance, the need for sex. I probably don’t need to go into the cultural shame around this. A more complicated need is the need to be unique, to be seen and valued, to be special. But we’re told as kids, “Children should be seen and not heard,” we’re told to not want the spotlight, to not be selfish like that. You can see where our genuine needs come into conflict with societal morals and shaming.

Digging Deep: What do we Need?
My mentor Cynthia Jones at Diana’s Grove came up with an astrological model of human needs based on the 12 signs of the zodiac. I took her work as presented in a workshop, and formatted it into a visual graphic. It’s not about “what’s your sign,” it’s that each of us has all 12 signs, all 12 needs, it’s just that we have them in different weights and measures. It’s a useful metaphor to understand different categories of human needs. And these needs are normal.

However, when we learn that a certain need is “bad,” that creates a shadow. We hate the part of ourselves that needs that. And so we hide it, we lock it away. So there’s that basic human need many of us have for sex and for pleasure. Basic human need, right? But how much shame do we have out of wanting pleasure? How many of us blush about talking about sex, or try to hide the fact that we masturbate?

Needing sex isn’t bad…it’s when we end up harming others out of our attempts to get that need met that it’s a problem. Like, lying about your life to pick someone up in a bar, or cheating on a partner, or seducing a student.

Compassion for Needs
Understanding people from the perspective of a whole constellation of needs that we each have becomes a useful tool in groups to identify where a behavior that’s harmful to the group was sourced by someone’s genuine human need.

An example is the woman I mentioned in the last conflict resolution blog post, the one who wanted to be seen as “The Writer.” She had a genuine human need to be seen and valued for work she did well. That wasn’t bad. What was bad was that her attempt to be seen and valued for that was expressed by her attacking me in meetings.

Understanding someone’s need–even if they were a jerk to me–gives me compassion for them. I can then actually work with them to find a better strategy to meet their need.

However, there’s also a point where someone hits what I call the three strikes rule. If someone continues to be a jerk, even if we’ve had a “this isnt’ working” conversation a few times, then I may need to cut my ties and stop working with them, or if they are participants in a group I’m leading, I may need to ask them to leave the group. Some people are beyond my pay grade. Some people are not able to be self reflective and see their behavior and how they are harming others. And others may see it, but be unable (at least at this time) to change that behavior.

I will, in almost instances, give someone the opportunity to shift their behavior. But if they don’t, then my compassion for them trying to meet their needs has a limit. Just because someone’s trying to meet a genuine need doesn’t mean it’s ok for them to harm me, or my group. Again, I have compassion for people who are frustrated trying to meet a need. But, if they are continuing to be a jerk, willfully so, that’s where I hold a boundary.

Realism in Conflicts
This is a bit of a bummer, but it’s really relevant. Not all wounds can be healed. What I mean is, there isn’t always a pat “Kumbaya” moment where the perpetrator of an abusive situation breaks down and realizes how wrong they were, and goes into therapy to change their life, and the people who were harmed smile and forgive them and it all works out.

Life isn’t that clean.

Worse, I think, are the moments when the perpetrator of an abuse breaks down and begs forgiveness, promises to change, and then people accept them back into their lives for another round of eventually declining behavior and future abuse until they end up in the same situation, or worse.

I’ve been the victim in that situation before. I’ve taken a repeat abuser back into my life. It’s really easy to do. Even with all the personal growth work that I’ve done, and the leadership work that I teach, it can be hard to discern if someone is going to actually change their behavior, or if they aren’t.

Self Transformation
I am an optimist, and at first, I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and I believe in people’s ability to change themselves, transform themselves. I have transformed myself, and I’ve witnessed others do the same. It’s a beautiful thing, and people are beautiful and deserving of second chances.

Some people are genuinely just going through a rough time in their lives. I know I’ve lashed out in some nasty ways when I was going through a terrible time, or when I was stuck in depression or being emotionally abused. I’ve seen a lot of people go through something and hit bottom and come back.

Alcoholics can get clean. A very good friend of mine was hurting me and others when he got addicted to hard drugs, and he quit and made something of his life.

However, some people aren’t going to change. Maybe it’s brain chemistry, maybe it’s a lifetime of them suffering their own abuses…whatever it is, in this lifetime, they aren’t going to change how they treat people. And you can’t fix them. Let me say it again. You cannot fix them.

When faced with someone like that, I do my due diligence. I give them every opportunity. But at a certain point, I recognize that that person isn’t going to change. They aren’t going to–at least for now–engage in a healthier strategy to meet their needs. And that my staying in any relationship with them–friends, romantic, group/professional, is not healthy for me. And at that point, the only thing I can do is cut them out of my life. In some cases, that means kicking someone out of a group.

I wish I had a magic wand to just “fix” people who are hurting themselves and others. But I don’t have that.

Hamsterwheeling: Trying to Make Sense of Illogical Behaviors
When I was in one particular abusive situation, I just about drove myself nuts trying to make logical sense out of his actions. Wanting him to make sense, wanting him to want healing, wanting to understand how he could do XYZ.

It wasn’t until talking to several psychotherapists that I understood that this particular individual has all the red flags for Borderline Personality Disorder. While they couldn’t diagnose him officially (he wasn’t their client), they explained the pattern of behavior, and further, explained that there wasn’t any “making sense” out of it. That my attempts to rationalize that behavior were fruitless, they were a hamsterwheel. They were me, and my rational mind, trying to make sense of someone’s actions that were not rational.

Without help–and, possibly even with help due to the nature of that mental illness–he was going to keep doing it, there was probably no changing the situation.

In some cases, healing isn’t possible. Sometimes all you can do is cut someone out of your life. And that sucks.

Needs and Resolving Conflict
Sometimes, however, getting to understand someone’s unmet needs is the way to resolve a conflict. However, each party involved in the conflict has to be honest about what they want. And has to be honest about their needs. And that usually requires looking in the mirror and admitting to things that–culturally–we’re taught to be embarrassed about.

Often what people want out of a conflict resolution is for the other person to apologize and vindicate them, prove them to be “right.” If that’s what you want, you have to own that. But, you also need to look deeper at the needs beneath that. Why do you need that? What needs aren’t you getting met?

Often the “need to be right” all the time that is present in people who are KnowItAlls is, deep down, a need to be loved and valued by others because they themselves have very poor self esteem and a poor self image. I know a lot about this one–I used to be very guilty of it. Somehow I equated “being right” with “being good” with “I have value.” Later, I learned that being a KnowItAll was contributing to my status as a social outcast. Amazingly, once I stopped being such a KnowItAll, I had more friends, and my self esteem improved.

This is where the idea of conflict resolution connects to a process of therapy, or at least ,relentless personal growth work. If your behavior in a relationship or group is causing a conflict, you have to look at the needs you are trying to get met and the unhealthy, ineffective strategies that you are employing to meet that need.

First you have to acknowledge you have a need. Next, you need to acknowledge that you’re engaging in a harmful strategy to meet that need.

Maybe you’re being the KnowItAll and you are interrupting meetings to point out how someone else is wrong, or argue over minutia, or even interrupting someone else’s workshop. Maybe you dominate a conversation with the stuff that you know, even if others weren’t talking about your topics of interest and expertise.

Then, you need to actually commit to changing that behavior. A group leader can help you find a way to meet that need in a better way–perhaps establishing you as the person who will write an article on the sabbats, or on myths, or some other area of interest. I’ve worked with people in my groups before, including working out some hand signals or other communication to let them know when they were acting out again in a subtle way that wouldn’t shame them in front of the group.

Needs, Therapy, and Successful Strategies
A process of therapy is often very useful in continuing to explore the unsuccessful strategies you use to meet your needs, and work to establish healthier, successful strategies. Our own Ego–our self identity–is the biggest block in this process. Ego’s job is to make you look good, to make sure you like yourself. So we don’t want to identify ourselves as someone who is “bad.” That might look like, “I’m bad if I’m a KnowItAll.” (Trust me, I’ve been there on that one.)

So we have to circumvent our ego, our identity, and acknowledge, hey, I do this thing, because I’m trying to be seen and valued, and I’m not bad, I’m just going about it in a crappy way, and I can change that behavior.

However–life’s not that clean. the strategies I’m discussing above are tremendously useful for conflict resolution if people actually do them. If people are actually self reflective enough to look at their behaviors and acknowledge that they need to make a change. Most of the time, people engaging in these behaviors will rigorously dig in their heels. They will not admit to being wrong.

Because, being “wrong” is being “bad” and ego can’t take being seen as “bad.” In fact, most egomaniacal and arrogant behavior is typically covering over really, really poor self esteem. If you want a magical exercise to work on this in yourself, I suggest the Iron Pentacle exercised, particularly working with the Rusted and Gilded pentacles. I believe you can do some of this work in T. Thorn Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft book, but there are also various resources for it if you Google it. If you have the opportunity to take an Iron Pentacle class, even better.

Ego, Egotism, and Conflict Resolution
Ego isn’t bad. Ego is just our identity. It’s just that our ego can be a little overzealous in its job.

For a conflict resolution to work, all parties need to understand their own needs and desires. They need to be honest about them. And, all parties need to be willing to explore their own egos, and egotism, and need to be right, and fear of being “bad.”

Again, it’s been my experience that people who are engaging in some of the most unsuccessful–and harmful–coping strategies to get their needs met, are also the folks who have the poorest self-esteem. And thus in response, they have the most overzealous and protective egoes, and that manifests in egotism and arrogance.

Those are the folks least likely to come to the mediation table, and the least likely to back down even when they are clearly in the wrong.

So, do the work to understand your own needs, and the needs of those in your group. Understand the needs beneath the conflict. Try to actually be able to articulate the needs, and the unsuccessful strategies that are harming the group. And if someone isn’t willing to hear it, be prepared to cut ties.

And keep in mind, if you’re going into a conflict resolution because you are dead set on wanting to be “right,” you probably need to do a bit of work on your own shadows around your needs, your identity, your self esteem. If each of us did this rigorous personal work, we would have far healthier groups, and less conflicts.

Stay tuned! Conflict Resolution 3 will come out tomorrow.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution Part 1

shutterstock_137682284I’m often asked, “How do you smooth over a conflict,” or, “How do you keep things from blowing up,” or, “How do you resolve a conflict without ruffling feathers?”

While it depends greatly upon the situation, in general I’d offer that this points to our cultural fear around conflict. We are conflict avoidant, and trying to smooth over a conflict without expecting it to be uncomfortable is the wrong approach.

What people really want to know is, “How can I resolve a conflict without anyone feeling uncomfortable, without someone getting upset at me.”

We can’t reasonably expect to work through a conflict without people being able to express that they are upset and process things out. In other words–yes. It’s going to be uncomfortable. People are going to be mad at each other. Resolving conflicts is hard work, particularly for the conflict avoidant.

Powder Kegs: Argumentative KnowItAlls
It’s also difficult work because so many people seem to have no problems going off half-cocked and tearing someone else down in the interest of proving their point. I see so many rude interactions in Pagan workshops and on Pagan groups online. I see it not just in the Pagan community, but in other subcultures and grassroots communities. I see a lot of people who are convinced that they are right, and that not only they are right, but that it’s “okay” for them to blast someone else on an email list, be rude to them on Facebook.

Here’s the thing. Even if you are “right,” it’s not ok to be a jerk. You may technically know more about something, like a particular culture’s mythology. But being a jerk doesn’t make your point. It just stirs up conflict. And within the small world of any grassroots group or subculture, such as the Pagan community, these frustrating interactions become a powder keg.

Many of these people will just shrug and say, “I’m blunt, I don’t pull my punches.” I think there’s a difference from being an activist and feeling empowered to speak your mind, and being aggressive or a jerk about it. It takes discernment, and I find that sorely lacking. So then these arguments take place, they cause rifts, and those rifts widen. I’ve seen arguments like that cause decades-long conflicts in between specific local groups in a particular region.

Conflict Avoidance: What Causes Big Conflicts?
On the other hand, I’d say it’s the consistent attempt to keep from expressing how upset we are that often leads to a lot of other group conflicts. Biting our tongues and holding things in seems to lead to the conflict getting more dramatic in the end than it needs to be.

Western culture–at least, most people I meet–are passive aggressive. We are passive in that we don’t want to engage in the conflict. We might be angry about something, but we hold it in. Until it builds, and builds, and builds, and we only feel “safe” expressing our intense emotions when they are just that, intense. When we can’t hold them back any more. When we go into temporary-insanity-headspace and we blow up at someone because we don’t care any more. Or at least, the social consequences we are so afraid of matter less than expressing our emotion. There is a perception that conflict avoidant people have that speaking up about something is just too aggressive. So when they get to the point that they blow up–the aggressive part of passive/aggressive–their frustration has built to the point that they don’t care about the consequences.

Emotionally, it seems way easier to do that than to actually sit down with someone calmly and articulate that we have a problem with something they are doing.

I’m going to take a giant leap here and relate it to people who drink socially to ease their anxiety, particularly to get tipsy enough to flirt with someone or ask them out on a date. Culturally, I experience that most people don’t feel okay with expressing particular uncomfortable emotions or needs unless they feel a little out of control, whether that’s alcohol or anger or some other social/emotional lubricant.

When, not If
In groups I lead, there’s a basic understanding that if two group members have a conflict they can’t resolve and I hear about it–ie, it begins to impact the group–then I’m going to have to butt in and they must agree to sit down to mediation to address the conflict. If they don’t, one or both of them may be asked to leave the group.

I’ve offered or been asked to mediate numerous Pagan conflicts outside of my own group, and typically I find that there’s one party who is interested in mediation, and one party who is not. Typically (though not always) the party who is not interested in mediation is probably not going to budge and is going to keep escalating the conflict. In that instance, I usually flag that person as someone that I probably don’t want to work with anyways. If they aren’t willing to back down and work to resolve the conflict, then they are just going to keep ending up in future conflicts. These are the folks who get kicked out of group after group and then wonder why.

Keep in mind, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here. There are always exceptions.

Abuse Victims Refusing Mediation
In some (rare) instances, the person who refuses mediation is holding a specific boundary with someone who has verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused them. This is a scenario that you can suss out if you gather data and interview the parties involved. If you’re in a position of trying to mediate a conflict, you have to be really clear on the difference.

Some people will outright refuse mediation because they are the at-fault party and are unreasonable jerks, and they will continue to escalate and cause more conflicts. Some people will refuse mediation because the other party is using mediation as a way to get back into their victim’s life. It can be hard to know the difference.

In the past, I have made the critical mistake of pressuring someone into mediation who was actually the victimized party who was trying to hold a boundary and keep away from someone who had emotionally abused her. Again, it’s really hard to tell the difference at times, in part because there is a conflict, there’s huge heavy emotional issues and both sides are upset. Both sides are telling a story that makes them look better. Talking to the parties involved, and to others, is crucial to get as much information as you can. But all too often, it’s “he said she said.”

Getting Over Conflict Avoidance
When I’m working with specific parties, I’m not always concerned with unruffling feathers, at least, not in the beginning. What I mean by that is, there are way too many people (ie, most of us) that are conflict avoidant, and we try too quickly to smooth things over and brush them over the carpet.

And then we are surprised when the conflict erupts again a few months later over the same issues. Sometimes, the bandage needs to be washed out and the wound cleansed out well, or it just keeps healing over with rot underneath.

My mentors at Diana’s Grove had an elemental model of the roles of a priest/ess, ministers, and clergy, and one was to act as a healer. Acting as a healer, however, sometimes means setting the bone. It’s going to hurt like heck, but we want the bone to heal straight. Sometimes healing has to hurt.

I typically use tools from Nonviolent communication (excellent book by Marshall Rosenberg, worth checking out) in order to find out the root cause of the conflict. I do a lot of investigating, I ask a lot of questions. I try to understand the conflict from 360 degrees. If I can find out what’s actually going on, then it’s more likely I can help the people involved in the conflict come to a successful resolution. But we all have hidden agendas. Sometimes, our agenda is hidden from ourselves.

I also use a tool from Diana’s Grove called the Four Levels of Reality, which was adapted from Jean Houston’s work.

Physical Reality, Mythic Reality, Emotional Reality, and Essential Reality
Physical Reality is what physically happened, Mythic is the story we write in our heads, Emotional is our instant emotional response, and Essential reality is our beliefs about the world and ourselves that fueled that particular Myth.

Truly, a lot of conflicts come from, “Bob was glaring at me in Circle,” when in reality, Bob was just squinting at the sun. We assign a motivation to people–instantly–and it’s our emotional recollection of that that is what sticks, not the physical reality of what happened. In fact, my understanding is that emotion is the glue of memory. We tend to have the strongest memories of the most intense emotional moments of our lives.

By talking someone down through the layers of physical reality to get at what they actually know about a situation, I can help take them out of the mythic reality of their story of what happened, and their emotional reality response to it.

Ultimately, most conflicts come out of people’s Essential Reality–their poor self image of themselves. If you have a poor self image, poor self esteem, then you might find yourself feeling threatened all the time. I have found that the roots of many conflicts come from people who are overly defensive. I’ll actually do an entirely separate post just about people who are constantly victims, who claim to be under psychic attack, or people who are just always concerned that others are out to get them. However, I have two posts before the current Pagan Leadership series about the Hypersensitive Personality type, and I think that that is one factor in how we get to conflicts that get blown out of proportion.

Some conflicts come out of almost nothing; someone who is oversensitive or who has poor self esteem finds themselves under attack all the time. It’s an ego defense. And it’s a bad spiral where someone who has genuinely been victimized in the past can continue their victimhood, and cause entirely new conflicts, because they imagine everyone is out to get them.

I’m not Speaking to You
The kiss of death for healing most conflicts is “I’m not speaking to you.” You can’t really do anything with that, other than see if that time allows them to heal and maybe they will come back to you months or years later. If you try to force the issue, that person will not only resent you for it, they will lash out. They aren’t ready to talk, and forcing the issue almost always makes the situation worse in various ways.

If someone throws down the refusal to communicate, there’s nothing I can do. I had this happen to me just over a year ago. I tried the various methods available; during the conflict, I tried to reason with him and use logic, but he was way, way past logic. Before he pulled away completely, I let him know that if he did ever want to talk, I’d be open to that. I tried to use the “friend of a friend” method to get a mutual friend/neutral party to speak to him on my behalf. However, in this particular case we didn’t really have a good middle/neutral party. My friends who were his friends were fairly conflict avoidant and didn’t want to get involved, plus they didn’t know him all that well. His friends who were my friends weren’t speaking to me either.

Most of the time, if someone does the “not speaking” thing, it’s over. There’s no closure, no resolution. They have decided they are right and that’s that. In this case, however, my friend contacted me almost a year after our argument to say that he was sorry, and that he realized how totally insane he must have sounded. He and I talked it out, and without getting into the particular nature of our conflict, it’s understandable why he was triggered. He has an incredible temper, and he was in an emotional pressure cooker both because of some things that had gone on between us, as well as his job and his home life.

I was intensely surprised when he contacted me. I now am in the position of trying to honor his and my friendship and connection, but with appropriate boundaries. I believe in transformation and healing and that people can change their behavior, and on the other hand, I’m aware that he’s blown his temper like that before. So I’m still friends with him, but there are more boundaries. And, should he blow his temper like that again, I’m not going to be interested in re-engaging with him as a friend, even though he is involved in the Pagan community and I work hard to not be in conflict with other Pagan leaders.

The truth is, whenever anyone develops a friendship, an intense relationship within a magical group, a romantic relationship…any of these provide the opportunity for conflict to develop. When dating, it’s sometimes called the “3-month rule,” and I think that’s apt. After you get through the Springtime Rush of excitement, then reality hits and you discover all the things about the other person (or group) you don’t like. Things either work out, or they don’t. But, we don’t have great ways to work these things out in the Pagan community, or in other grassroots groups.

Conflict Prevention
The one thing that would prevent so many conflicts is if we all engaged in direct communication. Ie, we actually talked to people we had a difficulty with, and tried to work it out. Not in an aggressive, attacking way, but in a forthright way, a healing way, a compassionate way. Once again I recommend I-referencing and the book Nonviolent Communication to learn how to do this with skill. Even better, if you can afford it, is attending an evening or weekend class teaching Nonviolent Communication.

An example: I was working with a woman who challenged every marketing/writing idea I ever had. We were working together in a small team of people offering Pagan events to a broader community. Whenever I talked about the text for an ad we were going to take out in the local new age magazine, or our flyer, she would launch into me. She started launching on me for other things.

After this happened at three or four meetings, I knew it wasn’t going to stop. So when other team members had left the room, I finally asked her, “I notice that you really act out towards me in meetings during XYZ circumstances. What’s up?” We started talking, but we set aside time to talk when we had more privacy.

We spent six hours talking. It turned out that she’d always been “The Writer” in previous groups, and she wanted to be respected as “The Writer.” However, in this particular group, I held that role and she was jealous.

The conflict arose because she wasn’t even thinking about why she was angry at me. She was defending what she thought of as “hers.” She wanted to be seen and valued as a writer by the group and was angry that someone else (me) had claimed that turf. Ultimately, she felt bad about herself if she wasn’t seen as being “good” and doing a good job at writing. Under it all, she didn’t really value herself very well. She only valued her relationship with the group if they perceived her as “good” by offering a service she was good at. This is very common with people with poor self esteem–they don’t value themselves, they value the things that people will like them for, like a skillset they possess.

What exacerbated the situation is that I had to be fairly controlling about our marketing materials and how our group presented ourselves because of some obligations we had to our parent group. I was able to explain to her why I had to be a control freak about some of the language we used. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure from the leader and mentor who had a stake in what our group was doing. That leader/mentor wasn’t directly involved in our group, but our actions reflected on that leader/mentor and the parent group.

I had actually been yelled at by that leader/mentor for letting untrained people facilitate workshops, and admonished that everything we did reflected on the parent group. Given the nature of our respective groups, and some of the unhealthy personal dynamics that had arisen in the parent group, I wasn’t in a position where I could really talk about the unhealthy behavior of that leader and mentor. In other words, it was a powder keg.

Further, I had no idea that the group member who was attacking me in meetings had done professional writing work and wanted to do more of that in the group. All I could see was her acting like a raptor testing the fences with every idea I brought up. I knew that she had previously led another Pagan group, and initially I just just assumed she wasn’t dealing well with someone else in a position of authority. Sometimes two alphas will snap at each other like that.

It turned out to be far more complicated than that. Once we got to the bottom of that, we were able to work a lot of things out. Once our cards were on the table, we collaborated together pretty well, and I now count her as a friend. 

Smoothing It Under the Rug
When my efforts at conflict resolution focused on smoothing things over, all I did was let it further build. I kept on trying to smile and pretend like she wasn’t attacking me every meeting. When I confronted her from a place of genuine intent to heal, we were able to actually resolve things.

It wasn’t easy, and it started out with a lot of anger and frustration. We had to let the anger out, and express the frustration, before we could move along to any kind of healing.

What helped was direct communication. Yes, it was fueled by my frustration, but I spoke with this woman before I was angry to the point of just screaming at her and kicking her out of the group. I could have brought it up earlier still and we’d have had less frustration between us. I pointed out her behavior, and her impact on me and the group, and asked her if that was the impact she wanted to have, and if not, that she and I needed to work things out, and we did.

In other situations, the person might cross their arms and get more defensive, more aggressive, and dig into “I’m right,” and in those scenarios, there isn’t always much you can do. If someone isn’t willing to acknowledge they have been engaging in behavior that has negatively impacted the group–and be willing to apologize and do something different–that person probably doesn’t belong in your group. Sometimes the resolution to a conflict is asking someone to leave.

Other times, it’s digging down into the needs beneath the conflict to figure out a resolution.

Coming soon: Conflict Resolution part 2.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, conflict resolution, impact, leadership, Pagan community, pagan leadership, Personal growth, personal transformation

Herding Cats: Why I Dislike This Phrase

imagesI really, really hate this phrase. Every time I tell people I teach Pagan leadership, they think it’s so funny to bring up the old joke. “Pagan leadership is just like herding cats,” they say with a nod or a smirk.

Like I haven’t heard the joke a thousand times before.

And if you’re one of the folks that has done this–don’t worry, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad that our community in general continues to perpetuate this very unhelpful phrase, this unhelpful story.

This is Part 4 of a series on leadership, so you might want to check those for additional context. I completely reject the “myth” that Pagan leadership is like “herding cats.” Yes, sometime it comes to pass that Pagan leadership is frustrating. Why is it like that? Because we keep saying it is. We make that reality happen. You know–words have power. Words have a lot of power. Words shape reality.

I actively encourage people to not use that particular phrase because it just reinforces the story that Pagans are hard to lead. In fact, it’s more accurate to say, people are hard to lead. Pagans are a subculture with unique difficulties and our leaders don’t have appropriate training in leadership, which exacerbates the problems we face. But this phrase does not serve us in moving forward. Words have power–I’ve written a whole blog post about that on Pagan Activist.

I’m about to publish two books that will include all of my current collected articles and blog posts on leadership, personal growth, and ritual facilitation. I posted on my  Facebook that I was looking for some suggestions for the title of the leadership book.

How many people suggested herding cats? Title suggestions below:

  • Leading Pagans: I did those things so you wouldn’t have to
  • Tales from the pagan pulpit
  • A Herd of Cats is Called a Pride: Transforming Criticism into Leadership
  • Herding Kittens without Losing Your Mind
  • Lightning in a bottle: Leading Nature’s children on a common path
  • A Flame in My Heart and a Target on My Back
  • Wearing Midnight: Leadership Roles in Modern Paganism
  • Acorns to Oaks: Planting the Seeds of the Future
  • The Center of the Circle–Phaedra (plus the Target t-shirt)
  • Heavy Sighs and Facepalms
  • Herding Cats: Planting the Seeds of Pagan Leadership

I think that the “herding cats” myth we tell ourselves does us a disservice, just like shrugging and saying, “Oh, that’s Pagan Standard Time.” It excuses rudeness and poor leadership. And yes, we have a lot of rudeness in the Pagan community. There are a lot of inconsiderate people. And there are also a lot of clueless people too who have no idea that they are being disruptive.

Kenny Klein wrote an article admonishing Pagans for what’s often referred to as “Pagan Standard Time,” however, for me, this could just as well refer to the other choice phrases we use to identify ourselves. Like, “Pagans are broke,” or, “Pagan leadership is like herding cats.” Words have power, words shape reality, and these phrases do not tell the story we want for our future. 

“Get over it! You represent the Pagan community! Pull yourself together! I know, it is a hallmark of our culture in general that people are rude, late, and self-centered. But as Pagans, shouldn’t we be above that? As people who, after considerable thought, gave up the status quo to pursue our true selves, shouldn’t we be the shining example, not the common problem? I think we should.” - Kenny Klein *

*I added the boldface, it’s not in the original article.

If Not Herding Cats…Then What?
Herding cats roughly implies that Pagans are too individualistic to ever follow someone else, and trying to organize and lead such individualistic people is impossible.

However, that hasn’t been my experience at all. Most Pagans I meet are desperate to find a group that is stable and healthy where they can get basic education. Sure, many Pagans are also argumentative and rude. In fact, many Pagans also lack some basic social skills, and I’ve gone on about why I think that is in the past, but I can dig up a link if folks are interested in more depth on that topic. I think the previous posts in this leadership series probably do a decent job of looking at some of the core problems.

What are the Problems?
There are a number of key problems that contribute to the difficulty that Pagans seem to have in achieving healthy groups and healthy leadership. In the world of design–product design, event design, urban planning, etc. –there’s a saying that the solution is within the problem, and that you can’t really solve the problem until you deeply understand the problem.

Here’s a quick list of some of the problems I’ve witnessed:

  • Poor access to leadership training: Most people who end up as leaders didn’t want the job, and never got any training in communication, group dynamics, or psychology. They make honest mistakes that have big impacts.
  • Leaders who are jerks: As discussed in previous articles, grassroots and ad hoc communities are vulnerable in that anyone can step up to be a leader, there’s no “gatekeeper.” And, many of the folks who do step up to be leaders have issues ranging from untreated mental illness to severe egotism, or they may even be sexual predators. Often it seems that the people who are stubborn enough to tough it out as leaders also are motivated by self-centeredness, ego, or other instabilities.
  • Numbers: It’s a numbers game. If Paganism is less than one half of one percent of the population, that means that Chicago should have thousands of Pagans. However, how many come out to Chicago Pagan Pride? Maybe 500. That’s the most well-attended Pagan event in Chicago. Most of those Pagans won’t come out to anything else the rest of the year. There are only so many Pagans in any given area, spread out across geography, and interested in different things. There are only so many people who are actually interested in leadership, or willing to be a do-er and volunteer.
  • Burnout: The lack of motivated volunteers and leaders tends to burn out the leaders we do have.
  • Sins of the past: Many people who used to be heavily involved in the community got burned out by the conflicts of the past. This disproportionately impacts leaders, such as a leader who stepped into a leadership role even though they didn’t really want to, and then another local leader started backstabbing them and badmouthing them. Many people can only undergo stress like that for so long before they give up and go into hiding.
  • Rejecting: Most Pagans are folks who, for whatever reason, did not find a home in another faith community. In fact, Pagans tend to be members of several overlapping subcultures. Renfaires, SCA, BDSM, Polyamory, Hippies, Scifi/Fantasy geeks, liberal activists…it’s not to say all Pagans are these things. However, if you’re talking numbers, there’s frequently a heavy overlap in many of these subcultures. Generally, many Pagans seem to value being unique individuals, but more than that, many Pagans were rejected by the dominant culture, or, rejected themselves from it. I believe that this leads to one result that becomes the kicker–we have a fairly small base population to begin with. And, what I have witnessed anecdotally is that Paganism has a higher-than-average percentage of people who have mental illness, treated or untreated. Thus, you often have a lot of people with a chip on their shoulder about something, making it more difficult for them to get along with each other.

There’s other challenges, but those are a few of the significant ones.

What you end up with is a ridiculously small base population, spread out over distance. You have people who tend to be apathetic. That’s not a Pagan thing, that’s They want people to do things for them, not to be the ones doing it, or a do-er. Do-ers are rare. Most people are more interested in “being,” or Be-ers as I call them. In fact, the drive to be a leader or event planner is fairly rare, as is the drive to step up and volunteer.

What I see in the Pagan community is a high percentage of leaders who are 1. unskilled and untrained, or 2. their drive comes from them being stubborn egomaniacs or from untreated mental illness.

It’s kind of a recipe for disaster.

What’s the Solution?
I have a hunch–no solid evidence, just things I think about when I’m staring at the ceiling trying to get to sleep at night, pondering the nature of life and Pagan community. I’m an insomniac. I do this with some frequency.

My theory is that some of the sociological root of many religions’ admonishment against contraception and the religious direction to procreate and multiply is to solve some of the above “numbers” problem.

As a minority religion that lives spread apart, there’s only so much you can do both in terms of proximity and money. A hundred Pagans that have to drive 1-2 hours to get to a ritual are going to have a hard time making that commitment. However, a hundred Pagans that all live within blocks of a church/temple/community center make that far more viable.

Plus, more people in closer proximity like that have the potential to raise more funds. Many Unitarian Universalist churches have only 100-200 tithing members at a church and they are able to support a building, minister’s salary, and other administrators’ salaries on that. I’ll be doing a whole article series on Pagans and fundraising as part of the leadership series to follow up on my Pagan Activist post on Pagans and money.

Here are some things that are way more helpful than making the joke about herding cats.

Teach our Emerging Leaders Good Leadership Skills
Give them the tools to do the job well. This means–yes–paying for training. We don’t have all the skills we need within the Pagan community. We’re going to need to pay for training for our leaders if we want to build that capacity within the community.

Focus on Mental Health
Let’s all get healthy.
That means me, and that means you. I can’t even articulate how often my own depression and anxiety issues have made me a poorer leader. What has made me a better leader is working on my issues of self esteem; it turned me from a stubborn egomaniac into a reasonably stubborn visionary who can hear the word “no” without throwing a tantrum.

Focus on Physical Health
What does that have to do with leadership? I’ve written about my own process of getting healthy at some length in past blog posts, but the bottom line is, when I figured out some of my food intolerances and cut those foods out of my diet, my own mental health improved. Pagans tend to lean on the “Screw you I’m fat and I don’t care” side of things. But this isn’t about fat, it’s about health. Physical health leads to mental health. I’m 180 pounds, “fat” by the standards of the dominant culture, but healthier than I’ve ever been in my life because I’m eating foods that aren’t poisoning me.

Personal and Spiritual Growth Work
I can teach you all sorts of amazing communication tools, conflict resolution tools, and I can teach you about group dynamics. None of that is going to fix anything for you if you’re just a total jerk. Once upon a time, I had a boss. He was one of those total asshole bosses, a really toxic guy.

One day, he asked for my help and that of the other designers on my team in preparing some design concepts to the executive vice president of our company. I asked him what he’d like for me to do, and he did a poor job of explaining it, I asked him, “Like this?” and he just grabbed the board out of my hands and muttered, “I’ll do it myself.”

I was fuming. I went back to my desk almost in tears. And then I realized.

I. Totally. Do. That.

That was not a good day for me. I realized what a totally shitty leader I was at times. This was in context of the (geek alert) scifi conventions I used to attend where I led a team of Star Wars nerds in creating Star Wars reproduction scenery. I would do a terrible idea of explaining the concept of what we were doing, and when people failed to do what I had in my head, I’d grab their work out of their hands and just do it myself.

Leadership pro tip: Nothing disheartens a volunteer more than this behavior.

However, we’ve reached a key point here. In recognizing that I did that, I was able to confront my shadow and work to shift the behavior. I’m still not the best volunteer manager, but at least I’m not a jerk about it like I used to be. There are so many things that we each do, as leaders, that we probably aren’t aware of. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot all the time. When we explore our shadows and our issues, we can work to become better leaders and better people.

Looking Forward
Trotting out the “herding cats” joke just makes crappy behavior okay. Let’s instead work to be better, to tell the story of what we could do if we worked together. When we hold a vision of the future, when we speak it, that’s an act of magic. Words are magic. Let’s use words that paint the picture of that stunning, shining dream of what we’d like to see, not the poor behavior of the past.

“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, shadow work, sustainability

Grassroots Leaders Who are Incurably Bad

7719793_xxlThis is the 3rd article in the grassroots leadership series. Sometimes there are leaders who are just real jerks. Maybe they have problems with egotism. Maybe they are unstable and mentally ill. Maybe they are alcoholic. Maybe they have some other problem.

As I discussed in the last blog post, when I teach leadership, Pagans and other grassroots leaders ask me, “How do I deal with a community leader that’s a total asshole,” or, “How do I warn people away from the really bad group leaders?”

The challenge is, if they are verbally abusing you or undermining you, there isn’t really a lot you can do. If you’re a member of that group, you can leave. But, you can’t (in most instances) take another group leader “down.” It’s a frustrating prospect. Let’s go a little deeper into what kinds of leaders out there cause problems so bad that you , as a leader or group member, might consider extreme measures to keep your community protected from the bad behavior of a leader.

Most of the people I’m going to talk about in the rest of the article aren’t predators, they are just jerks. However, let’s address the really bad folks first; pedophiles, rapists, abusers, psychopaths/sociopaths. There’s nothing you can do to help them or fix them. They will keep doing what they are doing until they die or are incarcerated. If someone in your group or another group leader is abusing minors, raping people, or engaging in other harmful, illegal activities, go to the police. Do not try to protect them just because they are Pagan, or an activist, or a member of any other grassroots cause. Don’t worry that them in the papers will give your community a bad name. If you have reasonable evidence, these people need to be prosecuted.

However–and I hate that I have to say this–don’t ever lie and suggest a leader is engaging in illegal activities just to strengthen your position while speaking out against them.

Making the assumption that what this other group leader is doing is not illegal, there aren’t many options. Let’s assume that this leader is engaging in harmful, unethical behaviors, and you are not “above” that person, meaning, you have no control over their actions/ability to lead a group.

Speaking Out Against Someone
What tends to motivate people quickly into the Speaking Out scenario is fear and anger. People feel powerless in response to actions by a group leader who is perceived as powerful–whether a leader of a group they are in, or of another group. They feel powerless, they get afraid, and they get angry. They post on Facebook, email groups, talk about them at Pagan gatherings to others they know. In essence, they try to spread the word–this person’s a jerk.

However, we Westerners have a penchant for the Underdog. Most of the time people who speak out against others are thought of as drama llamas trying to stir the pot, even if the person they are speaking out against is actually harming others. Whether or not they are passing along accurate information, most times this is not an effective strategy for dealing with a harmful group leader, because people won’t listen.

I’m not advocating silence out of fear of judgment. Because, so many Pagans and other grassroots groups have kept quiet about abusive, hurtful leaders, and all that silence does is perpetuate more abuse.

But, if you’re going to speak out, be really, really clear that it’s for the right reasons. And, be willing to stand in the fire. I’m not talking about the “I’ll throw away my own reputation to destroy this person” out of a vengeance mindset. And anyone working withing the Pagan community needs to think about the impact on community, and community safety, not their own vengeance.

And once again, you can’t “make” another leader stop leading a group. In almost all cases of Pagan community disagreements, it’s Person A said ____, Person B said____, with no way to prove it either way.

One exception that can help with the Speak Out method is if there are fifteen Person B’s, and you all speak out, that may have more of an impact. This strategy is only useful or necessary if the leader in question is a really bad egg. Like, really actively harming the local community, acting in an abusive way. Perhaps it’s not illegal; in most cases, sleeping with your adult-age group members isn’t illegal. Nor is manipulating people to get what you want and then throwing a tantrum and turning everyone in the group against them. However, if a leader is really damaging the reputation of Pagans locally, or is a danger to younger, newbie group members, it might be worth considering trying to take some larger and more visible community action.

You still can’t actually stop Person A, under most circumstances. In the rare instance where it’s a tradition with religious superiors, you can go to them, but I haven’t experienced that doing much good. Most traditions take a pretty hands off approach to local clergy.

Another exception is if you yourself have a lot of visibility, local clout, and fairly unimpeachable ethics.

An example: I spoke out publicly about my ex partner. I suffered some backlash initially, and it took a while for the truth to come out. What tipped the balance for people who initially supported him was when other women he had hurt started coming out about it, and he started doing crazy, rude stuff at various events. He really ruined his own reputation, I just sped up the process.

The truth will point to itself, but that does take time.

Vengeance can’t be your motivator. Your motivation has to be about the health of your community and your group. It’s a subtle difference, particularly if the group leader who is acting in a harmful way is backstabbing you personally and working to undermine your group.

Incurably Bad Leaders
Let’s take a step back and look at what this means. We’re talking about leaders that aren’t necessarily a predator, or, they’re on the legal edge of predator. What I mean is, they aren’t targeting minors, but they are targeting the vulnerable newbies in their group or at a festival to pressure them for sex. We’re also not talking about leaders who just have strong personalities and are stubborn, but who are basically good people.

I have another blog post coming up on trying to discern some of these differences, particularly through a conflict resolution process.

We’re talking about the leaders who are so stubborn and set in their ways they are completely unwilling to listen to you. People who refuse to communicate. Who badmouth you  to undermine your group because they are threatened by you. People who are unstable, who throw major temper tantrums and go absolutely postal when you offer them negative feedback. People who verbally abuse others, people who lie and manipulate others. One example that I’ve heard of in a few places is a local leader who goes to public events run by other groups, and then when they begin a ritual or workshop, will actually step in, interrupt the facilitators, and berate them for “doing it wrong” or try to take over.

We’re talking about someone who completely derails meetings by making it all about them. People who yell at their team members in front of other people, consistently. We’re talking about people who consistently disrupt any unity effort by trying to take it over or trying to destroy it–or both. Someone who joins your email list and posts rude things or hijacks threads to talk about their own events. People who are just consistently rude.

There’s actually a big difference between someone who is just a stubborn, empowered visionary, and someone who is an incurable jerk. There’s a spectrum there–any of us who step into leadership may have a little stubborn streak, but that’s different from someone who just is rude, year after year. There’s a Pagan leader I know who seems to think every local Pagan leader needs to swear fealty to him. He actually has a ceremony where he gets people to do this, he tells them they are being “made” a community elder. And during the ritual, they have to kiss his ring. I am not kidding. I don’t care if that person has served the local community for 30 years; doing that, and working to sabotage groups that don’t toe the line, is inexcusable.

If I, personally, find myself in a position of actively speaking out against another group leader, you can be sure that I have heard rather a lot of bad things about that person, and, I have fact checked and screened my sources. 

What Do You Do?
Most leaders who are being jerks I can pretty safely ignore. Maybe they badmouth me, maybe they are using and emotionally abusing a few newbies, and there’s not much I can do about that. If I do decide to speak out about a group leader, there’s a spectrum of response. If it’s someone who is on that verge of being dangerous, I’m happy to be public about speaking out–and, I pick my battles. More often there are just leaders that I don’t recommend for various reasons. So when seekers come to me looking for group recommendations, I tell them who I recommend, and who I don’t, and why. I give them the informed choice to do what they want.

Remember–speaking out will not force these leaders stop. You can’t fix them, can’t change them. If they are just being jerks, but not being sexually abusive jerks, most of the time it’s usually best to just ignore them as best you can.

Walk Away
This is sometimes referred to as the “high road,” although that’s not always an accurate statement–sometimes people say they are taking the “high road” when what they are really afraid to do is take a stand. Not that I blame them most of the time. Often, all ou can do is to walk away from a group, and to privately/one-on-one tell people about your experiences there.

Or, if you’re a group leader or part of other groups, you can very simply choose not to work with that group leader. Sometimes shunning is the only thing that you have. There are groups in the Chicagoland area I’d love to shut down, specifically the unethical sex temple there. I keep tabs on what local groups are doing. For that matter, I keep tabs on what dozens of groups are doing around the midwest and other places I’ve taught, since people ask me for consultations on problems in their area, and occasionally I’m asked to mediate a dispute so I like to know what’s going on.

Basically, I keep tabs, and I choose whom I recommend and whom I do not when seekers come to me looking for a group.

Honest Mistakes
There’s all sorts of situations which lead to bad leadership dynamics. One is just honest failure; most volunteer leaders weren’t trained in leadership. Most leaders I talk to don’t even want to be leaders. They screw up because they volunteered to host classes out of their homes and suddenly became the group leader.

And sometimes, it’s not that a leader is a bad person. Sometimes our personalities are just incompatible. The sad thing is, even when I’ve gotten a group of other leaders into a room together to plan an event together, it doesn’t usually work well. Maybe we’re all just used to steering our own plow. Even when we’re all reasonable people, we all have different styles.

I’ve seen entirely new conflicts arise out of “roundtable” and “unity” efforts like that.There’s other group leaders where I respect their work, but our work style/approach is just really different. And I recognize, if we tried collaborating, that would probably be a disaster. Not that either of us is bad, we’re just not going to be good collaborating.

Mental Illness
Some leaders have real mental illnesses. I can’t tell you the number of group leaders I encounter that have symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic PD, or any of the antisocial PD’s, or Bipolar. I myself have struggled with depression much of my life. If you meet me while I’m teaching a workshop or leading a ritual, you probably won’t know that I struggle with social anxiety.

Many mental illnesses can be managed through therapy and in some case medication, like Bipolar. Other things are more challenging, like the antisocial PD’s.

It really, really will serve you to understand the red flags for these (and other) mental illnesses. Sometimes, you can work with someone if you know what they have going on. There’s a massive difference between someone with Aspergers who is perceived as rude and speaking out of turn, and someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder who is ultimately going to try and overthrow your group leader in order to turn everyone around them into a “mirror” and make it all about them. Antagonists in the Church is a good book to start with for understanding some of the more toxic personalities; it’s written for Christian church leaders, but you can translate it to any group.

Holes in the Ego and Egotism
Some leaders just have huge gaping wounds from their past. Maybe they don’t have a personality disorder, perhaps they are just a jerk.

I’ve worked through a lot of old wounds in my own life. I used to be massively defensive, control freak, can’t ever be wrong know-it-all. Because, somehow in my teenage mind, being “right” meant I was giving the finger to all the kids in high school who made fun of me. Thing is, being right doesn’t really lead to anyone wanting to spend time with you…and I had to learn that the hard way.

Those old holes in our egos, those old wounds, become our shadows. Many leaders have these shadows. These are the shadows that can often be dealt with if we’re willing to look into the mirror, and maybe get some therapy.

Unfortunately, it seems that a significant percentage of grassroots leaders who are stubborn enough to keep a group going for more than 5 years also seem to have problems with egotism. I think this is both a testament to how difficult it is to build a strong group (it takes that kind of fierce stubbornness to put up with all the drama llamas and volunteers dropping the ball) but it’s also a testament to how we need to steward better and healthier leaders, not just leave leadership to the only person willing to do it. Who also just happens to be the person who’s crazy motivated…because, they are actually a little crazy.

So I just want to make sure that I offer that caveat–leadership training can help most folks. But, for the folks with a major personality disorder–and they can sometimes be very charismatic–it’s not going to help them.
  1. First, they are unlikely to actually attend a leadership training. They will be certain that They Know Best. Or that People are Just Out to Get Them.
  2. Even if they attend, they won’t actually internalize the ethics.
  3. They might give platitudes out of one side of their mouth, and then a week later go right back to the old behavior

Where does this leave us?
Well–about the same place as the last article. You can’t fix crappy leaders. But what I have found is that understanding why a leader is bad, and understanding where they are on the spectrum of bad, is invaluable in helping me to determine a rational response.

I’ll continue the series with another article in a couple of days, but I also wanted to forward along this link to an article Ivo Dominguez wrote that provides a few tips and techniques that you might find of use.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, group dynamics, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, personal transformation

Pagan Leadership and Witch Wars

5169119_xxlIt’s not a Witch War. Let’s get that out of the way. In fact, let’s get rid of that term completely, because it aggrandizes conflict and makes it sound magical, powerful, cool. What is a witch war? It’s a fancy-schmancy word for an interpersonal conflict.

Why do we need the cool word for it? Well…put bluntly, and making a lot of assumptions, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that many Pagans out there have poor self esteem. Heck, a lot of people have poor self confidence.

Drama is a coping mechanism to feel better about yourself. Think about this; if you have another Witch who is gunning for you, hexing you, psychically attacking you…that must make you pretty important, huh? 

Let’s face it. Drama is exciting. Humans like drama and we like story. Otherwise novels would be pretty boring, as would movies. They’d be about a character who makes some toast, and then watches tv, and then goes to sleep without facing any conflict. There’s a reason that movies and books sell well. There’s a reason why people have been telling stories about warriors and battles since language began. We like stories. Drama and conflict are a part of stories.

However, many people gravitate toward drama in their lives. They often stir it up, even though they aren’t consciously aware that they’re doing it.

What I’ve noticed is that the people who seem to stir up the most drama in their lives often have a certain measure of self loathing. They may hate their own lives; unhappy in their relationship, their job, their family…the list could go on. Drama is a pretty exciting distraction from the parts of your life that you’re not happy with. And again, if you have a nemesis, that’s at least a relief from your own life’s worries. It can be pretty exciting.

I’m certainly not writing this from the arm chair. I’ve been that person. Heck, I write fantasy novels, and dramatic conflicts of my past (realistic or imagined) inspired some of my epic fantasy stories.

I’ve worked with a lot of Pagans, enough to see this pattern happen pretty commonly. And being in a “witch war” is way more exciting than saying, “I’m entangled in a no-win situation with a coven leader.”

Competing for Market Share
I hate to say it, but this is a core part of many witch wars. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious; I know a number of cities, like Salem, where there are big public conflagrations between store owners, because the drama brings in business. But more than that, by discrediting the “other guy,” your store and services look better and you make more money.

Usually it’s a bit more altruistic. Or, rather, seems more altruistic, but it’s the same model.

Let’s say you’ve just started up a new group. You aren’t interested in forming a coven, you just want a networking thing at a local coffee house to meet up with other Pagans. There are a few covens in your area, but nothing like that.

Much to your surprise, a bunch of folks show up, and over the course of a few months, you form a group. Things are going well. Until…

Another local coven leader starts grilling you about what you are doing. Over the next months, you discover that they are badmouthing you around town. You go to a local Pagan bookstore to propose a fundraiser there, and they give you a weird look. You finally start to figure out what’s been happening.

Why is this leader doing this?

Many times, it boils down to this; you are stepping on their toes. You are doing something that perhaps they wanted to do. People are going to your group. The other leader worries that your group will be more successful than theirs. This isn’t about money–this is about attention. It’s also about boundaries, vision, and ego.

Ego Annex
I’ve explained this concept in my boundaries articles, but basically, any visionary who starts a group, reaches for a dream…we get attached to that vision, to that dream, to that thing we created. Maybe it’s a group, maybe it’s an annual event. Maybe it’s an art project. We get attached to it like it is a part of ourselves–because it is. And when that thing is threatened, when we fear that something else will take people’s attention away from that thing, we get angry, just as if someone insulted us personally.

So it’s egotism from a somewhat altruistic place.

A leader like this genuinely feels they are protecting their group and the work they are doing. But the truth is, when a leader works to undermine another group in order to protect their baby, their event, their group, their project…it’s usually a red flag for some serious issues with self esteem or with personal boundaries.

Boundaries meaning, there is a separation between you and me. And, the group I run is not actually me. A subset of me, sure, but it’s not actually me. I understand this from the inside; I’ve gotten way defensive about other groups scheduling an event at the same time as mine, for instance. However, I had the skills and tools to take a breath and realize one important thing.

It’s not about me. They aren’t personally attacking me.

They just scheduled their event over mine because they didn’t know. I can’t get mad at them for that, I can be mad at the situation, and work to establish better communication with that other group.

However–getting back to these community disputes that we won’t call witch wars, that’s a tactic that many unstable, egotistical leaders will put into play. To undermine another group, these leaders will badmouth them. They will schedule events at the same time to make the community “choose” which event to attend.

Whether the conflict is about who is bringing in donation money, who has the more popular group, who is stepping on toes, or even an actual interpersonal dispute…what it is not is magical, neat, or cool.

Dating in Groups
Let’s play “it’s a small world.” Person A and Person B are in a coven together and they are dating. Let’s hope that neither one is a coven leader. Person B completely loses it. Maybe they are a really angry person. Maybe they are Bipolar and went off their meds. Whatever the reason, A and B break up and Person B just goes bananas, disrupts coven meetings, the whole thing. The coven leader asks person B to leave the group.

Now–some of you advanced players in this particular dance know one of the next moves. What does Person B do next? Yes! Form their own coven, of course!

As you can imagine, this isn’t going to be a group that is based up on a strong core skill set of leadership, or even a grounding in any particular tradition. Nor is this going to be one of our more stable leaders. However, this person–whether we like it or not–is out there recruiting people for their group.

So, one strategy is telling people around town that she’s unstable and her group will be bad. However, then you get a rep as a gossip monger and for having sour grapes. You can also just ignore them, which works until they start spreading rumors about you and your group.

The other thing that happens perhaps more frequently is that Person B bails on your group and joins another coven in the area, and badmouths you to those people, and they take Person B’s side. Then that coven begins to undermine yours by badmouthing you around town.

Calling it a witch war perhaps  is the balm to ease the frustrating truth. There’s no good way out of that conflict. There’s no clean resolution for it.

What To Do with Bad Leaders?
With the examples above, there isn’t really a way to oust a bad leader. You can try to go and talk to them, but making the assumption that this person is not stable (and I have some forthcoming article on this process via conflict resolution)…let’s make the assumption that no conflict resolution process has worked.

What do you do?

The only thing that most leaders can even do in that instance is shunning, just ignoring the bad leader and not engaging with them.

Most leaders who are acting poorly don’t see it about themselves. And there’s a dozen reasons for that, but I think most of them center around wounds of the ego. Leaders harming their community cannot see their bad behavior, they cannot accept that they are “bad.” Ego doesn’t cope with it well. ”It’s not me, nothing’s wrong with me.”

And if they can’t recognize that their egotism is causing community rifts–or, if they don’t care–what do we do with them? What do we do with those people, other than try to ignore them?

They will still keep leading groups, finding newbies…they will still undermine the other leaders out there…they will continue to cause problems.

Accountability and the Catch-22
When you’re dealing with leaders who are jerks, or unstable, the rub is–in order to speak out against them, you have to cause the drama you were trying so desperately to avoid. Some of the so-called “witch wars” are attempts to hold leaders accountable that created inter-community disputes that leave rifts for years.

Most people I know were raised to be non-confrontational, to be passive aggressive. When someone is more aggressive and blunt, it’s really obvious, and it’s usually (not always) someone who held their tongue before and finally blew up.

A lot of Pagan leaders have learned to sweep the bad stuff under the rug because they are afraid of starting a witch war. In fact, whistle-blowers who call bad leaders on their stuff often get blamed and shamed.

I often tell people is, the truth will almost always eventually out. It did for me. But, don’t speak out against someone like that unless you’re prepared to burn in the court of public opinion. Really ready.

And know that there are going to be conflict avoidant people who are going to beg you, who are going to demand, that you stop tearing down XYZ leader. They are going to talk about how they have trauma from all the community conflict. And they are going to bully you into not speaking out against the abuser.

Most community leaders with any compassion are going to cave, they’re going to back down from calling another local leader on the carpet for behaving badly.

We have no authority over other leaders. All we can do is speak out…except in our conflict-avoidant community, the person who blows the whistle often becomes the “antagonist,” the bad guy. And the unstable leader who caused the original problem and is being spoken out against, gets to play the victim card.

Let me tell you–it’s a mess of spaghetti. It’s really difficult to tell who’s “right” in a conflict like this once it gets tangled.

What Do I Recommend for Leaders Dealing With a Bad Situation?
I want us to have healthy groups, and healthy institutions. I want those institutions to not be institutions that betray our values. And for me, part of that is that we (Pagans) need to figure out better methods of learning how to build institutions and groups, how to be better leaders (and group members, or be leaderful group members), and how to hold each other accountable without it being a “witch war” of he said/she said.

I hate it that sometimes the best advice I can give someone is, “Keep doing what you are doing, accept that you will need to downsize your efforts, and just ignore that unstable leader.” And then, hope they disappear, otherwise, you have to wait for them to retire or die.

But in all likelihood, the really stubborn unstable leaders won’t quit.

Is There a Solution?
I’m an optimist with a broken heart. With the people who step into Pagan leadership, there is no assumption of competence, maturity, and stability. I wish I could lean on spirituality here, and ask for people to be moved by Spirit, or hold faith in the idea of Karma, or that people will eventually be accountable to Spirit.

However, I’ve seen many leaders, Pagan and not, who are absolutely convinced they are doing the “right” thing. I’ve seen Pagan leaders convinced (or at least, doing lip service) to the idea that “God/Goddess/Spirit” told them so.

There’s a saying I’ve heard in a number of fiction writing workshops, that a good villain/antagonist is actually the hero of their own journey, just a hero that made different choices than the protagonist. I use that a lot in the personal growth work that I teach; we’re all the hero of our own journey, and in the course of that journey we sometimes might trample others in the quest for our individuality, our personal sovereignty.

We aren’t necessarily trying to, but it happens. I think the mark of a mature leader is trying to do less of that trampling, but that requires self awareness. That requires self reflection.

Self Transformation
The leaders who cause the most problems are not self aware. They are not stable. These are folks who are not seeing their impact. Some, with personal reflection, will be able to. Many won’t. Maybe they have untreated mental illness. Maybe they are just egomaniacs. What I see over and over is, they aren’t going to change how they act any more than any abuser in a relationship is likely to change.

No. you cannot “fix” them.

And that’s the category of leader that I just don’t know what to do with. You can’t “make” them get help. You can’t “make” them stop leading. If they’re doing something illegal, you can try to get them arrested for it, but that’s not usually the case. Going postal on another leader who steps on their toes (ie, starts a new group in “their” region isn’t illegal, it’s just destructive.

Waiting for these leaders to die and go away is not a solution. Ignoring them and suffering their abuse is not a solution either.

Ending the Wars
However, Paganism has no central gatekeepers. Or at least, gatekeepers are fairly rare. If you went to a UU seminary, one of your teachers might say, “ou really aren’t suited to this work, come back to seminary after 5 years of therapy.” We don’t have that, and won’t.

Yet, we can do better. We must do better. I’m just not sure how.

One strategy is, stop playing the game. Witch Wars is a game. It’s a distraction, and it’s a conceit. And it’s a no-win scenario.

I think the best strategy is to do relentless personal work. To train the stable leaders and community members in leadership skills so they can at least cope with this crap when it crops up.

Harvest a new generation of ethical leaders and teach them how to do it well. And, over the next generation, look at ways that we can actually collectively work together to get past “he said/she said” into true conflict resolution.

The series continues! There will be another Pagan leadership in a few days.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: communication, community, group dynamics, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, sustainability, transformation

Leadership for Small Groups and Subcultures

7381485_xxlI think about leadership rather a lot, and I have people ask me for leadership advice with some frequency. I’ve been working up a series of posts exploring the deep challenges with leadership in the Pagan community, because I unfortunately get to see a lot of its seedy underbelly.

Though, these aren’t just issues of Pagan communities…those are just the communities I’m most deeply involved in. Other subcultural groups have these same problems through what I’d call “It’s a Small World” syndrome. Any time there are humans, these problems crop up; corporations, politicians, church leaders…any group could have these challenges. They are just exacerbated in grassroots groups without a big overarching structure.

What I see over and over is the problem of people in leadership positions who are absolutely unsuitable to be leaders. What we have are people who are unstable and mentally ill, or egotistical, or jerks…or even people who genuinely mean well but have no training in group leadership.

The question I get asked all the time when I teach leadership is, “So we’re trying to build local community, and we invited local leaders to work together. Except there’s this one leader….” and they pause, they are trying to be polite. They try to be discrete and not name names. But, I keep my ear to the ground, and eventually, I hear about most of the dirt going on in any local community where I travel and teach. I hear about the Seedy Underbelly.

The Profile: Egotistical Leader
That “one leader” is someone who eventually has thrown a total egotistical tantrum.

The trigger: another group is working in “their” area–their turf–and then that leader either verbally abuses the other group leaders and members, or quietly undermines them, spreads rumors about them, tries to keep them out of larger community activities.

Sometimes this is someone who demands the status of “elder,” or who otherwise would fit that status. What I mean is, I see this behavior a lot not in newer, inexperienced leaders, but with people who have been leaders for more than a decade, and who have a host of titles behind their name.

I hear about this problem so commonly, and people ask me, “What can I do about that leader?” What they want to know is, “How can I fix them?” And most of the time, you can’t. But what do you do instead?

Why Are You A Leader?
What I want to know is, how and why do so many people who are unstable, whether that’s untreated bipolar, narcissistic personality disorder,  alcoholism, abusive behavior, or maybe they are just rampant egomaniacs…how and why do these people end up in leadership?

Subcultures are particularly vulnerable to these types of leaders. We don’t have a system of gatekeepers, there’s no hierarchy saying, “Yes, you can be a leader. No, you aren’t suitable.” And there’s a dearth of people who actually are motivated enough to do anything.

Needing to be Seen and Egotism
In our Western culture, the need to be seen and admired is a cultural “sin,” a shadow. It’s not inherently a bad thing to want to be seen, to be valued. It’s human nature. However, when it overpowers good sense, when we ignore that shadow and disown it, that’s usually when it rises up to bite us.

I’ve done my own dance with “Look at me.” I’m not immune to these leadership sins. The times when I was running the most ambitious events were when I desperately wanted to be “seen,” to be valued. In my case, ruthless personal growth work helped me to understand that I didn’t value myself, I had poor self esteem, however, I had always valued what I could “do.” The events I could run, my artwork, etc.

In my head the math worked out to, “If I run this kickass event everyone will think I’m awesome and that’ll give the finger to all the people who abused me in school.”

Of course that isn’t logical, but, the parts of ourselves working on that level aren’t rational. They are the abused kid of our past that is still in the “car” of our self, our personality. We are all the ages we have ever been. We hold our past and our fears within us. And when we’re on autopilot, sometimes it’s a much younger, much more wounded Self driving the car.

Once I realized that I, myself, inherently have value…once I grew my self confidence, I no longer needed to run big showy events to feel “good” about myself. However, it means that I also lost a lot of the drive and motivation I used to have to run events.

And I begin to wonder about that…if there’s some tie between the wounds of our past, and the very few people who step into leadership and event planning, the very few people that actually have the motivation  to actually make that work happen…perhaps many of us who stepped into leadership only had the motivation to do so because of the wounds of our past? Because of our own poor self esteem? I don’t have answers here, only questions.

But what I’ve seen time and again are the people with the most drive, tend to be the most damaged, the most unstable.

I have seen so many leaders who had the drive and the interest–and yeah, there’s so few of us out there with the drive and interest to actually take the time to do this–but how many of us are actually motivated from a really unhealthy place? I’ve tried to come to running events from a more healthy place, but it’s a far slower process. Probably more sustainable in the long term, but it’s still a road I’m new to.

Common Problems: Instability
There are some common leadership problems that cause a nightmare of group dynamics spaghetti in Pagan communities. So often they seem to center on group members and leaders who are unstable and mentally ill, or just egomaniacs. These people cannot handle criticism, cannot handle people “infringing” on their turf, and they will blow up at other group leaders, they will undermine groups and group leaders, they will throw petulant temper tantrums.

These problems are exacerbated by the other group leaders out there who are just trying to do good work, but they have no leadership training. These group leaders may have more stability and maturity, but they make a lot of key mistakes. Honest mistakes, but these mistakes often escalate the problems and can lead to that healthier leader bailing, or to that group imploding. I mean, who wants to keep running a group when someone else is out there trying to undermine you all the time and shooting arrows into your back with gossip? It’s exhausting.

Pagan leadership plagued with group members, and leaders, who are like cranky teenagers wearing grown-up skin suits. I often wonder why I bother teaching leadership, if there’s any hope.

And again, I feel compelled to be transparent. I’m not always a paragon of stability myself. I struggle with depression, I drop the ball on things I’ve agreed to because I say yes to too much, and I’m not a pillar of financial stability. Granted, that last point is because I have donated too much of my time and money to the Pagan community…but if I were perhaps more stable and responsible I wouldn’t have let things get this bad.

I know a lot of my issues and I work on them, but I share some of the core issues of many of the unstable leaders out there.

Institutions and Paganism
I know a lot of Pagans talk about not wanting leaders, not wanting institutions that will take the “wildness” out of Pagans, however, I think that institutions and organizations are the only way we can build a healthy, useful, sustainable infrastructure.

I’m an ecstatic ritualist and mystic who wants institutions. At heart, I’m an anarchist, at least, an optimist, but I’m also a realist. True anarchy means, if I see a pothole, I fix it. I don’t wait for “them” to fix it, there’s no them. There’s only me being radically self-responsible. That’s optimistic…but, people are people. We aren’t there yet. I can’t even convince Pagans that they should make the choice to not use styrofoam at potlucks because it’s being hypocritical, if you say you’re Earth-centered. But I digress.

With Pagan leadership, I wish that Pagans and Pagan leaders were all ethical, self responsible people. I wish that Pagans were as tolerant as they purport to be. But we aren’t. I hear all the time about the deep, dark, stanky underbelly of the ugly crap Pagan leaders have done, particularly because I teach leadership.

So f we’re going to have institutions, then we need to do them well. If we’re going to have leadership and hierarchies, then we need those leaders to be accountable. And even if that leadership is shared–consensus, rotating leadership, voting in officers…whatever it is, we need our leaders to have actual leadership training. To have some method of doing the intense personal work and facing shadows so that we don’t step on ourselves.

Many of the group blow-ups I hear about are leaders who started with positive intent whose own baggage got in their way and they had a massive egotistical kablooey at someone in their group or another leader.

I’m sick of hearing about group leader after group leader who is causing these problems in their own community. Worst case, we’re talking about group leaders seducing minors–which happens. Theft, rape…it happens.

Who Should be a Leader?
I’m not the boss of anyone; we are each our own sovereigns. However, it’s also equally clear to me that there are some people who should simply not ever be in a position of leadership because they are unstable and have untreated mental illness, rampant egotism, or other various problems. I think the key here is unstable–many people with various kinds of mental illness have a regimen of meds and or therapy that they manage very well.

But the folks that don’t, the folks who are unstable, the folks who are completely not self aware, the folks who are completely egotistical…How do these folks end up in leadership?

Often the short answer is, there’s nobody else. There’s nobody else motivated to step in to do the work. It’s often the less stable of us that seem to get the leadership bug. Or maybe it’s that you have to be slightly insane to want to be a leader for a Pagan group, or run events that run the risk of not breaking even.

So many people in my leadership classes admit that they never wanted to be leaders. Here’s my admission–I didn’t want to be one either. I wanted my projects to happen, my dreams to happen. So, I had to become visible, become a leader, to make that happen.

As I’ve pointed out, I’m not always a paragon of sanity and stability myself. And, at times, I’ve stepped back from my role as an event organizer and group leader. I’ve worked on my own issues in order to become a healthier, more stable leader. But so many people I engage with seem to either have no clue how destructive they are in their own community, or, they just don’t care that they are jerks.

What Will Help the Situation?
If we’re going to have leaders, these leaders need training, and they need to be held accountable. But, that takes us back to the larger Pagan Community (or any other subculture). There’s no Pope, no ringmaster, no “this person’s above you” method of accountability.

I think most people I know were raised to be non-confrontational, to be passive aggressive. And a lot of Pagan leaders have learned to sweep the bad stuff under the rug because they are afraid of starting a witch war (which is no such thing, it’s just a personality conflict).

But what do you do?

Leaders who aren’t stable, who are consistently abusive, aren’t going to change. And you can’t make them stop. You can’t “fire” them. You can’t excommunicate them. What I often recommend–and this feels like an impotent, feeble recommendation–is to keep doing the work they are doing, ignore and shun the leader who is being difficult, and hope that you can reduce their relevance and keep up your own good work.

That’s not much of a recommendation.  Ignoring some of them does reduce their relevance to a dull roar…but they are still there. And the regular group leaders out there just trying to do good work get exhausted. Not from any kind of magical psychic attack, but just from dealing with the drama, the gossip, the pot shots, the stress.

Leadership Series
This is actually a series of several blog posts, because it’s a large topic. In a few days I’ll post about some of the problems, and some strategies for dealing with them. I hope you will join me in this mad idealistic crusade on the road to better Pagan leadership.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: communication, community, community building, group dynamics, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work, sustainability, transformation

Hypersensitivity, Freezing Over, and Coping

2044237_xxlI was recently introduced to the concept of hypersensitivity via a few blog posts, one of which I reblogged. And, whether you’re looking to just improve your own life, or, looking to be a better leader, knowing yourself is crucial. 

Here are some techniques that I’ve used to work past this tendency in myself. I should point out that I am not a therapist, nor have I had supervised Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I was therapy through a cheap clinic for a while, and the therapist suggested that based on what I was expressing, I would do really well with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She gave me some homework, and I read up on it on Wikipedia and elsewhere online.

The blog I mentioned refers to an article that I found useful in articulating some of the things I’ve struggled with in my own life, and might be useful to read before reading the rest of my post here.  http://lonerwolf.com/highly-sensitive-person-hsp/

Hypersensitive and Frozen Over
See, most of my life, I’ve experienced myself as fairly and emotionless. Actually having feelings is really difficult for me to get to–it’s not like I can just flip a switch and have emotions again. Then, something will happen and the skin on my entire body prickles and the center of my chest hurts and I’m overwhelmed with hurt or shame or anger or whatever.

When I started doing intensive personal growth work at the Diana’s Grove Mystery School, and before that at Reclaiming events, I became aware how I had adapted armor, that I was thin-skinned and the armor kept me safe, muffled. As I started intentionally trying to “remove” that armor and have feelings, I remember joking, “There’s no skin under here!”

I was an oversensitive kid. When I was 5, I’d cry at the drop of a hat seeing people in pain on tv or hearing sad music. But, in Kindergarten and First Grade is when I first started building up that armor. I was fat, and kids relentlessly teased me. Viciously. I was in pain all the time. Over the years, I built up walls. I stopped feeling, because it was the easiest way to get them to leave me alone. To stop hurting.

Years later, I’ve finally become aware that I’m not just emotionless–that I’m oversensitive. And, instead of blaming myself or being angry about that, I’ve tried to 1. acknowledge it, and 2. acknowledge that just because my emotions explode to a 10, doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way, and 3. that one rejection does not mean everyone will always reject me and I’m worthless.

That last phase in the oversensitive process is the one that consistently sends me into the depression spiral.

Techniques and Tools
I have leaned more heavily on the Four Levels of Reality tool from Diana’s Grove, which was adapted from Jean Houston. However, there’s some strong crossover. 

If you read Wikipedia and a few other online guides to CBT you’ll know as much as I do. Also, I have taken some guidance from blogs about anxiety.

The Four Levels of Reality as I use them:

  1. Physical Reality: What actually happened. “Bob shut the door making a loud sound.”
  2. Mythic Reality: The story we instantly tell. “Bob slammed the door angrily.”
  3. Emotional Reality: The instant emotional reaction we have. “I’m hurt and angry at Bob because Bob hates me.”
  4. Essential Reality: The stories we always tell, the way we see the world, because of what we’ve experienced in our past. “Of course Bob hates me, because everyone hates me, everyone has always rejected me, no one will ever love me.”

Essential Reality is a pair of glasses that coats our world. If we have good self esteem, if we like ourselves and have true confidence, then we might have a different story. “Bob closed the door really hard, I wonder if he meant to do that. Or maybe he’s angry. I should check in with him about that.”

First: Know Yourself
I have found, over time, that one of the keys to self transformation is first knowing myself. Once I know what’s going on, then I can look at what I want for my life, and how to modify and adapt. I’m not talking about “how to make yourself not hypersensitive.” In my case, I did the most adaptation I think one can do–I froze over my feelings almost completely. I remember doing it when kids started teasing me. By the time I hit middle school, I had no emotional affect.

It’s a skill I learned to cope with the world, to cope with the kids that verbally abused me every single day.

Knowing myself means–I know that I am emotionally sensitive. And, I know that I am generally frozen over. And, I accept myself, I know that I am that way. However, knowing myself means coming up with tools to work through that hot flash of shame/anger/overwhelm when something “bad” happens. I can realize, that it’s not a 10, it’s maybe a 2 or a 3, and if I look at it that way, I can reduce the thin-skin impact.

Emotions–when I have them–can be fairly overwhelming for me. However, learning that I’m actually thin-skinned has helped me to better cope with things like, romantic rejection, or, getting an email rejecting a proposal of some project, or other things that emotionally set me off. The tools within the Four Levels, and CBT, have helped.

Let’s imagine a scenario:
I’ve sent an email. Maybe I was requesting an interview on someone’s blog about writers, or maybe I was submitting an article, or maybe I was inviting someone to present at an event I’m hosting. And then the dreaded moment arrives; they send an email back, and I can see from the first line that the answer is “no.”

My gut clenches. Heart palpitates. Skin crawls. Anxiety goes to an 8, 9, or 10. I feel the adrenaline lacing through my system. I’m hurt–no wait, I’m angry that they rejected me!

I can’t even stand to read the email, my mouth is dry. Or, I opened the email and there’s the rejection. So I close it, I can’t read it. My anger turns into self loathing. Of course they rejected me, because everyone always rejects me. Because I’ll never….

Out of the Spiral
But here’s where CBT/4 levels comes in. I feel myself going into the old hamsterwheeling. Here’s the thing–I know I’ll feel better. It might take a few hours. Probably it’ll take a day; sleep always helps me. In fact, one of my challenges is that anger almost immediately makes me sleepy.

I just want to eat carbs and pass out and forget about the stuff that hurts me so bad.

However, in this instance, I can say, yeah. I’m having emotions. I’m raw. Is it worth being this raw about it? I look at my old essential realities popping up–”Everyone always rejects me.” Well, that’s not true, I have plenty of physical reality to back that up.

I look at my emotional level. “Is this worth being at an anxiety level of 9?” I think. Nope, probably not. This is more of a 2 or a 3. Yes, it sucks to have an article/proposal get denied, but, this isn’t the End of the World.

So I recognize:
1. That I’m having an emotion and that’s ok, and the adrenaline will taper off, and there’s some other stuff that I can do right now that will help me ease through that. Sorting files, facebook, whatever. Something I can do to relieve stress.

2. That this isn’t the end of my career/life, and that there will be other opportunities, and other folks like my work. And yes, perhaps that article could have been written better. Or, perhaps that person’s blog wasn’t a good fit for my work. 

3. That this doesn’t make me a bad person. That my work being rejected doesn’t make me bad, it just means I might need another pass at editing, or, that they didn’t have time, or, whatever the reason was. 

For me, the key to all of this is keeping the oversensitive emotional reaction from leading me into the spiral of depression. My tendency in the past has been:

  1. Get bad email,
  2. Get hurt/angry/overwhelmed,
  3. Ignore emails for days and crawl into bed and be dysfunctional for a week because, everyone hates me, why do I bother, I’ll always be rejected.

I’m summing up complicated feelings, and I can’t properly articulate the sheer exhaustion that I feel when dealing with some challenging situations. Eating healthy helped a lot with that, I’m a lot less tired, less brain fog. But, big emotional moments exhaust me and the self-loathing leads me into depression.

Nipping it in the bud from the start with physical reality (I don’t suck, people do like me) as well as being ok that I have a big oversensitive reaction, has helped.

Another Scenario:
Let’s go for a scenario that could be romantic, or, it could even be friend/business related. I’ll lean toward romantic, as those are more highly charged.

I’m waiting for an email from someone, and they aren’t emailing me. And it’s killing me waiting for that email and I’m envisioning all the terrible things. They don’t like me any more, whatever. Maybe it’s a romantic thing, maybe it’s a professional thing, whatever it is. I’m stuck in mythic hamsterwheeling.

So physical reality here is, they haven’t emailed me. So I remind myself that, I don’t know why they haven’t emailed me. Being in mythic hamsterwheeling land means that I’m in emotional oversensitivity land, I’m angry, hurt, sad, whatever is going on.

So I just keep going back to what I know is true/physical reality.

I try to wait a reasonable time before following up. And, when I’m less emotionally charged but still charged enough to be bold enough, I will have direct communication and ask what’s going on.

If it’s a romantic thing, I might say, “Hey, so, we’re in XYZ relationship but it’s often days between when you contact me, and I sometimes message you and don’t hear back. I want to find out if you’re ignoring me, if I’m annoying you, or if you’re having second thoughts about us, or, if you just aren’t as communicative as I am wanting you to be.” etc. That would be a truncated version of what I might say, and if at all possible I’m doing that in person or over the phone so it’s conversational, not a run-0n line of oversensitive-sounding text.

Now–the unfortunate side of boundaries-land is that the answer is often “no.”

Many of the times I’ve had that conversation, the answer has been either, “No I don’t want to communicate that frequently, ” or, “No, I don’t want a relationship.” And that can sting…or, it can be a knife in my chest.

But I also know that it’s better than sitting there angsting and wondering and waiting for a response. I’ve tried to take to heart the “He’s just not into you” approach with romantic relationships, as well as with some professional relationships.

What that means for me is recognizing when I’m getting emotionally invested, and when someone else doesn’t seem to be, and then trying to clarify that as soon as possible rather than dancing around and avoiding the conversation. My tendencies to be oversensitive lead me to heightened anxiety which makes me want to avoid these conversations like the plague. However, I always do feel better.

So that’s another physical reality I can focus on.

Yes. I’m oversensitive. My emotions are sometimes raw. But I know I’ll be raw, I know it’ll hurt. And I can keep going back to What I Know, to Physical Reality. That relationship wasn’t going to be satisfying for me if he’s not communicative or not that into me. It sucks, but I’ve cut my angsting down quite a bit by focusing on the Physical Reality.

I’ve kept myself out of a number of Black Pits of Depression that would have sucked me in a few years ago by focusing on physical reality and what I know.

Maybe one of these years I’ll be able to go through a course of therapy with a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but for the moment, my own work has led me to at least some stability and greater mental health. You can learn more about CBT online, but I also highly recommend working with a therapist if you have the opportunity. They’ll help you do a better job of this than my years-long stumbling.

Filed under: Leadership, Personal Growth Tagged: leadership, Personal growth, personal transformation, self knowledge

Reblog: Ritual Safety

Use candles safelyI’m reblogging this excellent post from Patheos by author Yvonne Aburrow

Learn what the warning signs are of a manipulative group, and withdraw from any situation where those warning signs appear….Find out about group dynamics and how they work. Be aware of what triggers you into a state of passivity or compliance, and seek to avoid situations where that may occur. I once attended a ritual where the temple (a basement room) had a polystyrene ceiling, and there was a cauldron of burning methylated spirit, which we danced round. I was very scared when I thought about it afterwards – but I didn’t leave the ritual…”

Check out the full post here.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Ritual

The Devil, the Tower, and the Star: Tarot Blog Hop

4585466_xxlI’m going through a Dark Night of the Soul. It’s seasonally appropriate during the dark time of the year, though I find I’m facing the darkness of winter again while  going through a “Tower” moment. If you’re not conversant in Tarot-reader lingo, the “Tower” is generally shorthand for, “life-altering disaster.” The Tower is one of the cards in the Major Arcana.

Before I get too far– this post is part of the “Darkness into Light” Tarot blog hop. The previous blogger is Chloe McCracken and you can check out her post, or there’s a link to all the posts at the bottom.

Tarot and Personal Spiritual Work
I teach workshops on spiritual, esoteric, and personal transformation topics. One workshop I offer is “The Devil, the Tower, and the Star,” which helps participants to work through current/past Tower moments. My work with the Tarot is less about doing readings, and more about working with the archetypes for deep transformative work.

So I definitely have tools when lightning strikes and the Tower is burning down around me. However– having tools to work through an experience doesn’t mean I’m not going through the stress, the impact. I can teach these tools, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t own up to going through my own dark nights where I doubt everything. My self, my work, my spirituality. I wonder, “Why me,” the same as anyone else. I wonder if I can survive it, wonder if I can pull myself up by my bootstraps yet again.

Because…I am very tired of hauling myself up by my bootstraps.

The Devil, the Tower, and the Star
Let’s talk about these three cards. My Tarot mentors at Diana’s Grove referred to the Devil card as contracts we signed, stories that we agreed to. These contracts bind up our identity, our life force.

I looked at those three cards and thought…the Tower falling is supposed to ultimately be a good thing. The Tower is a symbol for structures that keep us safe and insulated but that really doesn’t serve us. I saw the Tower as structures built out of contract after contract, story after story. It becomes a symbol for the old patterns we’ve bound ourselves into that  are more cage than protection.

Then, the Tower is destroyed in lightning and fire. The Star is the waters of starlight pouring down, it is unbound life force, healing, inspiration, and hope.

I think of it as, we’d never have seen that luscious starlight pouring down if we were stuck in that Tower. So while the ashes are burning down behind us, if we look, we can feel those waters, let that starlight pour into our heart and replenish us, and then we can do what we will with that energy. We aren’t bound by the old contracts.

The Tower
A “classic” Tower moment is losing a job. I was laid off once  from a job I hated. But I was stuck in that, “I can’t afford to not have a job, but I hate it,” position. My department getting downsized led me to the work I’m doing now–leadership, writing, artwork. Would I have ever gone down that path without getting laid off?

Other Tower moments are a major breakup or having a group blow up. Tower moments break up old structures–and it’s usually not pretty.

However, if you can look at those terrible life-shaking moments, you may see where this also broke the chains that bound you.

Two years ago my fiance left me without warning after stealing from me and leaving me in an apartment with months of unpaid rent and utilities. I’m still paying off debt incurred from his actions. Days after he left I thought I might to die. Not because I was in love–not after all the cheating, stealing, and emotional abuse.

But because I didn’t know if I could pull myself up by my bootstraps again. The financials were dire, and I thought, why keep fighting?

iStock_000001460525MediumWhy we Require Shock
However costly his leaving was, him being gone unshackled my hands. I tend to think, in for a penny, in for a pound. With him, I felt that I’d covered up his indiscretions so many times, done so much to make our relationship work, that I felt like I couldn’t back out. That would mean that the years I’d put into making it work had been a waste.

If he hadn’t left, I’d have kept trying to fix things. Sometimes the known, comfortable situation feels safer than the unknown–even if it’s hurting us.

I’m so glad I’m not bound by that particular contract any longer, that I’m not stuck in the “story” that I had to make things work. I’ll never thank him–but, I’m glad he’s gone. I didn’t have the strength to end things. Suddenly I was free and could move on.

Starlight Interrupted
It took a while for the light to come back. I was only just starting to feel the glimmer of hope. This summer I published my first book, and I have others coming out. Just when I thought that I was eking past that Dark Night and the wreckage of that Tower from two years ago…

Two weeks ago I was in a car accident. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the accident totaled my car. The other driver took an illegal left, though there may be no way for me to prove it. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll get any financial compensation. If I don’t, I’m stuck without a car and without any way to get one.

It really hasn’t set in yet that I could have died. The police were shocked I walked away from the accident with only a bump on the head. 

Dark Night
Here’s how my panic over this financial gut-punch leads to my current Dark Night of the Soul. The limited amount of income I’ve had in the past years has come from from traveling and teaching and selling my artwork. I had to cancel my teaching engagement this weekend. I currently live in a rural area. I’m really sunk without a car.

On one hand, I’m aware this is a Tower moment that might open the way to something else…but, I’m also still caught in the emotional undertow.

My dark night is about the deeper question–should I keep trying to follow my calling of teaching leadership, ritual facilitation, personal growth work, and writing and painting?

I’ve sacrificed a lot in order to follow my spiritual calling. I‘ve managed to hang on by the edges of my fingernails the past years by living simply, trying to make the work I do to start bringing in more income.

I was already running out of time–my current living situation won’t last forever and I’ll have to start paying for an apartment again. And yet, without a car, I can’t even get a local retail job, much less something that works with my skillsets as a graphic designer, consultant, or even temp secretary work.

Now–you might think, published author = raking in the dough. Did you know 3500 print books are published every day? That doesn’t count eBooks. My books are starting to sell, but it’ll take a while–and having more books out–before I start bringing in actual revenue.

Sacrifice and Fear
I have given up so much in my life, so many conveniences that people think of as basic, in order to live lean so I could do the work that calls to me. In working to make myself affordable for local Pagan groups to hire me for workshops, I’ve ultimately paid more out of pocket to travel and teach than I ever have made back in class stipends.

I just can’t do it any more. I can’t keep on going and wonder, am I ever going to be able to afford going to the doctor again? Can I afford the gas money it would take to be able to go out on a date? Can I afford food?

I’ve started to wonder, is it all worthless? Did I give up years of my life for nothing?

Even worse, I wonder, am I teaching people a bunch of crap? When I teach personal growth classes and lead rituals, I work to help people open up to their desires, to wanting, to reaching for the dreams and hopes they haven’t dared give name to. I work to help people identify what kind of work would bring meaning to their lives.

I’ve done my best to live that, to reach for my own dreams with both hands. And I’ve hung on, I’ve sacrificed a lot to make this work.

4418451_xxlThe Devil’s in the Contracts
The other day my mom’s words that fell on me like a hammerstroke. “You might have to put your dream on hold.” And all I could think was, no. NO. No, I will not put my dream on hold again. No, I will not put myself back into those chains and contracts.

I think of all the people shackled by the contracts they signed in their own blood, putting their dreams on hold. “I’ll just do this for a few years, and then I’ll live my dream.” And five years turned into ten years turned into twenty years.


I reject the chains of shame and “should” and “We’re supposed to.” I want to live in–and I work to build–a world where we get to do work that calls to our souls, where we get to live our dreams.

Yet, getting hit by that car brought reality into my windshield.

I don’t know what’s worse–wondering if I’m going to have to give up my dream, or wondering if I’ve been teaching a lie, a fancy dream that nobody can actually fulfill.

I need that unveiled light of the Star, that healing and life force, the waters of beauty and love. I need to remember why I bothered doing this work at all.  The only thread of hope I’m really holding onto right now is a dream I had about six months ago.

Tarot and Dreams
Dreams and Tarot share similar mythic, archetypal symbolism. I often teach people exploring Tarot to look into their dreams.

I had a dream in June relevant to my current Dark Night.

I’m running late, racing to get to an airplane in New York. I manage to get onto the plane. Then we’re flying over the pitch-black sea over the Atlantic, along the East Coast. Around Georgia, some people throw me off the plane, and I fall from the sky down into the  black waters.

shutterstock_30733696I begin to swim, but the waves keep going over my head, the waves are high, nauseating. I don’t have words for the horror and fear, I’m swimming in the terrifying dark. I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I must swim but I keep going. I wish for someone to help me. Or even just someone to witness what I’m going through. I keep swimming.

It seem that I wake up on a beach in Florida, and I’m found by Pagans who take me to the Pagan conference I’d been traveling to. Though I was swimming for days, I’m only one day late for the conference. Everyone there is glad I’m ok and talks about how I broke the

“Hex.” A notable Pagan leader is running a workshop and mentions that in the weeks I was swimming, several anthologies have come out that have my published works in them. One is an anthology on how I broke the “Hex” of the people who were on the plane who tried to kill me.

Dream Prophecies and Symbolism
On occasion, I have dreams that come true, but usually the symbolism is difficult to discern at best. It’s rare for a dream to just come directly true. In this case, symbol mixed with reality.

Right now, those waves are over my head. However, it has come to pass that several anthologies with my writing plus several standalone books are all coming out at about the same time–right before I’m supposed to be teaching at several Pagan conferences in February. I did teach in New York recently, though I drove. My mom will move to Florida once her house is fixed up; there have been delays but it’s looking like maybe spring.

If I read the dream correctly, late winter/early spring may see things easing up.


Tarot, Dark Nights, and Returning Light
Right now, I’m holding onto just a thin beam of light through the clouds. Just a couple of days ago, my book Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path was released, and you can read the first chapter available as an excerpt.  

My Dark Night is not over, my mind is full of questions. I know that I must renegotiate a “contract” I hadn’t realized I’d made–the contract that I’d sacrifice everything to serve community. That “contract” I chose has helped to place me in this situation. I must find a way to take care of my own needs or I cannot do this work. There are things that I started thinking of as luxuries that are actually basic necessities, and I got into “contract tunnel vision.” I was so focused on my calling that I managed to convince myself that I could live without certain things–like health care. I took that to a dangerous place and thought it was ok.

And it’s not.

I know the light returns. I’ll climb out, though I’m unsure how. For me, it’s less about doing a Tarot reading than understanding the progression of the archetypes. The contracts are broken, and the light–somehow–returns. Until then, I’ll use this dark time of year to seek answers while I slog through dark waters to shore.

Tarot Blog Hop
Next in the Yule Tarot Blog Hop is Christiana Gaudet. You can see the entire lineup of Tarot bloggers at http://sungoddesstarot.blogspot.com/2013/12/yule-tarot-blog-hop-masterlist

Filed under: Dreamwork, Leadership, Personal Growth Tagged: community building, dark night, dark night of the soul, leadership, longest night, Major arcana, Personal growth, shadow work, shauna aura knight, Star, Tarot, Tower, winter solstice, Yule