How To Be An Elder

The first rule of being an elder is not to talk about being an elder. Don’t even think about being an elder. And certainly don’t proclaim from the rooftops that you are one. If you think you are one, you probably aren’t. However, if you are in a position of leadership, then you need to hold yourself accountable – you have been given power, so use it responsibly and mindfully. My favourite elders are the people who don’t even know that they are elders. Very few of them are famous, and they just get on with serving the community and being themselves.

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko The jester is the only person at a 1514 royal ball troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. (Public domain image)

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko
The jester is the only person at a 1514 royal ball troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. (Public domain image)

HONOUR & HUMILITY

Behave honourably and with humility. If you screw up, admit that you screwed up. If you screwed up in public, admit publicly that you screwed up. If you caused damage, seek to repair it.

Be aware that you don’t know everything. There is always something new to be learnt. For example, the things you learnt about gender, sexuality, and consent back in the sixties may need revising in the light of new experiences and new understanding. Being old is no excuse for being a massive transphobe, for example.

One of my favourite elders (who isn’t famous, but is awesome) once said to me, “The more you know, the more you realise that you don’t know.” Now that is a wise attitude.

POWER & COMPASSION

If you have power, own it. Acknowledge that you have it, and wield it responsibly and with compassion. You will also need discernment. Remember that power is given to you by other people; it is not an inherent quality that you possess. If you do not wield your power with compassion and discernment, then you will lose it.

You may have been chosen by the gods for your leadership role – but you had better not act as if that was the case. If you do, the gods can certainly choose someone else instead of you. An arm clad in white samite did not offer you the sword Excalibur from the lake – and you don’t get to wield supreme executive power without the consent of the governed. It is more likely that you got your role because you were a willing and useful person who was in the right place at the right time. So yes, you have skills and knowledge, and that should be celebrated and is worthy of respect (but not servility). But you are not infallible.

Combine your power with compassion and discernment. If someone comes to you with a story of abuse, don’t dismiss it or try to brush it under the carpet. They have taken a risk by talking about it: the risk of ridicule or of not being believed. However, it is a good idea to seek some kind of confirmation or corroboration of their claims. 99% of the time, it is probably true: but occasionally, it is paranoia or hearsay. Hence the need for discernment.

STRENGTH & BEAUTY

Be graceful and skilful. Acknowledge and cultivate your strengths and your good qualities – but be aware of your shadow side, and seek to channel its energies appropriately. If you are generally an angry person, then you need to keep that under control, but it is not an entirely negative trait: sometimes anger can be righteous anger, but you need the wisdom to know the difference between projecting your shadow on to someone else, and calling out injustice and bad behaviour.

MIRTH & REVERENCE

Always be prepared to take the piss out of yourself and your delusions of grandeur. This is why kings would license a fool or jester: so that when they were about to do something stupid, there was one person who was not afraid to tell them it was stupid. I have a small posse of people whom I have encouraged to kick me up the arse if I ever start getting too big for my boots. I hope their arse-kicking services will never be needed, but I feel it’s wise to be prepared.

Be aware that there is something greater than yourself, and that you are in service to it (whether that is the Craft, the gods, your community, truth, love, or what you will). The transformational leader knows that they are there to empower others and create safe space for them to grow in.

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.

Paganism for Beginners: Group Dynamics

The subject of group dynamics is complex, but one way of observing group dynamics is to ask the simple question, “Where does the power go in the group?” In other words, who is wielding the power?

In many groups, there is an elected or appointed leader. In most churches, the minister is officially the leader – but woe betide her or him if they upset the committee. In Wiccan covens, the leader is usually the high priestess. In a Druid grove or a Heathen hearth, there may be a small group of leaders, or a single leader. Quaker meetings usually have a group of elders.

In a small group, it can be an excellent idea to rotate the leadership role. Different members of the group take it in turns to write and facilitate a ritual. Most progressive and/or inclusive covens encourage their members to create and lead rituals.

Most people find that working in a group with a flat hierarchy is preferable to working in one with a very top-down hierarchy. Flat hierarchies are characterised by shared decision making and informal communication between team members.

Hierarchy in the gull world Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith. No prizes for guessing which one is boss!

Hierarchy in the gull world
Two gulls at Ingelwidden, Cadgwith.
© Copyright Brian Whittle and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Groups often go through a process of forming, storming, norming, and performing. First the group comes together (forming). Then there is a struggle to resolve the group’s differences (storming). Once that has been resolved, the group’s values, goals, and beliefs converge (norming). Once that process is complete, the group is ready to perform. These stages can actually be a cycle rather than a linear process.

During the formation of the group and the convergence of its ideas, who is in the group, and who is outside the group, will become apparent. This is known as the in-group / out-group dynamic. The formation of the in-group can be a positive thing, in that it makes the group feel closer together, but it can be dangerous, because if the in-group projects its shadow onto the out-group, this can result in persecution of the out-group.

The projection of group members’ shadows onto other people in the group can be a dangerous dynamic. If you are the leader of a group, this a thing to watch out for, as you don’t want one person to be demonised or outcast by the rest of the group. The shadow is the aspect of our psyches that we have repressed because we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, and we often project it onto other people, especially if they resemble the repressed aspect of personality.

Another interesting dynamic in groups is “somebody has to do it” syndrome. This is where one person takes on more responsibility than the others, and an expectation is created that they will always do the task that they have taken on. This might be always being the one who leads the visualisations, or always being the one who calls the quarters, or something else less obvious, like being the person who provides a ritual if no-one else is feeling inspired. The way to break out of this dynamic is for the person who always does the thing to let go of feeling responsible for it, and for the people who never do the thing to have a go at doing it. It also means breaking the ritual tasks down into small manageable chunks so that people who might find it daunting to take on the management of a whole ritual can build up gradually by doing a small piece at a time. Luckily, Wiccan ritual lends itself well to being broken down into manageable chunks.

It is a good idea if the locus of power in a group is visible. If it is not obvious who holds the power, then it will default to the person with the loudest voice or the most stubborn resistance to new ideas.

One way to ensure a fair and balanced approach within your group is to make the rules by consensus. In this exercise (preferably on the first session of the group), ask members to suggest what the rules should be. The purpose of the rules is to make sure that everyone has the power to ask questions, to feel safe in the group, to ensure confidentiality, and to prevent conflict.

The role of the leader of a coven is to empower others and enable them to develop as priestesses or priests. This model is sometimes known as servant leadership – because the leader is mindful that the group is not there to serve them; rather they are there to create safe space for the group, to hold the space, and to empower others to be creative in that space.

Further reading

In my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca, I explore the issue of group dynamics extensively in the chapter on running a coven.

Inclusive Wicca is not just about including LGBTQIA people; it is also about including people of colour, people with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and working the rituals in a way that includes everyone and enables all participants to contribute.

Wiccan ethics

Model policies, group guidelines, etc

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.