1.    Why do they go?

 

Pagan Elders withdraw from active participation in the community for a variety of reasons. Understanding what these reasons are will help us avoid some of the major pitfalls and increase the probability that our elders will stay present and active among us.
 

Poor selection and/or training

Elders fail, and leave in frustration, when they are not properly prepared to function well in their new leadership role. This is a large part of our problem.

Selection: identifying leadership potential

Most of us practice our religion within the context of small, intimately bonded groups. It's normal for people to be members of such groups for at least a full year before beginning advanced training. By then, the existing group Elders should have a pretty good sense of who this person is. Putting in their time, doing their fair share of the work, being considerate towards others -- these are excellent qualities for a group member, and certainly necessary for a potential Elder, but they are not sufficient. We suggest that leaders also look for the following criteria:

§       The person should understand fully and be able to explain the central principles of your tradition. Failing that, how could they ever confidently and competently teach those principles to others?

§       They should be solidly grounded in your tradition's core values and core ethics.

§       They should have good communication and "people" skills.

§       They should be insightful, empathic, compassionate. They should know how to listen. They should be helpful, but able to avoid undue enmeshment and co-dependency.

§       They should be assertive, able to set and maintain appropriate standards and boundaries for any group they may lead, able to keep the space safe for their own students' explorations.

§       They should be able to identify and help resolve interpersonal conflicts.

§       They should have a secular career, or be in school working toward a definite career goal, so that they will not be tempted to commercialise their practice or teaching of our religion.

- and, perhaps most important of all -

§       They must have their own real and living connection with Deity or Spirit, however your tradition understands the Sacred, and by whatever methods your tradition uses or teaches. Without that connection with the Source, they will become arid religious bureaucrats who can teach nothing more than how to go through the ritual motions by rote. You cannot share what you do not have.

Training for leadership

There's a common assumption in the Pagan community, and definitely among the Wicca, that a person who has achieved Elder status is empowered -- and pretty much expected to lead a group. Judy very strongly believes that we should find ways to honour other kinds of contributions, for example in scholarship and in the arts, that are of comparable worth to our community. If we could do this, more Elders who are burned out on group leadership -- or who never really had that particular calling in the first place -- could remain honoured and active participants in the Pagan community. But these notes are about the way we operate now, and the way we prepare people to lead and teach groups.

Their ongoing spiritual development is essential. Without that, we are at best a social club with an inflated self-image. But, however necessary, spiritual development alone is not sufficient. A hermit can be very spiritual, and even produce great art that is both inspired and inspirational, while remaining just about incapable of coping with human relationships.

So we would like to suggest that training for Elder status, for a leadership role in our community is best done through role modelling, job shadowing and supervised hands-on experience.

Role models

At the beginning of our relationships with our students, we serve as role models, which actually can be risky for the Elder, but is necessary to beginners. The presence of a competent, confident teacher reassures them that they can learn these things, achieve these things, grow up to be more like this person they admire. Moving from role modelling to job shadowing calls for a delicate assessment of how many of the struggles and problems of leadership the advancing student is ready to see, and a correspondingly gradual process of self-disclosure. This will probably be difficult for those of us who have become comfortable with basking in our students' admiration.

Job shadowing

Job shadowing does not require us to step off that pedestal so much as to make room for the student to step up there with us, and see how things look from the Elder's perspective. They learn by observation and discussion the specific skills of leadership, the issues you face, how you make your decisions, and even a bit about how the demands of leadership effect you emotionally and what you do to keep yourself grounded, balanced and growing. If they move into a leadership role without that glimpse of the stresses and problems it entails, they are at risk for some pretty unpleasant surprises.

Supervised hands-on experience

To give an advanced student or aspiring Elder supervised hands-on experience means you do  more than turn over a few rituals to them. They get to act as leaders or teachers while in your presence, knowing that you can step in if anything goes awry and will certainly give them feedback and suggestions for improvement, even if there was no need for you to intervene. We tend to begin this process early, asking even very new students to set the altar or do one small part of the ritual. Eventually, they will take full responsibility for a simple, celebratory ritual. Next they will teach one class or workshop session.  All of this is preparatory, and none of it should be rushed.

Eventually, as the advanced student prepares to become an Elder, they may take responsibility for students of their own, guiding that first group through the first level of training, keeping track of each member's progress, all with the security of their own Elders' presence. They are no longer just students, they are student teachers.

Through this gradual process, they can move more comfortably into leadership roles, deepening their knowledge of how people learn and grow and how to facilitate that process in others.

Judgement: when are they ready?

Some years ago, back before Gwyneth ever took her first leadership courses, or Judy studied Public Administration as an undergraduate Political Science major, Lawrence J. Peter, a management consultant, made a startling observation about organisational behaviour:

 

"People rise to the level of their incompetence."

 

That trenchant observation is known widely as the 'Peter Principle'[1], named after its author. It is written on whiteboards and posters in many, many personnel offices throughout the English-speaking world. What Peter observed is that, in large and multi-levelled organizations, people who consistently perform their work well get promoted, again and again, until they reach the level of intensity and complexity that is just beyond their capacity -- their level of incompetence. At that point, the promotions stop coming.

We think the Peter Principle should also be prominently included in every Pagan group's operating manual, and understood in every place where existing Elders are concerning themselves with the formation and training of new, incoming Elder.

When a person has risen to their level of incompetence, they are at severe risk for failure, frustration and burnout. When they rise too fast, when their authority and responsibility within our community outstrips their skill and knowledge ... or, far worse, their developing spirituality, then their level of incompetence is artificially low, and reached needlessly soon.

Reasons for premature elevation

There are two main reasons why we may be tempted to elevate our students prematurely.

First, Paganism is a rapidly-growing religious movement, with a rapidly-growing need for new leaders. Under the pressure of this need, existing Elders may choose to take greater risks in selecting who they will train and guide to become the next generation of Elders, and who they will elevate to Elder status. But to take such a risk means to accept a certain amount of failure, which is likely to be damaging to the aspiring or new Elder.

Second, sometimes we pay more attention to our students' successes that to their struggles. It is perhaps understandable, for we are primarily nurturers. It is our job and our pleasure to encourage our students. We are far happier to celebrate their learning and understanding of new skills and new ways of working with people, than to focus on their remaining deficiencies.

Third, and worst, sometimes we are tempted to sacrifice objectivity to personal inclination. If the candidate for Elevation is your spouse, your best friend, your own child, or your lover, we entreat you to seek a second opinion from a respected elder who is not personally involved with the candidate before going ahead with the ritual. Actually, a second opinion is always a good idea.

So we promote people too soon. Sometimes we promote the wrong people altogether, hoping that somehow they will 'grow into their new role.' Often they do, and our choice comes off as being trusting and insightful. But sometimes they flounder and fail, and we don't pick up on it until the damage is done -- both to the new Elder, who may be so shattered by an early failure that they never risk leadership again, and to the even newer students whose introduction to Paganism was botched.

One possible safeguard is to ask an Elder of your own tradition, whose wisdom and judgement you trust, but who has had no part in the training of this individual, to make an independent assessment of their readiness. Let yourself be a nurturer in all fullness by delegating the conflicting role of the judge.

 

Disillusion

If religion is about connecting with, celebrating and expressing all that we hold Sacred, all that we most value in our lives, then idealism seems intrinsic to religious participation. This is made explicit in most Wiccan Traditions by a specific admonition to "keep pure your highest ideals." But idealism is also the source of unrealistic expectations, because people, individually and in groups, are imperfect. After all, if we ever perfectly realize our highest ideas, we will no longer be able to "strive ever towards them." Unrealistic expectations, in turn, can lead to disappointment, disillusion, and departure in beginners and Elders alike.

The new-come Pagan, full of idealism, will eventually run into their first episode of community conflict. Perhaps people get heated and are not quite listening, not quite civil to one another. Worse, perhaps this conflict is about nothing much more than ego and competition for power and influence within the community. People seem to be struggling for not much more than to be the biggest fish in a smallish pond. And the beginner, shaken, goes to their Elder wondering "I thought we were learning a way to be spiritual here. But this conflict is just political." This is their first disillusion, with people and with the community, either or both of which they have probably idealized.

To idealize another human is to project our highest ideals onto that person, who is, just like ourselves, imperfect and fallible. Beginners in any human growth process, including all spiritual paths, need to do this with their teachers for awhile. It's the counterpart of role modelling. As they mature, they need to penetrate that mask of perfection -- or the teacher needs to drop it. This was discussed above as the principal reason for job shadowing, a healthy prophylactic against disillusion.

Newfledged Elders, especially those whose training does not include a close-up view of reality, may have unrealistic, over-idealised expectations of their own. They expect all students to be consistently enthusiastic, receptive, co-operative and grateful. But their students also have good and bad days, old agendas, conflicting needs, crises of various sorts. If they are teaching a group, members may compete, sometimes in unpleasant ways, for the young teacher's attention and approval. The new Elder does not always get the kind of shining results and loving feedback they expected from their first group. Or any other, assuming they keep going after this first disappointment.

Worse, they may have unrealistic expectations of themselves. They begin with great enthusiasm, but they will also have good and bad days, and times when they are tired, frustrated, stressed by things going on in other aspects of their lives. They will not be able to answer every single question a student asks. They will not always find the right words to offer challenge or comfort to a student, or to help their group resolve a conflict.

We who prepare people to become Elders bear some of the responsibility for unrealistic expectations and consequent disappointments. Sometimes we expect more from them than would be realistic; we underestimate the difficulty of leadership tasks and the complexity of learning to teach and guide new seekers. When we do this, it raises the pressure on advanced students and fledgling Elders, and increases their level of stress.

We may also be unwilling or emotionally unable to allow our advanced students the inside view, because we so thrive on their idealized admiration. They need to see and understand our own failures, to hear us as we struggle to identify how things went wrong -- and we cannot allow this without facing and exposing our own flaws.

This risk of false expectations and consequent disillusion diminishes, but it never quite disappears. Complacency replaces naive idealism, with the same bad result. Experienced and fully launched Elders may become convinced by past successes that we could solve any interpersonal problem or help any student get past roadblocks in their personal growth path just by 'winging it'.

Disappointment and disillusion breed from failure. A fearful Elder becomes unwilling to take risks. Failures can be hurtful; indecision is frustrating for all concerned. This leads to a viciously aversive feedback loop, which increases detachment from human interaction until finally the Elder departs altogether, often with some anger, because it is simpler and less stressful than trying to process disappointment and learn from prior mistakes.

 

Dry spells: crises of faith:

Travelers along every Path of human growth or creativity occasionally come upon roadblocks. These are the moments when our faith is shaken. Magic may fail or prayers go unanswered. Unexpected tragedy may strike, leaving us bereft and traumatized. These challenges, devastating as they may be, are, at least understandable.

At other times, our sense of contact with living Spirit may simply and quietly just shut down without any apparent reason at all. In the classic literature of mysticism, these stuck times are known as the "dark night of the soul." Artists of various sorts experience something very similar, and call it "creative block." At such moments, people feel lost, confused, unjustly rejected by the Gods -- and perhaps begin to wonder whether their previous sense of spiritual connection was just a happy self-delusion all along. Because Pagans often use the metaphor of sweet, nourishing "juice" for spirituality, Judy tends to think of these periods as spiritual dry spells.[2]

Dry spells are particularly painful and threatening to working Elders. We are expected to teach and guide students and seekers along the Path, even when we ourseves are feeling stuck or lost. How can we show others the way to something that we cannot even find for ourselves right now? The more experienced, the more well-established an Elder is when s/he comes to a dry spell, the more likely s/he is to despair. A teacher in a dry spell, struggling to portray a steady and reassuring role model for students, can come to feel inauthentic or hypocritical. Quitting might stop the pain, or at least push it into the background.

Anyone who is going through any sort of crisis needs support: a listening ear, perhaps the benefit of somebody else's experience and wisdom, maybe even some practical assistance. If an Elder falls ill, or is injured, or loses their material possessions in a hurricane or fire, there's really no problem with seeking assistance from students. Crises of faith, however, are entirely different situations. Because we serve as role models, the spiritual support Elders get in a dry spell must come from our own Elders or from like-minded and trusted peers. For this reason, we encourage networking, peer-support groups within and beyond specific Traditions, and ongoing cordial contact with our seniors within lineages.

Droughts end in three ways, maybe more. Some people will retreat into an entirely secular life, covering their loss by regarding all spiritual experience as foolish delusion. Some will veer into a different Path, a different religious affiliation that might be better suited to their current needs.[3] And for some, the blessed rains will finally come. Those Elders will return to full function, perhaps a bit sadder, certainly a bit wiser, and tempered by their crisis of faith so they will better survive the next challenge along their personal Path.  In time, their future students will benefit from their hard experience.

 

Intellectual or spiritual dead ends

Within European society, and its descendants world-wide, Paganism has lain dormant for a thousand years or more. Let's leave aside the scholarly debates about how much was just plain dead, and how much may have survived in vestigial folk customs or in secret, but whole and continuous, transmission. Whether or not any of that is true, this Path is clearly new to most of its current followers. We have come to Paganism by conscious, adult choice. The implication of this fact is that Pagans, as a people, care a lot about religion. We are not here because of habit, or inertia, or simply because we were raised this way and have not taken much interest in religion at all since adolescence.

Indigenous Pagan traditions were mostly abandoned, sometimes brutally suppressed, in a time before the invention of the printing press, and before near-universal literacy. As a result, much of our lore was lost. We lack information about the details of symbols, stories, rituals and spiritual practices, as is painfully clear when we compare our legacy with that of, say, Judaism -- or any other of the "major world religions." We just don't have nearly as much information to work with as most religious communities do.

Finally, because most of us are beginners, and because of our community's burgeoning growth, our habit has been for people who would be considered advanced beginners in most other religions to be pressed into service teaching very new beginners. This is a problem for newly elevated working Elders, when they run into some problem in teaching others or leading a group. It's also a problem for all Pagan students, especially for those who are more advanced, even before they move into any sort of leadership role. When they hit the inevitable, occasional roadblocks or rough spots in their own personal spiritual and magical development, their own Elders may have barely more experience than they do.. As one former Pagan Elder put it during a telephone conversation with Judy, "there was nobody there to show me deeper." He has since taken refuge in Buddhism and affiliated with a well-reputed local Buddhist monastery.

Intellectual resources, which are needed to support the delicate structure of spirituality, are also thin. Judy has long railed against the fact that most of the popular books available present the same basic information with slight variations in presentation or packaging. Some are better than other, to be sure, but all are pitched to beginners. There is very little available in the way of intellectual resources for advanced practitioners or working Elders. Judy was ruefully amazed to hear the same complaint coming from two different former Pagans who generously shared their stories with her as part of her research for this project.

We're delighted by the fact that the last few years have brought us startling advances in Pagan scholarship, and a growing acceptance of Pagan Studies among scholars of Religious Studies. But the material being produced, welcome though it is, is very academic, and does not directly address the needs of Pagan Elders who are not quite so academically inclined.

Paganfolk are avid to move forward, but our Path dead ends before very long. We have neither the depth of lore nor the depth of experience in our teachers to guide our growth. An advanced practitioner who wants to learn more, go deeper, establish a deeper or clearer contact with the Sacred has two choices -- veer onto a different path or make (or re-make) the road by walking it. But not everybody has the temperament or calling to explore uncharted territory.

We need to support and encourage all our pioneers. We also need to do everything we can to promote networking and the sharing of developmental information. Failing that, we face stagnation as a community and the loss of our very best members.

 

Burnout[4]

"An Elder's self-image is a very fragile thing."

The sequence here is stress out - burn out - drop out.

Elders burn out when they become ungrounded, lose their sense of balance between their religious activity and other aspects of their lives, or become ungrounded. (Judy adds: or when they lose their sense of Sacred contact and become spiritually tapped out)

Elders may be perfectionist, may have unrealistic expectations of themselves, or others in group may have unrealistic expectations of the Elder. Other people tend to become over-dependent on the Elder's contributions, and may expect too much for too long, without giving much back.

            If the Elder has been very effective, made great contributions over a period of time -- eventually people begin to take this for granted, not feeling or showing appreciation -- it's just "good old so-and-so, doing their thing" and the Elder's activity is so normal that we barely notice it at all. The Elder perceives this as a gradual diminution of the return they get for their efforts. This can lead to a loss of confidence and enthusiasm on the Elder's part, resulting in a depression -- less energy available for the group's activities, a downward spiral.

Also, on the Elder's part, when things are going well, they are at risk for a loss of perspective, and some ego-inflation, which can feed their own unrealistic self-expectations. They may be unwilling to let go or to share power, especially if their personal sense of self-worth derives from their status in the group.

If they have difficulty admitting to their own limits, that's another reason they may be reluctant to delegate responsibility or to train/nurture their own successors -- thus depriving themselves of assistance with the work at hand.

Another reason why they wind up doing too much of the work themselves is that many Elders are better at leadership (how to form, hold and project a vision for the group) than they are at management (how to co-ordinate people's efforts toward the group's goal.)

            Elders get older, and tired, and may become stale and set in their ways. They may also have less time or energy to give because of changes in family, personal or health situation. Group members may resent the diminution of Elder's participation instead of being supportive or making any effort to take up the slack. Feeling this resentment rather than appreciation, Elder may lose more confidence or enthusiasm, become more depressed.

            Other group members may challenge the Elder for leadership. Newer members will compete for power. There may be envy or jealousy of the Elder's power or prestige. Some people will really have energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas they want to try. Some may also be "antagonists"5 (conflict junkies) who will never be satisfied or appreciative.

            The Elder needs to portray and project confidence to students and newcomers in order to be a good role model. They may not have somewhere to air their own issues. Leaders' support groups may help, but may also be dangerous: egos, competitiveness, one-upmanship, risk of gossip.

 

Interpersonal conflicts

In any human group, and in all religions, people are sometimes emotionally bruised by interpersonal conflict. Unless there is basic respect, a willingness to listen to one another, and conflict-management skills, some of our more tender souls will be driven away. Judy has written and posted an Elders' Notebook specifically about conflict, called "Storming: working through our conflicts".

 

External factors

One of the best things about our religion is that our leaders have lives: families, jobs, even other interests. At times, other aspects of their lives may require the major share of their time, attention and energy: a new baby, an advancing secular career, a new school program. These people may be back, as the cycles turn, bringing with them all they gleaned while away.

For example, during the first Persian Gulf War, in the autumn of 1991, Gwyneth was called into increased responsibility to her country's armed services. Sometimes this meant leaving Pagan events early to attend briefings or meetings; other times it meant she had to miss events altogether to attend field training exercises or other out-of-town commitments.

Sadly, Elders also get older, wear out, have serious health challenges. Eventually, all of them, all of us, will die. Denial of these inevitabilities can only make it worse for us when they finally arrive. Please see Section Three for a much more detailed look at succession planning.


[1] Peter, Lawrence J. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (Buccaneer, 1993)

[2] Harrow, Judy  "Seasons of Drought" in PanGaia #45 (Nov 06 - Jan 07) p. 63.

[3] This is described more fully in the "crisis" phase of the conversion process, in Section Two of these notes, and in Carl McColman's essay  "After the Magic"

[4] special thanks to Jonathan Tominar for a telphone conversation on the evening of October 2, 2005. Jonathan is still a Pagan, but has withdrawn from active community leadership after many contributions made over many years. We thank him for his time and openness.

[5] Haugk, Kenneth C. Antagonists in the Church: How to Intetify and Deal With Destructive Conflict (Augsburg Fortress, 1988) -- This is a very Christian book, but well worth reading and translating. A Wiccan interpretation was done by Eran, and is available at "How to Keep Your Coven from Being Destroyed"

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