Monday, April 6, 2015

Are Coven Organizations Dead?

Bad coven leaders are like Ming the Merciless.

I have been a Witch for over 40 years, and I have seen the various traditions of Witchcraft grapple and deal with inter-personal issues occurring within and outside of the group organization called the “coven.” I have been a High Priest for a few covens, an elder, and a member of others. I have witnessed a lot of abuses and experienced the terrible consequences of investing authority in individuals who are either too flawed or incompetent to lead, or too unscrupulous to trust. Perhaps I have been unlucky with the covens of which I have been a member or leader, and certainly there were cherished moments that I experienced in all of them, even the ones that went seriously off the rails.

I also believe that I am an ethical and responsible person, but as a human being with the all too typical weaknesses, I am liable to be manipulated and made a fool of just like everyone else. I have no lust for power over others, no hidden agenda or passive aggressive impulses, and I don’t feel the calling to either lead or control people within a hierarchical organization. These days my only interest is sharing what I know and what I can experience with others magically and liturgically. I don’t belong to a coven and I have no plans for forming one either. Still, I consider myself to be a Witch, and I believe that you can be a competent Witch without having to belong to a coven.

There are also many positive examples that I could describe of good coven leaders who are humble, trustworthy and quite willing to help their members deal with the vicissitudes of life and their spiritual growth. These good leaders act like true spiritual guides who take responsibility, are accountable to their group and who do the work without complaint or a desire for compensation. Despite the fact that there are plenty of good role models for the offices of High Priestess, High Priest and Elder within the coven hierarchical structure, the possibility of abuse and its all too often occurrence shows that the problem is with the model itself and not necessarily with the individuals who take these roles.

We have also seen the unfortunate recent public revelations about sexual predation and abuse, and these individuals are people that many of us thought we knew. We have learned about the unaccountableness of a few Pagan celebrities (I won't name any names) who perpetrated serial sexual abuse on others and got away with it for years. We act shocked by these revelations and there is a lot of serious talk about accountability, consent and transparency; but for some reason we don’t talk about the hierarchical model that allows leaders and celebrities to get away with their excesses while covering up their crimes through intimidation and black listing.

Human nature is what it is, and giving unearned or unattested positions of authority and power to some would-be leaders to rule over their peers can make them behave in a vile and pernicious manner. Power in groups has an intoxicating and corrupting influence unless the leader is either a sterling example of humility or operates under the influence of checks and balances unofficially incorporated within the group. That forbidden taste of social power is likely what drives some to seek positions of leadership within their groups and communities, which ironically makes them the worst candidates for such an office. Still, the primary problem with this social structure is that it grants one or a few individuals too much power over their fellow group members. Even a benign dictator is still a dictator, and without any input from the other members of the group, such an empowered leader can easily become a tyrant.

Someone who is used to this unquestioned authority and power will attempt to wield it in greater social circles once he or she becomes a public celebrity. These abuses, if they existed in the coven, will be amplified and carried into the Pagan community, since a celebrity will assume that he or she has a kind of immunity due to their own vested power and unquestioned adoration of their community. Such individuals will seek to keep the lid on their excesses through threats, intimidation and by the fact that their voice is heard from a position of power and vested interest. It takes quite a bit of courage to reveal to the public that you have been exploited or abused by a celebrity, and even then there is no guarantee that you will be either heard or believed. I have seen this kind of potential scandal play itself out time after time, and it usually takes some kind of civil or legal action to get the truth out. Once such a celebrity is knocked off their pedestal, then the many victims start to come forth and reveal the truth, but by then, it is too late. This kind of phenomenon is not limited to the greater Pagan community; it appears to happen in many public arenas, from politics to show business.

Recent revelations have made many Pagans question what can be done to curb these excesses? How can we avoid the pitfalls of emotional and sexual exploitation? Are we not a more enlightened group of people who should know better than allow such things to happen to members of our own community? What is the overall cause for these abuses and how can they be stopped?

I have heard these discussions but I feel that the problem is to be found in the fundamental social structure of our various groups and the kind of behaviors that it encourages. As I have stated previously, we have no community wide temples and institutions. We have no state or city sanctioned religious protocols, nor do we have mystery colleges or cult centers. All we have are small groups structured like families, loose sodalities or solitary practicing individuals. Covens are like family based structures, with a father, mother, grandparents and older and younger sibling type roles. If actual families have problems with dysfunction and abuse the members can at least be comforted by the sole fact that they are all tied together by blood. This is not the case with the coven, so it is quite an artificial group structure instead of an organic one.

Coven membership is always voluntary (so they say), although with the caveat that coercion, blackmail and intimidation can often make them seem not so easy to voluntarily leave. Leadership is often assumed by the members, at times vouched for by other leaders in the tradition, though seldom is it earned through a rigorous regimen of education, testing and actual spiritual achievement. In my opinion this is a real problem. Putting someone in a position of spiritual leadership who doesn’t have the experience nor any real spiritual achievement is a recipe for disaster. Some may learn to be good leaders over time and avoid the excesses associated with the abuse of power, many more will ultimately show themselves to be not up to the challenge. Such an experiment can produce many victims over time before these leaders are finally outed to the community at large. Thus, it is my opinion that the old coven group structure has exceeded its usefulness and is therefore, quite dead. It might continue to exhibit signs of life in certain quarters, but it has been existing on life support for some time now, waiting for someone to finally pull the plug.

It is for these reasons that I have abandoned the group model of the coven and I feel that if any kind of group organization is to be used that it should be based completely on democratic principles. We are all adults of varying levels of knowledge and experience. Some of us have prior initiations into the same or other traditions, and some of us have achieved a spiritual understanding without even being initiated. What draws a group of like-minded individuals together are a common set of interests and goals. As long as those goals and interests are common to all then the group will continue to function and the individual members will profit from this sodality. This should be the foundation for any group of individuals seeking to practice magic and a Wiccan or Pagan liturgy together as a formal organization.

How should such a group comport itself? What are the basic principles that should govern such a group? Here is where I would like to introduce some rather obvious and practical ideals that will ensure that the group functions in a just and fair manner. These ideals are the basis to many democracies and democratic organizations, and I think that they are important for any collection of Pagans or Wiccans to seriously consider if they want to form a group. These words are consent, consensus, equality, accountability, egalitarianism and of course, transparency. If these six words become the backbone of the group then it will last as long the members want to continue working together; but it will be overall fair, equal and democratic. Let’s examine each of these words to see how they would help to shape a good practical working group.

Consent - agreement. Consent functions in both a group and a community where two or more parties agree to doing something. Consent also implies that the parties to this agreement are on equal footing socially and psychologically, and that there is no coercion or pressure to agree. It allows for a complete openness between individuals, it is neutral and completely voluntary, and it represents that all parties are in mutual agreement. Mutual is the key-word to an operational use of consent. Neutral means that there is neither manipulation nor threats used to gain leverage for any one of the parties. Consent is the basis for forming a group, and it also governs any kind of cooperative effort. It also avoids exploitation, coercion and aggressive manipulation.

Consensus - a general agreement held by all or most. Rule by consensus is where everyone either agrees or where most agree and no one disagrees. If you think that ruling by consensus makes getting anything done nearly impossible then you haven’t really tried it. If a group can no longer find consensus for doing anything then it’s time for that group to break up and reform itself into smaller and more agreeable factions. Consensus only works when there is a mutual agreed upon direction among the members. When group consensus is established for a specific enterprise or goal, everyone feels that they have had their say and they are all united in their effort. This kind of group zeal is a far cry from efforts that are directed, coerced or ordered by an authority figure within a hierarchical group. 

Equality - everyone is equal, and each has an equal share and responsibility in the governance of the group. While it is obviously true that individuals are all different, and therefore they have different virtues and liabilities, group equality is where no one individual has more authority, responsibility or carries greater weight than anyone else in the group. It also means that roles such as facilitator (as opposed to leader), teacher, mentor or even elder are temporary. Authority and responsibility is shared equally amongst the members of the group. Everyone has an equal status in the group, and everyone is therefore, empowered and considered an important facet of the overall group organization.     

Accountability - everyone is accountable and subject to the checks and balances of peer review. Since no one person has any vested authority within the group, and that all of the members of the group are considered equal, responsibility for specific tasks can be given by the group to specific individuals. However, their actions and how they undertake their tasks as well as how they interact with the other members of the group are subject to peer review, and when necessary, peer intervention. This openness and peer based accountability is not an invitation for crass criticism or domination by one or more individuals against someone attempting to perform their group sanctioned duty. All criticism should be constructive and it should also include alternatives and possible better solutions. Individuals should also not judge the work of others until that work has been achieved, thereby giving someone the chance to at least complete their efforts. Help can be given when requested, and everyone has a vested interest in seeing that the group’s objectives are optimally met. Respect for another person’s dignity is just as important as getting the job done efficiently and to the best of the group’s overall ability.

Egalitarianism - everyone shares in the responsibilities and also in the achievements. Group resources, work and achievement belong to the group, not to any individual. Certainly, a single member’s contributions can be extolled and celebrated in the group, but outside, it is a group action, event or project. Getting something done often calls for the effective combination of the efforts of various individuals in the group. Some are better at certain tasks than others, and some have more resources that they can bring into the group. However, all property, resources, work and achievements are owned by the group. If a member of the group donates property, equipment, money, or other resources for the group to use then those resources properly belong to the group. Giving anything to the group is a sacrifice in the sense that once given, it becomes the common property of the group. However, when groups disband, then resources and property can be equally divided or given, by consensus, to other individuals who will use it in the forming of a new group.

Transparency - nothing is hidden, and everything is communicated and discussed. Transparency is nothing more or less than establishing trust within the group. There is nothing more poisonous to a group than hidden agendas, passive aggressive behavior by one or more members, and secret sub-groups with their own special agendas functioning within the group. Transparency doesn’t mean that everyone has to reveal their deepest and darkest secrets. It just means that group related activities, decisions, objectives and work are performed by everyone in an open and above-board manner. If someone wants the group to engage in a certain activity then their reasons and intentions for promoting this activity should be known by everyone in the group before consensus is sought. Omitting anything will destroy the trust upon which the group was supposedly found, putting every previous decision into question. This is often a difficult thing for many individuals to do, but it is very important to represent oneself in an open and transparent manner in the group. It is therefore important to be truthful, conscientious and open to other group members. In establishing trust, all members can thereby assume positive intent for each and every action by any member, even if what occurred was wrong or produced negative results.

These are the six ideals that can promote a group culture that is truly democratic, fair and empowering to all of the members. It eliminates the worst abuses of power and authority and it promotes a progressive environment of mutual effort and trust. Such a group culture will not tolerate exploitation and coercion by the power elite, since no one individual has any real power in which to abuse others. A group culture based on these six democratic principles will not only be lasting and satisfying to the group, but it will also function as a powerful curb to all of the weaknesses and flaws in any one individual member.

By extension, if this kind of group culture were dominant in our Pagan and Wiccan communities then we could expect groups and individuals to behave differently towards each other. There wouldn’t be any abuse of power within groups, and celebrities in our community wouldn’t have the opportunity to abuse or exploit anyone either. We would have a community where there would be “zero tolerance” for coercion, exploitation, abuse and emotional and social predation. Scandals would be very rare occurrences and we would see them as anomalies, since our overall community would function with the very best of democratic principles empowering all individuals and treating everyone with dignity and honor.

While this is an idealistic presentation of how groups should be established and governed, and that human nature tends to fail whenever ideals are attempted to be implemented, using them will put into place self-correcting social instruments that will ensure that whatever flaws or failings we have they won’t destroy what we are collectively trying to achieve.

Still, I have discussed this topic previously in previous articles. I have referred to this kind of group as a Star Group, and you can find a host of articles listed here.

Frater Barrabbas       


  1. "Are we not a more enlightened group of people who should know better than allow such things to happen to members of our own community?"

    Nope. People are people, and abusive exploiters find their way into every group and organization. Many others don't know how to handle leadership roles effectively, so as you rightly point out a group that offers little training and has few checks and balances can bring out the worst in them.

    It seems to me that a group as small as covens are supposed to be don't really need a "supreme leader" and your star group model is far more reasonable. That's certainly more similar to the way my magical working group has operated for many years, and it's outlasted many. We just get together and talk through what we want to do as a group, and it's never posed a problem for us to work by consensus.

  2. It appears people have forgotten what witchcraft can really mean: the power of working in a group for the benefit of its members. For one month, the group should work for one of its members and next month for another, and so on. Leaders can rule in the ritual, but don't have to rule the whole group activities. Your idea about democracy is good. Those with control issues, that haven't grown up or are using the group for some cover for their vices (sex) don't need to be in the group anyway. Those groups will soon break apart. The best way is to set up ground rules right from the start. Just like families, we all get a dysfunctional "Ned" at the family reunions and that can't be helped unless we recognize it and do something about it as a group. You've given me an idea for another book, "Witchcraft Covens: Forming Them and Keeping Them Together"