Feet of Clay

How to have healthy elders

It seems to be a tendency in much of contemporary culture, including the Pagan movement, to put people on pedestals and hero-worship them, and when we discover that they are flawed human beings like the rest of us, to knock them off their pedestal and dismiss every good thing they ever did.

Sure, a genuinely wise elder is a pleasure to learn from and to be around, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should put them on a pedestal and assume that they can never do anything bad. This encourages them to avoid seeing their own issues and to assume that they can do no wrong. That is dangerous because then they have too much power, and also means that when they do something wrong, it is hard for anyone to challenge it, knowing that the person will be completely knocked off their pedestal, instead of just taken down a peg or two. It means that people are less willing to believe that a community leader could have done something bad.

Stalin's boots by Laika Ac. CC-BY-SA 2.0

Stalin’s boots by Laika Ac. CC-BY-SA 2.0

It means that calling someone out for a bad thing they did whilst acknowledging the good stuff they did becomes harder and harder to do. The more we think in this binary either/or way, the harder it becomes to see nuance and put things in perspective. But, in order to progress as a movement (and for society in general to progress), we need to be able to challenge bad behaviour, and to set boundaries to prevent it, without dismissing the person completely. Obviously some behaviours are so terrible that they are grounds for ejection from the community. I’m talking about one-off instances of bad behaviour, not a string of repeat offences. When someone repeatedly behaves badly, then it is time to call them out.

Surely the answer, then, is to be more realistic in the way we treat elders. Loved and respected for their wisdom and/or their contributions to the community, yes. Put up on a pedestal and assumed never to do anything wrong, and therefore not held accountable for their actions, no. Ejected into the outer darkness for the slightest transgression, no. The higher we put them on those pedestals, the harder they fall. The answer? Don’t put them up so high in the first place.

The only reason that people get to be leaders in the first place is because others give them power, and because they have some quality that makes them leadership material – knowledge, or wisdom, or charisma, or the ability to make others feel safe. All of those are worthwhile and valuable qualities, and a good leader or teacher or elder has those qualities: that does not mean that he or she should be ruling their group with a rod of iron. A good teacher empowers others to develop those qualities.

It is also noticeable that many Pagan leaders have ended up suffering from spiritual burnout from taking on far too much work. This is perhaps because people have seen the high cost of leadership (the flak that leaders get for sticking their head above the parapet) and don’t want to go there. I think that a shift to a less binary way of looking at leaders and elders would help with this issue too.

We are generally quite an egalitarian movement – but the shadow side of that is wanting to knock people off their pedestals if we think they have got too big for their boots. But if we remembered that they are just flawed human beings like us, and didn’t elevate them so high, then they wouldn’t fall so hard.

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Guest post: A Field Guide to Pagan Leadership

A guest post by An Elder Apprentice

This post originated as a comment to Yvonne Aburrow’s post on Pagan Leadership. Yvonne began that post with the following questions, “Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?”

chess pieces on a chess board

Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

There are so many types of leadership manifest in any religious culture. Perhaps identifying and acknowledging the importance of the many categories of Pagan leadership will allow for an appropriate expansion in the definition of leadership and thus allow for a move toward an appropriate division of labor and acknowledgment of each participant’s leadership in their own sphere of excellence? Of course while one person can excel in multiple areas of leadership, identifying the ‘best person for the particular job’, may help resolve the on-going predicaments with Pagan leadership. Below are some of the varieties of leader that I have identified in the Pagan world in my two years as an elder apprentice.

The visionary pathfinder and guide – This person blazes the trail through an unexplored territory and can talk about it coherently and with such passion that others want to follow and perhaps more importantly others are enabled to follow that path. After all every tradition was started by one or a very small group of such people. With respect to Wicca, Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner are such visionary pathfinders. However, each coven, grove, or whatever was similarly founded by one or small group of people with a vision and desire to share it. This role continues to be critical in any viable tradition, and in each group, as guides on the way forward always are required if a tradition or group is to live and grow.

The Executive Organizer – This is the role most people envision when they hear the word, ‘leader’. Regardless of a group’s governance, e.g. consensus, democratic, a military or Catholic hierarchy, or whatever, these people enable the group to become and stay organized. In any group the buck must stop somewhere or the group can chase its own tail forever. This may role may be performed by one person or by a process, but it must happen somehow. I personally believe Selena Fox is an exemplar in the Pagan community of this quality of executive leadership.

The Patron – A patron provides resources, typically money, though use of land is a non-monetary example of a patron’s support, required to allow a group to exist and move forward. The skillful patron understands that while others may perform the more visible leadership roles, they are also leaders as their choice of where to place their resources or not will change the direction of any organization, even if they defer to others in terms of the more tangible areas of leadership. Knowing how to invest resources well and to invest those resources in ways that empower others to achieve maximum benefit is itself an important leadership quality. Yvonne’s post showed a picture of Moina Mathers. According to the book Women of the Golden Dawn, she and the entire Golden Dawn organization were supported by funds given by Annie Horniman, a wealthy heiress.

The Priest/ess – The Priestess leads in the spiritual and magical activities of a group. Not everybody has such priestessing skills and among its other qualities, when skilfully performed, the priestly role frees others to get the benefit of entering the land of the spirit together. Moina Mathers is certainly a fine example of a priestess as leader. However, from reading Women of the Golden Dawn, it appears she may have been sorely lacking in other dimensions of leadership.

The Teacher – A teacher passes on tradition and skills required to be part of a tradition. This person is perhaps is an exemplar of the practice, someone who others emulate even if the teaching role is informal or even unacknowledged. If the teacher truly has teaching skill they know how to make it easy to emulate what they hold. The ability to teach successfully is a rare and difficult skill; ask anyone who has ever worked, successfully or not, as a schoolteacher knows how hard that job is. Perhaps in the larger Pagan community most of the “Big Name Pagans” (in my personal view, the better ones) are primarily teachers as their writings and classes serve as the exemplars of practice that others want to and often can emulate.

I am sure that others can identify other leadership roles that are required to make their groups succeed and their traditions vibrant. However it is clear that the Pagan movement has leaders, requires leadership, and the models of leadership are as varied as Paganism itself.


An Elder Apprentice was gifted with an unexpected call to study Anderson Feri one week after his sixtieth birthday; taking up the offer, he has been a dedicated student for over two years. He lives in a suburb of a large Midwestern city with his wife and a small white cockatiel.

Pagan leadership

“I think it is absolutely essential that people think for themselves because unless they make their own contact with the inner planes, they won’t have any power. This is enormously important that people do not slavishly follow anyone’s lead. I hope witchcraft never has any gurus or leaders. I know that people have criticised Gerald Gardner; I have myself but he once told me, the power is in you and you have to bring that power out.” – Doreen Valiente 1

Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with having leaders, but it depends what you mean by leaders. If you mean the kind of people who empower, nurture and teach others, those are the leaders we want. If you mean the kind of people who block others’ access to the numinous, and fleece them of large amounts of money, we don’t want those in the Pagan community – but frankly they would not get very far anyway. Even those paid leaders who work hard and serve others don’t make a lot of money.


Moina Mathers in priestess garb

We might have a lot of leaders, but I don’t see a lot of followers. Pagans are not sheep, we are goats. We don’t really have congregations (which is basically Latin for “flock”); we are more like tribes. There are many people who serve the Pagan community in an administrative or representative capacity. There are many people who share their thoughts on blogs and in books. There are some leaders who want power, admiration, and followers (fortunately these are fairly few and far between). But I don’t think leaders who want to get rich quick or have a lot of followers will get very far within the Pagan community.  Pagans are too independent-minded.

Sometimes Pagans’ independent-mindedness can backfire, as any time someone looks even vaguely like they are on a pedestal, someone will come along and knock them off it. It is good to check first whether the person actually wants to be on the pedestal, or whether they would rather get off it.

Incidentally, I have a small team of people with instructions to kick me up the backside if ever I start exhibiting the symptoms of a Big Name Pagan with a lot of neophytes in tow. This is unlikely, as I am too lazy to organise my own life, let alone anyone else’s.

My approach to leadership is to seek to empower others, and enable them to write and facilitate ritual and so on. However, not everyone who joins a coven wants to write and facilitate rituals, and that is alright. They may have other abilities which could be nurtured.

In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, every initiated Wiccan is a priestess or priest in their own right. However, a first degree is a priestess or priest unto themselves; a second degree can be a priestess or priest to others; and a third degree to the rest of the community. This is not a hard and fast rule – it is just that the degrees are not expected to take on being a priestess or priest for others until they attain the higher degrees. It is also worth remembering that in Wicca, witches are held to be ‘the hidden children of the Goddess’ – in other words, we do our public service covertly, not necessarily advertising that we are witches. If someone asks me for help, they do so because I have a sympathetic manner, not necessarily because they know that I am a witch. We don’t need to wear a special hat – if we are any good, people will recognise the qualities of witchiness in us, and seek our help.  I don’t hide the fact that I am a Wiccan, but I don’t advertise either.

In OBOD Druidry, there are also three grades – Bard, Ovate, and Druid.  The Bard is a storyteller and uses words to enchant. The Ovate is more shamanic and prophetic. The Druid is more of an all-round magical practitioner. It is worth reading OBOD’s explanations of what each grade does, as it is more complex than I have suggested with my simple summary.

In Heathenry, there are goði and gyðja (priests and priestesses) who are generally selected by acclaim of their group, because of their experience, or end up leading rituals because they are the most experienced.

In Religio Romana, priestesses and priests are expected to have a sincere calling to the deity for whom they wish to be a priestess or priest, and to carry out research on their chosen deity, and to worship the chosen deity in their home.

In my experience, even if some leaders of Pagan groups let it go to their head for a while, they soon learn that they are leader by consent of the group, and if they do not care for the needs of all the members of the group, and nurture and empower their members, people will leave.

The best Pagan leaders are those who listen – both to the promptings of spirit, and to their group members. A Pagan leader should not regard their community as serving them, but feel that they are serving the community (which includes other-than-human beings). Those who think they are elders are probably not elders; one gets that title by being acclaimed by others (and not just by virtue of being old, either, but by having wisdom and experience). In return, the community should value those who serve. They should not be expected to cover their expenses from their own pocket; if they spend time preparing a day or weekend workshop, and travelling long distance to deliver it, then they should be remunerated for their time, skill, and expenses.  I do not think people should ever pay for coven training in Wicca, but I do think leaders of public workshops should be adequately remunerated. We need an organic approach to paying clergy.

When I was high priestess of my coven, I was in that role because I was the most experienced member of the group. As high priestess, I encouraged members of my coven to develop their skills in ritual and magic, so that they could also design and facilitate ritual. If a new member wanted to join, every member of the group had to agree that they could join (it was not just on my say-so).

What are your thoughts on Pagan leadership? How is it in your tradition? Please share in the comments.

Thanks to Julie W for posting the Doreen Valiente quote in the Centre for Pagan Studies Facebook group – as you can see, it inspired this post.

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