Accountability in Pagan Leadership

Sam Webster —  September 27, 2014 — 15 Comments

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Accountability is a critical aspect of leadership in any community. For Pagans, this is a special challenge because our structure and power dynamics are neither the norm, nor easily shaped to produce accountability.

Ordinarily, there is a strong dimension of economic and regulatory reciprocity in the relationship between leaders and the communities they serve.The CEO is hired by the board of directors. The minister is called by the congregation (in congregational polity) or placed by the hierarchy. The president is elected by the people. If a leader does not perform to expectation or to standard, he or she can be fired or replaced. In the case of the president, the standards for malfeasance are high, but so are the consequences: impeachment, removal from office, or simply not being reelected.

[Graphic by lumaxart - CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

[Graphic by lumaxart – CC lic. via Wikimedia ]

Pagan leaders are unusual in that they are often ‘self-called’ to their role. They decide to form a group and do so by collecting people around them. They are generally not paid, and often the group meets at the leader’s home. Generally, they are the principal teacher, and likewise, the sole initiator. This makes censuring or dismissing the leader very difficult. It usually disbands the group and, only sometimes, will a fraction of the group continue without the leader. The usual penalty of loss of pay simply does not apply.

Shauna Aura Knight recently wrote about the difficulty of holding leaders, or ‘elders’ in her frame, to account. In a previous and cited work on whistleblowers, Shauna describes the painful reality of individuals speaking out against the abuse of leaders and elders.They are regularly disbelieved and punished, while the accused is often powerfully defended. Many instead choose to remain silent.

The economic dimension of mutual control is only the most obvious lack in Pagan groups. When viewed per their power dynamics, most groups are (hopefully) benevolent and consensual autocracies. Besides being the founders of the group or the event, the leaders are the bottom line, and the one who maintains the commitment to making it all happen. Flakey and unreliable as many Pagans are, without firm leadership events fail and groups fade away.

Basic funding for them also tends to come out of the pockets of the leaders as well, bringing back the economic aspect, but without checks and balances. On the other end of the political spectrum, in consensus-based groups there can be a problem assigning accountability (not to say blame).  However, there can be an advantage in being accustomed to group decision-making, which provides its own kind of accountability. But when the consent breaks down, so do the groups.

There are alternatives but these require significant effort on the part of the group-members and real courage on the part of the leaders. In the Facebook thread on her page commenting on Shauna’s above mentioned post, Samuel Wagar (09122014) pointed to the way our society as a whole has worked out how to solve this problem:

I have created lasting groups (the festival now twenty years old, the church ten years), using democracy and congregationalism as the keys. And one such group fired a leader, and has disciplined others. It can be done, with a model that is not centered on the charismatic leader.

Here, democracy is the power structure, congregationalism is the social structure and ownership model, and not being centered on the charismatic or celebrity leader is crucial to long term success. Since groups of all kinds are most commonly started by charismatic leaders because they are the ones with the chutzpah to make it happen, we need to build models for migrating start-ups into long standing organizations. The leaders themselves need to take the lead in this transformation, and the members have to step up and take on the load.

[Photo Credit: Chris Beckett/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Chris Beckett/Flickr]

This is not easy in a corporatocratic and consumer society. We don’t believe we have the power to govern the institutions in which we are embedded and, in many senses, we believe we should just be delivered good services without our having to work to make them good. This is reinforced by the belief that the ‘invisible hand of the market’ will just provide.

Experience does not support this notion. The iron law of oligarchy (Robert Michels, 1911) painfully shows that, without considerable will, power and authority accrue to the few or the one. The challenge is that leaders need to empower the membership and then give up power and authority to those they empower. Then the membership needs to not develop a new oligarchy. It’s not easy.

We can begin by building feedback-mechanisms. Starting with something as simple, if challenging, as setting up a council of advisers, leaders can begin to establish true two-way communication with committed members. Asking the difficult questions like, “What am I doing wrong?” and “What is the worst thing I have done?” are not fun to ask, hear, or even reply to. Doing this before crisis and developing a de-escalated methodology in a low emotional charge atmosphere can be a significant part of building an organization that learns, corrects its mistakes, and figures out what it is doing well so it can do more of that.

A powerful technique used in businesses committed to being learning organizations is to perform “Plus/Deltas” at the end of each meeting. It is often worthwhile for someone other than the meeting’s facilitator to run. A fresh facilitator steps up at the end of the meeting, draws a line down the middle of the note-taking surface (e.g., white board or easel pad) headed by a plus sign (+) on one side, and a triangle (∆) for the Greek letter Delta on the other. Then the facilitator asks the group what went well in the meeting (plusses) and what should be changed (deltas). Even simply taking down the list of these plusses and deltas  and seeing them on the page leads to improvement.

Building feedback and accountability into organizational structures is a serious challenge, but the laws of our country support a powerful means. This is the board of directors in a corporation. Corporate structure allows for the design of governance structures that can reflect the values of the community that creates the organization and give them the force of law. The community owns the corporation, selects the board of directors, who then empowers the executive officer(s) to run the operation.

[Photo Credit: rrafson CC-BY-SA-3.0  via Wikimedia Commons]

[Photo Credit: rrafson CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

How this is done is up to the community. The board can be elected with a limited term. The executives could have very specifically defined powers. The Unitarian Universalist Association and its member churches are built this way, and something like this structure is what Samuel Wager is referring to in his above comment. When started by a charismatic leader, the leader has the task of setting up the organizational structure on behalf of the future, designing in democracy, and then subordinating themselves to its authority. Incidentally, this is what the Founders of the United States of America did, and why they deserve the honor in which are held. They easily could have set up an oligarchy.

Besides having the right structures, when there is a (potential) problem or abuse, the right procedures have to be in place. There is a reason why we have developed the justice system that we have in the meta-society. Humans are awful at determining guilt. Due process, worked out over innumerable errors and injustices, has produced the body of jurisprudence that governs our courts. While we neither need nor want that level of complexity, we do need to learn from its wisdom. Besides the general idea of innocent until proven guilty, three specific items are critical:

  1. If someone is accused of malfeasance, the person bringing the accusation has to have ‘standing’“ the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case.” This protects the system from frivolous suits and acts of power from outside of the community in which the offense occurred. This is where the whistleblowers are crucial; they alone have the standing to bring accusation. It also means they need to have access to proper representation and counsel.
  2. The body (court) to which the case is brought must have ‘jurisdiction,’ meaning “the practical authority granted to a formally constituted…body or to a…leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility.” They must have authority over the parties involved and the actions claimed to have been done. Otherwise, one organization is asked to rule over another organization’s problem, without explicit agreements that they can. Naturally, all parties may ask an otherwise outside group to adjudicate a matter but, in that case, they are intentionally submitting to that authority.
  3. A case must be presented. The accuser must produce a defined accusation, preferably in writing, which states that the accused did some specified action at a particular time and place. Without this, the accusation can be a vague claim of misbehavior or abuse which becomes impossible to prove or counter. What is left is a vague air of impropriety; the besmirching of a reputation. No resolution is possible without a specific and clear case.

Instituting structures and procedures like these, appropriately informed by our Pagan culture and values, is part of the long process of maturation that we are undergoing as a community. Our increasing diversity also signals the need to find ways of working out our differences as well as managing conflict and misbehavior. Building the right structures and procedures are foundational to justice and fairness. By Maat, Themis, and Forseti, justice must be duly applied or it becomes a vendetta when we bring accusations against anyone, leader, follower or whistleblower. With time, I pray we can find our way to suitable means in which we can live in justice, correct our errors, and find methods that helpfully support and hold our leaders to account.

Accountability is a mutual relationship. It is not automatic or assured except with effort. Organizations have to be designed with built-in accountability. All parties in the system must fulfill their roles with energy and diligence. The ad hoc approaches that we have used in our small-group religion are reaching their limits, and our community is showing the strain. Hopefully this brief exploration of the common means of accountability and adjudication can provide some guidance for advancing the quality of Pagan leadership.

Sam Webster


Sam Webster, M. Div., PhD(c) is an initiate of Golden Dawn, Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions, publisher at Concrescent Press and author of "Tantric Thelema." He founded the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001, and is the Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation.
  • Daniel FitzGerald

    Yes! Yes to all of this!

    I was actually having this conversation last Sunday with the minister of my UU Congregation. I was explaining to him the culture divide/gap between the Pagan UUs that I’ve met and the larger culture of Paganism, notably the cult of “fearless leader”. As I had been relating it to him, there is a lot of cultural leftovers from when all Neo-Pagan traditions were initiatory mystery traditions, leaving in many quarters an atmosphere of zero accoubtability and victim shaming, and even more so, that many of the (non-solitary) Pagans I have met have this strange docile tendancy to expect their spiritual communities to be autocratically led by percieved group elders.

  • Deborah Bender

    Initiatory mystery traditions can and sometimes do have structures to limit the power of leaders and make them accountable. Lodge masters in Freemasonry serve limited terms of office and have defined duties and powers. .

    Traditional covens on the Gardnerian model by design don’t scale up, but they have internal checks and balances. The rule of coven autonomy protects the internal workings of a coven from outside review, but also limits the size of the group any individual can have authority over to about one dozen. Some covens contain a council of elders whose main functions are to advise and assist the coven leader, but who also have the authority to demote her. Some traditions, rather than fostering a group of elders within the coven, have a norm which says that when a covener attains third degree, he or she is expected to form a new coven, and is allowed to take some members of the existing coven with her if they wish to go. This gives members of the coven a periodic opportunity to vote with their feet without losing the opportunity to belong to a coven of the tradition. If coven leaders don’t have a track record of advancing their most hardworking members in a reasonable amount of time, those members will quit; the coven will eventually get a bad reputation and other witches of that tradition will steer seekers away from it.

    Rules and procedures of this sort generally arise from experience.They were developed to deal with troubles within organizations. Groups that have sets of workable rules that give leaders some scope to lead, foster the emergence of future leaders and protect the interests of non-leaders, are the groups most likely to last and to have progeny. The Freemasons were an established organization before the American Revolution. I agree with the general theme of this post, that we should study the systems that have worked in the past and learn from them.

  • NeoWayland

    Many Christian denominations such as the Methodists have some good ideas on this. The minister can’t sign the checks, only the trustees can. Most of the trustees and the minister can’t serve on the committee that evaluates staff.

    Bonewits nailed it years ago. Money, sex, and political control are the marks of a cult.

    Good article.

    • Dave Kleinschmidt

      At the risk of tooting the horn of an organization to which I belong …

      Isaac Bonewits did even more than define the problem, he also demonstrated the solution with his brainchild organization, ADF:
      – He resigned from his position as Archdruid in 1996 (after 13 years being in charge as a benevolent dictator). It has been an democratically elected position ever since.
      – Before he did that, he ensured that there was a fairly complex (and some would argue cumbersome) elected leadership system that exists at all levels of the organization which has the sorts of separation of power you’re describing.

      And that’s a big part of why ADF has managed to successfully discipline and remove leaders who have broken the rules. (It also helps immensely that there *are* documented rules about what leaders can and cannot do.) Sure, it’s bureaucratic, it can get political, but it absolutely works, and it’s why ADF is still going strong years after Isaac himself passed into the summerlands.

    • Bonewits nailed it years ago. Money, sex, and political control are the marks of a cult.

      Yet he defended the Frosts and their ahistorical nonsense, when it’s pretty clear that not only do they condone sexual abuse of minors, but that their motivations in paganism are clearly largely financial.

      • NeoWayland

        I’m not going to claim that Bonewits was a saint, nor will I defend his every action. I disagreed with him on several subjects. I still see his work as important, even seminal. I find that his virtues far outweighed his flaws.

        But as a general rule, he did nail it.

        Long before the internet, I used to hand out the ABCDEF copied from Drawing Down the Moon to minister friends of mine who were trying to cope with their own situations. I’d like to think that helped with interfaith understanding.

  • Sabina Magliocco

    You make some important observations here, Sam. For me, the key is that “leaders
    need to empower the membership and then give up power and authority to
    those they empower.” That is the mark of a good leader and the secret to creating sustainable groups. It’s not a guarantee that no abuse of power will ever take place, but it sets up a way for leaders to be subject to review by the group members.

    • Deborah Bender

      A situation that can interfere with empowering the membership is the lack of a definition of who the members are. Organizations that have public activities generate more than one community that has an interest (“stakeholders”), ranging from volunteers who work on the organization’s activities to people who only show up occasionally to enjoy the results. All may have opinions about what the organization should do and who ought to be leading it. In the absence of a dues paying membership, an initiatory structure, a service requirement or some other formal way of separating activists from consumers, it’s impossible to determine who has the right to have a say and how much of a say they have a right to.

      In larger, more complex organizations, where there may be different classes of membership, e. g. paid employees, directors, shareholders and volunteers, internal conflicts of interest arise. The venerable Berkeley Consumer Co-op failed in part because conflicts of interest between the consumer shareholders and the workers got in the way of adjusting to economic changes in the supermarket business. I suspect something similar happened to the Northern California Renaissance Faire.

      When a group is just starting out, it’s hard, perhaps impossible, to anticipate what the best structure for the mature organization will be. Perhaps it would be a good idea to plan at the outset for periodic reviews and remodeling of the structure so that it will remain a good fit at any size and level of activity. Not many of us have the organizational savvy to do that.

  • Amy Christensen

    I had quite a few thoughts about this article too lengthy to include here. Should you be inclined, here are my personal thoughts:

  • Deborah Bender

    Here’s a simpler take on the issues that Sam brings up.

    Aidan Kelly, in the days when he was one of the leaders of the pagan community where I live, is supposed to have said (this is not an exact quote, but close), “Those who show up are the members. Those who do the work are the leaders. Everything else is B.S.”

    There might be situations where Aidan’s maxim does not apply, but it seems to me to be a pretty good rule of thumb. If we kept it in mind, we would have fewer problems with leadership.

    • Except that the people who do the work can behave in atrocious and horrific ways, so that wouldn’t actually cause fewer problems in leadership???

      • Franklin_Evans

        You state a… well what should be THE primary caution to anyone thinking of taking a leadership role, which I’ll state here in personal mode because I can speak only for myself: I must be ready to juggle multiple personalities, multiple personality conflicts and have the nerve and resolve to say “no” to people and make it stick. I must be ready to recognize when someone is expecting privileges from me due to personal acquaintance or some sort of past track record and not only say “no” to that person as needed but ignore any ego-driven snit (or worse) that may ensue.

        I have observed (in myself as well, mea culpa until I learned a harsh lesson) that the ego-driven problems we deride in some leaders can also exist with those doing the work. A leader is also of service. A worker is also obligated to support the leader’s being of service.

    • Franklin_Evans

      As with many succinct statements — and I do acknowledge your caveat — it requires qualifiers in every situation to which it is applied… and in my personal experience, Kelly’s maxim is on balance a fallacy.

      My maxim, equally in need of situational qualifiers, is that it takes members showing up to do the work but it requires one or more leaders to channel the work into effective results. Those who do the work make it possible to validate the leadership.

      Towards the end of my tenure as “leader” of a local Pagan org, I made it clear that ideas were nice, but no idea would see the light of day without the person(s) with the idea being ready with a list of answers to “and what will you do to make that happen?” Too often in my personal (and sadly, my professional) experience the leader is expected to be the magic wand that others with ideas grab and wave to get what they want.

      I learned to recognize when I was being waved. It took serious burnout to bring that awareness to me. Your mileage may vary.

    • Franklin_Evans

      I want to offer a personal example of how my maxim can be proven, as well as take this opportunity to praise the people involved. This was the second year Philadelphia Pagan Pride was under new leadership, after a long hiatus as an event (with myself as its last, previous coordinator), and both years illustrate effective leadership. The coordinator was joined by several people enthusiastically prepared with answers to “what will you do to make that happen” and every single person on the committee showed up to do the work. No single person bore responsibility for the entire event. The coordinator kept the primary role of figurehead (no pejoratives implied or intended), delegated authority commensurate with the responsibilities each person took on, and everyone served as everyone else’s “backup” in need.

      They all worked hard. They all were exhausted at the end of the day. This year saw additional tensions, as you know. At the end of the day, I looked at each of them and saw smiles behind the exhaustion. They held their first meeting for 2015 two weeks after the 2014 event. Words fail to express my pride and gratitude.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Organisation without accountability is not leadership, it is dictatorship.

    I have lost count of the amount of crappy managers who have used the line “do as I say, not as I do” to me.

    A leader is someone who sets an example, not someone who mandates a double standard.

    Any organisation should bear this in mind when building infrastructure.