The Realities of Coven Leadership

The Realities of Coven Leadership May 9, 2015

Scenes from the kitchen.
Scenes from the kitchen.

There’s a certain level of hubris that goes along with thinking oneself qualified to run a teaching coven (or maybe any kind of Pagan group, but especially a hierarchical one). At least, that’s how it always looked to me as a teenager, growing up and finding my way in a wider network of witches. I met so many people who were so anxious to call themselves teachers, self-declared high priests and high priestesses desperate for the validation that being a coven leader would surely provide. You can’t go anywhere on the Internet without being up to your armpits in these folks, and they’re pretty common in the physical, too.

I was never one of those people who had ambitions to run a group. Sure, I wanted a coven (Teenaged Thorn was borderline desperate), but when I fantasized about working with other witches I never envisioned myself at the prow. My mentality has always been that of a student. I’m usually a lot happier working under people I respect and who clearly have something to teach me, rather than presuming that anything I do is worth learning.

Foxfire got off to a shaky start. Really, the whole thing was sort of an accident. I’d been a second degree for a while when I was approached by a seeker I didn’t feel I could refuse. My parent coven was no longer accepting students, and we were the only (Gardnerian) show in town, which seriously limited her options. It was my high priestess who encouraged me to take said seeker on and set up shop. She also advised me that you should watch your mouth and not speak too casually about having students or running covens. “The gods hear you,” she said, “and they have a way of giving you what you’ve asked for.”

It would be another year before I was elevated, and a bit longer before I formally hived. Now that Foxfire is coming up on the two-year mark and we have our own initiates and covenstead in place (and I don’t hyperventilate so much), I’ve got considerably more insight into what it’s actually like to run a coven. So I thought I’d share, at least for the benefit of those running mostly off delusions of grandeur:

Being in charge is pretty crappy sometimes.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

Being a coven leader is absolutely magical and rewarding and I wouldn’t trade Foxfire for anything on the planet and I love my initiates with a fierceness unrivaled by the heat of a thousand suns, but sometimes I’m just really tired and I want to watch Game of Thrones and drink a lot of wine without having to say any words.

Running a group is really hard work, and most of the hard stuff doesn’t actually happen in circle. Or even when other people are around.

First, there are a lot of practical concerns: Where are you going to meet and how often? Can you coordinate everyone’s schedules (hint: no)? What about food?

Hospitality is extremely important to me, particularly in outer court, where circle attendees are guests and not yet coven members. I spend a lot of time making sure that my home is presentable. I vacuum the carpets, wipe down all of the counters, scrub the toilets and tub, and make sure that all of the dishes are clean. If guests are staying overnight I make sure the beds have fresh sheets and all the bathrooms have clean towels. My cat, Oliver, poses additional chores: I thoroughly scrub his litter box and clean his food area, make sure his toys aren’t underfoot, and brush the couches, chairs, and rugs to remove the cat hair (my friend Acacia calls it “lonely people glitter”).

We eat before circle, so this means time must be devoted to either cooking or ordering a meal. Even if food duties are delegated, I’m still responsible for something, so there will be at least one trip to a grocery store or take-out joint. We’re also drinkers, so sometimes an ABC store visit is in order (which, thanks to a lot of nonsensical religiously-motivated laws, sometimes requires more pre-planning than I can manage). After dinner—and again after everyone’s gone home—there will be clean-up.

And then, of course, there’s the ritual prep. Aside from just generally being awesome, one of the great things about being a Gardnerian is that we already have most of this drawn out ahead of time, a few decades prior. I don’t have to build from the ground up unless I just want to. But even if I stick to every letter, I still have to be sure the space can accommodate the individual rite (which, of course, must be memorized beforehand, if it’s not already ingrained). I have to consider how many people I’ll have and whether or not that changes anything. I may select special music to play. Will there be a fire? Do I need to make more incense? Where the hell did that box of charcoals disappear to? Crap I’m out of red candles.

On and on, about three times a month (between inner court and outer court), not counting social gatherings, copying sessions, or one-on-one discussion time. On top of a regular life that includes a couple of jobs, going to school, and trying to be social with people who aren’t witches (jk lol that never happens).

I say all this not to complain, but rather to point out that being a coven leader involves a lot of mundanity that’s often time-consuming, inconvenient, and expensive.

And that’s just the logistics of the thing. I’m not even talking about the often-terrifying challenge of being at least partially responsible for the religious/magical/whatever welfare of other people. Traditionalists have the additional weight of upholding whatever obligations they have to their families and ensuring the preservation of their Craft in the future. Housecleaning is totally benign in comparison.

I have whole new levels of appreciation for my own high priestess and priest, who indulged my late-night phone calls, weird habits, hard-headedness, and sometimes complete failure to be a decent human being. And I, of course, was not their only initiate.

I survived the process thanks largely to their generosity. Now that I’m on the other end, I have a better sense of how hard they worked. My own initiates are considerate, level-headed people who ask much less of me than I ever did when I was in their shoes, and I’m genuinely thrilled and honored (if a little mystified) to have their trust and to spend time with them.

But I still just want to watch Game of Thrones sometimes.

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