Pagan Groups: Why Not?

Pagan Groups: Why Not? April 1, 2013
bonfires go better with friends

A couple weeks ago I blogged about the need for Pagans to work in groups. While it generated minimal comments here, there were many more on Facebook, Google+, and in private communication. A few were positive, but most were skeptical if not outright negative. The complaints generally fell into five categories and I’d like to address them.

There’s nothing near me. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth region, which is the fourth largest metro area in the United States with a population of around 7 million. It’s easy for me to forget that there are small and medium sized cities (much less rural areas) where there are few or no Pagan and/or magical groups. And even if there are groups, getting to them requires access to transportation, which in most areas means a car and enough money for gas. Some people simply aren’t going to be able to find a local coven, grove, or other group.

But there are communities available to solitaries. There are on-line and correspondence courses, such as the Druid course run by OBOD. There are virtual communities on social networking sites. There are local Pagan Pride Days, regional festivals and national conventions. None of these will appeal to everyone (I’m not overly fond of festivals) and none will duplicate the experience of a local face-to-face group. But there are many different opportunities to meet, interact with, and learn from other like-minded Pagans.

I wasn’t welcome. I hear this too often. I’ve experienced it myself. It goes far beyond the scope of group-vs-solitary and it’s inexcusable in a religion where hospitality and reciprocity are key virtues. Those of us who are in groups have a sacred obligation to greet our guests, to talk to them and to make them comfortable. Talking to a friend you haven’t seen in a couple weeks is no excuse.

If you’re seriously seeking a group, it may be necessary to compensate for clueless Pagans and inject yourself into the conversation, to ask questions instead of waiting to be asked. But if what you experience is rudeness or offensiveness and not garden variety social ineptitude, don’t waste your time. Keep looking.

I don’t want the drama. You have a job, a family, a spiritual practice and some hobbies you enjoy. They keep you pretty busy. The last thing you need is to have to deal with someone’s imagined insults, overreactions and manufactured crises.

So don’t. Good groups know that if you don’t feed drama queens they usually go away. Very good groups take action to stop drama before it gets out of hand. I have no guidelines for finding drama-free groups, but when you do find one, you’ll know it. Just understand that drama is not inevitable – you don’t have to put up with it to get the benefits of a group.

Being solitary allows for greater focus. This is true – the narrower your focus, the fewer people who are going to want to work with you. Finding a group to celebrate the seasons is easy. Finding a group to re-create ancient Celtic worship is harder. Finding a group dedicated to Morrigan is harder still. If your interest or your calling is extremely focused you may have no choice but to work alone.

But there is still value in participating in an occasional group ritual or in having someone to discuss your work even if they don’t want to collaborate on it. There is value in supporting the wider Pagan community, so it will be there for the next generation that comes along. And who knows, you just might find a study partner when you’re not expecting one.

I’m really an introvert. Now the truth comes out. I have no data to draw on, but my best guess is that this is the biggest reason more Pagans don’t look for a group. I wish I had an easy answer here, but I’m an introvert too. I’ve been leading public rituals for ten years, speaking at UU Sunday services for nine and maintaining a public presence on the internet for five, and I still get anxious when I have to talk to someone I don’t know.

I’ll simply say that for me, the benefits of being part of a group (several groups, actually) have far exceeded the anxiety I felt in joining those groups and that I still feel in doing the kinds of things I have to do to be a good host.

Finding, joining and participating with a Pagan group is not always simple, and it’s more difficult for some than for others. I understand the uneasiness some Pagans have around groups. As with everything else on your spiritual journey, you have to decide what tradeoffs you’re willing to make and what is ultimately best for you. Make your decisions mindfully, after careful review and consideration.

But I would not be where I am on my spiritual journey if I had insisted on working only on my own.

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  • Good points on all of that John. I’m not totally sure what a “clueless Pagan” is (most likely because I am probably one) – but a lot of your points are well made. –Tommy

    • In this setting, “clueless Pagans” are those who hold public gatherings and then don’t take care of their guests. They don’t mean to be exclusionary, but they spend so much time talking to the people they know that they barely pay attention to the newcomers. Being a good host doesn’t come naturally – it takes mindfulness and work.

      • Ahhh! Social Circlers….ok, that makes more sense now….not quite the same as the absent-minded, such as me. :)~

  • Markus Skogsberg

    One of my jobs in the organisation I’m in is to try to help people to start up groups. It’s alot harder than I had imagined. To me, group worship has been very important since the vrry beginning of my life as a pagan. It always baffles, therefore, when people are so reluctant to invest anything into finding, building and participating in groups. It’s an hour by bus or train? So? To me, this is the most important thing I do (you know, apparat from raising kids and loving my wife…) AND it’s fun! I just spent the weekend in a place 500 kms away with my family, sleeping way too little and spending WAY too mucj money. I’m exhausted, but happy because it’s been a great time.

    • Bianca Bradley

      Some of us are picky. I know I really don’t feel the need to hang around and listen to drama, and manufactured drama, and with people who do not have decent conflict resolution skills. I really am going to be even more hesitant to spend money, and a significant portion of my time to do that either.

    • We all make choices and tradeoffs in life and we prioritize what is most important to us. When someone says “it’s too far” that speaks volumes for what they value and what they don’t. Yes, it would be nice to have a Druid grove or a Hellenic temple 2 miles away like Baptist churches in Texas, but we don’t have that. I drive 30 miles one way to meet with my CUUPS group. I know some people can’t do that on a regular basis, but most people can.

  • Markus Skogsberg

    That rant would have been more coherent if I had written it on my computer rather than on my phone…

  • When people argue that there are no groups near them, I usually feel that they aren’t looking hard enough. Research is key here. Use all the resources you can to find a group near you. Ask people you know, search Witchvox and Facebook, and attend Pride days and festivals to find the people near you. Granted, sometimes there really aren’t any groups nearby, and there may not be anything you can do about that.

    As a side note, though they are hard to find, groups dedicated to specific deities are out there. There is a group dedicated to the Morrigan in east Alabama, and the group my fiancé and I have started in Atlanta works with the Morrigan as well.

    • Morrigan probably wasn’t the best example, since her worship seems to be expanding all the time. On the other hand, the fact that there’s a Morrigan group in east Alabama reinforces your point – keep looking, you never know what you’ll find in the most unusual places.

      • D

        Unfortunately, for some of us, there is also a factor of fear. In my region, it has proven impossible to find anything closer than 2 hours away. I started an informal group in my county, but because of the large Fundamentalist population and exclusionary culture, even those interested or long time practitioners were afraid to join. You could have your job threatened, and be harassed. I was raised Jewish not far from here, which was stigmatizing enough. But Pagan, boy howdy. That’s just asking to be attacked in some areas. It’s really unfortunate since I got used to a wonderful and very open community of pagans when we lived on the east coast.

  • “But there is still value in participating in an occasional group ritual or in having someone to discuss your work even if they don’t want to collaborate on it. There is value in supporting the wider Pagan community, so it will be there for the next generation that comes along.”

    This right here is exactly why I support the idea of being involved in groups. Both for the personal benefit of participating in group rit, and of having lilke-minded people around me to support me (as with anything, it’s easier to learn and to practice when there’s someone in my life I can talk to about my beliefs and practices). And I do believe that we must have groups, and a bit more organization overall in order to survive. Not as individuals, but as a religion/collection of religions.

    I am a huge supporter of the idea of having groups, temples, groves, etc. where anyone who considers themselves Pagan or polytheistic may go when they feel like it to be in touch with others of a like mind. Being solitary is great, but even solitaries need support sometimes.

  • kenneth

    The issue of groups or not is a big one. There’s a huge difference between participating in a group for social connection and networking and common interests such as charity or religious freedom sort of work and joining a group for ritual like a coven or grove. The former is easy to do and I would commend it to anyone in the pagan scene. It can be a very low investment and informal. Find or launch a meetup once a month at some coffee shop or pagan book store, if any are left. It’s a nice way to drop in maybe on a Friday evening and just hang out with others who are somewhere on the same spectrum as you.

    When it comes to joining a group full time for ritual, my encouragement is much more guarded. Don’t run out and join one just to join. It can take years to find one that is a good fit and which will lead to growth rather than drama. I’m in the Chicago area and we have no shortage of groups, but damn few that I either fit with or would keep company with. I ended up forming one with a wonderful lady who was in the same boat. Don’t be afraid to be a solitary but hold open your options. Figure out what you need and what your vision of group work is, and don’t compromise. You might find a good fit next month, or five years from now.

    • That’s a good point, Kenneth. I’ve passed on several groups because they weren’t what I was looking for. I’m fortunate that Denton CUUPS had a solid, serious core when I got there in 2003, and we’ve maintained that core (and lately, a lot more) over the years. I’ve encountered some groups I wouldn’t mind joining for normal stuff, but I wouldn’t trust them magically or spiritually for anything deep.

      • kenneth

        What I tend to tell people is that most of us, even the most communal, will have to spend some portion of our lives as solitaries for one reason or another, and that those of us inclined to solitude will still have something to benefit from group work somewhere along the way. I find it’s best not to have too many preconceived ideas about how one’s pagan path will unfold, and to try to leave ourselves receptive to learn and grow in whatever mode of practice we find ourselves in at the time.

  • Near Me, Small towns: Many seekers are not willing to go across the street. We live 25 miles out from a fairly large city, and are expected to drive into town, but the townies won’t drive out to the country to be pagan on the land. Having transportation is a necessary part of modern life. Not having transportation is dysfunctional, and a dysfunctional person is not a good member of a group.

    Unwelcome: We welcome sincere seekers who want to practice what we lead. We are not all things to all pagans. Neither do we want to include dysfunctional people or those with psychological problems. We are not the mental hospital. Drama queens and christians will be shown the door. Those who don’t respect men as well as women also are not welcome.

    Drama: It has been my experience in other groups that it is often the LEADER or HPS who creates and exacerbates the drama. Some of the best known Pagan authors on coven leadership fall into this group.

    Focus: If you have no focus, you are wasting your time. If a group has no focus, it is wasting everyone’s time. Our group does what we do, and if someone else doesn’t want to do the same, they don’t have to join. Mixing and matching deities from half a dozen pantheons is crazy making.

    Introvert: I’m not sure that is a problem. There are leaders available for groups. What is missing is the group. Maybe all new pagans today are introverts and don’t enjoy company, but I kind of doubt it.

    Hard Work: My guess is that hard work of learning and progressing on a path is why so few people want to be in a group. Having to show up once a month, or once a week, plus an occasional Saturday is a lot of work. Its easier to be a “Beltane pagan,” show up on Beltane.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Hard Work, since I didn’t cover it. Being part of a group is hard work. So is everything else worthwhile.

    • Anonnymouse

      If I may comment on a couple of your points, Greybeard:

      1. Transport: For some of us who value nature and earth-based ways of living, not having a car is part of our spiritual practice, so we don’t pollute the earth. I don’t think that is ‘dysfunctional’, and I think you are being very judgemental here. Yes, I live close to a city for work so I can cycle in, but that doesn’t make me a ‘townie’ who can’t be bothered connecting with the land.

      2. ‘Psychological problems’: I don’t think you have the first idea what you’re talking about. Are you a psychologist qualified to diagnose people or do you demand every member prove their sanity to you before they join? You wouldn’t accept anyone with depression for instance, or asperger’s syndrome? That is simply bigoted. Non-neurotypicals are just as functional and sincere as anyone else, and I would wager there are a higher rate of people with mental health difficulties in alternative /pagan spiritualities than in mainstream groups. Most people who start ‘drama’ are not the mentally ill, just the attention-seekers. Since spirituality is supposed to help with mental health and wellbeing, it seems to me like you’re excluding the very people who need spirituality and support the most. How charitable of you. Oh, and the reference to ‘mental hospital’ is offensive, hurtful and triggering to those of us who do have a history with mental health difficulties. Please check your language. Thank you.

      • No, Anonymous, I’m not a psychologist. That’s why we don’t accept members who appear to have psychological problems that need to be dealt with by qualified psychological help. I will do spiritual counseling, but a pagan group is not a substitute for psychological help. When someone needs psychological help we suggest they seek that first from a qualified professional, and then come asking to be a member of the group.

        • There’s a difference between unresolved psychological issues (possibly due to family), inability to keep one’s temper, being a drama queen, personality clashes, and not being neurotypical. People can be officially sane and still be a pain in the ass. I would never turn anyone away for being non-neurotypical, but I would turn them away for being a pain in the ass.

          • kenneth

            Unfortunately, the non-dogmatic and generally non-judgmental nature of paganism is taken by some folks to mean that they can dispense with all ordinary social norms and graces when they come to our groups or functions.

            As to the mental illness question, all of us qualify for something in the DSM at some point in our lives, or verge on it. The yardstick I use is whether a person has the capacity and just as importantly, the will, to address their issues. If someone is doing what they’re supposed to for their condition and having their little setbacks here and there, I’m OK with that (if it doesn’t pose a safety risk).

            On the other hand, I also see a steady traffic in bipolar people and a few schizophrenics who refuse to take medication or take any responsibility for themselves. I have no use for that, or for people who are serious substance abusers, or kids with unresolved daddy or pastor issues or chronic moochers or the guys whose primary interest is working skyclad. The way I see it, we’re a path of free spirits and we need to accept that a certain amount of eccentricity goes with that. That doesn’t mean we have to become a catch basin for dysfunctional freaks.

  • hippiefemme

    I feel compelled to point out that some people can’t come out of the broom closet, so to speak. In a small town, if you go to a pagan gathering, it likely will be known to some people you might not want to tell. I attend a Circle, and I almost stopped going when a friend of a friend showed up. I was terrified that she might post something about me publicly, but she didn’t (which was respectful). Not everyone is as lucky as I was.

    • kenneth

      At the very real risk of getting all preachy, those of us still staying in the broom closet are not merely empowering their oppressors. They are doing their work for them. It is one thing to not advertise one’s spirituality everywhere among strangers. But when we allow ourselves to be terrified of being “found out”, we feed energy into the narrative of our haters which says we are doing something evil or shameful or deviant, and we ingrain some really deep and toxic pathology within ourselves.

      I get the instinct to keep one’s head down to avoid trouble. Every oppressed minority that ever was tried it. It failed every last one of them. Look at the experience of blacks, Jews and gays. In each case, they reached some turning point within their respective cultures when they decided “we’re done apologizing for who we are. we have as much right to be as you do and you WILL respect that.” For black Americans, maybe that moment was Rosa Parks. For Jews, the founding of Israel. For gays, Stonewall. None of them got through that struggle unscathed, and some didn’t get through at all, but I’ll wager you won’t find anyone in any of those groups who would go back into their closets.

  • Ar nDraiocht Fein: A Druid Fellowship has public Grove rituals for each of the eight sabbats. You don’t have to be a member of ADF or the Grove to attend (they’re open to everyone, Pagan or not). They are located all over the place.

    Here is the link to find an ADF Grove near you:

    Victoria, ADF Dedicant
    Candidate for ADF Members’ Advocate

  • Nora

    There are public CoG events for every Sabbat and many groups right in this area. There are also classes offered in two locations. There is a large community here.