Seekers and Guides: How to Deal with Antagonists in Paganism

Chess Pieces by George Hodan (public domain image.)
Chess Pieces by George Hodan (public domain image.)

They say that life often imitates art.  As I said at the beginning of these articles, while I’ve been writing this series, I’ve been dealing with Antagonism in my own tradition.  One thing that I took away from all that was that a good portion of  this article is useless to you.  The reason is that most of the strategies for dealing with Antagonists that Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, clinical psychologist and Christian pastor, suggested in his excellent book Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict, are ineffective in the Pagan community because of the way we’re structured as opposed to the way Christian church organizations are.

So my goal for this article, then, is threefold.  First, I will present Haugk’s solutions as concisely as I can.  Second, I will explain why I believe that many of these solutions are not viable within the Pagan community structure, and delineate the problems as I see them.  Third, I will do what I can to suggest alternatives.

The Use of Authority

Haugk spends a great deal of time speaking about the proper use of authority within a church structure in dealing with Antagonists. There is, of course, one big glaring problem in this tack for a Pagan; rarely do we have clear-cut lines of authority, and even the authority we do have is often conditional to situations.  Antagonists looooove that.  They especially love “leadership by consensus” groups because their tactics, being based in emotional appeals and attacks, are often extremely effective in consensus-run groups (see the groundbreaking essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”)  Even groups with a clear “chain-of-command” struggle with this.  Almost always when a person attempts to exercise the trust and authority they are given to deal with a problem, they are publicly accused of tyranny and trying to “lord over” everyone else.

I’m not sure how to address this problem.  A natural distrust of appointed authority is something I value in Paganism, especially because I see the extreme dangers in a rigid chain-of-command like some other faiths have within their churches; and generally, the more rigid the chain, the more dangerous it is.  I have tried various ways of balancing this with lesser and greater degrees of success.

But let’s assume that you do have some form of authority available to you.  Because you do, you know.  If you have been entrusted to act in the capacity of a group leader or facilitator, you have been entrusted to protect the well-being of the group.  And if you are a part of the group, you have the same charge laid upon you.

For Group Leaders and Facilitators

Authority is a lot like magick.  It’s a form of energy, neither good nor bad except in how it is used.  Pagan mythology is full of stories of Sacred Kingship (or Queenship) in which a leader is given the sacred trust to care for the land and its people. There are responsibilities that come with leadership and many of them are unpleasant and will not be well-received.  Monarchs of myth and history who are well-regarded have a reputation of being “just,” not “nice.”

We’re afraid of being seen as leaders because we’re afraid that people will think that we think that we’re “superior” somehow. We humans, regardless of our faith, have a need to be liked.  And the truth is that a leader doing the job of leadership (or “facilitator,” if you must) is not always going to be liked.  It’s hard to be that person.  But as Haugk points out, leadership is a job, and we should do it with the same kind of determination and professionalism with which we would do any other job.  Sometimes that means taking actions that are unpopular, and perhaps even excluding people who are disruptive for the good of the other group members.

Often it’s easier to justify avoiding firm action because we are afraid of the consequences.  But what are the consequences of avoidance?

  • Losing respect (from others and yourself)
  • Risking the sacrifice of your own principles and ethics
  • Losing the trust of the people you serve due to “wishy-washiness”
  • Sacrificing your sense of self and identity trying to please everyone (which is impossible)
  • Allowing the Work and your service to your deities to take a back seat to placating and politics
  • Cultivating a self-centered perspective (in that you become more concerned about what others will think of you than in doing the right thing)
  • Shouldering the entire matter on your own.

People may not like strong leaders, but they despise weak ones, and doing nothing will always be worse than doing something, even if it wasn’t the right decision at the time.  Typically there is no perfect solution for dealing with Antagonists.  Often there will be negative consequences and painful side effects.  This may lead to feelings of guilt.  It’s tempting to blame oneself because that gives us a greater sense of control.

But sometimes we are forced to make decisions that are the best of a lot of bad options.  I once signed a piece of paper that allowed surgeons to cut the leg off of my unconscious husband, whom I could not consult, in order to save his life.  Sometimes dealing with an Antagonist can feel like a similar amputation in a group.  But just as leaving what was left of my husband’s shattered leg would have led to sepsis, gangrene, blood poisoning and death, leaving an active Antagonist to run unchecked in a group will result in its destruction.

For Group Members

There are two types of authority.  One is authority of office, which is the authority that leaders and facilitators have.  But the other is authority of person.  We tend to call this “being in one’s power” in the Pagan community.  I like to call it “right-sized ego.”  Someone with authority of person has self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect.  As members of the group, you also have authority, and if you are not willing to tolerate the actions of an Antagonist, they won’t be able to create disruption.  Haugk describes a church meeting he attended at which the Antagonist harassed the Chairperson for several minutes about some minor issue.  A congregation member took the floor and said to the Antagonist, “We’ve heard you complain about various pastors and other leaders for the past 15 years.  Quite frankly, I’m tired of it.  Please keep quiet so we can continue the meeting.  Thank you.”  The Antagonist was so shocked that he stayed silent for the rest of the night.

Chess Pieces by George Hodan (public domain image.)
Chess Pieces by George Hodan (public domain image.)

Dealing with A Dormant Antagonist

Act Professionally.  Be consistent, responsible, and self-controlled.  It will teach Antagonists to respect you, or make them aware that you are on to their antics (and thus make them tone it down).  If they ask if something is wrong, the proper answer is “no,” because it isn’t — not yet.

Keep Your Distance.  Don’t allow Antagonists to gain an advantage by becoming close to you, and create a sense of distance so that if things go sour it will be easier to deal with.

Tighten the Reins.  When you sense the Antagonist gearing up for action tighten your grip on the reins.  There’s a sense that when a person starts yanking your chain it’s time to send them off to lead their own covens, but it’s probably not a good idea.  Think of what they’ll do to their future covens!

Hold On to Your Gauntlet.  Don’t throw down with your opponent too early.  But don’t wait until the Antagonists have leveled the group either.  Timing is essential.

Hold Your Tongue.  Antagonists will say nasty things and do nasty things in order to get a rise out of your or to force you to defend yourself.  Don’t give them the satisfaction.  It can never end well for you.  Just state your position firmly and don’t bother justifying yourself.  The truth can’t hurt you unless you let it.  Don’t seek sympathy from others or form special committees.  Rather, proceed with blithe confidence and demonstrate through your actions that the Antagonist’s attempt at disruption is going to fail.

Dealing with an Invisible Antagonist

Be the best possible leader you can be, which makes you less vulnerable to attack.

Don’t panic or bring everything else to a screeching halt to deal with the Antagonist.  That’s just a waste of your energy.

Accept that it is not critical to identify the Antagonist.  Seeking the Antagonist out might cause more problems than ignoring them, leading to, if you’ll pardon the expression, “witch hunts.”  If significant damage is being done you’ll likely discover who it is anyway.

Act confidently.  This increases the confidence that others have in you.

Note the locations of tension and disturbance, because it may give you clues as to the Antagonist’s identity.  This is one of the reasons why the “previous track record”  issue is a red flag, and if problems keep happening around a certain person, then you likely know why.  Or if the coven meeting was really peaceful in July when a particular person was on holiday, there might be a good reason for that, and that might give you clues.

Occasionally you may find that you know perfectly well that someone is an Antagonist but may not be in a position to act because no one else recognizes it, the Antagonist may be part of the leadership, others may be denying the truth of the problem, or no one else may be willing to act (commonly a problem in Pagan groups).  In this case, you must exercise patience and wait until people are finally ready to get behind you before anything you do is truly effective.

Chess Pieces by George Hodan (public domain image.)
Chess Pieces by George Hodan (public domain image.)

Dealing With an Active Antagonist in a Group

Most of the suggestions that Haugk offers are useless to the average Pagan.  The reason why is that he tries to address dealing with the problem at meetings in accordance with an elected democratic structure and Robert’s Rules of Order.  That’s fine for the more organized Pagan churches and non-profits, but these groups are the exception and not the rule with us.  If you’re involved in such a group, you’re probably better off just buying a copy of Haugk’s book than anything you could glean from my brief articles.

As the Group Leader

Dr. Haugk’s solutions do have some limited application for Pagan groups, but often they won’t be effective because the group cohesion isn’t firm enough:

Always deal with Antagonists assertively.  The nature of their confrontation requires firmness.

Don’t argue from reason, at least not with them.  They are not trying to be reasonable; they are trying to sway people with passionate and emotional arguments.  If you outfox them on one point they’ll just come up with another point to argue.

You may be confronted with a concern as to whether or not to break confidentiality.  If the Antagonist is waging a public campaign, it is they who have chosen to break confidentiality, not you.  Reveal what you feel is necessary to reveal to the most limited group of people you reasonably can.

Document everything.  I mean everything.  It can have the immediate benefit of allowing you to see the holes in the Antagonist’s logic, or their inconsistencies, or patterns; it can prove that they were lying if that’s necessary (since they frequently do); and if it ever does go before a court, which Antagonists often threaten, then you’re protected.  Make your documentation factual rather than opinionated: ie. “On Sept. 27th, Ann Tagonist spoke at the meeting with grave displeasure about X policy.  She stated that the High Priest was ‘an arrogant ass’.”  Not, “On Sunday night’s meeting Ann disrupted the meeting by whining about X policy and proceeded to insult and slander Michael.”

Avoid meeting with them if at all possible.  Doing so gives them a certain degree of acknowledgement that may encourage their behaviour and give them the delusion that their grab for power is working.  Certainly never request a meeting; make sure any meetings are at the Antagonist’s initiative, not yours.  Don’t allow them to dictate the location or the timing of the meeting, or how long it will last, and don’t meet with them on their turf.  Don’t share the intimacy of food or drink with them, as that will encourage familiarity that will allow them to believe that they can push boundaries.  Then make use of all the techniques they teach you for public speaking:

  • Start when you agreed to (not before or after)
  • Greet them in a businesslike rather than friendly way
  • Sit higher than them if possible and sit first
  • Wait for the Antagonist to speak first
  • Keep your statements as brief as possible, as if answering hostile questions in a court of law
  • Be attentive but not active as a listener (in other words, don’t encourage them by gestures, body language or leading questions)
  • Document everything (but don’t record electronically)
  • Use the broken record technique for assertiveness when necessary
  • Don’t bait or challenge them, because that will just draw you into circular arguments.

I have some further suggestions on dealing with Antagonistic opponents in my Agora article from May 2014, The Doers and the Don’ters.

For Group Members: The Phalanx

For the rest of us, there is really only one technique offered that I think will work in pretty much any Pagan group, and that is the Phalanx.  A Phalanx was, of course, the name for a military tactic developed by the Ancient Greeks in which a well-armed infantry unit stood shoulder-to-shoulder, shield-to-shield, about eight soldiers deep, forming an almost impenetrable line of defense.  Banding together, as the leadership and the membership, is your first, last, and best defense against Antagonists.  If a group opposes an individual together, that individual can not stand against them.  I wish that more Pagan groups would remember this and act in their own defense, but often people are afraid of getting involved for fear of being kicked out of the group or of having the Antagonist turn their attentions towards them.  And contributing to this is the Curse of Pagan Niceness; in our urge to be inclusive, and to see the best in everyone, we are almost crippled when it comes to drawing proper and healthy boundaries.  If the whole group stands together, the Antagonist has few options and will ply their trade elsewhere.

Previous: How to Recognize an Antagonist

Next: How to Prevent Antagonism in Paganism


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