Being an Ethical Mentor

Being an Ethical Mentor March 25, 2018

I’ve spent the past couple of hours distracted by the latest scandal involving a pagan leader. The gossip about the whole mess doesn’t interest me that much, so that hasn’t been on my mind. What I have been doing is examining my own practices as a mentor, teacher and writer. My personal code of conduct can be found later in the article. I wrote this blog in the hopes that it starts a dialogue about ethical mentorship in the pagan community.

Yet Another Scandal

There have so many stories about leaders in the pagan community who grossly abuse their position of power that it’s safe to say the latest allegations are not an isolated case. In fact, there’s been another much less widely known situation of a student speaking out about a former teacher that’s been happening while this other scenario has been playing out. I’ve been reading Doreen Valiente’s biography while receiving updates from friends about these two crises. The way that some of the individuals in that book treated some initiates is exceptionally scandalous.

Why is it that there seems to be so many stories of inappropriate conduct by pagan leaders? Stories abound about boundaries being violated, inappropriate behavior and actual abuse. Students can be quite traumatized by unethical behavior by their mentors.

Ethical Mentorship

My attitude towards even the most informal exchanges with someone in a learning context is very professional. It’s not my job to be your buddy. I’m here to support you in your training and understanding. That’s my role. My personal beliefs, desires and issues are none of your business. I’m not saying that to be mean, it’s in your best interest as a reader, student or in my case, a member of the Keeping Her Keys online community. I’m providing an educational service. That’s not to say that I haven’t become friends with a handful of students from either my career as a university professor or as a spiritual teacher. But those friendships are rare.

If someone has taken one two-hour course from me, that’s a bit different. However, I’ve had many students who I’ve trained for years. Perhaps it’s because I had extensive training in ethics and professional practice in grad school that I am able to maintain boundaries. I wish that there was a similar course for pagan leaders.

A Few Rotten Apples

I’m personally fed up with the abuse of power by a few leaders in the pagan community. They’re a few rotten apples that spoil it for those of us who are professional in our conduct. Moreover, I’m concerned that there may be a systemic problem. The issue in the pagan community might be that there is a lack of standards and oversight for almost everything we do. I’m not advocating for creating some sort of regulatory body because that would never work. What will help is talking about ethical mentorship.

We Need to Talk About Ethical Mentorship

Those of us who are mentors – leaders, teachers and writers – need to speak out about our own professional practices. By talking about it, we can help educate people about ethical mentorship. While I am grateful for this excellent article advising people how to pick a good teacher, I believe the responsibility of being an ethical mentor is something that also needs to be discussed.

Recommendations for Ethical Mentorship

Below is my personal professional code of practice that is largely informed by being a member of the American Psychological Association for years as well as a member of university faculty associations, but I’ve also added some things I’ve learned along the way as a spiritual teacher for the past decade.

  1. Be aware of the power imbalance. As mentors and teachers, we are always going to seen as experts. Some trainees will see us as celebrities. That’s the last thing any of us need. Do what you can to avoid having fans.
  2. Maintain distance between your personal life and your trainees. Don’t tell them about the date you went on last night or gossip to them about what another leader is up to. That one blows my mind a bit. What a complete lack of professionalism. After the teacher-student relationship has ended, friendships need to be carefully managed.
  3. Carefully select students. Letting in everyone to a course about witchcraft is dangerous. Screen people for significant health and personality challenges. Refer them to an appropriate service. I’ve seen mentally ill people get into courses that clearly they didn’t belong in and watched the destruction that ensued.
  4. Be transparent about your own education and experience in the context of the course you are teaching.
  5. Negotiate the terms of any exchange of labor at the outset of a project.
  6. Maintain confidentiality. This is especially true in personal development courses. Not only does the teacher need to not discuss what students say, but others in the course who are privy to disclosures need to agree to confidentiality before the course begins.
  7. Do not take credit for the student’s work. This happened to me once and it still stings over fifteen years later.
  8. The student’s accomplishments are theirs alone. If they are successful then that’s all the limelight necessary for any teacher.
  9. Don’t get students to do things for you that you would have to pay someone else to do unless there is benefit to the student.
  10. Be a mentor. Let your students develop their own ideas and methods. Any leader who doesn’t encourage this is unethical, as is a leader who doesn’t provide direction and criticism. Sometimes a trainee needs to mentored by telling them that they aren’t doing well.
  11. See yourself as a learner alongside your readers, students and trainees. Just yesterday, I learned something from a reader that profoundly influenced my way of thinking about a construct.
  12. Do what the course outline says you’ll do. 
  13. If the student has paid for the course, give them their monies worth. Also, charge a fair price and provide bursaries for students who can’t afford the tuition.

These are my thoughts on ethical mentorship. I’m hoping that this blog will start a candid discussion about professional practice by pagan leaders.


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  • Bonnie-jean Stacey

    what a timely post..yes. i’ve been concerned particularly about item 3 (among others) on your list. and item 1. is a real common miss-step too. the bit about letting the student develop their own methods and ideas needs discernment as well i believe ….sometimes ideas and methods demonstrate a lack of understanding and messing around with energy and magic may invite a backlash. thats why students of magic need teachers. so they aren’t in the deep end before they can swim it. i recently posted a concern about ethics. people need to know who their dealing with and without a regulatory body it’s even more important to be transparent, clear and for students and teachers alike to practice common sense and discernment. i also believe that there is so much abuse in leadership of spiritual movements in general (look at catholicism) because the seekers looking outside themselves instead of developing their own personal power. yes learning is a way of developing personal power but one is prey to abuse if one is not aware of and protective of their own boundaries and rights. my advice would be to not take a teacher who belittles but one who encourages personal responsibility and personal empowerment among their students. put simply. it is an important topic

  • Unlabeled_Unlimited

    Love your developed list, great rules to live by.
    But, it isn’t just “pagan” leaders, corruption, coercion, destruction is an all too often trait of those called to lead.
    I just read an article about further Catholic priests and abuse, busted last week in Michigan.
    They say power corrupts, I tend to believe it attracts the already corrupted to its ranks.
    Just like some of the most violent and brutal are attracted to positions, like cops, where they get to play judge, jury and ass-kicker.
    Human traits and behavior transcend labels, ideologies and cultural norms. Evil lies in the heart of all men, as does pain and the potential to love.
    Thank you for this.

  • If I may offer one more:

    Consent. A clear and concise discussion about consent is mandatory to healthy relationships, from “how shall I address you?” to “I will need to put hands on you for [X things], is that all right?”

    From there, a mentor and student have an EXCELLENT basis on which to grow. What may initially not be okay (“I’d rather I wasn’t touched, can you verbally walk me through this?”) can turn into absolute trust that will weave stronger and less troubled magic as the mentorship grows. Why? Because initial boundaries (SIMPLE boundaries!) were respected, and oh, that goes so far in any relationship! Consent is the key to all healthy relationships. Every single one.

    …Edit: AHAHAH I just realized this post is months old. Damn you, Facebook, you have led me astray!