Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth
Do you want healthier Pagan communities? Explore tools, techniques, and ideas for Pagan leadership and community building, facilitation skills for meetings, rituals, and workshops, and the personal and spiritual work that underlies all of this and that is crucial if we want to build stronger, healthier, more sustainable groups.
Becoming Pariahs and When Mentors Fail: Cults and Consequences
This post is part two of the Becoming Pariahs and When Mentors Fail series. Start with Part One here.
How does a group become a cult? How do people agree and become complicit in manipulative and emotionally abusive behavior? The context of all of this is important.
Diana's Grove was a cult, though a largely benevolent one, and one that offered a number of excellent skills and techniques, even if some of my mentors failed to live up to what they tried to teach. I still to this day find the experiences I had there to be healing and transformative, and I find many of the tools and techniques to be worthy and useful, or else I wouldn't teach them still.
But it's important to understand also how a group like this ends up the way it does. I want those of you reading this to understand what these mentors meant to me, what the community as a whole meant to me. Because it gives an insight into how cults form in the first place, and how any one of us can be vulnerable to the charismatic leader, to the promise of that spiritual something.
Some of us are drawn to unhealthy dynamics because we have poor self esteem, as I certainly did when I found Diana's Grove. But sometimes it's also the very call to service and the promise that we can be part of such spiritual service that draws us in. And it's not bad to want that--but it's something that can unfortunately be manipulated.
When we find that spiritual home, we're often willing to put up with a lot just to be able to stay there, even if we know something's not quite right.
In 2004, I was laid off as a web designer; I was burned out after years of consulting work and internal politics. I had put my spirituality to the side, and I was desperate to find it again. I began doing work with the local Reclaiming community in Chicago and found my way first to a Reclaiming Witch Camp, and then to the Diana's Grove mystery school. It didn't take long for me to realize that I felt a spiritual calling to serve. My marriage was at its end, and going to events at Diana's Grove catalyzed me to leave my husband and move there, to support the work of Diana's Grove.
In essence, I moved to the Isle of Avalon, a place that was doing the kind of work I had thought only existed in the past, in fantasy stories, in my dreams.
I quite literally left my husband to do that work, I divested myself of most of my possessions. To be transparent, I'd been looking for an excuse to break up with my husband for a while, but I gave up everything I knew to go and do this spiritual work. I wasn't allowed to bring my cat with me to the Grove (it was also a dog rescue), so I left her in my mom's care. Months after I moved to the Grove, my cat Key sickened and died. I couldn't be there with her when she passed. To this day, I carry the grief that if I'd only stayed with her, she would have been ok. More likely she was poisoned by bad pet food, since this was right before all the pet food contamination was discovered, but guilt is what it is and it's a lodestone I carry.
I had finally found deep and intense friendships through Chicago Reclaiming, but my call to serve and to learn the skills of leadership was stronger. And I had other friendships as well from my days in a Star Wars fan club. There are a host of things I left behind to move into a cabin without a bathroom in the rural Missouri Ozarks.
The Dark Mirror
In this mystery school we were stripped bare, we looked in the dark mirror of souls, we faced our shadows, and we did so with the support of the staffers and our peers within the community. I learned to weep again--and if you've ever experienced the kind of dissociation where you can't feel enough to weep you understand the gravity of this. I learned to feel again. I learned to love again.
I healed wounds of my past and I could only do that through completely trusting that these staffers had my back, that they supported me and loved me.
To find out that that was in many ways a lie was shattering in ways I can't even verbalize. And I'm rarely at a lack for words.
My deep dark wounds are fear of rejection; I was bullied and abused by the other kids around me from about the age of five. I was the fat kid til I was 10, then I was the fat kid with acne. The weird kid. The socially awkward kid. The kid that learned to be alone and rejected and mercilessly teased until I stopped crying, until I froze over.
To heal from this, I had to be in a safe place. At Diana's Grove I realized that I still treated everyone around me like they were the kids from gradeschool and middle school, I treated everyone as a potential bully. I learned that people were not all out to get me, that there were good people in the world...and then, at the end, discovered that a couple of the people I trusted to have my back were indeed just as much assholes as the kids who bullied me in school. Many more simply went with what the charismatic leaders said, and if I was a pariah with the founder and whichever staffers were the Favorite that year (every year there were Favorites and Scapegoats, and often this year's favorite was next year's Scapegoat), then most of the rest would fall into line and treat me the same way.
Again--it wasn't a surprise to find out that some of my mentors complained about me or made fun of me after I left. I knew what my mentors said behind other people's backs, and in the years following my departure from the retreat center I met and talked to ther pariahs who had also been exiled and shamed.
But it hurt like a knife to the chest.
When Mentors Fail Us
In the wake of all this, and after years of largely holding my silence on the matter so as not to rock the boat with the friends I have from that organization that still speak to me, I have been thinking about this issue of when our mentors fail us. To be fair, part of this problem comes in because we--the new, shiny eyed seekers--put our leaders up on impossible pedestals.
I did that and I own it.
I wanted the founder of Diana's Grove, and some specific mentors, to be amazing, to be perfect. And, from that place of being awesome and shiny, see the goodness within me and help me find it. And--to a certain extent--that's what happened. That's what pulled me out of my shell enough to transform me, to make it safe enough for me to take the risks I did. It led me to who I am now.
But that level of shininess, that perfection of the pedestal, is impossible.
In leadership, there's a deeper issue. I hear from Pagan leaders all the time who lost their mentors in similar ways. And I've written in the past on how many of the problematic leaders in the Pagan community have many red flags of narcissism, or at least egotism issues. But so many leaders tell me the same story. "I was part of a group, and I learned so much, but when I tried to step into leadership I was kicked out," or, "I just couldn't stand how they were abusing people in the group so I started my own," or, "When I tried to do what they taught me and start my own group, I found out they were badmouthing me behind my back."
Where does that leave us?
The Cost of Losing Our Mentors
This leaves us without mentors to check in with. It leaves us without peers we can trust to confide in. Why do leaders from all over the place come to me with leadership questions? That one's easy; they don't have a mentor in their own tradition they can trust with these questions. They were made a pariah, or they left an abusive group.
What this means is that many of us don't have someone to check in with that we trust. That might be for leadership advice, or for more personal spiritual matters. Where does the pastoral counselor get counseling? Where does the spiritual director get spiritual direction? Where does a leader get help with internal group dynamics issues? Where do you go when you need a mediator?
There's also the more basic human issue of the need for approval. We all have it to varying degrees. I know there are many times when I wish I had the overt approval of some of my mentors and teachers. And yeah, maybe it's built more character on my part to have to generate that approval from within, but I think that there's a piece to this missing. There's a dynamic within a group, a culture, a tribe or a clan, within a community.
Part of what you depend on, as a seeker and student, is the approval of your mentors to know you're on the right track. There are places where it becomes unhealthy to constantly seek external approval, but there are other ways that the checking in process is healthy and useful to the student.
In the field of therapy, for instance, and in many spiritual traditions, you're expected to have someone you can check in with about where you're at. It doesn't always have to be a hierarchical thing, but it should be someone you respect at the very least. The idea being, if you are checking in with someone and saying, "What do you think, am I being an asshat here?" and they say, "Yes," that you actually listen.
But when our mentors abandon us (or when we're forced to leave an abusive mentor), who do we use for that kind of guidance? When it's our mentors who were acting badly, how do we find someone (as leaders) to check in with? I sometimes use the metaphor of, we need someone to tell us if we have paint on our butt after we sat on something freshly painted. We need someone to check our six.
When you've "graduated" and are stepping from student to peer, stepping into you power as an emerging leader, there's still tremendous value to hearing from someone who has been there and done that and who has a wealth of experience beyond you, to hear from them, "Yes, you're on the right track from that." Or, more constructive feedback too, for that matter.
Am I on the Right Track?
It can be difficult to know when we're on the right track. An apprentice is often eager, and a master of a craft knows a lot and has experience under their belt. A journeyman is sometimes uncertain because they begin to know what they don't know. When I set out to teach leadership, I had some of that eagerness, but I also quickly learned how much was out there. I desperately wished I had the guidance of my mentors, even just to have that emotional support of knowing they were behind me, wishing me well. Or to know I could talk out a challenging community issue with them, or bounce some ideas off of them for how to facilitate rituals.
When I learned ritual facilitation in the Reclaiming tradition and at Diana's Grove, it was in a community of people used to ecstatic, participatory ritual. I remember the first ritual I led without an ecstatic ritual-trained team. It was almost impossible to get the group moving, singing, dancing, participating at all. Many of the techniques I knew how to use weren't possible without a team. Many of the other techniques I knew absolutely failed because people were not used to participating.
I felt pretty lost and alone. It led me to many of my innovations in ritual facilitation, but some of that was difficult because I often felt that I I would have benefited from talking through things and problem solving with my mentors. And just the basic notion of, is this serving? Am I doing good work?
I was talking to one of my mentors who became (like me) a pariah of Diana's Grove. I'm grateful that she and I now have a peer relationship, and it's amazing to have that trust and connection.
Both of us were forced by circumstances to learn to do ritual differently than how we were taught. We both innovated and explored new areas, new ritual technologies.
While we were talking, one day she told me how proud she is of my work and the innovations I've explored in ritual facilitation.
And that. That was some of what I'd been seeking! Just that little nod from someone who had seen me grow and develop, from someone who had ritual skills I deeply respect, from someone who knew where and how I'd been trained...to hear that my work had exceeded and expanded on what we'd been taught was life changing for me.
I've heard from many people over the years how my work has been helpful to them, but hearing this from someone I valued as a mentor was priceless beyond words. It's a treasure, a tiny jewel I will tuck away for all the dark nights when I question the work that I do.
There's a lot of doubt in spiritual service. Some of us deal with more anxiety than others, but there's almost always a question under there of, am I serving? Am I doing a good job?
So many leaders come to me, convinced that they are doing a terrible job because they have nobody, no mentors, to tell them that what they are doing is working.
Mentors, Baggage, and Building Something Better
Having the experience of watching my own mentors behave badly, and hearing stories from other leaders about their own teachers, is part of why I teach the stuff that I do. Because I've seen the narcissistic leaders, the leaders that are overcome by their own shadows and faults. I've seen leaders do amazing work, only to tear it down with their own baggage and bad behavior. I saw the hypocrisy of my own mentors--I saw the amazing work they taught, and I saw that they couldn't live up to their own standards.
And I saw my abusive ex, who put in about a 40 hour workweek plus another 40 hours a week of building our local Pagan community in Chicago. I watched him lead workshops and social events, watched him do pastoral counseling, watched all the effort he put into things...and I also watched how he destroyed what he built by sleeping with his students, by setting a bad example, by really poor behavior I've gone into in other posts.
We need leaders and mentors we can respect and rely on. Leaders who won't build things in a way that's destructive and manipulative.
I want better for the next generation.
I struggle with my demons, my shadows. I struggle with some of my own tendencies. In the darkest of mirrors, I'm just as problematic as the founder of Diana's Grove. She and I have so many of the same issues it terrifies me. Every time I feel myself slipping into her pattern of behaviors I feel that sick twist in my guts. And part of that is why I blog about myself and my work and my shadows. It's part of how I keep myself authentic and accountable, even though I don't have mentors or a tradition to be accountable to. I keep myself accountable to all of you who read my work, who take my classes and buy my books. I keep myself accountable to you that email me asking for help with a community issue.
You're trusting me with your difficult moments, with your dark nights, with your horrible experiences you've been through. And in turn I'm trusting you with my process, with my work so that I don't become as dysfunctional as some of my own mentors.
For the next generation, I want leaders who are excited when their students surpass them. I want a healthy dynamic where emerging leaders have a support network, they have people to check in with, people they can trust.
There are ways that we, as leaders, can foster and support our own students. That we can empower them as they move from our students into our peers. To be excited for their growth, to raise them up and acknowledge them.
And in our broader communities, we can build stronger foundations through leadership education, through better access to things that help supporting our existing leaders. For that matter, we can build a stronger foundation through helping leaders get better support through mental health care. Many of us struggle with anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental illnesses. Many of us have suffered traumas that affect who we are as leaders and lead to some of the dysfunctional behaviors in our groups.
We can build stronger communities by learning about healthy group dynamics, by learning about abusive and manipulative behaviors and cult dynamics and knowing the warning signs.
This is the end of Part 2, but I will be writing more on the process of how we end up with abusive mentors and cult situations. What would you like to hear more about? What would you like me to explore?
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