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Jason Pitzl-Waters' WildHunt blog has an very interesting discussion on what causes Pagan groups to disband- and what makes them stick together. (Don't skip the comments- they're also really interesting.)

[...] I think it does convey an important truth about modern Paganism: that small Pagan groups often disband or drift apart, and that this is a normal thing. It is an important fact to know, because journalists used to the congregational model of worship might think a group disbanding might be sign of ill health within the faith itself. Instead, it is just a side-effect of our strong individuality. Indeed, according to the Pagan group’s former faculty advisor, we’re “notoriously” ephemeral when it comes to working together.

I've often pondered that particular mystery on why Pagan groups (and I am using the umbrella, inclusive term "Pagan" here) are so volatile. Is it individuality? True, we prize individuality above many other things- thinking for oneself is the cornerstone of many sects. But what about community? Why does one Pagan group have a long-term thriving community, while another is constantly struggling, or vanishes within a year or two?

The answer might be surprising and unexpected: The very eclecticism prized in a lot of modern Pagan (especially Wiccan) groups may be the very seeds of its destruction. Much criticism has been lobbed at Wicca for its 'cafeteria'-style mixing and useage of pantheons. The biggest head-butting contests have occurred when erstwhile Wiccan covens have attempted to appropriate pantheons and rituals from ancient faiths, or crossed swords with Traditional (Gardernarian or Alexandrian-descent) Craft and/or Reconstructionist groups. Pick-and-choose pantheons and casually appropriating rites- and creating new ones from whole cloth and a ton of speculative and fantasy fiction- seem to be the hallmark of the shortest-lived Wiccan sub-sects. Other problems include 'HPS Disease', adversarial takeovers, and other insider disruptions.

On the other hand, the more 'orthodox' the group is- in other words, the regular activities of its community, set ritual basis, leadership, and vetting of new members- the longer it will last. Orthodox groups are not bomb-proof, but they are more resiliant when things shake them up. Often, instead of disbanding, they'll hive off a sister group, growing peacefully and creating continuity across a range of groups. This was the pattern of growth for British Traditional Wicca, and some of their groups have lasted decades.

Size seems to matter, too- if groups grow too large and dispersed for any real local administration- they tend to become unstable and collapse. Funding is a potential destroyer of groups, too- if a regular system of funding (tithing) is not established and properly administered, the group can collapse- often in a hail of lawsuits.

So, what's the solution? Eliminating eclecticism isn't going to be it- eclecticism is the heart of the life and Light of the Pagan experience. And embracing orthodoxy totally isn't the solution either- in its extreme form, it renders the beating heart of the group inert, and you end up with people parroting ritual by rote.

Perhaps a blend of these two systems is a way around it- and the understanding that even though we might practice some synchrodipitous system of Divine interaction (AKA magic), we are not immune to the foibles of leadership, poor construction of rites, human nature or change. If we acknowledge that the foundation of solid leadership, transmission of teachings, administration, fiscal responsibility and accounting - all that boring paperwork and mundane stuff- has to be properly addressed for the group to survive and thrive, this will set the group off in the right direction. Adding a strong community bond- both within the group and with the outside community as a whole- creates another level of stability. Topping it off: a stable ritual system, with proper vetting, probation and training of newcomers. That is the most vital element of all. "Perfect Love and Perfect Trust" might not be truly achievable outside the crafted Circle, but a strong bond within the group should be created and maintained.

I always tell people that they must read Kenneth Haugk's "Antagonists in the Church" so they can understand congregational dynamics. But that is only one aspect of group stability. There are many others. Sadly, there does not seem to be any books addressing this pervasive problem.

Maybe I need to start writing.


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September 2014

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