Coven Governance: Which Style is Right for You?
Author: Bronwen Forbes
If you’re looking to join a coven, you should not only do your homework to decide what tradition is right for you (eclectic, Dianic, traditional Wicca, etc.) , you should also think about what style of coven leadership you’re most comfortable with at this point on your spiritual path. Different groups are run in different ways, and knowing your own personal preferences will go a long way toward making the coven a good fit for you. Here are some of the most common styles of coven governance:
Hierarchy. In a coven run as a hierarchy, there is a High Priestess and/or High Priest, and they are in charge. They will make most or all of the decisions for the coven including: membership (whether or not a person can become a member *and* whether or not a member is asked to leave) , ritual style, class topics (if it’s a teaching coven) , and whether or not a student or member is ready for initiation and/or elevation.
Pros: a hierarchical coven tends to get the most done of any style coven. Students are trained, sabbat and esbat rituals happen when they’re supposed to, and everyone knows what is happening and when, and what needs to be done to grow and advance.
Cons: some (in no way do I mean all) High Priests and High Priestesses who run a hierarchy have a hard time giving their students and other coveners any responsibility or authority at all. They can truly become tyrants.
Democracy. There may be a High Priest and/or High Priest in a democratic coven, but the coveners have more say in the day-to-day, season-to-season workings of the group. Potential members may be voted in; the decision whether or not to volunteer to run opening ritual at this year’s Pagan Pride Day may also be put to a vote. Coven leaders may even be voted to office on a rotating basis, or the High Priest and High Priestess may have a “weightier” vote than everyone else.
Pros: students and coveners feel like they have a say in how the group is run and what route their spiritual activities will take.
Cons: just because a majority votes in favor of something does not mean it is the best choice. A potential member could be completely unsuitable for coven life but is friends with more than half the group. Once the unsuitable potential member is voted in, he or she wreaks havoc with the group but – because of the majority vote of his or her friends – can’t be voted out.
Consensus: Many groups choose consensus as the way to make decisions. An issue or agenda item (new members, how to celebrate the next holiday, whether or not to offer a Pagan 101 class, etc.) is brought up, the group as a whole discusses it and comes to a decision or plan of action that everyone in the group is comfortable with.
Pros: Everyone in the coven is happy about how the coven is run. In a small group (up to eight people) , consensus works very well.
Cons: coming to complete agreement about a decision can take *forever*, even with eight or fewer people. In fact, so much group time and energy can be used up on making decisions that nothing else ever gets done – including implementing those decisions.
Also, consensus can be co-opted into “minority rules.” By the rules of consensus, if even one member is against something (“No, I don’t want to allow Sybil into the group”) , then that something cannot happen (Sybil is not allowed to join the coven) .
Anarchy. As a rule, anarchy-run groups don’t last very long because no one is responsible for running circles, organizing the schedule, welcoming new members, etc. Very little if any teaching or training is done, unless it is one-on-one on an as-needed or personally-requested basis. Rituals are usually never conducted the same way twice, so no comfortable, familiar ritual pattern is ever established. Pros: If you are looking for a coven or group that you can drop into and drop out of any time you need to with no sense of ongoing obligation due to work or family constraints, an anarchic coven is probably best for your. Cons: not much ever gets done. If something is actually accomplished, it’s usually by accident.
In general, very few covens only use one governing style. For example, my husband and I ran a training coven for several years. As High Priest and High Priestess, we had complete authority over who was initiated/elevated and when (not the actual date, but determining when a student was ready) . We also planned the classes, and determined class content, class order, and homework.
Group membership was decided by consensus – one “no” and the potential member did not get invited to join. Only my husband and I could ask a member to leave, but we certainly accepted input from the other members before making a decision. Class and rituals were scheduled by consensus. If one person couldn’t make it at a certain date and time due to school or work considerations, we’d find a time when everyone could make it (schedules were usually determined three months in advance, so there was rarely a problem that couldn’t be gotten around) .
Whether or not to lead an open sabbat for the local Pagan community was democratically decided – we voted, all members having equal say. Extracurricular activities happened mostly on an anarchic model: “Hey, we’re going on a Pagan shopping spree to the nearest large city on Saturday. Want to come?” or “Selene just got dumped by her boyfriend and is on my couch crying. I’m ordering pizza. Come hold her hand with me?”
If you’re thinking about starting a coven, you need to determine what style you’re most comfortable with. If you’re not suited for sole “I’m in charge” responsibility, consider a democratic or consensus group. If you have a vision of how to teach students and form your own way of celebrating the Gods in ritual, go for the hierarchical coven.
Whether your joining a coven or starting your own, make darn sure you’re comfortable with how it’s run before committing yourself as a member or leader.