Seeking the Grail: Sacrifice, Skillbuilding, and Motivation

For many Pagans, Imbolc is about dedications; to me, dedication means work. It means sacrificing my time and energy to learn what is needed to follow my calling. Building skills takes motivation; to get good at these things, you have to put in the time. How did I get good at doing ritual? Years of work. Not hours, years. And here’s the thing–Pagan communities need excellence.

Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight
Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight

Spiritual work is work. Becoming a leader is work. Becoming an author is work. Becoming a ritualist is work. Magic is work. You may have some of the raw talents to do some of these things well, but it’s still going to take time and effort–in other words, work. Now–the “work” has a connotation of punching a clock, a day job we hate.

I prefer how poet Kahlil Gibran puts it, “Work is love made visible.”

Sure–work isn’t always fun. When you are trying to get good at something, there are parts of the climb that are annoying, difficult, even painful. As a writer, I’ve had to learn to deal with rejected manuscripts, hours of editing, learning to market my writing. Before that, there was learning basic grammar in school…heck, just learning to type was a pain! But it’s all part of my long-term dreams of being a published author. Eventually, I got better.

Actually, public speaking was a lot like that too. Having done it now for years it’s pretty easy. When I started? It was like trying to swim through concrete. I stumbled, I didn’t have confidence. I forgot things I was supposed to say. I rambled. I made mistakes. As a ritualist I made mistakes too.

We Need More Dedication

I have written about my frustrations as a Pagan event planner and organizer, and specifically, the difficulty I (and many other Pagan leaders) have in getting people to step into active volunteering and leadership roles, including getting people to take ritual roles. One challenge is just dedication, the motivation and willingness to do the work required. Pagans tell me they want to see more public rituals, classes, or events in their community, but they aren’t willing to take on organizing roles to help make it happen. I talk to other Pagans who want Really Potent Magic, or who want to run their own Pagan events and groups…but what does it take to learn to do that?

People ask me all the time how I got good at doing ritual, and they get visibly dismayed when I tell them that I was taking ritual roles in–and then facilitating–three to seven rituals a month for three years at a retreat center. Then, I began doing rituals “out in the world” without the safety net of my teachers and I spent years learning how to do ecstatic rituals with people who aren’t used to participating.

And I’ve spent hours a day, perhaps not every day of the week but close, singing chants to learn them by muscle memory and keep my voice warmed up.

In other words–years of practice. Countless hours.

But that’s what it boils down to. If you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to do the work. The knight seeking the Grail isn’t going to set out on his horse in the morning and achieve the Grail by noon in time to get home to their comfy bed that night.

The Volunteer Conundrum

It’s worth bringing up that in the Pagan community, most of us come at this as volunteers. Most aren’t getting paid to be clergy. While that’s only partially true in my case (I get modest book royalties, and I get paid to teach workshops at some events) most Pagan authors, teachers, clergy, and event planners don’t make a living at it.

The point is that most people running Pagan events or leading rituals aren’t going to be paid for their time, much less be compensated for any money they pay taking classes to gain a particular skillset.

Thus, it’s a tough pill to swallow to realize you may have to do the equivalent work of getting a Master’s degree without expecting to ever see any financial compensation for your time. And you also have to do that in the time you have left over from work and family…and you may have to pay out of pocket. And yet, some of these professional skills are crucial to the health of our groups. Pagan leaders desperately need training in pastoral counseling, but few cab afford that education.

Yet, even if money weren’t an issue, many just don’t have that kind of motivation. I’ve personally offered my workshops on a sliding scale or offered full scholarships and had people who said they wanted to learn those skills, but who then wouldn’t make time to take the class. (A sliding scale is a suggested price range and each person determines what they can afford.)

It’s worth pointing out as an aside–this particular conundrum starts to intersect with issues of finances and who can afford to take a weekend away from work, family, or other obligations to take a class, even if the class is free. But the challenge is that if we don’t bring these skills into our communities, if we don’t learn more and grow, Pagan groups will continue to flounder, implode, and explode.

Volunteering and Excellence

There’s this awkward balancing act; I want to see more excellence in our communities, but I also understand that most of us are doing this on a volunteer basis. I now make some money as an author and speaker, but I was not making money at this when I put in the years it took to grow my skills as a writer, teacher, and ritualist. In fact, I was paying to travel and teach until pretty recently. I still pay travel costs for the major Pagan conferences like Pantheacon, Convocation, Paganicon.

On the one hand, as an event planner, I want my volunteers to do a professional job by learning the skills to do something well, for instance if they are taking ritual roles or if they’ve taken on marketing the event…but that doesn’t mean that they have the motivation to learn. I can want someone to learn to be a good public speaker if they’re leading workshops, or be good at customer service if they’re handling registrations and greeting people, or be professional communicators if they are in charge of booking presenters to teach workshops…but me wanting that doesn’t mean that someone else wants that enough to make it happen.

I’ve tried to walk a tightrope and I’ve often failed. I’ve pressured people to step into professional excellence…and I’ve burned them out. Then, in reaction, I’ve backed off and tried to not pressure people as much, but then I just seem to end up with lackluster events.

When I’m working with people not really motivated to step into further excellence in the area of running events, I just keep downscaling my expectations and plans until I’m just running a tiny event that doesn’t really excite anyone or draw in new people. These events serve some basic community needs, but they certainly aren’t inspiring.

The Desire

I frequently wish that there were more Pagans who were born with the “itch” to run events, or to take ritual roles and get good at public speaking. But again–just because I want more professionals as part of my volunteer team, and just because I want people to be motivated to excellence, doesn’t mean that they have the desire. Or the time, or the finances.

For me it breaks down to Desire. Capital D. You have to want it enough to do the time. You have to want it enough to put other things to the side. You have to want it enough to sacrifice other work that’s important to you, or other things that  bring you joy. You have to want it enough to seek out the ways to learn the skills and–in many cases–work to practice them.

At the retreat center where I learned my skills, each year the Mystery School focused on a particular myth. The year I “graduated” their program we worked with the Ballad of Tam Lin. While it’s not my favorite story, I did like one core aspect of how the story was told. Jennett sews her Green Mantle all during the time she is pregnant. For nearly a year she sews this mantle and at Samhain, she throws it over Tam Lin to bring him back to life. This wasn’t a magic she just inherited, she had to work for it. The only way to have magic is to make it, to put in the time.

The year before, we explored the story of Psyche and Eros with a focus on Psyche as she journeys to become a goddess and faces several “impossible” tasks from Aphrodite. She faces these tasks one at a time and she must complete them or she’ll never see Eros again. She does the work.

Building Community

If people want to be better ritualists, better public speakers…there’s a progression to that. There are things you can learn from taking classes, and then there’s a lot of practice to learn to do it better. Whatever the skillset is, there’s a way to learn it.

But it takes devotion and dedication. Just as your spirituality takes devotion.

I didn’t burst from the womb as a good writer. (Trust me, I’ve read some of the stuff I was writing when I was twelve.) I had raw talent, an interest in writing, and a good grasp of grammar. And then I wrote…and wrote…and wrote. I got feedback, and I wrote more. I finished writing my first full-length novel when I was fourteen. I didn’t publish any fiction til I was in my mid thirties.

It takes time.

When I wanted to step into teaching workshops and leading rituals, I wasn’t very good at it. When I started leading chants in rituals, I wasn’t very good at that either. Ask me about the first time I was the solo chant anchor at a Yule ritual. Yikes. The only positive thing I can really say is, I didn’t die, and I got better.

If you want to gain an expertise in to serve the Pagan community, it’s going to take effort. And I really hope to see more people working to bring that excellence back home. We need more people with formal mediation training, more skilled therapists and pastoral counselors. More accountants! More people with the skills and patience to handle administrivia like registrations, or arranging food drives. And we have so many people stepping in to do rituals and teach who haven’t learned the basic skills of public speaking or facilitation, and this makes it far harder to offer evocative rituals or classes that actually engages students and seekers.

The point of all this is–you have to find the Desire. The call. You have to find that which summons you outside of your comfort zone to learn new things. I can’t find that for you. And if you’re working with people on a Pagan event or in a group forming a church or a temple, you can’t find it for them; all you can do is encourage people to help them find that motivation to learn.

When more of us do this, when we bring expertise back to our groups, we enrich the whole community. Brick by brick we build stronger foundations and more resources for the coming generations. This is what it is to serve the Grail; to enrich ourselves, and in doing so, bring those life-bearing waters back to the land, to the people we serve. It’s why I teach leadership and facilitation, it’s why I travel and offer workshops even though I’m a hardcore introvert…it’s why I write on these topics and why I’ve worked to help make more resources available on Pagan leadership. Because it matters.

Is our work always easy? No. But there’s something calling you to it, something just beyond the veil of what you can see or name. Dedication isn’t just to a deity or to an element or to a daily spiritual practice for the coming year. Dedication is to professionalism and excellence as a leader, ritualist, event planner, or any of the other hundreds of ways you can support your local community with your work. What are you committing to? What work will it take to get there? What will you need to sacrifice?

Remember: Work is love made visible.

Just Released!

Pagan Leadership Anthology: An Exploration of Leadership and Community in Paganism and Polytheism
Edited by Shauna Aura Knight & Taylor Ellwood

Pagan communities are evolving; we find ourselves in dire need of healthy, ethical leaders. This anthology offers tools, techniques, and hands-on experience from over thirty Pagan authors, exploring topics of communication, conflict, bylaws, predators, personal work, and more to help you become a better leader and enrich your community.  More details available here.


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