The Dual-Role Dilemma

by Judy Harrow

Right now, the secular counseling profession is full of talk about dual role relationships, relationships in which the two parties are something else to each other besides counselor and client. Although a consensus is not yet formed, most writers seem to feel that such relationships are always dangerous and usually harmful. So counselors are widely advised to avoid any other kind of relationship - professional or social - with their clients. 

That may work for people who are counselors first. But somewhere, today, a student talked with a trusted teacher about the problems at home. Somewhere else a doctor sat with a patient through his first reactions to a difficult diagnosis. Meanwhile a divorce lawyer helped a client understand what she wants and what she can reasonably expect. As long as people have emotional reactions to their practical affairs, the professionals they turn to will always do "a little counseling on the side." 

In other words, professionals who work primarily with people have no way to entirely avoid dual role relationships. Instead, I think, we'd do best to accept that they are inevitable and also accept our responsibility to become familiar with the usual pitfalls and to learn how to manage the complexities well. 

There are two major concerns about non-sexual dual role relationships. One is that the different roles often carry different duties and expectations, which may lead to a conflict of interests. The other is the potential for exploitation should the power and/or prestige of one role carry over into the other. 

What every teacher, doctor and lawyer sometimes does, clergy members do far more often. Emotional issues are obviously not separable from the issues of spiritual development, and it's commonplace for a religious person than to turn to the pastor, the rabbi, the priest/ess when in perplexity or distress. 

For Witches, the dual nature of our covens makes the situation even more complex. They are not simply worshipping congregations, kept small to maintain personal intimacy and spiritual intensity. They are also, by tradition, the places where we train and develop our future clergy. This places the coven leader in two roles that are almost directly contradictory: mentoring and evaluating. 

If you see coven as a support group for the psycho-spiritual healing and growth of the members, which it is, then the leader serves as facilitator, mentor and counselor. Her duty is to each individual member. Her work demands, above all, empathy. 

This is still so, even if you see coven primarily as a training group for the priest/esses of the future. Every clergy student needs to work on their own spiritual growth. Before we can begin to presume to act in a priestly role towards others, we must have done considerable work on our own "stuff. " Nor is the work of personal healing and growth ever completed while we live. 

What's more, we learn the skills of priesthood by doing. Coven is a laboratory where we become fluent in the symbolic vocabulary of our religion, practice first rituals and later ritual design, gain experience in small-group dynamics. To some extent, we learn how to mentor by mentoring for each other in our covens, because coven is our psycho-spiritual support and growth group. 

So coven is a place where we explore ourselves in the presence of supportive others. How can we feel safe doing this if we feel that those others are judging us for whatever we share? 

However, if coven is a training group for the next generation of priest/esses, which it is, then the leader serves as teacher, evaluator and gatekeeper. Her duty is to the next generation, whose teachers she is now training, or to the community as a whole. Her work demands, above all, clear-eyed objectivity, and it's certainly her job to judge. With each yes or no decision to initiate or elevate, we are the community's quality control. Each time we elevate a student to Elder status or empower them to hive within our Traditions, we are vouching to the community and, most significantly, to future seekers that this person is ethical, competent and dedicated. 

Beyond that, judgment is also our obligation to our trainees. They are entitled to our help in discovering any blockages or habits that will impede them from eventual full and joyous functioning. Here's a hard question: if I refuse to elevate, if I prevent a candidate who is (presently) unsuited to function as a coven leader from hiving off, am I violating the trust they showed me when they revealed their vulnerability? Or am I saving them the far worse experience of failure, offering them tough love? 

If you've ever watched a dear student hive prematurely, fail as a coven leader, and lose confidence for years to come, you'll probably feel as I do on this one. 

To further complicate matters, our covens also often serve us as families of choice. Many of us literally need this, because we are alienated from our families of origin. But, coven as alternative family adds another set of roles and brings up a lot of "transference" issues. We revisit old parental issues with our High Priest/ess, old sibling issues with other coveners. If we really do work these issues out, it's probably OK. But we are at risk for just repeating and reinforcing bad old habits in each other, creating dysfunctional covens largely because the only way we know how to interact is the way we learned in our dysfunctional families. 

These are inevitable and basic conditions of coven life. They aren't going away. So we need to think through what we can do about them. Because we are the Elders, the coven leaders, it is our responsibility to make sure that our students are not harmed or exploited. Our commitment is to create and maintain those conditions that will best help them learn and grow. Here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Informed consent and ongoing discussion. We should explain to our coveners the multiple functions of a coven and the multiple roles of a leader, and how these complicate the learning and growth process. Whatever issues come up in the leader/member relationship should be clearly and openly addressed. (This may not be comfortable for leaders who have their own unresolved problems with authority). Coveners should certainly also be clearly informed about what is expected of them in order to qualify for initiation or elevation. 

  3. The coven exists primarily to meet the needs of the members. Coven leaders have very similar needs for affiliation, support, nurturance and challenge, but these needs should be met elsewhere. Those of us in lineage-based traditions usually maintain post-hiving contact with our own Elders. Any of us can find peer support through CoG or through the more informal "leaders' groups" that have sprung up in various places.

  4.      It's also healthier if coven leaders do not depend upon their covens for their social lives. Everybody needs some play time, but we need not add yet another role relationship to an already-confusing tangle. There are plenty of other people to "hang out" with. Through the training and initiation process, our students get elevated, hive, and turn into our colleagues and quite possibly our friends. There's no rigid and perpetual division. But neither should their growth processes be rushed. 

  5. We probably want to work towards a broad consensus on standards for initiation and elevation both what competencies are required and what are the indicators of "readiness" in personal psychospiritual and magical development. The Craft as a whole is nowhere near achieving such a consensus, but some Traditions may be. Or if not, then possibly particular lineages within the Traditions might come to some basic agreements. Finding whatever common ground we can will open some options for us.

  7. The most important of these options is to ask an elder or coven leader of some coven related to your own to do a final assessment of your student before initiating or elevating them. If we can do this for each other - and trust each other as Elders well enough to accept the help - we can ease a lot of the tension that comes from the contradiction of mentoring and judging the same person. 

  8. Finally, remember that being a priest/ess and counselor is a hard and demanding job. Keep your own spirituality going. Use whatever works for you: divination, meditation, ritual. The Goddess is ready, willing and able to give you Her help and support. By your own consistent religious practice, you open a way for Her to do so. 

zoom in on:
"The Ethics of a Dual Relationship, Psychotherapist and Wiccan Clergy"
by Ellen Friedman - an in-depth analysis of dual relationships in the Wiccan community

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    Originally published in Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter (Samhain, 1995)
    The address of this page is
    Contents of this page are copyright © 1995, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.