[The Wild Hunt is pleased to welcome Tim Titus to our monthly team. Titus’ column will appear on the first Saturday of every month, beginning in August. He will be sharing his own perspective on life, community and religion. Check out his full bio for more on his work and interests.]
The notions of freedom and personal spiritual authority are driving factors that bring people into the practice of a Pagan religion. Many modern Pagan practitioners are fleeing the older, more dogmatic and hierarchical forms of religion offered by the mainstream in favor of seeking a spiritual practice that speaks to them and is controlled by them.
In Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler specifically cites “freedom” as one of the major attractions that a Pagan path holds for modern people, writing that people often become Pagan “because they could be themselves and act as they choose, without what they felt were the medieval notions of sin and guilt” as well as a refusal to honor “rigid hierarchies and institutionalization” (23). In Paganism: An introduction to Earth-centered spirituality, authors Joyce and River Higginbotham specifically list “A pronounced religious individualism” (4) as a major tenet of their Pagan religion. Pagans, it would seem, seek their own paths rather than membership in any leader’s flock.
Yet leadership is still necessary, even for such an individualistic group of people. Although Pagans may not follow a shepherd’s crook as their ultimate beacon of hope nor any one sacred text as an infallible set of rules, we still look to those who have blazed trails to help us down the path that best suits our needs. If everyone hacked their own way through the woods, all the trees would be dead and the underbrush trampled.Druid and Patheos blogger John Beckett cites a number of roles that leadership still plays for the Pagan community. First, writes Beckett, is the more mainstream idea of “leaders as decision makers.” While there is no ultimate authority, “decisions have to be made based on an understanding of what the group wants to do.” This can be done through consensus or democratic process rather than an authoritarian style, but, “knowing which method to use for decisions is a key part of leadership,” explains Beckett.
Beyond that traditional leadership role, Beckett also sees Pagan leaders as teachers, managers, and visionaries. In the role of teacher, he emphasizes the necessity of strong communication skills. And, the role of manager is necessary because, while any group has a set of goals that drive it, “someone has to make sure all this gets done.” In the visionary role, leaders are needed to “articulate a vision and inspire people to do what’s necessary to make it a reality.”
Without leaders, our vision of the future can be difficult to see and even more difficult to attain. It is vital to the health of Pagan communities to produce strong, ethical people who are willing and able to perform these leadership functions.Now, it can be a daunting task to step out from the comfort of your own private spiritual practice and into the more public world of community leadership. However, many Pagan leaders have found it rewarding both personally and spiritually. To take those first steps into a new role, author and blogger Shauna Aura Knight advises a “model of apprenticeship and increasing responsibility” to help new community leaders get their feet wet. Knight regularly blogs and teaches a variety of leadership skills in the Chicago area. She further explains that this apprenticeship model can apply to anything from ritual facilitation to “event planning, leading meetings, and many other aspects” by “building the emerging leader’s confidence.”
Christopher Penczak, author and co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, says that this is how he became involved in leadership. “Each time I got the call to take on a little more responsibility,” he writes, “I thought that would be as far as it would go. Yet every few years, the call to go deeper would happen.” Although he did not seek a leadership role, “each time there was a need, and I found myself asked to step into a new and uncomfortable role.”
Penczak states that communication skills are indispensable. “While you can’t please everyone all the time, and really can’t even try,” he says, “you have to understand what people are saying to you and be able to convey what you can and cannot do, and why.” Alix Wright, the Lead Pisces Minister in the Temple of Witchcraft, agrees, noting that, “You can’t expect people to do what needs to be done, if you can’t tell them in a manner that they understand.” Wright adds that, “Since everybody hears and understands in different ways, you have to be able to communicate in a style and manner that matches each person you’re working with.”
Knight also recommends “the ability to hold paradox.” She writes, “Some issues are not just the binary of black and white, good or bad,” and explains that, “many leaders get stuck in being a know-it-all obsessed with being right, and that causes a lot of conflicts.” Salisbury echoes this when he advises young leaders to “remain humble and open to listening to your community.”There are always issues that can hold a new leader back. “Fear,” states Penczak, “is the biggest problem with new leaders.” This includes “Fear of losing control. Fear of not getting something done. Fear of not being worthy, and an effort to hide all these fears rather than acknowledge the process.”
Wright and Salisbury agree that doing too much at once is a major obstacle for new leaders. Wright emphasizes that, “One of the lessons I needed to learn was that it’s okay to say no, and when I do say yes, then it’s okay to ask for help and delegate.” Salisbury cautions against “trying to be everything to everyone all at once” because “burnout is a major leader-killer.”
Knight fears that, when new groups or events begin to form, those in charge “never stop to talk about what their goals are,” and she warns that, “most conflicts come from assumptions.” She advises “direct communication” to unravel those conflicts.
She also warns against another pitfall of leadership: “egotism.” “Many leaders desperately want to be ‘the person with the good idea,’ or ‘the one who’s right’ or, more broadly, ‘the savior.’ ” This, she says, leads to poor boundaries and poor choices, and it brings her back to stating her top quality for leadership: self-reflection.
Perhaps this ancient wisdom is the single best piece of advice. As John Beckett stresses, in the end “leaders are servants.” Leaders serve those whom they lead, providing them with spiritual experiences and practical direction, sometimes at their own expense. “Good leaders do that work,” concludes Beckett, “because they want to serve the Gods, their groups, the Pagan community, and the world at large.”