Starting a CUUPS Chapter

Starting a CUUPS Chapter May 11, 2011

At least a couple times a year I get an e-mail that reads something like this:

Hi! I’m thinking about (or I’m in the process of) forming a CUUPS group at my UU church. What did you do to start the Denton CUUPS group? Where do I need to start?

I wasn’t around when Denton CUUPS was formed in 2000. Summer Cartwright, Monique Gulyas and Cheryl Monroe were the key members of the founding group – they did most of the heavy lifting. It is a huge credit to their work and to their foresight that even though none of them are actively involved (though we still see them a couple times a year) the group is still going strong eleven years later. Not many Pagan groups survive the departure of their founders. I’ve had a leadership role in Denton CUUPS since 2003, but I wasn’t present at it’s birth.

And check out the requirements on the CUUPS National website. They aren’t complicated and they spell out what must be done to be recognized as a chapter.

With those two disclaimers, though, I’m always happy to offer advice and suggestions. Here are a few suggestions I made recently.

First and foremost, form and maintain a strong relationship with your host congregation. CUUPS leaders should be active in the church. Period. You will always have Pagans who want to come to the CUUPS events but who have no interest in Sunday services, but as long as the core Pagan leaders are also involved with the church, a CUUPS chapter is likely to be considered a ministry of the church and not a bunch of people who use the building without contributing to the church’s upkeep and overall mission.

Most years Denton CUUPS has a member on the Denton UU Board. I’ve been President twice and Dolores Nabors was President a couple years ago. Others have served as Vice President, Secretary, and Trustee. I’ll drop off the Board in June, but I’ll remain on the Worship Committee.

Second, you must have a core group of three or more committed leaders. Small groups don’t run themselves – someone has to make sure the trains run on time and one person can’t do it all. The core leaders don’t have to DO everything (nor should they) but they have to make sure everything gets done. That means keeping a calendar, coordinating volunteers, following up to make sure the volunteers do what they say they’ll do, and stepping in and doing it for them if the volunteers fall down.

Individuals can (and should, at least occasionally) be allowed to fail. The group can never be allowed to fail. Someone has to care enough to make sure the group always meets its commitments.

Third, don’t try to do too much too soon. You don’t have to run circles and a study group and do environmental action and network with other Pagan groups all at the same time. Start with one thing (whatever appeals to you most), do it well, then add other activities when and if your interests and membership levels will support them.

Denton CUUPS started by celebrating the sabbats and (to a lesser extent) the esbats and that has remained our primary focus. Other groups have formed around study groups or discussion groups. We’ve done occasional seminars or class series, but the topics have been highly dependent on the interests of our members and the expertise of our leaders. We do our Adopt-a-Spot cleanups, but that only takes an hour every other month.

Whatever you do, do it well. That means getting out and seeing what others are doing. If you’re going to do circles, go to as many open circles as you can. See what works and what doesn’t. Read books (Isaac BonewitsNeopagan Rites is far and away the best resource on leading public worship) and talk to people who are good at ritual. Same thing if you want to start with classes – go to a bunch of classes and see how to run them (and how NOT to run them).

Fourth – and I can’t emphasize this enough – be consistent and reliable. If you’re going to hold open circles, then hold public circles at every quarter and crossquarter. Over time you’ll attract a group of occasional attendees. They may not come to every event, but they’ll know that if they want to celebrate a quarter or crossquarter, you’re there for them. The one time you decide to skip a sabbat will be the one time they really wanted to come and they’ll mark you off their list for the future.

Finally, don’t neglect your own spiritual practice. Leading a group – any group – is time consuming. It can be very rewarding, but it can also be stressful. If you don’t maintain your meditation, prayer, altar work, communion with Nature – whatever it is that keeps you grounded – you’ll burn yourself out and you won’t be the effective leader your group needs you to be.

If there had been an active Druid grove in North Texas back in 2002 I might have never gone looking for a CUUPS group. But there wasn’t and I did. I was looking at two different groups (neither really close to me) and I decided to try Denton CUUPS first because their website looked like they had more going on. I had no intention of joining, but a few months after my first visit I did. Then I started going to Sunday services, serving on the Worship Committee, and before I knew it I was congregational President and getting invitations to speak on Sunday morning.

I’m thankful Summer, Monique, and Cheryl did the work to start a CUUPS chapter at Denton. I hope others are as successful in starting chapters at their congregations.

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  • Andrea Hess

    Great article, thanks. I noticed that you are a member of a Gnostic organization as well. I’m curious as to how that fits in your diagram. I would also like to hear more of your thoughts on Sam’s comment. Like you, I am a member of a Gnostic and Unitarian Universalist church as well as being an active member in the Pagan and Druidic community.

    • John Beckett

      Andrea, the Gnostic tradition in which I’m ordained is very non-creedal. While I have a little knowledge of the early Christian Gnostics, my primary interest in it is through mysticism. I’m naturally a very practical, concrete person, and while my few mystical experiences have been amazing, it’s not easy for me to accept them, much less understand them.

      I don’t know Sam all that well, but I’m pretty sure his comment “you can’t be a Pagan and worship Jesus Christ” was meant to point out that traditional Christianity and either ancient or modern Paganism are very different religions. If you try to do both, you won’t do either one very well.