Column: Pagan Leadership Revisited, New Visions for a New Age

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leadershipChanging times in society cause shifts in the needs of the average person. While each community has distinctly different aspects, there are commonalities that exist within every community. The needs of those within any dynamic will dictate the needs of the leadership; Some say a leader should be a reflection of the people they serve. The Pagan community has walked through several different situations recently, forcing introspection on the ideals of what it means to be an effective leader, and challenging perceptions of accountability within the community. Pagans continue to question what types of leadership are truly needed within the community. What is the role of a Pagan leader? Who is accountable for Pagan leaders, and who is responsible to keep these leaders in-line with ethical standards? And what are those ethical standards?

As a community fragmented in our ability to come together under one set of common expectations and beliefs, these questions become more complex than they might in other communities. Answering a simple question like a standard definition of ethics becomes a hodgepodge of confusion around traditions, concepts, ideology, and practice. The Pagan community has finally appeared to reach the plateau where our needs for leadership cannot be filled by one type of leader, and the plethora of leaders we have are being challenged by the size of our growing community and what comes with that. We are no longer confined by the boundaries of initiation, or the systems of hierarchical structures, which has opened us up to a faster pace of community expansion. A quick-growing community — with a lack of definition around who our leaders are, and what makes a leader a leader — can lead to confusion.

Michael Hyatt, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author, talks about leadership characteristics in one of his presentations. In Authentic Leadership: The Five Characteristics of Effective Leaders, Hyatt lists possessing insight, demonstrating initiative, exuding influence, having an impact, and manifesting integrity as necessary leadership characteristics. While the factions within the Pagan community would agree with many of these characteristics, qualities like manifesting integrity have notoriously been lower on the list of priorities for Pagan leadership than training or initiatory degrees.

If the demands on leadership have changed within the Pagan community, what does that mean, and what does the modern Pagan leader look like? The idea that competent leadership changes with the demands of the community is one that might resonate as we are looking to our past and our future concerning this issue. There has been more momentum as of late behind the Pagan community’s need for ways to guarantee that leaders are held to certain standards and expectations, and yet the collective Pagan community has a weak track record of actually formulating and implementing plans.

leadership2I decided to reach out to several Pagans that are from different traditions of practice, different backgrounds, and living in different geographic areas, for their opinions on concepts of Pagan leadership in this day and age:

What qualities do you feel an effective leader must have in today’s Pagan community?

Angela Pearson

Angela Pearson

An effective leader for today’s Pagan community needs to be aware of the variety of paths that exist in our community. There needs to be more open discussion and fewer secrets. Our leaders need to be ethical and not take advantage of their positions through manipulation, abuse, or other forms of control to force people in the community to jump through petty hoops in order for the leaders to feel superior. – Angela Pearson

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

I think the qualities that modern Pagan leaders need are the same ones which almost all types of leader benefit most from: the ability to assess their own strengths and weaknesses without excessive ego nor useless self-deprecation. In this, the potential leader will be able to know what things they are good at and have a knack for, and which things they’re bad at and in which they lack skills, experience, or aptitude. They can then focus on their strengths, and know when to defer to others, or draw upon the resources that others in their group, or other fellow leaders and elders in their traditions as well as outside of them, might be able to offer that they can’t (or often shouldn’t!) handle themselves. Someone who is a good pastoral counselor but a bad ritualist can still be a leader; someone who is a great teacher but lousy at motivating others or administrating a group can still be a leader. In order to assess one’s level of leadership and what sort of role one should be in as a leader, having this assessment of strengths and weaknesses is essential, I think. –P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, Doctor of the Ekklesía Antínoou

Yeshe Rabbit

Yeshe Rabbit

Throughout all times and cultures, not just today, several qualities stand as pillars of effective leadership: integrity, perspective, trustworthiness, patience, a commitment to collective empowerment, consistency, the ability to innovate and iterate, personal responsibility and accountability, and increasingly, scalability. –Yeshe Rabbit, HPS of CAYA Coven

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

I think an effective leader needs to be honest, consistent, and set a good example in every way possible to those around them. While leading they must genuinely represent the interests, ideals, and intentions of their group; that’s why personally I think horizontalist, directly-democratic models are so effective as there is usually little mystery as to what a group is doing and why. Such approaches are also effective for resolving conflicts and keeping people accountable. A lot of groups that implode tend to be dominated by singular, autocratic personalities or insular cliques both of which load the odds in favor of needless conflict. I think they also need to remain in touch with what is happening in their community and in the wider world. There’s a big world out there and those in positions of leadership need to be aware of what is happening around them. Those who ignore the world often find themselves on their backs when it decides to force its way into the situation. –Ryan Smith, HUAR web admin, member of the Golden Gate Kindred, student, and blogger.

As I look at leadership, rather than leaders, certain qualities begin to emerge through – A focus on being inclusive – We are a diverse bunch! In the Pagan communities I circle with there are first, second, even third generation Pagans. There are queer, hetero, trans*, cis, parents, non-parents, singles, couples, polyamorous, vegans, paleos, activists, elders, teens, peoples of colour, peoples with different abilities, monotheists, deists, polytheists, atheists, animists and the list goes on and on. Modeling effective leadership means continually cultivating a sense of inclusivity, with the understanding that the landscape is ever-evolving and mistakes will be made.

A practice of shared power – Given the diversity of our Pagan communities, those that find themselves in leadership tend to be “empowerers” rather than “emperors.” I see this as a critical skill for the health of the community and the health of those in leadership. – Gwion Raven, North Bay Reclaiming. 


How has this changed in the last 10 years? Within the last 20 years?

This hasn’t changed much in the past decades. There are too many petty people controlling small groups of our community. I feel too many of these little groups feel superior to others and this leads to dissension that leads to fighting and division within our community that is tearing us apart when we need to be unified in order to achieve the goals our community wants- to be recognized by the mainstream world. – Angela Pearson

I think the assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and then the consequent assumption of useful and meaningful roles based on those assessments, is something that has not fully dawned on many varieties of modern Pagans quite yet, though it is starting to, and should continue in order for our community to develop and mature to a greater extent. For too long, it has been expected that “leaders” are great ritualists, scholars, magicians, pastoral counselors, amateur psychologists, managers and administrators, logisticians, and–on top of all that–morally praiseworthy exemplars who exhibit a high degree of personal development. It has been assumed, and often demanded (including recently) that such Pagan leaders be quite literally “all things to all people” in order to deserve the recognition of any leadership at all. This is a recipe for top-down dictatorial management and over-centralization of authority, and consequently for the burnout of such over-burdened leaders, but it is also the recipe for unrealistic expectations on the part of more “lay” Pagans for their leaders, and for the disappointment that often follows when they find their adept ritualists are not also compassionate ears, or that their excellent administrators and facilitators aren’t in-depth scholars and so forth. –  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, Doctor of the Ekklesía Antínoou

Diversification of roles and of styles of leadership that are appropriate to each role needs to become more the norm than the exception in order for modern Pagan groups to face the challenges of our expanded demographics and the theological and political shifts that are occurring and have occurred over the last few decades. “High Priest/ess” cannot be a singular job description that is assumed as a standard across the board for anyone of standing as a leader in our groups any longer, and the sooner that this is understood, the better off people will be, and the more empowered each person will be to bring their unique gifts and skills to the table in the service of everyone — deities, communities, and the loose fellowship of other colleagues in leadership across traditions and within them, as well as within individual groups.

I don’t think the core qualities that make for a good leader have changed much over this short amount of time. Rather, it appears as though the expectation that Pagan community’s leaders will actually meet and exemplify those qualities in greater numbers and with greater consistency is increasing.

Personally, I have observed that Paganism is moving from a more experimental adolescence into a new developmental phase. This next level of growth requires us to steady ourselves and act very mindfully if we want to continue to gain stability and legitimacy in the public eye, while still maintaining our diversity and plurality of practices and Traditions.

Fortunately, there are models for scenarios this. For instance, Buddhism is comprised of thousands of lineages across many nations, yet there still manages to be a relatively reliable set of core values that everyone can get behind regardless of their other variances. For instance, one of the things all the Buddhist lineages agree upon is the idea that suffering is a phenomenon that everyone experiences, that the alleviation of that suffering is very desirable, and that we can look to many different practices to relieve that suffering while minimizing our actions that cause suffering. It’s a simple set of principles that translate widely and create a strong center for Buddhism. –Yeshe Rabbit, HPS of CAYA Coven

I think the Digital Revolution has rocked Paganism to the core twice in the last 20 years. The first time was when the Internet hit the general public, the second with the explosion of social media within the past six years. Both had a profound impact by providing a massive, completely anonymous tool for networking and disseminating information on a scale that conventional methods just can’t match. Social media in particular has led to a second explosion of Paganism not just in the US but worldwide. In Heathenry some good examples of this can be seen with new connections between Heathens from all over the world but in particular with flourishing communities in Latin America, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East!

What’s most significant about how this has all happened is it has been very viral and horizontal. Unlike the pre-social media age where Pagans organizations such as the ADF, CoG, the Troth, and others held a much more dominant position it is now very possible and easy for individuals and local groups to self-organize and build globe-spanning networks. It has also brought in a flood of people who had no real contact with the organized segments of Paganism who brought with them their own new ideas, perspectives, and conceptions about spiritual practice that are still being sorted out. It’s no accident that the number of scandals, controversies, and the like are on the rise since Facebook became the dominant network on the Internet; there’s a much larger pool of people getting involved than before many of whom have different opinions and expectations from those already in the community and I think this upheaval will ultimately be to our benefit in the long-term. –Ryan Smith, HUAR web admin, member of the Golden Gate Kindred, student, and blogger.

Twenty years ago what most people in the over-culture knew of Paganism was learned from “The Craft,” “Practical Magic” or “Charmed”. Many folks coming to Paganism needed to learn the basics and back then that meant books. Pagan authors became the leadership of the time and could focus on creating their own very specific lines of Paganism. Pagan leadership was built more on the cult of personality.

I know my interests around Pagan leadership center on building, growing and sustaining our community. I’m drawn to intra-Pagan and interfaith work and finding ways to support the growing needs of our community. This can mean pastoral care, basic needs, creating support groups, and infrastructure. – Gwion Raven, North Bay Reclaiming. 


Under the umbrella of Paganism, do you feel that universal ethics for leaders are something we should consider? How would that be regulated?

There needs to be universal ethics for all leaders, across the board. Ethics that include not taking advantage of minors or anyone for that matter, not forcing people to contribute funds that are beyond their means in order to be part of an inclusive group, condemning abuse of any kind. The regulation with the difficult part. For too long our community has been self-regulating which has allowed many abuses to occur. A committee could be voted in for term lengths but I am not sure how this would go over. – Angela Pearson

Because there are a variety of different types of leadership, as suggested by my earlier responses, a universal set of ethics beyond some very basic ones that aren’t that different than those expected of any responsible and mature person — try to be as kind and courteous as possible in all situations, act with integrity, transparency, and honesty, don’t exploit nor manipulate others, and avoid behaving in ways to which you yourself would not wish to be subjected — is not very realistic to even consider, in my view. A good teacher, for example, can’t always be 100% transparent at all times, because there are some lessons that a student should not learn until they’ve established a basic level of competency — too often, people want to jump ahead when they find out that “advanced” levels or activities exist, and that’s irresponsible on their part, but also on the part of teachers who reveal too much too fast. That transparency, however, should be required of people in managerial or administrative positions so that everyone knows what processes were involved in every decision on matters of money, allocation of resources, negotiations with other groups or venues, and so forth. And, needless to say, where issues of pastoral counseling are concerned, discretion rather than transparency is often the watchword, except in cases where laws have been broken or harm has or can occur. On a single point of principle, thus, the approaches across different varieties of leadership must vary greatly, which makes universalizing difficult if not impossible (or, at very least, inadvisable) on a variety of issues.

Thus, if even establishing such ethics would be difficult, then regulating or enforcing them would be that much more of a fraught process. Creating a variety of (voluntary) umbrella organizations within Paganism can and has worked for some people and traditions, but it won’t for others. Doing so is often a matter of “compromise,” which is thought to be a positive thing so often in today’s world, but we have adverse reactions to “compromised health” or “compromised structural integrity,” which should give some insight into what compromise often involves–a lessening, a weakening, and an undermining where some things are ceded in the hopes that something greater is gained as a result, and oftentimes the gains are debatable at best. The balance between shared community and respected autonomy is one that is not observed more often than it is upheld these days in many sections of modern Paganism. The frequent assumption that we are all coming from the same place (or, perhaps more accurately, should be), is the root of so much misunderstanding, disrespect, and all of the negative consequences of privilege which can accompany these things, that more and more people whose understandings of certain roles, ideas, or processes are feeling less welcome in associating with the Pagan umbrella at all. Not unlike the realization of separation of function and of types and roles of leadership, perhaps, this separation into more specialized and defined factions — whether under the Pagan umbrella or outside of it — will likely be of benefit to our communities overall, and will further their development and maturity. –  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, Doctor of the Ekklesía Antínoou

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama wrote an excellent book on this subject called Beyond Religion in which he proposes that everyone in spiritual leadership take a moment to step outside of their religious frameworks, work together to cultivate a simple set of core ethics that all can agree upon, and then bring these back to our respective religions and begin building them into the existing and needed new structures of those religions. Under this model, ongoing dialogue helps keep these shared ethics current. This feels like a healthy process to me, something that can evolve over time.

It is important that we Pagans do not end up, in our search for a common ethic, replicating stale models of moral authority that are damaging and that breed a kind of Puritanism. In other words, it would not do for there to be two stone tablets of Pagan Commandments dropped into our laps from someone proclaiming that they will deliver us from sin. I do not see that model being fruitful for any of us, and in fact it is very counter to the organic kinds of variable, responsive natural law that the Earth serves up to us anew each day. –Yeshe Rabbit, HPS of CAYA Coven

I think the one ethic we should be concerned with on the level on all of Paganism is accountability. The Pagan community has a serious problem with not calling out people in positions of authority when they behave badly or in some cases atrociously and for leaving people in charge who should have been removed long before. There’s too much automatic deference to fame and institutional privilege and that needs to be torn down and replaced with a new understanding of community accountability. What this means is that leaders in the community are directly accountable to the people they lead AND the community in turn holds them to account when they fall short. Many Pagans left mainstream organized religion because of abuses of power and privilege, so I think it is imperative, given that fact, to NOT repeat the mistakes many Pagans are quick to denounce in others but loathe to voice about our own. As harsh as this may sound to some the fact is if we don’t police our own effectively then whenever it needs doing someone else will and whoever that is will not have our best interests at heart.

As for regulation that’s something everyone in the community needs to take part in. If you see leaders engaging in unethical or objectionable behavior call them on it. If someone is playing cliques, favorites, or other forms of blatant favoritism or corruption at the group’s expense call them on it. If you have a person in a position of authority who is clearly a bully or in other ways is actively detrimental to the health of the group and community then call them on it and if there’s no change remove them. If we look to some kind of specific body to handle these things that body will inevitably become everything it was meant to prevent by becoming a new power center. All Pagans taking part, doing their part, and ensuring we get the best out of our people in every way possible is much healthier both now and for the future. – Ryan Smith, HUAR web admin, member of the Golden Gate Kindred, student, and blogger.

I think the one thing we can universally agree on in Pagandom is that we rarely agree on anything universally. Of course I support high standards of ethics for those that step into leadership. I practice transparency whenever possible, especially where community finances and, quite frankly, sexual boundaries are concerned.

The more that power is shared, discussed, and available to as many community members that want to step into leadership as is practical, the less likely abuses are to happen. As far as regulation is concerned, that’s difficult. My personal feelings are that if your community, coven, ritual team, and teachers find ways to justify behaviour that is illegal or generally held to be unethical, it might be time to find new leadership. – Gwion Raven, North Bay Reclaiming. 

There are many ways we can approach this subject. What do we want? Want don’t we want? How much time, energy and resources is the community willing to put-in to manifest common goals and expectations for leaders? While many different groups and communities that fall under the umbrella of Paganism have guidelines and expectations of their members, this does not appear to be enough when it comes to our intention of having trustworthy Pagan leadership over the entire community.

I have come to personally believe that having an expectation of integrity for people within the Pagan community is important, and that all leaders, elders, and professionals within this community have an obligation to their own Gods and to those with whom they are accountable to in their service. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines integrity as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values, incorruptibility, an unimpaired condition, the quality or state of being complete or undivided.” Almost every list of identified qualities for effective leadership includes the core value of integrity.

Belief Net’s list of the “Top 5 Qualities of Good Political Leaders” also includes integrity, as well as honesty, compassion, confidence, and flexibility — all qualities of leadership that are important to the various roles that leaders find themselves within.

Now…. how do we demand what we cannot monitor?