Elders leave us in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Among these reasons are dysfunction or corruption, conversion to another Path (which might be friendly but sometimes, sadly, is quite hostile), or withdrawal.
Sometimes Elders become dysfunctional or corrupt. This can happen for various reasons, such as addiction or substance abuse, or yielding to the base temptation to use their Elder status for personal advantage (grasping for money, sexual favors, or worldly notoriety). For those bigots, demagogues and power-brokers who ardently oppose the notion of any Path other than their own, a corrupted or dysfunctional Pagan Elder can be an ally of great value, one to be sought by any means possible.
The problem that we face is this: how do we deal with corruption in our midst, without sacrificing the valuable principles of traditional independence and small-group autonomy? In struggling to answer this problem, consider also the phenomenon of 'hostile departures', as we discuss further below.
Some of our cherished Elders have left Pagandom and gone on to follow other Paths.
Consider this: most of us went through one conversion experience when we came to Paganism. It's important to understand that we have come to our religion by conscious adult choice. We have our "Pagan homecoming" stories. We clearly tend to be religiously self-motivated and adventurous, less constrained by inertia and habit, more willing to follow our personal quest, even if this requires turning to a different specific Path. This makes a second conversion, and perhaps more after that, more likely.
A seven-step model of the conversion process was presented by Dr. Lewis R. Rambo, in his well-respected book, Understanding Religious Conversion. We have already gone through something like these steps once, usually in early adulthood. If we go through them again in maturity, we will obviously approach each step in a different manner than we did when we left the traditions of our birth. Please remember that this is just a model, a convenient way of understanding a complex, continual, gradational process, punctuated by insights and sudden changes which are different in each person's experience.
Still, there is value to considering conversion experiences in terms of the seven Rambo Stages. In detail, here is how they manifest:
Stage 1: Context
This is the starting point, made up of everything that has brought the person to where they are now:
The risk of this phase -- we think it's premature to call it a challenge -- is conventionality or stagnation. People may be working by rote, from comfortable habit, no longer growing, never really probing the deeper meanings or striving for congruent lives. They may simply be bored.
Stage 2: Crisis
This second phase is nothing but challenge. Something happens to destabilise the person's religious identity. Some of these unhappy possibilities were discussed in the first section of this workbook (under 'Why do they go?')
As we mentioned before, this crisis could be caused by disillusion with teachings, teachers or students. It might be some traumatic shock -- serious injury or illness, bereavement, etc. -- some terrible thing that shakes the person's faith in either the Gods or the practice of magic. It might be painful conflict that wounds his or her sense of community.
Or simple dissatisfaction, a hunger for more (knowledge, self-understanding, contact with the Sacred), might set off a quieter kind of religious crisis. Such a quiet crisis is more typical of Elders who have explored all the lore that their Traditions currently hold.
The real challenge that lies at the heart of any crisis is to find a way to use it as an opportunity for growth. Pagans can receive growth-provoking crisis as the gift of the Crone, of 'She who breaks the dams when the waters have become stagnant.'
Stage 3: Quest
The Elder becomes a Seeker once more. He or she then searches for helpful alternative approaches to spirituality and/or to magic, within or beyond Paganism. There are many ways to gather information: reading, broadcast media, visits to houses of worship, talking with friends of different religious orientations.
Pagan Elders, most of whom were raised in other religions, will know at least something about the religion of their upbringing. Sadly, it's normal for religious education to end with communion class, or with bar/bat mitzvah preparation, which means that it ends with the fairly shallow and simplistic understanding that is considered appropriate for a youngster in middle school.
The person may have come to Paganism more as an act of rebellion than as a positive spiritual choice, which creates a risk that her or his Pagan commitment will be weak and shallow. If we encourage seekers who are more running away from something else than running toward what we have to offer them, we increase the probability that they will break and run again when they hit a rough stretch of their Pagan Path. Accordingly, we suggest recommending, or even requiring, new seekers to re-examine some more mature and open-minded approaches to their birth traditions before making a final break
As they mature in their own Pagan faith, Elders often want to make peace with their birth traditions. That will certainly involve a good bit of mature study and reflection. They might well discover a deeper religion than the one they had experienced as youngsters. Gwyneth has herself come to more comfortable terms with the Anglo-Catholic and Methodist heritage of her forebears, and Judy has come to think of herself as Pagan in content, but Jewish in process.
Even without having first experienced any sort of crisis in their Pagan affiliation, this might draw them back into their original faiths. For a Pagan Elder who is in a religious crisis, this attraction may be even stronger. It might even, in itself, be the crisis. Judy lost her original working partner, Fred, in just this way.
There are yet other ways to go a-questing. Many Pagan groups ask their students to explore other religious paths so they may learn things that seem to fill in the holes in our own traditions. Some Elders are involved with Interfaith work as well, which involves contact with open-minded people of many religions. So the quest phase is typically easier and briefer in the case of a second conversion.
The challenge of the quest stage is to reach the bridge that crosses from anger to hope.
Anger is an energizer. People who have simply reached the end of a phase in their lives, often need an 'exit fight' in order to give themselves permission to move on. But even if they were hurt and traumatized by real flaws in the Pagan community, running away will only get them ... away. They need to actually get somewhere else, and hopefully somewhere better for them. Healthy re-affiliation requires that we go towards something good, not just away from something bad (or, simply, outworn).
For the Pagan community, the blessing of an amicable departure is that, as the person becomes at peace with their new religious affiliation, their knowledge and experience may not be entirely lost to us. For this project, Judy was able to speak with several former Pagan Elders about their reasons for departing and their exit process.
Stage 4: Encounter
The departing Elder meets somebody, or notices that someone they already know is devout and active in the practice of their religion. If she or he perceives that person to be truly spiritual -- honest, kind, wise and grounded -- then the Elder may choose to explore the same path. The friend whose spirituality attracted the Elder may answer questions, loan reading material, take him or her along to services, or even make an introduction to a clergy member who can provide more information.
Some faith groups actively proselytize. They send out missionaries. But even in non-proselytizing communities (such as, we devoutly hope, are all of our Pagan communities), personal contact is a normal step in the process of conversion.
The challenge of the encounter phase is rebound.
Rebound happens when, having left their previous faith group, someone rapidly (and, often, uncritically) join another faith group without having really understood what went wrong for them in the group or Path they left. In joining a new group 'on the rebound,' the person runs the risk of either replicating whatever interactional problems he or she had during her or his Pagan period or overcompensating and going to the opposite extreme.
This is a particular risk for those who are leaving the Pagan community because unrealistic expectations have led to painful disillusion. We can only hope that they will find their own personal center and the insight that will ward them against this sort of pitfall.
Stage 5: Interaction
People find a religious community that seems to suit them better. They spend some period as guests or as participant observers, perhaps attending public rituals, learning the customs, getting to know the people. Some faith communities offer structured introductory classes for adults who are considering conversion.
The challenge of the interaction phase is discernment.
Interaction, as Rambo defines it, is like courtship: there's a 'halo effect'. People are welcoming and supportive to newcomers. Internal problems are backstage where Seekers are unlikely to see them. Seekers need clear perception and critical thinking skills to penetrate the glow, to check whether this group's theology, ritual practice, etc are consonant with the Seeker's core values, the prompting of their inner guides. Those who commit in haste recant at leisure, sometimes loudly and bitterly, sometimes at the local courthouse.
Stage 6: Commitment
The departing Elder, now formally a Seeker again, formally joins the new faith community. In doing so, they take on all the ritual and moral obligations of membership.
The challenge of the commitment phase is communication.
Departing Elders must inform their friends and former associates. This can be a difficult, embarrassing process, equally challenging to those who are hearing the news. We will need to struggle with our own disappointment, perhaps even a sense of betrayal. Remember, just as it is not our way to proselytise new Pagans, it is not our way to cajole or guilt-trip those who are leaving. The more graciously we can accept this news, sad though it may be for us, the more we leave the door open for future interactions with a human being we respect, and perhaps love.
Stage 7: Outcomes
The Elder participates fully in the new faith community, while continuing to learn more about its ways. His or her hopes may be fulfilled or disappointed. Some people cycle through this model several times before they find a religion that truly meets their needs. Some will ultimately find their happiness in following dual paths (for example, Gwyneth knows a few Witches who are also devout Catholics; one of the Elders Judy trained combines Hinduism with his Wiccan practice, another primarily identifies as Tibetan Buddhist at this time), others may realize that Paganism was best for them after all.
It's also entirely possible that the Elder will find all that was sought, and settle happily into a new faith community that fits better for this stretch of their personal Path. We must not begrudge such blessings, no matter how much we may miss our former Elders.
Again, remember the context!
When applying Rambo's model to a Pagan Elder, think about all the intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources available to them at this moment in their lives, all that they find sustaining or appropriately challenging in what they are doing now in the Pagan community, and all that leaves them feeling drained, starved or hurt.
Discussing his conversion to Catholicism, Carl McColman wrote: "One of my real concerns is that my journey could be mis-interpreted — by both Pagans and Christians — as some sort of radical denunciation of Paganism as 'evil.' Nothing could be further from the truth. But alas, it seems that most of the 'conversion' literature out there has that kind of smell to it. ... So an interesting question for your students would be, why is it that some ex-Pagans (like myself) can leave while still feeling friendly toward Pagans and their faith, while others feel a need to demonize it?"
Many ex-Pagans, like Carl, quietly shift to another religion that better serves their current needs. They continue to appreciate all they learned during their Pagan period, maintain their Pagan friendships, and maybe even come back to visit for the occasional Sabbat or gathering. A few will eventually realize that they are dual-path, integrating some aspects of Paganism into their new religious understanding and practice in the same way some of us have integrated aspects of our birth traditions into our Paganism. Several of them have been candid and generous in sharing their experience and their insights for this workshop.
It behooves us in all ways to do what we can to keep communications open and relationships cordial with ex-Pagans like that.
Others go away hurt, mad, hostile. Some make Pagan-bashing part of their future careers. Some do us real harm in our struggle for full recognition and inclusion as a respected minority religion. This second group seems (to Judy) to fall into two major categories: let's call them grievers and haters.
The grievers are often sincere and kindly folk who have a fairly simple, shallow and literal-minded approach to religion. They want clear structure, definite answers, simple rules -- none of which a healthy and full-bodied Paganism is likely to provide to them. They may also have been disappointed or disillusioned by some less-than-saintly behaviour they encountered in our community. So Paganism does not work for them. Typically, they go back to a simplistic and rigid version of mainstream religion.
They don't tell lies about us. They are quick to assure anyone they speak to that we are law-abiding, neighborly, fine people -- but sadly mislead. (They'll say exactly the same things about people who are involved with more open-minded versions of their current religion.) All they want to do is "witness" to us, proselytize us, entice us into their current fold. They do not threaten us in any way.
The haters are an entirely different matter. This group often claims to have been "high up in the cult hierarchy," where they witnessed lurid "insider" practices that are concealed from the majority of us poor dupes. This sells books and makes them popular, and well-paid, speakers on the Religious Right circuit. And, indeed, often these people did spend some time in the Pagan community -- until we got wise to them.
John Todd, also
known as Lance Collins, is a typical bigoted hater. Todd had an occult
Todd is just one example of his sorry ilk. You may find yourself in a law court, testifying in a religious freedom case, with Bill Schnobelen acting as an "expert witness" for the other side. You may even find yourself facing one of them in a debate situation or on a radio talk show. If you do, remember that knowledge is power. Kerr Cuhulain, who is a retired professional police detective, has investigated many of these liars. His reports are available in his Witchvox series "Witch Hunts: Exposing the Lies."
It's extremely important to bear in mind that these bigots represent an extremist fringe within mainstream religion. Although they claim to have the "one true" version of their theology, they do not. They do not speak for most of their co-religionists, and they are not typical of ex-Pagans. It would be as unfair to judge all Christians by John Todd and others of his ilk as it would have been to judge all Pagans by Todd back when he was claiming to be one of us.
The real question before us is whether there is anything we can do to ensure that ex-Pagans will remain Pagan friendly. Judy suggests that a big part of the answer lies at the other end of the spectrum, in the ways we screen and train new Pagans. Another safeguard is some sort of self-policing. If we can somehow contain and remove the few Pagan leaders who exploit or harm their students, we would reduce the probabilities of vulnerable individuals being hurt and reacting against the Pagan community as a whole instead of against the corrupt leader they encountered. Finally, and at the risk of becoming very repetitious, we need to be gracious towards friends whose lives are moving in other directions. A healthy community consists of only those individuals who truly want to be part of it.
People withdraw for different reasons. If we can trust our Elders to know their own needs, and provide a range of options, some of them may be able to stay present in a way that works for them.
Sometimes people leave because of hurt feelings following conflict. Sometimes it's a case of simple burnout. Both of these may be temporary conditions, requiring only a period of healing and replenishment, a 'sabbatical,' which often takes the form of a retreat. So, the question we ask is whether there is a way for them to take their time out within the community, still nurtured by group support and shared celebration, but with no expectations laid upon them?
For those who seek deeper spiritual growth, might it be a fallow or gestational time, time on Caer Idris, personal deepening, after which the Elder might 'return with helping hands' or with newer insights? With this understanding, it will be easier to let them go gracefully and welcome them back from their retreat if and when they are ready. Caution: we should lay no expectations upon them, for some of them will eventually find a better fit with some other faith community.
For those who don't have the talent or skill for teaching or for managing a group, could they become 'staff Elders', who do not directly lead Pagan groups, but who contribute via arts or scholarship, more peaceful and contemplative, but still present with us, making vital contributions and being honored for them.
For those who are ageing, ill, or who no longer have the energy to lead: can we make places within our primary groups for non-leading Elders, who take no active responsibility, but are repositories of lore? New Yorkers may be familiar with the example of Rolla Nordic in her later years. This will become more important as more of our Elders get older.
Finally, what are our communal responsibilities toward Elders who are retired or withdrawn?
 Lewis R. Rambo is Professor of Psychology and Religion at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. His well-respected book, Understanding Religious Conversion, presents a comprehensive seven-step model of the conversion process.
 See, for example, these two web sites: (1) ExWitch Ministries www.exwitch.org, especially the page called "Kathi's testimony" and (2) "In and Out of Wicca: a Former Wiccan Speaks" <www.spiritwatch.org/pagtest1.htm>
 for more details, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Todd_%28evangelist%29