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

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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.