Coven Governance: Which Style is Right for You?

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.

Has Neo-Paganism Gone Back Into the Broom Closet?

Has Neo-Paganism Gone Back Into the Broom Closet?

Author: Cathryn Platine

Having been a practicing Pagan for most of a somewhat long life, I’ve noticed what appears to be a retreat lately from organized groups back to a solitary form of practice among modern Neo-Pagans. Thirty or so years ago we were blossoming as a religious movement, new groups forming on a daily basis and frequently cited as the fastest growing religious movement on the planet. What happened?

In many ways those very things that were our strengths at first seemed to have worked against us in the long run. We became a religious movement of mostly chiefs and few Indians. Our leaders didn’t fail us, the idea that we all needed to be leaders did.

This isn’t just a failing of Paganism. It seems to hold true with any marginalized group that has been forced into individualized closets. Thirty years ago while public awareness of Paganism was growing, we still had an era where many local police departments were still operating “Occult Squads” which were little more than modern extensions of the Burning Times.

The more timid did not openly wear symbols of their religion and did not openly belong to groups. Those who were bursting forth did so in independent open defiance of the status quo. All that was required to be a Pagan leader back then was a soapbox, a loud voice and a general willingness to be “out and proud”.

It was an exciting time to be Pagan but it also meant that there were a lot of turf wars over ideology and even legitimacy. These are remembered today as the Great Witch Wars and they did hurt us, but at the same time several of our best known Elders came out of this period.

Just as the Women’s Movement, which came of age around the same time, the GLB movement and today the Transgender Movement, Neo-Paganism thrusts together highly individualistic and independently minded people under a common cause which at first is very exciting but then gets lost in the individual differences. We can do better than this; we must do better than this if we are to survive. It is possible for us to band together in celebrations that actually celebrate our unique qualities. It is necessary we gather in common to fight for our collective civil rights without turf wars. We need to learn that those whose practices are somewhat different from our own are still our sisters and brothers.

A strange thing happened our way towards revival…traditions that were originally spread by oral teachings, plays, storytelling, mentoring and other non-written forms became enslaved in the written word. This actually changes even the way you think and process what you learn from the emotional side to the logical one. An excellent (ironically enough) book on the subject is The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess by Leonard Shlain, which I highly recommend as vital reading for all Neo-Pagans.

An argument can easily be made that the very revival of Goddess awareness resulted from a shift away from the written word to the visual in the form of movies and television that allowed a return to a more ancient mode of informational processing and yet the paradox of the Neo-Pagan religious movement was a rush towards an ever growing number of Pagan authors as it grew!

Over the years I’ve witnessed pagans group together in mutually exclusive groups based on different Occult bookstores in an area, the bookstore owners becoming the de facto local Pagan warlords. The Pagan authors have replaced local deities with completely predictable results. Those Pagan centres won at the cost of often great expense and work have trouble getting community support and frequently find themselves at odds with local governments over issues such as basic recognition of religious status.

We Cybelines find ourselves in that position right now, our property denied tax-exempt status locally despite both Federal and State recognition as a legitimate religious group doing charitable work. While we won the right to Pagan clergy in the Armed Forces back in the seventies, recently a major battle was required simply to get the Veterans Administration to acknowledge the Pentacle as a valid religious symbol. We are meekly allowing ourselves to be shoved back into the broom closet once again.

One of the frequently voiced justifications for less than full recognition of our legal status goes like this: Where are the Pagan hospitals, orphanages, and shelters? Those who voice this then point to Christianity, as somehow more worthy for having them but forgetting the Christians didn’t invent charitable works, they learned them from ancient Pagans. There exists a smallish but growing groups of Pagans who are restoring ancient forms of living together in religious communities complete with the charitable works. Pagan Pride events now routinely do food drives as part and parcel of organizing their events.

We can do this. We can support each other and still respect our individual beliefs and practices. We can live together in supportive communities. We can and must do charitable outreach as part and parcel of our very spiritual nature.

Without taking anything away from Pagans who personify Deities, I have also witnessed a growth of those whose spiritual awareness has moved towards recognition of the Divine in all around us. Most of those with this viewpoint embrace the ancient Mother Goddess traditions, especially what was known in classical times as the Mystery Religions. Many solo practitioners today also embrace this point of view.

If you understand that everyone you encounter is as much part of the Goddess as you are, you don’t need carrot and stick theology to understand that treating others decently is simply another form of worshiping the Divine. You don’t require leaders to spoon-feed you the requirements of “loving” deity to give you your birthright, a personal connection with the Divine that is within you. All you need is those who help you locate the Divine within you and connect with it.

After a lifetime of study and research and soul searching I found this was the “Old Religion” that in the early days of the Neo-Pagan revival everyone claimed descent from. I found it was almost universal in the ancient world going back as far as is possible to go in history.

I saw it first revived in modern times in the “Women’s Spirituality” movement but much of that became sidetracked, in my own opinion, in understandable feminist reaction to living in a world controlled by the patriarchy. I’ve been saddened to see some groups retreat into matriarchal thinking that seeks to replace patriarchy with a macho form of matriarchy. It is not so much the actual gender of the individual that is the problem with patriarchy, it’s the dismissal an entire way of living and thinking embodied in Goddess traditions that seek to live in harmony with nature understanding we are all intimately connected and the ideals of nurturing rather than dominating. Replacing one form of domination with another is a zero sum game.

It’s time that all of us who embrace a Pagan identity ask ourselves exactly what do we hold as core values and do we actually live those values? If your personal answers are similar to my own, how can you celebrate your connection to the Divine without making connections with others part of that?

Why aren’t you seeking out groups that share your core beliefs? If you cannot find such a group, why aren’t you forming them?

Don’t retreat to the broom closets, don’t seek answers from others outside yourself, join in celebrations and living with those who share your worldview. Rather than seeking leaders or worse, trying to become one, why not pursue a life of service to others in recognition that they are part of yourself?