3.    Succession planning: coping with inevitable losses

As Pagans, we honor and celebrate the Wheel. Our religion teaches us that everything moves in cycles of birth, growth, decline, and death.  Everything that lives changes, and no one of us is immortal. Knowing this, we realize that if we want our community to to on, we need to plan for the death or departure of every single leader in the course of time.

There are different types of group

Paganism is organized to many different types of group, which each require quite different forms of succession planning. Some (perhaps most?) of us belong to more than one group at once, being ourselves part of that vast overlapping web of relationships and collective identities that we call the Pagan community.

            Let's introduce our imaginary friend, Isadora. She's a dancer by training, and works for her village's Druidic Ballet (all imaginary villages ought to have a Druidic dance company, don't you think?), where she dances and she also keeps the finances sorted out. Isadora's not just a talented and jazzy dancer who can gloriously embody the Tree Spirits, but she's an absolute whiz at bookkeeping. Knows her fives from her tens, does Isadora!

            Now, good bookkeepers are rare enough in this world, that everybody wants Isadora to come keep their dollars straight. So, Isadora is:

·       bursar for her small group, Coven of the Raven and Dinosaur,

·       treasurer for the Butlerian Tradition, the collective of related covens and groves that puts on a yearly camp-out and retreat at Arkham Farm,

·       tax-preparer for the Panpipe Institute, which owns Arkham Farm and hosts gatherings,

·       pursewarden for the Miskatonic Local Council of Covenant of the Elder Gods…

By now you get the drift of things. There are lots of different groups, which may all have a different title for what's effectively the same role. Each of those groups finds its new Elders in a different way, and it has a different need for succession planning. Looking at them in detail, we have:

·       The ballet company, which rehearses and performs in the union hall up at the end of Main Street. Like most artistic groups, the ballet company's bookkeeping is ad-hoc: money gets collected in a cookie box at the door, Isadora keeps track of it and makes sure that it gets deposited in the company's savings account, and she then once a month sits down and writes the checks that pay for hall rental, insurance, high-fiber doughnuts, and all the other things that a dance company has to pay for. Isadora became the bookkeeper because the previous one scurried off one night to join a convent in Peru. Unfortunately, the departing bookkeeper took the account books and all the deposit slips with her, and didn’t tell anyone where the money was being deposited, let alone the account number. At the company's next business meeting, poor Isadora was acclaimed as bookkeeper by default because everybody else ran away too quickly when the call for nominees was announced.

·       The coven needs a bursar to keep track of the Candle Fund, and make sure that its Covenant dues get paid each year. The coven's High Priest invited Isadora to serve as bursar because he thought she was ready to take on some responsibilities, and it would help her develop as an Elder.

·       The tradition doesn't have its own fixed meeting-space, since it conducts its business by patiently polite consensus over the telephone, backed up by happily-brief business meetings on the last evening of the yearly camp-outs at Arkham Farm. The tradition needs someone to keep its minimal accounts straight, and do the little things like cutting the check to pay for the rental of the campsite. Isadora became the tradition's treasurer after the senior priestess of the tradition stood up at dinner one night and asked for someone to help keep the paperwork straight. Isadora, being Isadora, volunteered to do this.

·       The Panpipe Institute (named for the famously good music that is played at all their gatherings) owns Arkham Farm. Because they are incorporated as a society and they own land, they have to file annual tax papers, and they must pay taxes to the county tax office. If they didn't pay those taxes, there are plenty of developers who would love to knock down the farm's rather charming barns and build condos there instead. Isadora can't remember how she ended up doing the taxes for the Institute, but she has wryly told folks more than once that she would be just as happy training someone else to do it. She's smart enough to see that burnout is sneaking up on her.

·       Miskatonic Local Council of Covenant of the Elder Gods doesn't own much of anything tangible, just a few funny-looking hats that are worn by its officers, and some minute-books and the like. But since Miskatonic is the oldest and longest-running CoeG council, known far and wide by the affectionate nickname of 'The Elder Ones,' there is a certain social capital that has become ingrained into its collective identity. So there is a lot of prestige at stake when new officers are elected at the council's annual business meeting. In typical Miskatonic fashion, Isadora says that something possessed her, so she ran for pursewarden, and she was elected by a thundering majority of her fellow Pagans.

What we see from these little stories is that there can be many different kinds of Pagan groups, ranging in form and scale from primary worship groups such as covens or groves, through lineages or networks, to public churches or religious societies, ongoing festivals such as Panthea, formal public-outreach organizations such as CoG, and land-holding groups such as Circle Sanctuary or Earthspirit.

            Just as there are many different kinds of Pagan groups, there are many different sorts of succession plans that might be needed. In order to understand how to plan for a group's succession issues, we must start by understanding how the group itself really functions, and (perhaps more importantly) why it should continue functioning.

 

What is being continued?

Succession planning starts with discerning the group's primary purpose or function. We might do well to borrow the concept of the 'mission statement' from government agencies and businesses. For example:

Our core mission at Weyland-Smith Industries is to make world-class
cast-iron bowling balls right here in
Central Connecticut.

Let's try this again in Pagan terms. The mission statement for Isadora's coven might be:

Coven of the Raven and the Dinosaur exists to honour the Gods, the People and
the Earth, and to pass that core understanding onwards to future generations.

At the very beginning, try to understand just what is being continued.

            The good folks down at the blacksmith shop at Weyland-Smith would like to keep making cast-iron bowling balls for years to come. Like most well-run businesses, they really exist to pay wages for their workers, more than worrying about running the share prices up. So, they would probably be most concerned with making sure that they have new, young, energetic apprentice blacksmiths who can learn all the ins and outs of making drop-forged bowling bowls, from the Elderly, wise, thoroughly-experienced master blacksmiths. And so, in the fullness of time, today's apprentices will become tomorrow's masters, and world-class bowling balls will continue to be hammered out for the children of central Connecticut.

            Similarly, the members of Coven of the Raven and Dinosaur would like to see the coven continue. It's been around for 30 years already, and graduates from the coven-sponsored Pagan Outer Grove have gone on to join or to found anew many Pagan groups scattered throughout their part of the country. All of those groups share the deeply-held and thoroughly constructive values that were taught in the Outer Grove, so whether or not they are all following the same Tradition or even recognizably the same Path, they can all get along and talk to each other since they share a core understanding of what it’s all about. So, the coven's succession plan will probably involve some thought about how to preserve, pass along, and build upon their collective knowledge.

 

Should the group plan to continue?

For the bowling-ball company and the coven that we just mentioned, planning to continue onwards beyond the active lifespan of their founders is probably a good idea. But there might well be some Pagan groups which don't need to think about succession: for example, short-term groups that are formed to deal with one particular issue or answer one particular question. Once they have accomplished that objective, and shared their knowledge as widely as they might wish, they can gracefully wind themselves up.

            On the other hand, one of the better tests for the functionality of a Pagan group (particularly a Pagan church or other religious corporation) is whether it will manage to actually survive the departure or death of its founder. Gwyneth can think of a case in point right now -- a Pagan church that she helped found, that has continued 10 years past her departure from its directorate, and fully 5 years past her having moved away to another part of the country altogether.

What exactly does 'continuity' mean?

For a lineage or a Tradition, maybe 'continuity' entails nothing more than ongoing networking. A lineage might be said to have a practical existence if there is some means, direct or indirection, for any one of its members pass a message along to any other one of its members.

            An example from nature is willow tree, which can propagate itself by sending out long runners to another cluster of roots, from which another willow tree  might grow. If the first tree dies or is cut down, the other tree can survive. Huge clumps of such trees -- covering large tracts of forestland -- can easily survive for thousands of years, long after the lifespan of any individual trees. Another example is the 'fairy ring' of mushrooms that might spring up in the lawn outside your house, particularly after a heavy rain. The mushrooms spring up, let their spores spread away and then they shrivel up and die (or perhaps a squirrel eats them all before they ripen). In any case, the visible mushrooms don't live forever, but the underground network of fungal threads, the mycelia, continue to live and put forth new, every-expanding, rings of mushrooms. The mushrooms are only the visible part of something that is much larger and much longer-lived.

            But not all human-created structures can survive and grow by solely following the examples of natural systems. Trees and mushrooms don't have to file paperwork and pay taxes. People and their organizations do have to keep doing those things if they wish to survive. To put it plainly:

Formal procedures for succession are necessary
for any legally-incorporated, property-holding organization.

Even if there is no expectation of group continuity, advance planning will make termination smoother and much less rancorous.

 

Can we suggest alternatives to departure?

            If a person is stepping down from an active leadership role because of competing life responsibilities (for example, a new baby or a new job) or because of illness or just plain tiredness, is there a graceful way to keep them around as an honoured Elder and lore-carrier? Are there things they can do (maintain a web-log, perhaps) that are less physically demanding?


Money matters

If the group has any form of financial endowment, whether it be an ongoing stream of income, or simply a savings account against a rainy day, some arrangements must be made for its continued management (or its disbursement, if the group is going to wind itself up).

            Informal arrangements for financial matters will suffice if all that is at stake is a coffee tin or a shoebox full of nickels and dimes. For example, when Gwyneth's former coven passed on the leadership of a Pagan training Outer Grove to another coven, the financial succession consisted of passing onwards the tin can which contained the Outer Grove's candle fund. Neither of the two bursars involved had any idea how much coinage was actually in the can, and neither coven was particularly concerned with an accounting for these assets.

            But what would have happened if the coven had been renting a meeting-space for the Outer Grove? Think again of our friend, Isadora, who is keeping the books for the Druidic Ballet? She steps into the role of treasurer, and discovers to her horror that there are no record-books, no account-books, no indication of where the money was being deposited at all, let alone a checkbook with which to pay the rent. Her solution might have been to ask around, find out who might have been writing checks to the ballet company, then ask those people to give her copies of the information written or stamped on the back of the checks. In that way, she could figure out what the account number was, and at which institution the account was kept.

            So, to save lots of bother (and this is the sort of bother that occasionally afflicts Pagan groups), it may be helpful to write down a set of notes on who does what and how they do it, and make sure that there are enough copies of those notes that someone, somewhere, will always be able to find a copy. This approach works as well for other matters as it does for financial matters (also see 'writing down the bones' and 'property,' further on in these notes).

 

Continuity of leadership

With the exception of truly leaderless groups, of which there are probably a few in Pagandom, most Pagan groups have either a leader, or a central committee (or a collective, or a board of directors). Shared leadership, such as by a committee, collective or directorate, is easy to carry forward, since there is a greater chance that at least some of the leaders will carry onward to provide continuous 'know-how' about the group (this is one of the reasons why many groups have staggered or rotational terms for their boards of directors).

            A tougher set of problems arises if there is a single leader, particularly if the leader is a powerfully charismatic person. There may well be no plan in place for how to select a successor when the existing leader retires, steps down, or dies in place -- in the happiest of worlds, this is because the existing leader is doing such a great job of leadership that none of the group members would care to have to contemplate what they would do if that person left office. A rather nastier situation occasionally ensues, wherein the original leader works hard to put a stop to any consideration of succession. Gwyneth is mindful of several Pagan groups, in various countries, that have had difficult struggles to choose a new leader, for just such a reason.

            Hopefully, a central leader will be so perceptive, so whole within himself or herself, as to be comfortable with the notion of succession planning. A workable approach may be to form a committee or working-group tasked with figuring out what the job description of 'leader' should be. Once that is established, then it's time to consider who the possible successors might be, and weigh those candidates against the job description, or the list of essential tasks and personal qualities that have been established for a leader. Those  junior members who seem to  be potential leaders can then be nurtured (and  more finely screened) by giving them opportunities for job shadowing and then gradually increasing their responsibility and authority within the group. This may be called "assistant," "co-chair," or even "coven maiden," depending on the circumstances.

            Exactly how to proceed with this process might be a book in itself. The key point to bear in mind is that the candidacy of a new leader is ultimately subject to ratification by all the group's members. Whether this is done by an election, or by consensus, or by some other means, it will be done. Even if the new leader is simply presented as a fait accompli (think of the worldly example of monarchic succession, or corporations being headed by a parent and then one of their children), their leadership is ultimately subject to this basic tenet: "They who cannot bear your rule will leave you." Count on it being true.

 

Specialists

Just as business firms have specialist officers such as public affairs people, corporate secretaries, and treasurers, so do many Pagan groups have summoners, scribes and pursewardens (these titles will, of course, vary).

            Larger organizations, such as Covenant of the Goddess, elect their specialist officers at annual business meetings. In theory, any member in good standing can be nominated 'from the floor' at such a meeting; in practice, 'slates' of candidates may well emerge, offering a shared vision of the group's future.

            Smaller, more intimate groups such as covens or groves, may simply find their new specialists by direct appointment. Perhaps the senior Druid, or the grove's Guardian, will name the successor, bearing in mind the person's talents and temperament. That approach can work well, too, as long as everyone is aware that that is how things work within the group.

            Often, like we found with our mythical friend Isadora, people who have practical expertise (such as bookkeeping) are already doing it for several Pagan groups. So there's one way to go find another treasurer. On the other hand, this exacerbates the risk that our chosen candidate may eventually hit burnout through overwork. Gwyneth has occasionally taken the approach of polling a group's membership for private, written, nominations of likely successors for various offices, and then assembling a list of the most oft-named candidates for the group's discussion and ratification. Bear in mind that the person who is most frequently nominated may well decline the honor of being appointed to office.

 

Burnout and retirement

Sometimes people continue to perform a particular function until long beyond it has ceased to be satisfying, and has instead become a source of boredom. Sometimes people simply lose patience with the day-to-day tasks, or the petty frustrations, or the interpersonal hassles. In any event, burnout can ensue.

            To forestall burnout, some groups rotate people and offices: this year's scribe might be next year's pursewarden, and vice versa. If burnout hits in mid-term, or if there are no set terms of office and no plans for rotation, then the group will need some means to replace the person who has reached their limit.

            There are no universal solutions to this problem. Sometimes the person has not wanted to leave office at all, or he or she will simply 'fade away' without notifying anyone. The worst part of this is the interpersonal nastiness than might ensue as the group tries to reclaim items such as account-books, or keys to bank boxes.

            Consider establishing a clear and kindly way to 'retire' office-holders who have burned out. In some Pagan traditions, there is provision made for people to serve as Elder without any specific office or duties. In this way, a person can move into a more graceful retirement, remaining available to share their accumulated knowledge, without having any specific ongoing duties.

 

Writing down the bones

Succession planning is a lot easier if there are some written references to what people do, how they do it, and what/where are the tools that they need do the job. If you wish, you can formulate formal job descriptions for the various roles in your group, or you can do as many soldiers have done and write a Continuity Book for each role. A Continuity Book is an informal, but carefully assembled collection of relevant references which the person stepping into the role will need to have close at hand. See the Appendix of this notebook for an explanation of how a Continuity Book functions, and how to put one together.

Passing the knowledge onward

Written forms, like the Continuity Book, aren't complete in and of themselves. No matter how much time and effort is spent in writing out how-to lists, diagramming procedures, and describing relationships, at some point in time it will pay to simply get together with your successor and show him/her what you have been doing, how to do it, and why.

            You aren't going to meet your successor, or you have just stepped into your new role and the preceding person is already long gone and unreachable? Often, there is a work-around for this, and it is to have one or more third parties stand in the role of lore-carriers. In essence, they are cross-trained by the preceding office-holder, and then they carry that knowledge on to you. Backed up by written notes and frequent requests for feedback on what you are doing, it'll likely do in a pinch.

            But what if no such provision was made? Then you are truly on your own. Take the initiative to ask your colleagues what they think you ought to be doing. Then consider what an analogous office or role would be in a non-Pagan context: the pursewarden of a coven and the chief steward of a Christian congregation have very similar roles and responsibilities. In the end, if you give things a fair try and keep writing down the lessons learned, what succeeded as well as what failed, you will come to understand your tasks. In a fortunate situation, by re-inventing the processes, you may come up with better ways to do things --  and create a  record that will benefit those who will come after you.

Property matters

Here it's largely a matter of magnitude and mundane valuations. If what is being passed onward is a collection of ritual items and books, word-of-mouth and trust among mature people may be enough. But if the succession involves items of worldly value such as real estate, or a substantial endowment fund, even a properly-witnessed legal will may not suffice.

        Some groups have substantial collective property. Unless clear agreements are made beforehand, this is likely to exacerbate, extend and embitter any conflicts which do arise during the period of break-up. Californians will doubtless recall the story of the break-up of the collective community at Annwn.

        If the assets in question are substantial enough to present a risk of fighting over their control, consider vesting their ownership in a society or other religious corporation that has carefully-defined articles of incorporation and bylaws. Bearing mind that any contract which is written by a lawyer can be overturned by another lawyer, if the articles and bylaws of a religious society are properly written, they will be more difficult to subvert to some undesired or unforeseen bad end.

            By now you may wonder whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just let your own children, or the children of co-religionists, inherit the assets and property. It's certainly simpler to set up, but have you considered what mess would ensue if the children who inherit are not interested in carrying on in your Path? We've seen it happen with an established Pagan church in California, where the people who inherited a house -- which had become an ad-hoc community center, willed to them in trust by that Tradition's founder -- decided that it was all too bothersome, and so put a halt to the community gatherings in the house.

What happens to the accumulated lore?

Over the years, an Elder gathers and develops an amazing body of knowledge, both as personal understandings and as collected papers. Can you think of a systematic way for an Elder to pass down the knowledge that she or he has accumulated?

            Think about libraries, collections of sacred writings, computer files, or diaries. Is there any way to catalogue them, or let other people know what you have? Gwyneth's answer to this problem, as she ages, is to write the names of the intended recipients in the fly-leaves of the books in her library; that way, if anything suddenly befalls her, people know where each book is meant to go. But the computer files? Now, there's an issue. Recently a well-published Pagan author and web-mistress died. The many useful articles in her Web-space were taken down out of view shortly after her death, and her surviving partner has indicated that he has no plans to again release her writings to public view. As another example, consider the thousands of e-mails which we might have each sent and received over the past few years. If we die, will there be anyone who knows the relevant passwords and has the expertise to sort them all out?

            In the case of hostile conversions, or even simply in the case of a change of heart about public visibility, departing Elders may choose to intentionally destroy their books and files. Once gone, there may be no retrieving them.

            For those of us who do not write, consider starting (or participating in) an oral history project. Some years ago New Moon New York started an oral history project, but lacked the energy to maintain and sustain it. Consider, therefore, sharing results of your historical researches with other Pagan archives.

      With a good dose of Pagan realism, and a little careful thought and planning, we can ensure that contemporary Paganism  will survive and thrive. So mote it be!


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