Forming – coming together

Understanding what you want your group to do, and how you want your group to be, it’s time to find and select your members, the ones who will share your values and contribute to accomplishing your purposes and realizing your vision. Or perhaps its time to consider people who seek to join an established group. Either way, you need to decide who belongs in your group, and who does not. 


Group work professionals recognize some “critical competencies” for group leadership. These are generally divided into two main categories: things a group leader should be able to do well (“skills competencies”), and things a group leader should be able to understand well enough to explain (“knowledge competencies”). So each of these competencies can be described in a short statement beginning with “Able to …” or “Able to explain ….”

For the purposes of Pagan group leadership, I would add a third category: perceptual competencies, abilities to perceive or sense what is happening within a group on all levels. Also, some of the competencies expected of secular professionals, such as an understanding of groupwork research and theory, are not essential for us.

As a starting point, here are some of the competencies defined by the Association for Specialists in Group Work that I believe are also important to what we do:[1]

Knowledge competencies:

·        Understand the basic principles of interpersonal and group dynamics

·        Understand how context affects people’s behavior in and out of groups.

·        Understand how different people’s gifts and needs may affect the group as a whole.

·        Understand leadership styles and how they may affect the group

·        Understand the ethical considerations of working in or leading a group

Skills competencies

·        Able to observe and interpret group interactions accurately

·        Able to adapt one’s leadership style to the situation at hand.

·        Able to evaluate the last group meeting and plan for the next

·        Able to balance and encourage members’ participation

·        Able to maintain group focus

·        Able to give and receive feedback well and to encourage others to do the same.


These very generic competencies apply to every sort of group, but what is actually needed will vary in accordance with each group’s particular emphasis.

For example, a learning group will need a leader who has deep mastery of the subject matter. One worship group may need a leader who is personally adept with trance, and able to teach this practice to others. Another worship group may need a liturgical poet or musician to help create new ritual expressions. Different worship styles call for different competencies just as different learning groups require different subject-matter expertise. A growth group needs a facilitator who understands what might be obstructing a member’s development and can help resolve the obstacle. A task group needs people who can practice, direct, teach, and coordinate the skills needed to accomplish the projects at hand.

Here are more questions to help you figure out which competencies to seek for or to develop within your group 

·        Which competencies are absolutely essential for your particular group to work well? Which are desirable and enriching but not utterly necessary?

·        Which competencies are needed for a group leader (that’s assuming that your group has a leader; not all do)?

·        Which are needed by every group member for full participation? Which of these can be taught after a person has joined the group?

·        Which are needed somewhere in the group, but not necessarily in the leader? (for example: my coven does a lot of chanting, but not every group does. So we need at least one member who has a good strong singing voice and knows a lot of chants. But this does not need to be the High Priestess – and, in my case, that’s a very good thing!)  

In addition to, and perhaps even more important than these competencies, there are traits of character, basic attitudes and behavioral habits that are expressions of a person’s core values. Some examples: honesty, generosity, discretion. Which personal qualities do you consider essential or desirable? And, conversely, which personal qualities would you want to avoid in members of your group? Some traits, such as strong assertiveness, are very welcome in some groups and equally unwelcome in others. 

Finding potential members

Before you can bring people into your group, you must first locate them. There are many ways of doing this, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages, so think carefully about what would work best for your own personality, values, vision, and purposes. Some of these methods are:

·        Word of Mouth

·        Personal referrals

·        Pagan Networking Groups and Open Events

·        Advertising

·        Internet contacts 

Pre-screening applicants

A table at a Pagan Expo or a notice on Witchvox may bring responses from total strangers, and may also bring responses from more people than a small, close-knit group can take in at once. So you’ll want to pre-screen applicants before you actually meet with them. Here are some ideas for that. 

·        Provide a written introduction to your group. Let some of the most basic details about your group be known to all seekers. This can be in your original announcement or in your first response. There’s no point in wasting the seeker’s time or your own if, for example, they are looking for a same-sex group and your group is mixed, or if your group works mostly with the Celtic Gods and they feel drawn to the Greeks. To save everybody needless hassle, in Proteus Coven, we routinely give new seekers copies of our "mission statement."

·        A questionnaire: Ask for basic contact information and any other simple facts about the person that seem important to you. Do you want to know their marital status or their natal data or whether they can attend meetings on Wednesday evenings? Ask any question that is important to you and that requires a short and factual answer.

·        A letter of self-introduction is my personal favorite method. I ask people to tell me a little about their religious/spiritual background up to this point and what they would hope for in joining a group right now. I also invite them to tell me whatever else they think is relevant about themselves. This gives me a deeper feel for the person than questionnaire responses ever could, and may bring out important details that I would not have thought to ask. For me, email is as good as a paper letter, but if you are skilled at either handwriting analysis or psychometry, you may want the physical object.

·        One or more letters of reference. I find these less helpful, for two reasons. True beginners may not have anybody they can ask to vouch for them, but being new to Paganism does not mean that this person is undesirable. All first-generation Pagans – and that’s most of us -- were once total beginners. More important, letters of reference are only meaningful if you know and trust the writers. But limiting your group to people referred by people you know personally can starve you, and your Tradition, of fresh insights and new ideas. 


When people have passed your preliminary screens, it's time to get to know them better, and this can only be done in a face-to-face meeting. However informal this may seem, it's actually very similar to an ordinary job interview. Remember that it is only natural, not at all dishonest, for a person to try to make the best possible impression during an interview. So, no matter how much you may like them, proceed carefully and tentatively.  

Where to meet

If possible, have your initial meeting with a seeker in some neutral, public place. This need not be fancy or expensive. A booth in a coffee-shop, at a slow time of the day, is a good, quiet place to talk.

By not bringing total strangers into your home, you protect your privacy and, possibly even your safety. There are dangerous creeps out there: crooks, sexual predators and even bigots who feel they are divinely commanded to murder people of whom they disapprove.  

What to ask

What information are you looking for? Nothing very different than what was in the letter of self-introduction, but in more detail and more depth. Where has the person been, what did they learn there, and where would they like to be going? Just as in a secular job interview, some questions will be the same for all seekers, some will be specific to this person but planned in advance, based on your reading of their paperwork, and still others will come up in response to something they said during the conversation.

Be sure to invite seekers to ask any questions of their own. They have as legitimate a need as you do to check out the situation before committing to it. Besides, you can learn a great deal about someone from what questions they choose to ask.

At least as important as what people say is how they say it. You may want to probe or challenge a bit, to see how they will react, since challenge is part of any training process. Pay attention to all the non-verbal and psychic cues you will certainly be picking up. Pay particular attention to any emotional reactions or hunches that come up in you during the interaction.

Partnership in interviewing

Another good idea, when possible is to ask a trusted, empathic senior member of your group, your working partner, if you have one, to come along. One of you listens and observes while the other interacts. The quiet one is feeling into the seeker's responses on all levels. Compare your observations as soon after the meeting as possible, while they are still fresh. Two viewpoints are what allow us to see in depth.  

Screening Tasks

You may want to ask all seekers who are under serious consideration to complete one or more substantial screening tasks. We do this with our groups, for the following reasons:

  • To show them that we are serious, demanding teachers who know what we are about.
  • To find out whether they are willing to work at learning our ways. (but remember, they know they are being assessed and will probably still be trying to impress us).
  • To give students who aren't sure they want to continue with us a graceful way to opt out - all they have to do is nothing.

A good screening task is one that, even if the seeker never joins your, or any other, Pagan group, will be beneficial to them. In my own group, we use an environmental awareness questionnaire, a small research project that tests a person’s ability to complete a task on deadline while increasing their knowledge of their own local ecology. We also ask them to visit at least two other Pagan groups, so they have some basis for comparison before choosing to join ours. 


You will almost certainly have some notion of an optimal size for your group, and of how big is too big to interact well or accomplish your purposes effectively. What do you do if there are more acceptable applicants than spaces in your group?

A risky answer, but one born of long experience, is to go a little bit over your limit. It’s not uncommon for new members to drop out in the first couple of months. Particularly if you are running a beginners’ training group, you want enough members to ensure lively interaction, and drop outs may take you below that critical mass. On the other hand, if all stay the course, you may have a large, somewhat chaotic bunch of frisky newbies on your hands. I’ve had it go both ways, and definitely feel this is the lesser evil by far.

You may rank them by personal preference, then cut off the ones on the bottom of your list. This may seem arbitrary, even unfair. But remember that most groups function in part as families of choice. You will be working very closely with these people over the next several years, sharing very private moments of spiritual deepening and development. You are not required to “marry” everybody who is minimally acceptable and who wants to marry you!

And finally, you may want to give the Gods a vote by using a lottery method. Put the names of all acceptable candidates into a bowl and pick the number you want. When you do this, pay careful attention to whether you feel excited or disappointed by the results. If your feelings are strong enough, seriously consider adjusting the results accordingly.

Various divinatory methods are obviously also useful in this process.

As a final safeguard, host a social for the people you have chosen, and for any present members of your group. It may turn out that some of them have unpleasant history with others. While they all seem OK to you, this would make for needless stress within the group. So look before you leap! 

“Goblet Issues”

While a group is scoping out applicants, applicants are also scoping out groups, deciding whether or not these are the guides and/or companions they want for the next phase of their spiritual journey. So, what typically happens is that people begin their interactions with fairly trivial social chatter, low-risk ways of getting a feeling for one another.

The secular groupwork community calls these first tentative interactions “goblet issues,” a reference to cocktail parties, where people will surreptitiously look around over the rim of their drinks, observing one another and choosing whom they would like to approach.

Similarly, whenever a new member enters an ongoing group, it’s normal for the work to become a bit shallower, until a new balance and be found and newly established trust can deepen. This may be disconcerting, but understanding that it is a necessary phase will make it easier for you. 

To learn more

Much more detailed coverage of the process of bringing in new member is available at the Front Gate web site.


[1] Adapted from the pamphlet “What Every Counselor Most Know About Groups” distributed by the Association for Specialists in Group Work and available on the Web .

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by Judy Harrow, HPs, Proteus Coven
© 2006, by Judy Harrow

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