Obligations of a CUUPS Leader

I’ve been an officer in Denton CUUPS for ten years, I’m a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National, and I have a visible presence on the internet.  So I get occasional e-mails asking how to start a CUUPS chapter or how to deal with difficult people in a host congregation.  But in a conversation this weekend, it occurred to me there’s an important question that is rarely asked:  what are you signing up for when you agree to serve as an elected officer or even as an informal leader?

What are the obligations I have as a CUUPS leader?  How do they differ from the obligations of a coven or grove leader, from the obligations of a priestess or priest, or from the obligations of other lay leaders in UU congregations?  This is not organizational policy – I’m speaking for myself, not for the local or national Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.  But this is something CUUPS leaders need to consider.  If you disagree with my conclusions, fine – just make sure you understand why you disagree.

teaching Intro to Modern Paganism 2013

A CUUPS leader has an obligation to seekers.  About a year after my Pagan epiphany, I recognized I had gone as far as I could go on my own – I needed a group to work with.  I thought a CUUPS group would be a good place to start my search, so I went to a circle led by Denton CUUPS… and I never left.  Other people do what I did – it seems like every circle someone will tell me “this is my first time at a public Pagan event.”

I have an obligation to these seekers that begins with being there for them:  making sure our circles happen, that they’re easy to find, that they’re welcoming, and that they’re accessible.  “Accessible” doesn’t mean watered-down, least common denominator rituals designed to make sure no one’s sensibilities are offended.  It means you don’t need a second degree initiation to understand the terminology and participate in the flow of the ritual.

I don’t have an obligation to provide personal instruction.  A CUUPS group is not a teaching coven or a dedicated priesthood – we have no fixed traditions to teach.  Denton CUUPS teaches an Introduction to Modern Pagan Religion class about once a year.  It’s designed to give new Pagans and other interested folks a basic foundation for beginning their own religious and spiritual explorations.  On the rare occasions when I take on students (usually as an advisor / mentor rather than as a teaching elder) I do so in my role as an individual Druid and priest, not as a CUUPS officer.

A CUUPS leader has an obligation to Unitarian Universalism.  The values of modern Paganism and the values of Unitarian Universalism have much in common – it’s why CUUPS works.  It’s easy for Pagans to support UU values like justice, compassion, and liberty, and the seventh principle and the sixth source speak specifically to Pagan themes.  The challenge for Pagans is to remember that Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion.  Whatever you believe about the Gods or Nature or magic, there will be someone else who believes something different – and that’s OK.  CUUPS is “Big Tent Paganism” in practice.

Again, this doesn’t mean moving everything to the least common denominator.  It means accepting the value of differing Pagan perspectives and providing opportunities for their expression.  Many of the members of Denton CUUPS are polytheists in one sense of the term or another, but when our matriarch (who trained in New Thought) wanted to lead an Ostara circle that fell squarely in the middle of the Self-centered Paganism camp, the only question anyone asked was “how can I help?”

I’m leading Beltane – we’ll be making offerings to Danu.  We have no shortage of volunteers for that one either.

after the ritual – Winter Solstice 2013

A CUUPS leader has an obligation to the host congregation.  There’s been much written – some of it here – about the need for “right relationship” between a CUUPS group and its host congregation.  But my obligation to Denton UU goes beyond supporting the church physically, spiritually and financially.  I also have an obligation to encourage those who come to our circles to support the UU church.  Part of that is from a sense of reciprocity.  But just as importantly, Unitarian Universalism can be helpful to Pagan seekers, who in turn may become supporters of UUism and the local congregation.

I’m a Pagan and a Druid and a UU – it all works for me.  It won’t all work for everyone.  But while neither Paganism nor UUism condone proselytization, CUUPS leaders owe it to their congregation to let everyone know that good services happen on Sunday mornings as well as Saturday nights.

Summer Solstice 2009 at White Rock Lake in Dallas

A CUUPS leader has an obligation to the Pagan movement.  Just as I have an obligation to promote UUism within Paganism, so do I have an obligation to promote Paganism within UUism.  While I have neither the need nor the desire to convert UU Buddhists and Christians and Humanists, I do want to represent Paganism accurately and favorably to my fellow UUs – and where I have the opportunity, to represent Paganism to the wider community.

A CUUPS leader has an obligation to the Gods.  An essay on UU Paganism isn’t the place to debate the nature of the Gods, much less to insist that my view is the correct view.  But whether you view the Gods as distinct beings with agency, as aspects of the Divine, or as the better parts of ourselves, They clearly represent something that is worthy of our respect, honor and service.  Yes, we put work into building our CUUPS groups because they’re helpful to us, to other Pagans, and to other UUs, but they also contribute toward doing the work of the Gods and making Their values manifest in this world.  We are part of something bigger than ourselves, and as leaders we have an obligation to it… or to Them.

Cynthia lighting the fire at Winter Finding 2013

As a priest, I have obligations to Cernunnos and Danu.  Those obligations are neither superior nor inferior to my obligations as a CUUPS leader.  Sometimes they can overlap – as with the Beltane plans I mentioned earlier – but I can no more attempt to turn my CUUPS chapter into a Celtic temple than I can ignore Their needs just because Summer Solstice will honor Egyptian deities.  I’ve made two sets of obligations and I must fulfill them both.

A CUUPS leader has an obligation to CUUPS.  Denton CUUPS was there for me in 2003 because Summer, Monique and Cheryl started it. They could do that because CUUPS National and other chapters that served as role models were there for them.  As with all institutions, we pay our debts to previous generations by being here for future generations.  As a CUUPS leader, I have a multigenerational obligation to make sure there is space for Pagans within Unitarian Universalism that is safe, welcoming, nurturing, and challenging.

So with all these obligations, why would anyone want to be a CUUPS leader?

I went to Denton CUUPS looking for a place to celebrate the seasons and a place to learn.  Instead, I found a community to serve.  I accepted the obligations, and in the process I’ve learned and experienced more than I could have ever imagined.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Guest

    Paganism is NOT a religion. For a man to say he is so experienced, you should know that. There are NO leaders in Paganism. Sure you can start an Organization for Environmental reasons or whatever you do, that is “Pagan Based” But do not even think for one minute that you are a PAGAN LEADER. Get the hell out. Paganism is a way of life for millions, and no two Pagans are the same, there is no set of practices and absolutely no doctrine, of any kind. Not all Pagans believe in the same deity or Gods or anything.. There is also no church or Council, no Boss or Hierarchy. Go ahead and have your “Coven” but understand that your Coven is a personal group and you speak for only your group, and only your group calls you Priest or whatever title you claim for yourself…. not Paganism in its entirety.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Did you even read the essay?

      • Shauna Aura Knight

        I’ve had a few people post comments like that with some of my own leadership articles. They often don’t make a whole lot of sense.

    • Lorraine Ellis

      Wow. I’m having a hard time connecting these comments to anything in the essay. Perhaps we have a misunderstanding about the term “pagan leader.” It could be read as “a leader of all pagans,” which is what you seem to be thinking. Or it could be read as “a leader of some pagans,” or “a leader, who also happens to be a pagan.” In no way did I think Mr. Becket was trying to speak for all pagans or insinuate that all pagans ought to look up to him as a leader. Maybe you could give it another read?

  • Guest

    I have copy and saved my comment, if you want to hide it, go for it.. but I will blast you publicly. If you want to censor the honesty of real Pagans in the world, be prepared for the backfire.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      You aren’t fully set up with Disqus so your comments have to be approved. And I’ve been offline for all of 3 hours.

    • Cyndi Simpson

      Dear Guest,
      You are having a very strong emotional reaction to a sincere and helpful article. What’s that all about, for you?
      John is writing about his leadership in a Unitarian Universalist Pagan group that is attached to a Unitarian Universalist congregation – something very localized and specific.
      As a UU and a Pagan myself, I’ve seen various types of rampant dysfunction in UU Pagan groups, so I appreciate, respect and agree with pretty much everything John said!
      Tell us more – please shed more light on what’s going on for you here.
      Peace,
      Cyndi

      • http://sandyrussel.wix.com/silver-moon-tones Sandra M. Russel

        Looks like our Guest must have read somewhere that Paganism is a shamanistic practice that is spiritual (done privately) rather than religious (done with others). And, that leadership in a Coven or Circle is usually shared. However, Guest, has drawn some inaccurate conclusions from these studies, which also demonstrates this person probably doesn’t have any experience with practicing in a group either. Guest read a couple of books and thinks their an expert.

  • Wolflady13

    John, great article loaded with info about CUUPS and the UU Church. I visited with CUUPS in Greensboro, NC several years back and am considering attending circles at the one here in Gwinnett County, GA. I’ll even consider going on Sunday morning :) I respect and honor all of the leaders that I have learned from in Pagan, Druid and Witch communities across the US.

  • Cyndi Simpson

    Hello John,
    Many blessings and a big hello!
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article – so accurate and helpful. What I like best is your clarity that CUUPS groups have a responsibility to Unitarian Universalism. And, that this isn’t about sinking to the level of some hypothetical common denominator. Goddess, we are not all on different paths on the same mountain! Those are pretty different mountains and it’s a good thing.
    I believe your congregation is the home base of my dear colleague Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, now ministering in Wyoming. I am glad to hear of a strong CUUPS group and your strong leadership.
    Blessed be!
    Cyndi

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Yes, Sarah was called to ministry from Denton.

  • Helmsman Of-Inepu

    Thanks for the helpful post. We’re in the early stages of forming a chapter in NW Ohio. I talked to some people from a huge UU church about an hour away, and they were never able to keep pagan programs going because they didn’t hold them regularly.
    It certainly looks like the “anti-leader” commenter reacted to the title without reading the article.


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