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.

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Identity and Leadership Failure

So many of the leadership problems that I see in the Pagan community come down to issues of our personal identity. There are leadership techniques for building healthy communities, models for understanding group dynamics, and tools to mediate conflicts. But the truth is…all of that stuff is a house built on a faulty foundation if we don’t also do our personal work.

To do that work, we have to understand identity.

And we also have to admit that all of us need to do this work. Unfortunately, the way identity functions can make it hard to change our own bad behaviors, and ego is pretty good at denial. When a group blows up you’ll often hear, “It’s just too much ego.” They’re sort of right, but it’s a little more complicated.

What is Identity?
Identity is formed from our experiences, our culture, our families. Ego has a negative connotation, but people use the word “ego” when they mean “egotism.” Ego (and superego) are our identity, our sense of self, our knowledge of who we are.

That ego is in many ways like our skin; it’s a boundary between who we are and the rest of the world. Ego is a good thing, yet it has a strong sense of self preservation. Ego doesn’t want to admit when we’re wrong. In fact, one of ego’s jobs is to keep us feeling good about ourselves, even if it means lying.

That’s where we slide into egotism. One of the most common responses to being (or feeling) attacked is defensiveness. A confident person can take criticism, but an egotistical person often presents as arrogant, aggressive, and defensive when challenged.

And the wounds of our past can cause problems for us when we step into group leadership.

Bad Behavior
All the facilitation techniques in the world can’t help you lead a healthy group if you’re a know-it-all, control freak, or snap at people who offer criticism. They certainly can’t help if you verbally abuse group members or other leaders who disagree with you. Leadership tools won’t help if you constantly tease and put down others, if you snarl at someone for volunteering for the job you usually do, or if you emotionally manipulate people into taking on volunteer roles.  

I’m not writing about this from my comfy armchair. I’m speaking to some of my own struggles as a leader. I’m a recovering know-it-all and control freak. And that brings us to the question, what can we do about these behaviors?

The essence identity work is first to know yourself, your issues, your triggers.

If you go about your day and frequently find yourself thinking about how people are out to get you, talking about you behind your back, how people hate you, how you aren’t good at what you do, how you’ll never get out of the situation you’re in, that nobody values you, or that you can’t trust anyone to do anything right…. Any of those repetitive thoughts are a solid indicator of our filters, of how we see the world. They are woven into our identity, and many of the above are red flags for poor self esteem.

Damaged Cup
Imagine that your identity, your ego, is a cup or a bowl. And imagine that harm you’ve suffered in your life poked holes in the bowl. We develop coping mechanisms to handle those holes. I sometimes call that as the “ego patch job.”

Here’s an example: I was the fat, awkward kid in grade school. I was mercilessly teased and verbally abused. Sometimes physically, but it was mostly teasing, putdowns and rejection. The names got worse in middle school when I got heavier and then I was the fat chick with acne. Girls used to follow me into the bathroom, climb up on the stalls and shake them while laughing at me.

Poor body image, poor self esteem? Check.

What was my ego patch job? Being a know-it-all. I was fat, I was a reject, but I was a smart reject. Being right was how I felt good about myself. I survived, but this didn’t help me learn how to be around people. In my early twenties I whined, “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” until I finally realized that I was in part making that happen through my own behavior.

In essence—the ego patch job can keep us sane in a crisis, but long-term it’s a maladaptive strategy. If we don’t actually heal the wound, we’ll keep acting out of our default behaviors and then wonder why our group is falling apart. Am I “cured” as a know-it-all? Nope. But I do my best. And I continue to look at areas where my own behavior is getting in the way of my work as a leader

Arrogance and Egotism
I believe that one of the core problems in Pagan communities are leaders with issues of arrogance and egotism. Based on my own years of observation, I’ve seen many people who seem to be acting out from a place of poor self esteem. I’m not in a position to diagnose whether someone is just an arrogant jerk or if they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

What I am in a position to do is notice the patterns.

I can make some educated guesses about what someone has going on and why they might be acting in a way that’s harmful for their group or their community, but I can’t “fix” them. We can only fix ourselves. Only if we are willing to look into the mirror at our own behaviors can we see what we’re doing and see what impact it has on those around us, and decide if that’s the impact we want to have.

Some people in a leadership position are never willing to look into that mirror.

Here’s an example. There’s a Pagan elder who for more than thirty years had led a coven and run larger events. Somewhat recently he was banned from vending at his local Pagan Pride because he was a complete jerk to the organizer (who is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met) and he complained about something having to do with the Pagan Pride event directly to the park that hosted the festival. This guy spawned at least two groups of people who left his group to create other events because they were sick of this Pagan elder’s verbal and emotional abuse. He caused dozens of other people to just leave in disgust.

Why did he act like that? Is he just a jerk? A bully? Self esteem issues resulting in arrogance? Untreated mental illness?

Who knows. You’ll run into a lot of folks like this in the Pagan community, and the rub is, you can’t make them better. Every once in a while you can hold up a mirror to someone who is acting badly and they’ll have that moment of clarity where they realize that their behavior is harmful and decide to make a change, but it’s rare.

The Mirror
Usually, we can only find these things out for ourselves. And mostly, that “mirror” being held up happens during a Tower moments in our lives. The Tower is the card in the tarot that represents catastrophic change. The truth is, most people won’t change until their life hits a crisis point.

Most problems with our ego and identity go unchecked until we’re faced with a mirror we can’t look away from. It’s difficult to change your life when things are going well. Or at least, you think things are going well. Ego does a pretty good job of keeping us from looking to hard at these things, because if we realize that we aren’t perfect, we will hate ourselves, and ego’s job is to keep that from happening.

Because, if we might be wrong, then we might be bad, and if we’re bad, people won’t like us, and they’ll reject us and we’ll die alone, right? That’s reptile brain at work.

Identity and Change
One of the reasons that personal transformation—much less cultural transformation—is so difficult is because change is difficult. Dion Fortune’s definition of magic is “changing consciousness at will.” That sounds simple, until you try to do it. Ever try to break a bad habit? Quit smoking, stop procrastinating, stop saying “um,” shift what you eat, start exercising, manage your anger?

Change means you’re hacking your autopilot, your assumptions, how you see the world. You are consciously deciding to believe differently than you did before, to be a different person. The old you has to die, and ego is going to fight you tooth and claw to prevent any type of ego death.

Transforming Pagan Community
In the Pagan community there are constantly groups blowing up or fading out. Many of the scenarios involve an egotistical, bullying leader or a dysfunctional group member. You can’t make anyone else change. But you can look into the mirror and change yourself. It’s not an easy road. Therapy can be a good place to get assistance.

We have to become more willing to look at the places where we cause our own group problems. Ask yourself, what is the impact of my behavior? Is that the impact I want to have? If the answer is no, then you have work to do.

What Am I Working On?
I’m ashamed to admit that I drop the ball a lot. I hate it when people do that to me; nevertheless, I still take on too many projects, I get overwhelmed, and then I fail to do what I agreed to. I’m working to reduce anxiety in my life and stop agreeing to projects and then letting people down.

Bonus: Here’s some homework. List five or ten behaviors that annoy you in the comments section. Then, ponder how many of the annoying behaviors listed are things that you do. It’s also something you can do with a group as a brainstorming exercise, and it creates a really useful (if difficult) mirror.




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An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for Circle Magazine, and her writing also appears in several anthologies. She’s also the author of several fantasy and paranormal romance novels. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Thursday, 26 February 2015

    Things I hate that I also do (in no particular order)

    a) breaking my word (over-committing and then bailing)
    b) hot-buttoning (blowing up for no obvious reason)
    c) making excuses for my failures
    d) gossiping (I'm working on this one, hard)
    e) holding grudges (I need to learn to let go!)

  • Shauna Aura Knight
    Shauna Aura Knight Thursday, 26 February 2015

    Those are all really good ones. Well--good in terms of juicy/useful for self reflection. I do the over-committing and bailing pretty bad and I'm working hard on that one, but it's an edge. Thanks for joining in on the "homework" portion :)

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Thursday, 26 February 2015

    Over-committing, that's something I keep trying to work on, too. My over-committing is rooted in feeling that it's not nice to say no. I know that's what my problem is, and I try to do better, but I don't always succeed.

  • Gwion Raven
    Gwion Raven Friday, 27 February 2015

    Over committing is a big one for me and I must admit that I will entertain gossip.

  • Irisanya
    Irisanya Friday, 27 February 2015

    Wow. This is timely. I've been engaging in mirror work around this, and have found:

    1. Overcommitment, which leads to...
    2. Poor self care, which sometimes leads to...
    3. Gossip, which is often related to
    4. Reacting without stopping to breathe and reflect...


  • Power Before Wisdom
    Power Before Wisdom Friday, 27 February 2015

    I did the exercise and posted it above. Then I took it to turn into a paper to post over my desk... Here's what it looks like: (Yes... I know this very post is number 9 :p )

    Mirror Mirror on the wall,
    Here's what I hate, yet do to all...

    1) Being too busy talking to Listen
    2) Hyper-Defensiveness rooted in lack of Self-Confidence
    3) Complaining about feeling powerless instead of finding a way to move forward
    4) Being Jealous of other people's success instead of learning from it and emulating it
    5) Ignoring the stuff we don't want to deal with in the hopes someone else will take care of it.
    6) Overworking and over-giving so much there is nothing left for loved ones.
    7) Declaring overly simplistic solutions to systems with complex dynamics we don't correctly understand.
    8) Failing to study something one has a responsibility to the community to know better.
    9) Being a "Special Snowflake"
    10) Failing to maintain an effective balance between healthy skepticism and healthy mysticism from fear.
    Stop hiding from things others already see
    to change into who I wish to be

  • Shauna Aura Knight
    Shauna Aura Knight Friday, 27 February 2015

    You all have inspired me to do a few posts on gossip. I'm thinking at least one on discerning between information sharing and malicious gossip. Often hard to find the line on that.

  • Charles Harrington
    Charles Harrington Tuesday, 10 March 2015

    Oh man I have a few things to work on:

      Not making decisions because I want people to like me
      Gossip! That turns into...
      Toxic Case Building! yes let's all fester on this issue and then bring it up to the person when we are past the point of no return
      Designing the rituals the way I want them and wondering why the group isn't connecting to them
      Having completely unrealistic ideas about how much each person "should" contribute (If I can xyz, why can't they xyz?)

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