The Harsh Realities of Leading a Pagan Group: Troubles with Followers

a tired person with his face in his hand

Imagine a military where the only ranks were Captain, Colonel and General.  Now imagine that a subordinate only follows polite requests whenever they feel like doing so and pushing them might cause them to quit and go find another Colonel or General.

How much is this Army going to accomplish?  (next to nothing is a safe answer)

Look at how many pagans act and you’ll notice this describes the vast majority of Pagan event planning and implementation.  As persons, most of us have found and started living this awesome concept of self-determination and feel we have the right to choose our every action.   We lead ourselves!

...which unfortunately makes us think we’re ready to lead others.   Most pagans eshew organized structures in which we can’t step into leadership quickly.  One of the most successful pagan structures is a 2 year leadership process composed of a year of initiate and a year of dedicant followed by a lifetime of “elder.”

We want our cake, we want it now and many of us feel entitled to skip the work part of it.


My Personal Story – Why I am qualified to speak on this
I am guilty of this too.  It took me a 12 years of self-practice and “covens of equals” before I found a group that I felt deserved me bending a knee to learn from.  This group was the Ile Orunmila Oshun under Louisa Tiesh.  

I spent 6 months as a guest, a year as a “friend of the house” and only 8 months as a member, learning to balance self-worth with humility (while practicing and studying Ifa).  This house expected and trained me to follow for potentially years before I might have the chance to step up and go through the VERY expensive and difficult year long initiation which would have included challenges like:

  • Not being allowed to touch people for a full year.
  • Getting home before the sun goes down.
  • Special foods
  • Special clothes (pure WHITE)
  • LOTS of homework and time alone to meditate.
  • Limited Media (Avoid most TV and such)
  • Hundreds/Thousands of Dollars

I was ok with staying a follower since I didn’t want to make the huge sacrifice necessary to initiate.  Unfortunately, I ended up leaving because my spiritual father in the group expected me to sacrifice more of my free will and personal spirituality than I felt was healthy for me.

At that point I returned to the “general pagan community.”

I now had 8 years in the Christian Church (3 of that leadership/service), 4 years Self-Practicing Witchcraft, 3 years leading/service in covens and about 4 years in Orisha Trad Work. I had more hard-walking years of experience than many “elders” in some traditions and I didn’t want to start at ground zero again.

However, I had no certifications and I didn’t feel ready to lead others. So for a couple years I focused on leading myself.  I began writing Power Before Wisdom and started seeing if people want to join in what I was doing.  I ended up forming a group with a couple other people and we continued doing what we felt like when we felt like it. Two years ago we decided to step up, schedule regular events and invite the “greater pagan community” to join us.

For over a decade I’ve studied leadership, group dynamics, sales and marketing (for business dreams).  When we decided to “step up” I worked to implement what I was studying into the group and started taking classes from successful pagan leaders.  I built systems intended to scale into the Hundreds of people and yet the whole time I fell into the trap of expecting pagan “followers” to step forward to help carry the burden of making things happen.

Unfortunately, as I noted before, there are VERY few pagan “followers.”  Most pagans consider themselves separate from needing to “follow” or serve a group in a non-leadership capacity... their attendance at events is compensation enough right?

Couple this with “broke pagan” mentality and in most cases group leadership ends up footing the VAST majority of the labor and cost of organizing and running events.  After a couple years of this, most leaders become burned out and either quit, or pull back to providing so little that their group may as well not exist.  Even Reno Magick (the group I’m a leader of) has encountered this.  We still don’t communicate our plans far enough out to attract larger “crowds,” and we are still challenged by how unreliable people are to committing to even attend, let alone help make larger events happen.

We are against a weird wall of balancing how much we are willing to do, with a lack of input and commitment from others.   Our group events average 6-20 people right now even though we have had dozens of guests and have about a dozen “friends.”  At our peak we had over 60 people at an event, but the cost and effort for attracting that many was un-sustainable.  From that event we ended up having about 5 friends join and 1 member so we followed normal numbers rather solidly.

Where is all this going?
This article started out as a rant, but is evolving into a “learn from my experience” article.   I still don’t have all of the answers and I can’t give you a formula that WILL work for you, but here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way to help shorten your learning curve.

Rules I learned from “Ile Orunmila Oshun”:

  1. Recognize that EVERYONE has a certain relationship within the group that needs to be earned.  The position one holds in the group is based upon the responsibilities carried by that person.  If the person has no responsibilities they are guests who MUST be given limited access in order to ensure that membership has value.  Unless you don’t want members of course…
  2. Recognize that the leadership does the majority of the work and sacrifice. However in trade for all of this work it is fair and just to expect equal effort (In study and/or group event preparation) or compensation (Gifts or Money) from persons receiving special value.  HOWEVER… when you expect this know that you will have less than half as many people attend.  In trade, the people who DO attend will be MUCH less likely to mooch which will help you avoid burnout.
  3. Have clear, reasonable and achievable expectations and systems which people can follow to meet them.  When in doubt, break it down...  It’s hard to get help setting up an entire room, but it’s easy to get help moving a table.
  4. Consistency is your friend.  If you do something the same way again and again you will find you don’t have to teach it because someone else probably knows how to do it.  This is ESPECIALLY true for the “little things.”
  5. Recognize that not everyone deserves to be involved with your group.  Hold free and/or public events once in a while, but save the good stuff for the people who recognize and honor the value they are receiving.  The ratio you should probable expect will be 200 “guests” – 50 “friends” – 10 “”members” – 1 “Dedicant” where:
    1. Guests show up when they feel like it.  They don’t bring anything except maybe food or “Ashe Di” (Requested Donations) and whatever help they feel like in the moment.  Don’t trust any of their “commitments” regardless how earnest they may sound.  Never count on them.  “Lifespan”: Hours to Years.
    2. Friends have no defined commitments, but they have proven both their good will and that they will keep their word.  However, they will come and go. They will likely join for a couple events and then disappear for weeks/months before showing back up. If you are smart there should be some sort of ceremony to define the rules of the “friendship.”  However these rules MUST NOT require attendance beyond once per year or a few times per year.  “Lifespan”: 6 Months-2 years
    3. Members DO accept commitments.  Another ceremony should be held where they accept the mantle of the organization, accept their position within it, and commit to the rules, their duties and their attendance.  Lifespan “1-5 years”
    4. Dedicants are the persons who have accepted responsibilities for the group as a whole.  They are the ones who define a lot of themselves by their involvement and they sacrifice for the group even if it does not personally benefit them.  The purpose of the group becomes a major purpose of their life and it shows. Lifespan “1-14 years”
    5. If you don’t want people just disappearing, You MUST allow for people to “step down.”  Changes happen and if you don’t allow people to reduce their commitment then you will force them to leave.   It is a good idea however, to make such a change require some sort of process and ritual and that they know there is an “upgrade” cost if they choose to reaccept their current position at a later time.

Rules I learned in Reno Magick:

  1. If you are leader, plan your efforts based on what you will take joy from doing.  ONLY make plans which require work you dislike if you already have people EAGER to do those parts.  This isn’t the army.  Shit rolls uphill and YOU will probably end up being the person doing the parts people don’t like.  It is better to join someone else or go without, than put yourself into a position where you are unhappy because you put a ton of effort into an event which didn’t provide the “return” you wanted either in money, people, help or Cred.
  2. You and/or your group will probably need to grow quite powerful and respected before someone will decide that you are worthy of “blind commitment.”  Until then, learn to position yourself to receive help people feel like providing because they like what you are doing. I originally learned to follow in the Christian Church with leadership which took advantage of the fears, obligations and feelings of inadequacy the beliefs of our church taught.  Those methods of leading and following DO NOT work among conscious persons who don't have a book telling them how to follow.
  3. People usually have a false image of themselves and people around them. Learn to recognize patterns enough that you can accept people as they truly are.  Being disappointed in someone means that you lied to yourself about who they were.  Make it a point to know people well enough so that when they show their “darker natures” (break their word/insult someone/go crazy) you knew they were going to do so and had already compensated for it.  People long for others to know their “darkness” and still accept them.  When they know they are accepted despite their failings, they often feel VERY appreciative.  However DO NOT mistake this acceptance as a form of commitment to help you.   A large share of people will assume this acceptance is permission to be at their worst.  YOU MUST DRAW LINES.   “I love you regardless, but I will not interact with you when you…”   Fill in the blank.
  4. Recognize that if you want people to “Follow” you need to respect following.  Too often I hear pagans imply that people who follow do so because they are not competent to lead.  As a culture pagans need to start honoring that intentional “following” is actually a higher skillset than individualism.
    1. Unconscious living – Letting other make your decisions for you.  Even if you aren’t part of a group, reacting to circumstances without conscious acceptance of self-empowerment is a form of letting “others” make your decisions.
    2. Conscious Individualism – Making your own decisions, keeping separate from others because your choose to focus on what separates vs what brings together.
    3. Conscious Interdependence – Whether you are a leader or a follower you are making conscious decisions.  A Conscious Follower chooses how to be involved and where to draw the lines.  A Conscious leader does the same, but in trade for being more intensely committed to the group’s success, he/she gets more responsibility and credit for both the successes and the failures.
  5. You don’t have a group until you have “followers.”  Followers are actually more important than the leader.  You can define a “follower” by the specificity of the responsibilities they accept.  A Leader has to do everything.   A Follower accepts specific duties and ensures they are completed.
  6. Raise the Bar.   If you spend 5 minutes talking about how much you appreciated a person joining you, you ARE training them to assume that their presence is enough.  Expect stuff from people.  Expect help.  Let them know how they can be involved and then praise and appreciate them when they do so.


Additional Stuff that doesn't fit the list format
In the end your organization must honor the people who will be involved.   If you have a group for teenage psychic vampires you will have a VERY different structure than a group for 60+ Nudist Ex-Hippies.

Different “Demographics” will be willing to give different things and obviously will want different things too.  If you desire to create a group for a specific demographic learn to recognize what people really want, figure out a way to provide it and then figure out what will motivate people to become/stay involved and at what level of involvement.

Pagans have a tendency to deride “Sunday Christians” (people who go to church on Sunday because that’s what is expected but whose lives seem spiritual empty).  However we can learn something from this phenomenon.  As I mentioned earlier: 200 “guests – 50 “friends” – 10 “members” – 1 “Dedicant” is the rule for a spiritual/religious group.  The numbers are different for other groups.

If you organize your group to honor those numbers you will find that your group has more activity.  If you only want to target “members” or “Dedicants” make sure to be aware that you will have to sort through literally THOUSANDS of people before you get yourself 90 members and 10 Dedicants…   If your group doesn’t have a place for “Sunday Pagans” then a whole lot of people won’t even show up.  If you only hold “guest events” once a year then expect membership to grow VERY slowly.  Monthly “guest events” will attract people much more quickly.  Weekly even faster.   Having something like a store that guests can attend daily will ensure the fastest growth.

Finally, if your community has 100,000 people and 1% are “pagan” then you are looking at 1000 pagans TOTAL.   By the 200-50-10-1 rule you can expect to have 10 members and 50 friends AT YOUR PEAK!  That assumes you’ve somehow reached everyone in your community!  While there is a higher percentage of “pagans” those numbers are still realistic due to “division” in the community.

Thus, if you don’t advertise, have a store or some sort of partnership for outreach, then you are actually doing a pretty good job if you “only” have 10-20 people in your group who show up once in a while.



In Closing
The harsh realities of leading a pagan group is that you are looking at taking a LOT of crap, from a lot of people who don’t feel that they should be expected to do anything except attend while expecting you to “honor” their personal challenges.

As a demographic you really can’t ask for a more challenging and unfulfilling group of people to lead.  Even in a Christian church people feel obliged to give their leader money and respect.

However… the fact that you are reading this means you are probably a Pagan.  You see yourself in this story and despite my warnings you yearn for a community of people who don’t feel that you’re crazy when you talk about that spirit you spoke with yesterday.   So here is my advice.   Take my word about what a PAIN IN THE BUTT it is to lead a pagan group and join someone else’s.   Learn to be an alpha follower (you aren’t looking to lead, you just want to help their group be better).   Find a group with a leader who hasn’t burned out yet and help them.

If you ABSOLUTELY can’t find a group that shares a major interest in your area, think long and hard about if others actually want the same as you.  I can promise you that there aren’t a lot of Fey-Kin who want to practice the Kabbalistic Magick in your area.  However, there may be a few people who want to practice Kabbalistic Magick who will TOLERATE that you identify as Fey-Kin as long as you don’t get “too weird.”

If you choose to lead a Pagan group you will have a tight challenge between being so generic that nobody wants to join because they don’t personally identify and being so specific that only 3 people in your area share your interest.

If your Local Universal Unitarian Church has a hard time getting 100 members then it is safe to assume you will NEVER reach that number if you only serve pagans.   Accept that 99.9% of the time your group will be lucky to have 5-10 members and set your goals to honor that.   You are probably NOT going to start a large church/community, but instead you will be honoring yourself and others like you by making a space where it is safe to express your interests.

If you keep those goals, live your faith and listen to my advice you will have a MUCH more fulfilling experience as a pagan leader than most… and you’ll probably last longer than 3 years before burnout.   :-P

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