[I originally wrote this (well, another version of this) for a Gardnerian audience, but I think it holds up well more broadly.]
Foxfire celebrated its second birthday last month. Compared to some European covens I could name, we’re not even a blip, but when standing next to most Pagan groups on the whole (especially when you add in the do-it-yourself variety), I’d say two years is positively venerable.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about our progress, the future, and how the hell all of this hasn’t blown up in my face. A lot of our success—I think—comes from running a stricter-than-most outer court (which is sort of like a training program for would-be coven members). There are a number of witchcraft traditions that use the outer court model, though the term may be different from group to group. Here, I share some of the points I came up with:
How to Not Ruin Your Training Group: Five Points
Running a training group is a tough job, any way you cut it (in Gardnerian Wicca we usually call them outer courts, so that’s the term I’ll use here). Vetting seekers, answering questions, coming up with useful activities, filtering oathbound information, wrangling schedules, and finding time to calm your own nerves before leading circle (hint: booze with your ritual bath) is trying for anyone.
I’ll be frank with all of you, too: I’m still pretty new at this. I’m running my second outer court and training my first batch of initiates, unassisted with my badass working partner. It’s hard.
So far, I’ve been lucky. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from my upline, siblings, and extended family, and I’ve thus far avoided most of the really hairy scenarios.
But I don’t think it’s all luck. The more I talk to family, the more I’m seeing some distinct patterns that determine success or failure when working with seekers. I attribute much of my success thus far to both my experience in a wider Pagan community (observing other groups and noting trends in personality types, especially) and also my experience as a teacher, more generally. When it comes to navigating learning styles, designing curricula, working with “problem” students, and struggling to get through to someone, I’ve seen more than many. I’ve consciously drawn on these experiences in running Foxfire’s outer court, and it is in that spirit that I offer five points that I hope make life easier for my fellow novices:
Point One: Remind yourself of the purpose of your training group.
It’s not necessarily obvious, and every group will differ here (which is why the practice of an outer court/grove/training circle isn’t universal, and everyone’s outer court experience is so different). For Foxfire, outer court does three things:
It doesn’t really matter how empathic you think you are or how many planets seem to be aligning; you can’t judge someone’s character until you see it in action, over time. Anyone whose been involved in manipulative, abusive relationships can tell you that the worst people are often smooth, charming, and good at appearing gracious and sincere. But you don’t sign a contract until you’ve given someone a test run, and initiation is a contract. A training circle allows you to observe someone in ritual (which is a different space than the dinner table, a coffee shop, or an open festival) and make an educated guess about whether they are both a good fit for your group and have a fair chance of sticking things out in your tradition. People can always surprise you, but it behooves you to know as much as possible before you commit to someone. (And if I sound paranoid, it’s only because the fallout can be so severe.)
This is the flipside of the vetting process: your seekers get to make an educated decision about you. Outer court allows you to more safely expose would-be initiates to your tradition, your protocol, and the coven egregore, thereby allowing them to judge their own suitability. If someone discovers hang-ups about any key aspect of your tradition (or just simply has personality clashes), better now than after you’ve initiated them. Don’t assume that your seeker knows exactly what they’re signing up for. Show them. And then let them leave, if that’s what needs to happen.
Every now and then, I hear people refer to training groups as “dumbed down” versions of the real thing. Some group leaders express frustration at having to teach material that only changes after initiation. What’s the use of wasting your time teaching newbies and memorizing material when they’re just going to have to unlearn it?
But outer court is not about memorizing rituals that you’re only going to throw out later. It’s about teaching a skill set that’s necessary to be effective in inner court. The fact that your rituals might be different isn’t actually relevant. You may never see your high school language arts textbooks again, but you still carry your literacy skills into adulthood. Outer court is about teaching Craft literacy.
What does that mean? Well, this is the part that’s different for everyone. In Foxfire, that means basic techniques for achieving altered states, raising power, and recognizing communication from/with gods and spirits. It also means learning some self-sufficiency in solitary practice and research (evaluating sources, being confident enough to experiment magically, asking better questions, building your own relationships with the gods). By the time someone gets to first degree, I want to be teaching them specific techniques, not entirely new concepts (i.e. how to encounter our gods and perform our rites, not how to meditate, perform spellwork, or distinguish between a useful sign and a coincidence).
Yes, the ritual may change, but the goal is to teach the skills, and that applies no matter the context. You don’t skip high school just because you’re eventually going to end up in college (which, to follow the analogy, doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives to high school).
You’re also allowing seekers to build a relationship with the coven and its egregore, without putting quite as much on the line. It’s less traumatic when someone leaves outer court than when they leave after initiation.
Point Two: Focus on the people you can actually serve.
I teach college and high school students because I’m good at it. My experience and aptitude (nevermind the swearing) doesn’t translate so well in elementary schools. I am not a bad person or a failure as a teacher for leaving those students to someone else.
As a group leader, accept that you cannot accommodate everyone who will knock on your door. You just can’t. And that’s not a bad thing.
Your personality, your experience, and your schedule limits you, but there’s a good chance that you’re a perfect fit for a particular kind of seeker. So drop the savior complex. It doesn’t help anyone.
Foxfire, for example, due to my own personality and the way our egregore has developed, is best-suited for seekers who’ve already been around the block a few times. We’re a good fit for the skeptical, the bookish, the self-directed, and those who’ve already been involved in other kinds of witchcraft. I’m good at “unlearning” people, or supplementing what they already know. I do not accept seekers with no prior knowledge of Gardnerian Wicca, who are not intent on becoming Gardnerian, specifically. Period. And that desire needs to be based on something more than, “Your group is so close to my house; it’s like it was fate!” or “I was also interested in Alexandrian Wicca, but you responded first!”
This exclusivity is not because I think these folks are inherently unworthy (we were all green at one point, after all); it’s because I know myself as a high priestess, and I know my limits. I have neither the time nor the patience to walk someone through their first sabbat cycle or explain to them what an athame is. I just don’t. My talents and interests lie elsewhere, and I know that there are plenty of others out there doing better work with complete beginners than I ever could.
It’s 2015. There are a gazillion traditions, covens, and training programs out there, and the Internet is a thing. There’s no reason to take whomever comes along. You’re not doing anyone any favors. Taking someone because you feel like you have to serve everyone is no less egotistical than taking someone because you just want to swell your ranks. You’re still assigning yourself a position you don’t (and can’t) deserve. And the end result is the same: failure.
Point Three: Get good at saying no.
Get especially good at saying no to people you like.
When you’re doing something well, people notice. Sometimes, it’s just enough for people to know that you’re a part of a particular tradition. The desire for authenticity (whatever that is) runs deep and people can be swayed by labels. Being a Gardnerian (just as an example, since that’s where I’m standing) might, in fact, be the best thing ever (totally unbiased here, obviously), but people sometimes still treat it like a stamp that needs to be collected. The tradition doesn’t matter so much as the gold star you can put by your name on Internet forums (gross).
People will come a seekin’ because they want to be involved, whether or not the reasons are good. Sometimes, these people are your friends. Sometimes, these people are the partners of people already in your coven. Sometimes, these people are already part of the same tradition, but belong to different covens (or used to belong to a coven). If saying no is the right thing to do, you have to say no.
Saying no sucks.
It’s awkward, you’ll hurt some feelings, and you may even piss people off. But the health of your coven and the passing of the tradition (if you have one) are more important than one person’s hurt feelings, even if you love them.
Welcome to being a group leader (hint: more booze).
Point Four: Be honest about your limitations.
Probably the most important thing I learned working with adolescents is this: be straight with them. Students know when you’re full of it, and it will cost you their respect.
When you’re unsure or inexperienced, it’s usually obvious. But being unsure or inexperienced is not the same thing as being incompetent or unqualified. It just means you’re still figuring out your methods. Sometimes, being transparent about your lacking surety can actually serve you. Seekers see that you’re a real person (which makes you relatable), and that it’s safe to be wrong, ask hard questions, or try new things. It can actually do a lot to build trust.
Just like you got good at saying no, get good at saying “I don’t know.” Again, this is the age of the Internet and people talk. It takes zero time for savvy seekers to find out that you’ve lied, misrepresented yourself, or are otherwise not being real with them. Don’t do it.
Point Five: Maybe you shouldn’t be running a group to begin with.
Not everyone needs to be a group leader. That’s just true.
Sometimes, people develop High Priest/ess Syndrome and act like they’re entitled to start collecting students (which become a measure of how badass you are) the second they get elevated (or break 1000 followers on Tumblr, whatevs).
Most of the time, it’s not so nefarious. For a lot of would-be leaders, the issue is false expectations, cultivated over their own training and research. We assume, “Well, I’ve been at this for ten years. I guess it’s time.” Or maybe, “Well, hell, I keep getting all these inquiries from seekers.” Or maybe it’s just that all of your coven siblings are starting groups, so you feel like you need to, too.
Trust me. You don’t. For the love of all that is holy, you don’t.
It’s okay to be alone. It’s okay to not want to run a coven, or to just not feel ready. It’s okay to take more time. It’s okay to tell seekers no (see point three). Take some time. Be selfish for a while. Do some growing. You’re doing everyone a favor.
One way or another, running a training group is hard work. But there are certain, clear steps we can take to make it more effective (and therefore lower our bar tabs, if you’re into that). If you’re struggling, try to pinpoint exactly why. Be brutally honest with yourself at all times. If you’re bored, do something different. Training should never feel like a waste of time (though it will sometimes feel draining, painful, and infuriating). If it does, change it. That’s the beauty of designing your own curriculum and choosing your own students (something other teachers almost never get to do).