Cult-Proof Your Coven: Charter Template with Egalitarian Structure

Cult-Proof Your Coven: Charter Template with Egalitarian Structure July 24, 2018

In my recent presentation at the Mystic South Conference in Atlanta, we talked about the red flags of cultish behavior, and how we can avoid them creeping into our covens. I offered as an alternative a peek at the egalitarian structures that my own tradition employs. To our frustration, that one hour workshop time wasn’t nearly long enough to dig into the nitty gritty details. So, the participants asked if I could post our organizational graphic, and a sample template of our charter, so they could write their own.

Signing the Coven Charter at Imbolc – Heron Michelle

Crafting a Charter for The Sojourner Tradition

The Sojo Circle I helped to found is the mother-ship of what we call The Sojourner Tradition. We began with a Wiccan-esque approach to our nature-based religion, but rejected the hierarchical, anachronistic approach to coven structure. We call what we do Modern Witchcraft because we define our beliefs and practices through a synthesis of many ancient and modern types of wisdom from around the world. But as this eclecticism is unique, we had to clearly define what we meant by that term collectively, and then how that would translate into a unique type of organizational structure.

For example, we are self-initiatory, each witch goes directly to Divinity with no other human as their intercessor. A Witch makes themselves. We see witchcraft as a solitary journey made by radically sovereign individuals. So our coven is meant to be an affiliation of those sovereigns, who practice diverse and personal styles of witchery, and sometimes choose to work together toward common goals.

Why coven at all?

Strength in numbers is a very real truth in the Great Work of Magick. Also, we gather for the purpose of kinship, mentorship and support, fun and fellowship. We’d aim to create a safe-place in our society for witchcraft to coexist openly with our neighbors in other faith traditions, and our clergy to be recognized by interfaith groups. We’d like to provide a responsible training ground for all witches – and the priesthood – but we see those as two separate levels of commitment. All these things needed careful re-definition to serve our needs.

Because we don’t require that our students join our coven in order to learn from us, we also had to clearly define all the rights and responsibilities at every level of participation. Our “Sojo Tribe” of associates is multi-layered (see the graphic).   After our students graduate, they can fly free to do their own solitary thing, with no hard-feelings whatsoever. OR if they want to stick around and become a member of the coven and lend their strengths to our mission, that is another option. Everyone chooses to be there by their own free-will, and must understand what is expected of them BEFORE they make that informed choice. Thus, you’ve got to write it ALL down.

All these new definitions,  methods, missions and expectations were new concepts for all of us. We had no other spiritual group experience that was even close to this vision, but a few of us had more than enough experience with baneful groups that went kinda cult-ish, so we knew what DID NOT work.  So we created our own structure utilizing our experience in business, non-profits, social work, teaching and government, to guide us.

 

Egalitarian Coven Structure, Graphic by Heron Michelle

Shared Leadership Structures Prevent Cults and Burnout

A major commonality of any baneful cult is the unquestioned power in the hands of an idolized, all-powerful leader. There would be no clear path to sharing in that leadership besides cronyism, nor a way for the average member to have a say in what goes on, or participate in governance of the group.

Cults tend to operate like religious dictatorships; expectations on the member’s contributions (financial, physical, sexual) are extreme, and tilted in the favor of the leaders who exploit them. Scary things happen to anyone in a cult who rocks the boat, questions the leader’s decisions, or tries to leave. So how does a responsible coven keep these crimes from happening?

Our organization distributed the leadership responsibilities across at least 8 people, who are democratically elected for one year terms, but anyone can resign and walk away at any time. Our “Inner Court” coven typically only has 12-15 members, and everyone has an equal vote in a democratic structure. The number of Outer Court folks at the seeker, dedicant, graduate, neophyte levels (and anyone in the Priesthood who has since left active membership) may be closer to 30-50 people, but all of them still have access to our governance through a representative on our Leadership Council. There are circles within circles, so that even as the coven grows, we maintain a small-group feeling.

On the graphic above, flow toward the center, and each layer inward takes on additional rights and responsibilities. The outer-most ring could be “spouse of a member,” or a visiting witch, but they are still protected by our Bill of Rights. The further toward the center you commit yourself, the greater your opportunities to learn and celebrate with us, but also the greater your contributions to help us keep all these services functioning. Beneficial spiritual leaders aren’t climbing higher to be supported by pedestals; they’re digging deeper into the foundations, to bear more of the weight.

Our model is inspired by the lessons of the Emperor and Empress cards in the tarot: we serve by leading, and lead by serving; humility, responsibility, hard-work, and graciousness are hallmarks of our mandate. We all take this yearly vow to each other and sign the charter:

“I vow to uphold the guidelines of our charter, pledging my service as (position) to aid in our Great Work throughout the next turning of the wheel. I will honor the sovereignty of all members of The Sojo Tribe, in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust, and walk the path of the witch with respect and responsibility. In all that I do, I will work for the highest good of all involved, harming none. By my own free will I take this oath. So Mote it Be!”

Heron at the Imbolc Altar 2016

Preventing Leadership Burn-Out

But most importantly, this shared leadership structure prevents burnout, because the 1 year terms are relatively short. Also, with four people in the Spirit Ministry running 8 sabbats – that is only two sabbats a year each that we are responsible for planning. The 12-13 esbats a year are planned and lead by the elemental ministers when we are in the zodiac sign of their element. So they are only on duty for one ritual every 4 months. Their apprentices can also volunteer to plan and lead one of their esbats.

All our initiate members can take turns at the helm, and are encouraged to explore and share their individual interests, styles, cultural approaches to magick, etc. Therefore, some of our rituals have a ceremonial magick formality, others a hoodoo root-work feel; sometimes we have an earthy pantheist connection to nature, sometimes we have a devotional polytheist rite to specific Deities with whom a member is in relationship. Our members can choose which of these rituals to attend; attendance is never “mandatory.” Our diversity is a strength toward combating cultish fundamentalism and “group think.”

Most importantly, no official decisions are made unilaterally – the leadership council discusses everything, and we make those meeting notes available to the entire membership. As the High Priestess, I may be the one who issued a statement about a difficult decision, but you can be sure that 7 other people had their say until that position was (usually) unanimous, and all 8 signatures back up that decision.

Must be present to win

The only way an egalitarian, democratic coven charter works, is if everyone engages within the system, and lives up to its guidelines. Sovereignty at this level can be a tough row to hoe, sometimes. If at the first sign of discomfort you just rage-quit and storm out, you enable the problem of cultishness in witchcraft covens. To be part of the solution, you have to show up and work out disputes IN PERSON and hold each other to your agreed-upon standards. This is why we are constantly repeating our Four Rules for Personal Sovereignty:

  1. Don’t burn the witch (starting with yourself)
  2. Don’t be the Asshole.
  3. Don’t be the weak link.
  4. MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN.

Red-Flags to Look Out For

If you are looking for a safe training coven to join, ask them to show you their charter. Read that thing very carefully and look for how they are transparently operating and sharing responsibilities. Do they have high enough standards? Too high? Do they enforce their own rules? How do you get in? How can you LEAVE? Look especially for dispute resolution methods, and their ethical codes of conduct. If they don’t have a charter at all, consider that a RED-FLAG and seek elsewhere. If they say they have one but won’t let you see it until AFTER you swear oaths – RUN.

Sample Charter for an Egalitarian Witchcraft Coven

What follows on the coming pages is an excruciatingly detailed dive into the minutia of coven operations. You may think GOOD GODS, WITCH! I get it. Witches tend to hate “organized religion.” Until you’ve been in a baneful group that did NOT write these things down, you may not fully appreciate the protections it provides. We offer this contribution to the witchcraft community with the hopes that we progress toward safer magickal spaces for everyone.

I’ve been granted permission of my coven-mates to prepare these templates, and offer them publicly. Know they were developed by many fine witches, over many years of trial, error and input. Their original form was mostly constructed by our founding High Priest, Phoenix Echelon, whose expertise as a professional social worker has proven invaluable. For this template, I’ve significantly over-hauled it for general use and clarity.

In perfect love and trust,

~Heron

Seriously, there are another 6000+ words of exhilarating legalese to follow on another 3 pages, but y’all asked for it. It’s a BEAST of a document. So, turn back now, or forever hold your peace… <snark> As you were…

About Heron Michelle
Heron Michelle is a witch, priestess, mom, artist and shopkeeper living in Greenville, North Carolina. Connect with her on Facebook: Witch on Fire: Heron Rising Services and follow her on Twitter @HeronMichelle13. You can read more about the author here.
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