A Quick Note on Sincerity Vs Competence

I have a house full of Wiccans playing in the dirt and working on the sacred space, so I’m going to keep this short.

A few days ago Phaedra Bonewits tweeted a quote from her late husband, and some people took offense. It was a minor kerfuffle and not worth linking to. But the quote itself I think is worthy of meditation.

“Sincerity does not equal competence.” – Isaac Bonewits

When you value sincerity over competence, community centers go bankrupt and fail.

When you value sincerity over competence, people get hurt in ritual.

When you value sincerity over competence, festivals are held on a flood plain, resulting in loss of equipment and people put in danger.

When you value sincerity over competence, you value the words of flatterers over the people putting in the work.

When you value sincerity over competence, people get turned away from rituals for discriminatory reasons.

When you value sincerity over competence, you spend months studying under bad teachers and leaders.

When you value sincerity over competence, you have the average lifespan of a Pagan organization at just under two years.

When you value sincerity over competence, you makes excuses for not reporting abuse.

When you value sincerity over competence, you hold Pagan leaders and organizations as being above critique.


Hephaestus was valued for his competence, not his sincerity.

There are people who will joyously, sincerely lead you over the edge of a cliff. Don’t be a lemming.

Value people who can get the job done. Don’t search their heart to see if they are Pagan enough or environmental enough or spiritual enough. Don’t play the more-Pagan-than-thou game. Trust me, if they are willing to put in the work to competently put on a festival for Pagans or lead a weekly ritual in a safe and effective manner, their sincerity is evident by their actions.

For some people, emotional expressions of spirituality aren’t their thing. They meditate while chopping wood or balancing the books. For some people, they don’t have to believe everything you do to provide a meaningful ritual experience for their community.

Sincerity is overrated and subjective. It’s time we finally honored competence.

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About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • PhaedraHPS

    Wow, thanks.

    What makes me the most sad, I think, is that the debate has been framed around a false dichotomy between sincerity and competence. Neither excludes the other.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     If the dichotomy was false then my post wouldn’t make sense. The Sacred Paths Center is a really good example of the community placing it’s faith in sincerity rather than competence. Ideally we should honor both, but when it comes down to brass tacks I side with competence every time.

  • happydog1960

    Getting involved with the OTO has taught me the absolute value of competence, and illustrated the very painful and pressing need for the same in the Pagan community. 

    After I went to a Gnostic Mass, it was absolutely no longer enough to be at yet another one of those “standing around in a circle reading off a piece of paper, feeling nothing and then having cookies afterwards” rituals. 

    Not all camps, lodges or oases are the same, but I think it’s significant that the more well-organized OTO groups can put on a ritual like the Gnostic Mass twice a month. In my experience, the average Pagan coven is lucky to get it together for a full moon ritual once a month. 

    Even then, 9 times out of 10, that ritual is going to be yet another “reading it off the paper” ritual. Worse, usually the ritual is usually taken verbatim from a book, never written from scratch, and never fully dedicated to any real purpose.

    I am aware that the OTO is not the be-all and end-all of magickal traditions by any means, and that not every OTO group is organized or affective. But in my experience, the focus on competence that happens in the OTO, although it may come at the expense of a certain amount of spontaneity, results in more consistently good ritual in the long run. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     Experiencing good ritual does make it really hard to endure bad ritual. I have been fortunate enough to have amazing ritual experiences, which have unfortunately made me a horrible ritual snob.

    I might make my first Gnostic Mass this weekend. I’m trying to not have any expectations of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deirdre.hebert Deirdre Hebert

     I actually think it is a false dichotomy. You don’t have to have one or the other – you can be sincere AND competent. Isaac was right though in suggesting that they are different – different, but not exclusive of each other. The best is when we have someone who is both sincere AND competent. Kind of a rare thing at times.

  • Cameron

    I had the good fortune to encounter competent pagans when I entered the community – and I totally agree that competence is something that needs to be valued highly! And generally the very qualities that make someone competent also make them sincere. However, competence without sincerity is equally dangerous and damaging. Value both! Value both….

  • Dscarron

    If you don’t have a core base of knowledge then one would not likely understand the difference.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     What we’re talking about is what people value. There is a dichotomy there. Paganism by far embraces sincerity and sneers at competence. Whether or not those qualities exist in the same person isn’t relevant to the hierarchy we’ve placed on the values.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     Competence without sincerity has at times kept this blog going. If I was judged based on my sincerity on any given day, there most definitely would be days I would fall short. It’s often on those days that people find my posts most compelling, and while I may have “faked it til I made it” in the end I do make it.

    Straight up, I have been considering how I would run a metaphysical shop if I opened one, and I decided pretty quickly I’d rather hire competent people rather than die-hard Pagans. If someone is competent they can learn the business and culture. Someone who is deeply committed to the culture may not be able to perform their job competently, preferring Pagan biases and values to good business practices and customer service.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     That’s a good point. I hadn’t considered that, but you’re right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1487003047 Darcie Callahan

    The topic of sincerity reminds me of the old Charlie Brown comic, where Linus sought out the most sincere pumpkin patch possible to wait for the Great Pumpkin to bring him candy.  The characters who actually got candy, of course, were the ones who put in the work of going door-to-door trick or treating. 

  • Pagan Activist

    This sentiment can be applied to so many different situations, not all Pagan.

    I find this in my local Occupy group. Despite being sincere, there are lots of Occupiers that are just totally incompetent and make it more difficult for those of us who are competent at planning events. Very frustrating. 

  • kenneth

    I can’t think of a more pointed example of this than the case of Matt Hale, the now-imprisoned leader of a white power/anti-semitic outfit called the Creativity Movement or church or somesuch. Most anti-semitic guy on the planet in his day in the late 90s/early 2000s. I understand one actually had to walk over a Star of David to enter his office or headquarters or whatever. When it all came crashing down on him, he went out and hired the best Jewish attorney he could find! 

  • http://twitter.com/Omorka Jennifer Ramon

    I belong to a Pagan organization that has three sets of officers: a Board of Directors elected by the entire organization, local area officers elected just by the members who live in those areas, and volunteer officers appointed by the Board.  It has been my experience in the sixteen years I’ve been a member that the organization seems to overwhelmingly value sincerity over competence in the Board members, but overwhelmingly value competence over sincerity in the volunteer officers, and seems to want the local area officers to demonstrate a mix of the traits.  The net result is often that we burn out our volunteer officers at an alarming rate, because they’re often covering for the Board members when they find out enthusiasm does not by itself meet the job requirements.  We all seem to realize that this is no way to run a non-profit org, but the culture is so deeply entrenched that I don’t know if there’s any way to fix it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

     Strange but fascinating tangent. Not really certain how this speaks to the current conversation, other than that in a bind you always value competence first and foremost over idealism? Kind of a triggery example.

  • Erose1

    The valuing of “sincerity”, or the appearance of same,  over competence is a “social disease.” America’s got a bad case right now & in need of the antibiotics of competence, even if they are not quite so “shiny & appealing.” This is a country, not a popularity contest. So why are we surprised to find this in the Pagan community? Not that we should, it’s a religious/social movement, not an ice cream social. But what do I know? I’m a social worker, not a digital watch!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/akimoya Matsumoto Akimoya

    This sounds very Libertarian to me…

  • kenneth

    That’s the only point I meant to make, but it’s a biggie, and one that paganism, as sort of an idealistic movement, should take to heart. Of course I don’t mean that we should emulate Hale in any way as a person, but sometimes even madmen still have the sense to hire the best help, not the most ideologically pure. There’s wisdom in that. Surrounding oneself with people whose only qualifications are true belief or worse, who are sycophants and yes-men, is a management strategy which will always lead to epic failure sooner or later. Sometimes that works to humanity’s benefit indirectly. If Hitler had left his war to the technically competent instead of himself and his personal entourage of freaks, we might well be speaking German by now. 

  • mariele

    Interesting words here – value, sincerity and competence. A value is subjective.  It is based upon a personal preference that has been instilled through culture, experience, environment. intelligence, spirituality. There’s more but for this discussion, enough for now.  Sincerity is an expressed feeling it is based on feeling, a feeling is ephemeral, not based on facts.  Competence however is demonstrable. You are either competent (based upon a situation) or not competent.  A fact in the face of a situation.  Different situations require differing levels of competence.  What we value is based upon our knowledge.  And therein lies the rub.