One of the things I appreciate most about the post-millennium pagan community is how easy it is to communicate with various leaders. There are so many pagan festivals these days in so many different locations and with various levels of accessibility that the likelihood of being able to actually meet and talk with various authors, activists, and other Big Name Pagans is pretty high. And then, of course, there is the wonderful world of social media, which lets you get to see how people act and think when they’re not on their best public behavior.
Having been an avid participant in festivals and a lurker on many a Pagan forum for several years, I believe I’ve been able to see a bit of the real people behind many high recognizable names, and their personalities have taught me a bit about some of the things the egomaniacs in our community do that are noticeably absent or minimized in the true greats. And because it’s a lazy Saturday, I decided to to list them out, Buzzfeed style.
The best leaders in our community do not…
1. Crave Community Approval. Curiously enough, the best Pagan leaders are entirely disinterested in proving their superior witchiness to the rest of the community. They do not rest on their (usually) well-deserved laurels and continue to spout and promote their own gospels. They don’t seek celebrity status. If they publish a book or organize a festival, it’s because they have something they genuinely want to share with the community and think the community could use. They don’t name drop or allude to their connections to other notable Pagans to impress others or (worse) to begin or end an argument. Rather, they continue to hone their Craft throughout their lives and see themselves as seekers as much as they are teachers. And they are happy to incorporate and share the lessons they learn along their spiritual journey.
2. Cede The Moral High Ground. Leaders of all sorts understand that a “game of thrones” accompanies any leadership position. As great as a leader is, there is always someone who thinks they can do it better. Or worse, some just want to take away the successes of others in order to make themselves feel bigger. Neither of these people are above petty psychological attacks. Great leaders, however, understand that while they cannot control the actions of others, they can control their responses to those actions. Their power as a true leader is to manage that response and act with grace and compassion instead of additional low-handed tactics.
3. Begrudge Others Their Successes. In some groups, leaders seem to leech of the energy of others. If someone comes to share a success with the group, the leader is quick to re-direct attention to themselves. This is obviously highly problematic and can quickly become abusive. Even mediocre leaders have the ability to celebrate the achievements of others in the group. But excellent Pagan leaders are able to feel genuine joy and excitement for other people’s success and communicate that joy. If that success reveals a personal failing to them, they do not detract from or attack the covener who succeeded. Rather, they work to improve their own chance at success.
4. Become Control Freaks. Effective Pagan leaders are not complainers. They tend not to dwell on the niggling inconveniences of daily life, but more importantly they also don’t fret about the actions of other people. If a student or covener chooses to leave the coven, they wish them well and help facilitate their transition. If another Pagan in their tradition does something they disagree with, they have a conversation with them so that they can understand their actions and motivations. If that Pagan is outside their tradition, they recognize that their opinion is not highly relevant and leave those in that tradition to have those questioning conversations. Instead, they tend to their own garden as best they can.
5. Live In The Past. Amazing, dynamic Pagan leaders spend their time creating strong practices now that can be useful foundations for the future. They learn from their tradition’s history and from their own past experiences, but they are able to avoid investing all their mental and spiritual energy in fantasies of the bygone “glory days” and other disappointments. The past hundred years have seen a sea change in the secular culture, and as we have seen, religions that cannot find a place to work with secular cultures are doomed to die out. (Just ask the Shakers! Oh wait…)
6. Become A People Pleaser (or Hater). Coven leaders know that they will drive themselves crazy if they cater to everyone’s whims, and they know where the line is between thoughtful accommodation for a need and bending for a preference. Similarly, they do not try to undermine the authority of others, especially in an attempt to make themselves look stronger, more knowledgeable, or a better Witch. Instead, they try to be fair and kind to others, and they speak up when they see that someone needs an advocate. The can understand that some may be upset with their actions, but they can navigate the situation with grace and develop useful compromises if necessary.
7. Avoid Change. The best Pagan leaders have no desire to re-invent the wheel and rebuild their tradition(s) from scratch, but they also welcome new challenges and embrace change. If a ritual from the early days of their tradition wants participants to kneel for 15 minutes, but they know that one of their coveners just had knee surgery and some others are battling arthritis, they will find creative ways to accommodate the physical needs of their group while simultaneously honoring what the spiritual intents of the ritual are. The biggest ‘fear’ of a strong Pagan leader is of becoming stagnant in a rapidly changing world by allowing their tradition to lose the intent and power of their rituals through relying on unexamined orthodoxy.
8. Repeat Mistakes. Everyone has heard the definition of insanity: performing the same actions again and again while hoping for a different outcome. Great Pagan leaders are not insane. They are self-reflective in accurate and productive ways. They take responsibility for their past behavior and learn from their mistakes. If they realize their rituals have become the Priestess and Priest show, they’ll re-work their structure to find more opportunities for the coveners to actively participate and learn. If a student decides to drop classes because they’ve devolved into rambling lectures, the leader will re-work planned lessons and experiment with more ways for students to engage with the material.
9. Avoid Risks. An ineffective Pagan leader either jumps headlong into foolish risks or refuses to risk anything at all. In contrast, a strong Pagan leader is willing to take calculated risks. They have the ability to thoroughly weigh risks and benefits to their actions, and they fully assess potential downsides and worst-case scenarios and address ways to minimize them before they take any actions. They understand that the health and safety of their group is one of their most important obligations, and they find ways to help their coven grow and be challenged while remaining secure in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.
10. Expect Everything To Happen RIGHT NOW. Great Pagan leaders know that the best results take time. They know that it will take years to build a strong coven and decades to develop a healthy downline. They know that training cannot be put on a timeline and that some rare people are ready to become a third degree after three years, others will never be ready after thirty and still others will never want to. Instead of running ragged to make everything perfect now, effective leaders make the most of what they do have. They also take care to give their time and energy in measured doses and celebrate the steps and milestones of the journey as much as they do its end. They know they are leaders for the long haul. They work to develop their staying power, and they know how to delegate tasks and ask for help.
11. Play The Victim. Caring Pagan leaders take responsibility for their actions and their outcomes, and they know that life just isn’t always fair. Instead, they view difficult times and challenges as opportunities to grow, and they often emerge from these situations with strong self-awareness and gratitude. They don’t immediately assume that they’ve made an enemy in the community or that they’ve been cursed or that they’re receiving a karmetic reward, and they make sure to determine and address mundane causes for their problems before seeking magical solutions.
12. Yield to Failure. We don’t say it outright, and perhaps we rarely think of it as such, but the Pagan community highly values attaining success. Many of us, especially newer witches, only tend to work magic to help us secure the things that we’re failing at attaining mundanely. Just think of all the luck spells, money spells, job spells, love spells, and all the rest that have been written and performed across all the Pagan branches. I suspect that few of us have groups that routinely practice the skills needed to support a covener through a personal or magical failure, and doing so with a leader can be pretty awkward. After all, aren’t they they ones who are supposed to have their ducks in a row? But leaders fail. Even strong ones. But strong leaders don’t let their failures be the end of their story. They tend to see life’s hiccups as learning experiences, chances to improve, or ways to create something even better than they’d originally dreamed.
13. Ignore Their Need For Personal Space. While many Pagan paths bestow all initiated or dedicated members with the titles of Priest or Priestess, the group leaders tend to wear the clergy mantle. We go to them with our personal problems and entrust them with our spiritual struggles. They are also the ones who take on the majority of planning and behind the scenes work, and most of them work their own full time jobs (or more!) on top of it. Clergy burnout is a real thing, and Pagan leaders risk losing other critical parts of their identity on the altar of the Ideal Priest or Priestess. Effective Pagan leaders, therefore, are able to set and work within clear boundaries, and they are able to refer people to other professionals when and if it is necessary. They can also rely on the those they are training to step up and shoulder some of that burden as well. In fact, they should actively plan for these opportunities so that they can attend their own spiritual needs while their trainees develop their own leadership skills. In short, strong Pagan leaders know they have a life outside Witchcraft, and they create the infrastructure they need to make sure they can live it.