Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth
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Becoming Pariahs and When Mentors Fail Part 1
I have been trying to write about my experiences at the Diana's Grove Mystery School for years--my experience of codependency, of enabling, of abusive behavior. Of a group of people that did brilliant work and taught leadership and yet fell prey to human nature all the same. I have fought fistfights in my head--to speak the truth about the inner dynamics of the Mystery School, or to protect the many people I love who would be hurt if I spoke up. But I hear about so many unhealthy dynamics in Pagan groups that mirror what I went through, and how many people have been damaged by a charismatic yet abusive leader, I feel that to not address the dynamics of the place where I did my own leadership training would be unethical.
Let me tell you a bit about Diana's Grove. I did much of my leadership and ritual facilitation training at a retreat center and mystery school which no longer exists. After I moved there, I noticed the codependent dance the staffers did around the founder of the organization. And--I've always said they did good work, and the founder was and is brilliant. I wouldn't be the leader and ritualist that I am without that leader and the other staffers, what they taught me and the values of service they brought to the work.
But they made plenty of mistakes, and I learned from that too.
There was a sort of cardinal unspoken rule; the Emperor had no clothes, and we weren't supposed to confront the founder about this. If we wanted the mystery school to continue, we had to just keep doing what would keep her in a good mood. Some of the rules became more spoken as we went along.
Controlling Social Media
Social media was becoming more of a thing, and many of us in the leadership program had these newfangled things called LiveJournal accounts back before blogging was blogging. At one point during my second year of leadership training we were asked specifically to not post "bad" things about the retreat center.
"Don't post about the rats and the spiders, you'll freak people out."
And...It made sense, I suppose. I never would have gone there if I knew about the Spiders of Unusual Size. I have a background in marketing, so I understood the need to protect the brand and the message. That it was better for people to first experience how comfy the cabins actually were, and the warmth of the community, before they figured out that there were sometimes rodents in the cabins, or that there were poisonous snakes.
So I bought into it and self censored. At the time, I was designing all their marketing materials in exchange for my tuition, and I was working to help the retreat center strategize how to bring in more paid participants so that the mystery school was more financially stable. I had a vested interest in the success of the organization.
Later on after I'd finished my culminating year of leadership training (we didn't really call it a graduation and it wasn't a formal ordination into any particular church, but that's roughly what it was) I moved back to Chicago and began working to take the training I'd received out into the world. I resolved that I couldn't do that, and keep going back to the Diana's Grove retreat center for weekend intensives. I just didn't have the time, the money, or the social bandwidth to do both.
It was only a matter of a couple of years before Diana's Grove announced that the retreat center was going to be sold, that it just wasn't financially sustainable any longer.
Apparently, a memo had been sent out to all the current staffers and members of the leadership training program asking them to only voice support for this decision on social media. I literally did not get that memo, not being on any of the staff lists, but when I posted on my Facebook about how this news saddened me, I was chastised by one of my closest mentors. She gave me the party line that I was supposed to toe, she told me that it was important that we publicly only voice support for the founders' decision.
For years, by this point, I'd been chafing at the failure of authenticity. This particular mentor, and the program as a whole, focused a tremendous amount on authenticity and integrity. They taught us to speak our truth, they taught empowerment.
I called her out on this latest piece of hypocrisy, and I never heard from her again.
Cults, Pariahs, and Exile
As time went on after I stopped attending Diana's Grove events, I noticed that the people I counted as close friends from this retreat center seemed to withdraw from me. I could sense the separation--even on social media--between "those who still went to the retreat center" and "those who were given the cold shoulder."
It didn't surprise me.
When I lived at the retreat center, and during my leadership training, I'd seen the founder of the organization go off on behind-the-scenes tirades talking about people from the past who had once been loyal supporters but then had betrayed, people who had abandoned her.
Every once in a while, I'd hear whispers of another side of the story. Of people who confronted the founder on her shadows and her hypocrisy, and who were summarily exiled. It happened to a good friend during my last year there, and I found another woman who had been exiled almost a decade earlier.
In fact, earlier on, I had started out at Diana's Grove standing up for the values I'd been taught. I had called out the founder, my mentor, on her hypocrisy. And then I stopped very intentionally.
After a number of incidents, and after a long series of disturbing dreams, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that this particular retreat center and mystery school, like the Isle of Avalon, was only going to exist for a short time. That I would only have the ability to learn these skills at that moment.
And so I sucked it up, shut my mouth, and I watched and I learned. I watched the co-dependence and enabling play out even as I took notes in the workshops about communication skills.
But when I left, even though I didn't leave in a huff after calling my mentor out, I felt that retraction. I wasn't part of the club anymore, I wasn't in the clique.
I wasn't part of the cult--I'd left, and worse, I'd left and I was daring to teach what I'd learned. Worse still, I was daring to try and improve on what my mentors had done by experimenting. I didn't always do it the way they had, and I even had different philosophical approaches, particularly as I continued to read and learn and take workshops from other people.
Perhaps the worst part yet, I was public about places where I disagreed with my mentors and their philosophical approaches. Places where I felt their leadership training needed improvement, because obviously there were still problems if there was that much abuse, enabling, and hypocrisy.
When You Hear The Truth
A few folks from the mystery school stayed friends, though it was long distance. I found it increasingly difficult to hear from friends who were still entranced by the magic and mystery of Diana's Grove, who spoke about the founder in loving, glowing terms. People who didn't understand how emotionally abusive she was behind the scenes, or how hypocritical some of the staffers were. People who didn't understand how manipulative the entire structure of Diana's Grove was.
But over the years I'd found a simple truth; you can't tell people under the spell that they're under a spell. Or maybe more accurate to say, it's quite difficult to break such a spell. People were fully unwilling to hear anything bad about the founder or any of the staffers. They would hear no maligning of the magic of Diana's Grove.
Since I'd left Diana's Grove, I'd had my suspicions that the founder and other staffers complained about me behind my back, but it was hard to hear it directly.
A few years back, right before my first Pantheacon, I had the opportunity to reconnect with a friend from the Diana's Grove community. We'd stayed in touch but hadn't seen each other in a while. The retreat center land had finally sold, and the organization of the Diana's Grove mystery school had functioned out of someone's home in St. Louis for a while. My friend was part of transitioning that into a new organization without the original founders at the helm.
My friend related to me the entire transition process and how he, and a group of people, were trying to bring the phoenix out of the ashes and create a new mystery school without some of the inherent flaws of the first organization.
I was excited for him and the work he was doing. But I was saddened to hear how it came about, how the founder we had both loved as a friend and mentor had continued her downward spiral. She had control-freak micromanaging tendencies (as many founders of organizations do) and apparently she actually lost it and went on a tirade--while being videotaped since she was supposed to be presenting a workshop--about how she hadn't been included in the planning of that particular weekend's programming. Even though she'd asked the other staffers to take on more of the planning so she could focus on her other work of running a dog rescue.
The personal punch to the gut was finally getting the confirmation on how my mentors had talked about me behind my back.
I'd become a pariah, an outcast, in large part because the founder of this organization had spoken about me in less than kind ways. I was told that she'd constantly been asking, "What's Shauna up to out there, what's she teaching?" There was the simultaneous concern that I was dragging the Diana's Grove name through the mud by referencing that that's where I'd been taught, and the concern that I wasn't crediting my sources. enough.
Can't win, right?
Another mentor was downright cruel. She would apparently make fun of me to other staffers when they were in staff-only areas. She's an overdramatic eye-roller, so there was apparently a lot of eye-rolling on her part whenever someone would mention places I was teaching workshops.
I wasn't surprised, but I was still devastated to hear confirmation. She was the first Diana's Grove teacher I'd ever met back when I was taking classes through Chicago Reclaiming. She's a brilliant singer and drummer and ritualist, and also a complete hypocrite, and hearing these things hurt me in the center of my chest in a way I can't describe. Given all I'd learned at Diana's Grove, all I'd been taught, I just couldn't understand this level of hypocrisy.
I was glad to know that I hadn't been making it up in my own head, I hadn't been duped by the poor self esteem from my past rearing its ugly head, by the spiral of anxiety. I really had been rejected by the people in this world I trusted the most.
Understanding abusive dynamics in groups, how groups become cults, and the many related dynamics is complicated, so more of this tale in Part 2....
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