Culture and Community: Evolving Leadership within Modern Paganism

Crystal Blanton —  March 22, 2015 — 15 Comments

While the modern Pagan movement is still considered young in comparison to other religions, it has continued to grow and evolve beyond its original container. Today we see multiple generations of Pagan practitioners in various facets of community, from seekers to leaders. The vast diversity within this community has expanded beyond the old images of the middle-aged leader to those on all sides of the age, race and gender spectrum.

Ten to fifteen years ago we did not have as many “younger” leaders rising within the ranks of our Pagan community, yet today the halls of any Pagan convention show younger and more diverse populations than we historically are use to encountering.

[Photo Credit: pixababy.com]

[Photo Credit: pixababy.com]

The natural evolution of leadership is something that every community goes through. It is an organic process of foundational stability; the need to have people stepping into and out of leadership within any given community structure.

The Pagan community continues to struggle with the concept of leadership, and there continues to be a lot of challenges on every side of this spectrum. Over the last few months, discussions about ageism have risen to the surface again, with some intense dialog pushing the conversation to the forefront.

In a recent piece on leadership, Annika Mongan explored some of her experiences at this year’s PantheaCon conference. In it she discusses some of the challenges of new leaders within the modern Pagan community and the idea that those who are new to leadership have a lot to offer. She wrote, “I respect our elders and seek to learn from them. I am grateful for all the battles they fought, the roads they paved for us, and the foundations they laid. And I now understand that it is time for me and for us, the younger generations, to step up, to walk upon these paved roads, and to build upon these foundations.”

This is not the first time that we have heard of the specific challenges encountered by young leaders when becoming more active in the greater Pagan community. It is also not the first time that there was a strong reaction to the idea that young leaders may not be embraced by community elders. The growing divide between the generations has become more apparent in recent years.

PantheaCon’s Turning the Wheel panel attempted to address some of these very challenges. Jason Thomas Pitzl, Board Member for Solar Cross and one of the organizers for the project, has been very vocal about the need to sustain effective leadership in the modern Pagan movement. He said, “Turning the Wheel is a new initiative from the Solar Cross Temple that has a very simple aim: encourage young and emerging leadership within the interconnected Pagan and Polytheist communities.The panel conducted at PantheaCon 2015 was just a first step, the next step will be to help create spaces for emerging leaders to network, build alliances, and establish new initiatives. This is so important because without these voices, without building real relationships with these leaders, we literally lose contact with our future. I have already seen our “generation gap” become a “generation chasm” in the last decade, and if we are to maintain the good works earlier generations have started in the coming decades, this must be addressed.”

As we continue to identify the challenges of growth, the generation gaps and the shifting power balance that comes with an aging community, we have the chance to explore what can be done to support the journey. How can we face the challenges of these transitions in ways that are healthy and validating to the multiple levels of leadership, all of which need to co-exist in our community? We know that these questions are layered, complex and intersectional, yet it appears that now is the right time to start asking some of these hard questions.

What are the biggest challenges facing emerging leaders? How can the greater community support these transitions to leadership within our community?

Jessica Sullivan

Jessica Sullivan

I would say a major problem is the lack of support for young leaders. There are many in our community, but few are considered “big named Pagans.” Those that are, can be targeted, isolated, and considered an exception to the norm. There is little to no space made for us, the young leaders. When an opportunity does arise, when we climb our way to the table, we are frequently dismissed or unheard altogether. While it’s hard to address these problems, it is not impossible. Making more opportunities for young leaders would be a major and crucial first step. Another equally important thing is to make space in conversations and ask questions. Rather than making assumptions and further making statements, or worse unsolicited advice, at a young leader, ask more questions. Perhaps the said young leader didn’t think of something, but assuming they didn’t and automatically dismissing their ideas or offering advice immediately comes off as both condescending and dismissive. Asking more questions also has the fringe benefits of being more constructive to conversations and supporting young leaders to address possible flaws in their ideas, in a way that is both empowering and builds on their skills as new leaders. Obviously younger leaders have less experience, but by shutting them out and shutting them down, how are they supposed to get the experience to be “respectable” leaders?

The pressure to be perfect, does not allow for mistakes.Young leaders that are selected to join elders in deliberations are in a high-pressure position to represent all young leaders. If they make a mistake, then it is reflected on young leaders everywhere.Youth make mistakes… but that does not mean that they are failures as leaders and should therefore be ignored. Mistakes are opportunities for growth, especially in leadership skills. Even the best of leaders make mistakes, but established leaders have the background and social support, that young leaders lack, to allow them to maintain their prestige and presence in the community. Young leaders do not have those resources. Young leaders need extra support and understanding from their fellow, and older, leaders. – Jessica Sullivan

Annika Mongan

Annika Mongan

I think one of the greatest challenges for emerging leaders is this fascinating and difficult time we find ourselves in. Elders and founders of traditions are aging and dying and the cohesiveness of Pagan ‘umbrella’ has come into question. We still have elders among us who pioneered the way and whose work laid the foundations upon which we stand. At the same time we have important conversations about our identity led by younger generations, including around our relationship to racism, cultural appropriation, and social justice. The face of our Paganisms is changing and it is challenging to know when to look to tradition and the work of our elders, and when to recognize the need to build on their foundations differently then they may have imagined. – Annika Mongan

Jason Thomas Pitzl

Jason Thomas Pitzl

It is truly hard for me to narrow this down to a single challenge, but I would have to say that one huge obstacle we collectively face is the fact that the old networks used to establish the infrastructure, events, and relationships within what we call the “Pagan Community” are largely disconnected with what folks under 30, and maybe even under 40, are doing. I’m not trying to say this in an accusatory way, I’m simply relating what I’ve seen in my experience. Now, this isn’t true everywhere, there are regional pockets that have managed to maintain healthy multi-generational models that are working, but I’ve also seen many instances of disfunction, break-down, and clinging to decades-old turf battles that have seemingly salted the earth in terms of building healthy communities. This widening “generation chasm” means that our value systems, and our ways of operating, even our vocabularies, are drifting apart. You have only to look at the responses to #blacklivesmatter, or the emergence of the Polytheist movement, or the renewed interest in radical thought and action from within a Pagan, Polytheist, or Witchcraft context, to experience these experiential gulfs.

As an illustrative aside – I have seen the mere mention of empowering younger leaders met with instantly defensive comments about “respecting elders” as though respect were a finite resource to be hoarded instead of an ethos to be spread far and wide, but I digress.

How can our interconnected communities support smoother transitions? By being brave, by listening and learning, by not sequestering one’s self entirely in pockets of comfort. – Jason Thomas Pitzl

Courtney Weber

Courtney Weber

We need more “how-to’s” and “This worked for me when’s….” I could find plenty of information written for a Christian pastor on how to support a person with severe depressed or suicidal person in their community, but it’s hard to find that information in my spiritual context. We need more leaders sharing their specific experiences in conflict, crisis, or otherwise. We particularly it from leaders or other members of the community with professional counseling, conflict mediation, or other backgrounds that deal with the tough and painful. We simply need more information to do the work, but we need it through a lens identified in Pagan spirituality. If you’ve been through it, talk about it. Have a place where people can reach you (website or social media). Answer emails. Make yourself available to people who have questions. – Courtney Weber

Jasper James

Jasper James

The biggest challenge facing emerging leaders right now is the disunity and animosity that is growing between certain sects due to racial tension within the modern Pagan community. I witnessed both blatant confrontations and a complete dismissal of race based issues hidden behind the “we are all one” rhetoric at Pcon this past winter. The truth is, I feel there is a lack of empathy for the very real struggles facing PoC brothers and sisters today within the Pagan community that leads to a lack of action. In my opinion, the greater community can support smoother transitions to leadership and action by officially adopting LOVE as its ultimate mission. The vibration, 528Hz is known simply as the “Love Hertz.” It has been used by molecular biologists to repair genetic defects, and early historical records indicate that it was used as an inseparable part of ritual ceremony. By approaching spiritual practice with the vibration of Love, you fundamentally attune yourself to the interconnectedness of all of creation. Therefore, If your spiritual practice has the true element of Love at the core then it is impossible for you not to take responsibility for that which occurs around you. – Jasper James

Sophia Sheree Martinez

Sophia Sheree Martinez

My journey as a leader started with my initial need to be part of a community. I have been part of a few communities that have since dissolved, taken different shapes, or just plain didn’t fit. My first coven experience (Circle of the Gathering Winds, Chico, CA) required me to be capable of writing and conducting my own rituals. That experience becomes my first taste in any Pagan leadership. From then I knew I was meant to do more for my Heathen community. I eventually moved to the Bay Area, where I helped create Golden Gate Kindred and its charter completely from scratch (a kindred comprised of free and equal peers). Strong differences of opinions unanimously dissuaded all voting members of our kindred from affiliating with any existing Heathen organizations, causing many people within our wider community to question our judgments.

Most of our members being under 40 years old … it takes a lot of knowledge and wisdom to feel confident when debating with well established Heathen elders about the changes you’d like to see. Reputation and honor are very important in Heathen practice, and people tend to be unconditionally loyal (often to a fault). It was hard to get our kindred recognized for a while because of tightly knit communities, but we have been gaining a voice and growing presence quickly over the past year.

To those who have been open to change, who have welcomed and mentored us, that is exactly what we need to feel accepted and of equal importance. I often organize events such as Blots, Sumbels, moots, and study groups for our kindred. While we do not have elected leaders, our members have all made niches for themselves, and I just happen to be the one facilitating events currently with help and inspiration from other members. It takes time, commitment, patience, and consistency to keep a community together. I believe a good leader is someone that lends their skill to empower the community, keeping faith that the community will keep giving back in countless ways. – Sophia Sheree Martinez

Lisa Bland

Lisa Bland

“One of the biggest challenges that emerging leaders within the modern Pagan community is that there is a real lack of education and mentorship. Mentorship is one aspect that current leaders can offer to younger members of the community who are stepping forward in their own leadership abilities. Our communities need to find ways to develop our own leadership programs or workshops, and mentorship programs – these two things together have been shown throughout evidence to be cornerstones to helping develop leaders and improve leadership structures. Until our community is able to support these workshops ourselves, I would see benefit in seeking out some of these educational needs through other avenues such as workplaces, other community organizations, and young leaders seeking out those who they identify as leaders that could provide one on one mentorship. I feel that the greater community has a real struggle with changing leadership and also with a recognition that leaders and teachers may not be the same person. Paganism is so diverse and continues to grow! We will see more leaders in various areas blossom and this shift in how our communities grow together will determine how each community area will not only survive, but thrive. We may all be a part of the same garden, but not all plants grow well next to each other. For a thriving garden, understanding what each plant needs, and how they can support one another will help communities feed each of our spirits.” – Lisa Bland

Lasara Firefox Allen

Lasara Firefox Allen

I will say that I think the solution to smoother transitions in leadership is mutual respect. – in all directions. As someone in the middle of generations (daughter of a pagan mother and mother of a pagan daughter) I can say there are more than two sides to this issue.

To me, the central question is; how can we create intergenerational integrity? – Lasara Firefox Allen

The comments above provide a clear snapshot of the many different angles that people come from and the variety of ways that this topic can be approached. It is a big one, and one of the many hard conversations that the modern Pagan and Polytheist communities are engaging in right now. As we embark on the myriad transitions that are continuing to shape our culture, we have to explore this age old problem that many communities have faced time and time again. How do we honor and learn from our elders while making space for those who are currently leading or emerging as leaders? How do we make space without dishonoring the process and our past?

It is essential to look at the concept of leadership from a multifaceted perspective, one that has many faces, many different purposes, and an interconnected need. When we approach community and leadership from a perspective that is layered, intersectional, multi-dimensional, and necessary, we are able to see the variety of positions that are valuable within the growing and expanding modern Pagan movement. Polarized concepts of leadership discourage creativity, supportive transitions and honest reflection of the needs we are tasked to support.

In our discussion, Jason mentioned something very key to this process of evolving leadership, closing the age gap and creating space for emerging leaders. “That doesn’t mean ignoring elders, or removing leaders, it means make space. Ask them what they want to do, what they want to achieve, they may surprise you with the innovative methods they have towards building a vital and healthy group. Make transition happen, handoff projects, build trust. The only way we are going to see any of the worthy projects started in the last 20 years endure for the next 50, or 100, is if we do this. If we don’t, they just might build a new community without us”

Crystal Blanton

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Crystal Blanton writes the monthly TWH column "Culture and Community." She is an activist, writer, priestess, mother, wife and social worker in the Bay Area. She has published two books "Bridging the Gap" and "Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World," and was the editor of the anthology "Shades of Faith; Minority Voices in Paganism." She is a writer for the magazine Sage Woman and Patheos' Daughters of Eve blog. She is passionate about the integration of community, spirituality, and healing from our ancestral past, and is an advocate for true diversity and multiculturalism within the Pagan community.