Evaluating the community

Connecting : heart made of smaller hearts on teal circle background

You may not have lots of experience finding a religious group (lots of people don’t), but most people have lots of experience finding people they click with in other settings – making friends at school, finding a new interest and meeting people in that interest, all of that. Don’t forget all those things you’ve learned already. 

The various Pagan and magical communities are made up of people. Some of them are great, and may become close friends. Some will be acquaintances, folks you do a specific thing with but don’t get close to. And like all communities, there are some people who are missing stairs or predators or abusive in various ways. 

People

Look for the people who make your heart sing.

The ones you can get in passionate discussions with – or quiet and deep ones, over a mug of something warm to drink. The people you want to share ritual with, but also a trip to a movie, a farmer’s market, a bookstore. 

  • Can you talk to them? Can you listen to them?
  • Can they listen to you? Do they share things with you, too?
  • Do they treat you well? Other people you see them interact with? 
  • Do they treat themselves well? Their loved ones?
  • Do they honor their commitments? (Barring good reason not to.)
  • Do they take what they’re doing – in all areas of their life – seriously, even if it’s not their end goal or the thing they most want to be doing?

Those people are out there. Even if they’re not on the exact same religious path you are, being around people like this (in person, online, wherever) will deepen your own understanding. And as you meet some of them, you’ll tend to meet their friends, who (with any luck) will be more people who take the world seriously, who do their own Work, who integrate their beliefs and goals into all parts of their life, and can’t be pushed off track more than temporarily

You’re not looking for people who are perfect – none of us is. You’re looking for people who will keep going towards their goals, and who are driven to do so from the inside, not from some outside goal of what it should look like, or why it should be done a particular way.

There’s the other trick, too – that you may need to say goodbye, in your life, to people and places who don’t do these things. If you surround yourself with people who take commitments lightly, who get pushed and pulled by each new fad, who do what’s convenient, rather than what’s right, there won’t be  much room in your life for the people who go deeper and further in the pursuit of their goals.

Events

If you’re new to the community, I suggest starting with a shorter event (a couple of hours or a full day) rather than something that involves being out overnight. That adds a whole layer of complication (and cost) to your decisions, and it can be harder to leave.

When you’re considering events, focus on those that give you important information up front. For me, that includes:

Who will be there? The information should give you a sense of both how big this might be (a dozen people or fifty? Or hundreds?)

It may also give you a sense of how those people come together. Is it a particular group  and their friends? A regular public ritual community? An event that draws people from a wide area? 

What is going to happen? Start with the basics. Is this a ritual? A workshop? A festival? A conference? Indoors? Outdoors? Is this going to take a couple of hours or days? 

When is the event? And how long will it be?

It’s common for rituals to have a gather time, a time for introductions and information about the ritual, a time when the ritual starts, and social time after.

A workshop may have a fixed start and end time (possibly with additional social time before or after). A festival lasts days, and will probably have a firm time you can arrive, a time you need to be gone, and a detailed schedule for events. 

Why is the event taking place? This is the larger explanation of what’s going on.

A basic ritual description is all well and good, but it’s eve better to have some idea how this fits into a larger goal or pattern. You’re looking for a description that explains the goal of the event and any specifics you need to decide whether it’s a good fit for you.

For rituals, a useful announcement will describe the focus and deities (or pantheons) involved, as well as notes about specific things you may need or want to bring. For a workshop, a short paragraph describing the focus is common. For longer events (like festivals) there will often be a general page explaining the 

How does this event fit in the larger community? Is it put on by a particular group or tradition or community? Is it part of a series of rituals or gatherings? Can you find out more about previous ones? (You may be able to find reviews, reports, or past announcements with a bit of online searching.) 

If you’re new to the various Pagan communities, some of the information you find may not make a lot of sense. If there’s a group name or an organization name, try searching on that, and seeing what comes up. Try searching about it on Witchvox or the Wild Hunt (both of which are reasonably useful tools for additional information, but also have gaps.) 

Additional information: You also want to look to see if the group that’s hosting it has a code of conduct, or clear information on who to contact with any questions or concerns. This is an indication that the people putting the event on understand that people may have different experiences or need some help navigating different situations.

(I also look for accessibility information, because groups that handle that well will usually have a good understanding of people having different needs and wanting to include people.) 

Groups

I have an entire section on this site (CARE) talking about evaluating groups, but in general you want to look for many of the same clues as for people and events. Look for people who you want to become more like, who treat each other well, who talk honestly about what they’re doing together and what the process is for learning more about what they do. 

Warning signs

There are several categories of things you want to watch out for. 

People or groups who aren’t a good fit for you

There are a lot of different kinds of Pagans out there, and a lot of different kinds of people involved in Paganism. It can be really tempting to try and make an interaction (with a person, group, or both) fit our idea of what it should be, rather than what that person or group really is. That usually ends badly for everyone. If you’re not sure about the fit, try talking about it openly. 

Likewise, if you feel pressured by a group or person who you think isn’t a good fit for you, that’s a greaet time to step away, and re-evaluate when you’ve had a chance to think about it o your own (consult trusted friends if you can, learn more about the group, ask questions.) 

Boasts, exaggerations, or inaccuracies about their background. This has a lot of forms, but “Our lineage goes back hundreds of years”, “I come from generations of witches”., “Our practices are authentic”, “Only we know the Mysteries/Right Way To Do Things” all tend to be wrong to some degree (or at least an exaggeration).

More to the point, none of these things help you evaluate the actual people involved. 

Significant intimidation or hazing about how hard things are, or how challenging initiation is. Initiation in traditions that do it is a big step (and it should be taken seriously). But groups that make a huge fuss about how difficult theirs is, or how many people don’t make it, or other things that are about hazing or the challenge alone are a warning sign.

Look instead for groups and people who talk honestly about the challenges, but also about why they matter, how those challenges match up to the end result. (Even if the initiation itself is oathbound, people can still usually talk about why being in an initiatory trad matters to them, or what mattered to their experience.) 

People or groups who scapegoat or isolate members. This can take a bit of time with the people involved to spot, but look to see if one or two people get all the awful gruntwork, or if it’s spread around. See if there are people who are spoken to differently.

(It’s okay for people to have different jobs or responsibilities based on their level of experience and training, but it’s not okay if people are dismissed or demeaned as only being good for the dirty sort of awful tasks.) 

General tips

Trust your instincts. Don’t be rude, but if something isn’t working for you, figure out how to extract yourself politely. (If you’re in a cast circle or some other ritual spaces, there may be a particular process for this.)

You can always talk to the person or group later if you’re not sure why something felt weird and you’d like to try again (and if you were reasonably polite about extracting yourself, most folks will be fine.)

Be cautious before giving out some kinds of information. There’s no reason most groups or people need to know your full legal name, home address, or telephone number up front.

You may want to set up an email address specifically for Pagan things, or make changes to settings so you’re not sharing all your contact information at once. Most people will treat your contact information respectfully, but some people won’t.

Meet in public the first time. At least the first time. Most ethical folks will offer (or be glad to arrange) a first meeting in a local coffee shop, mall food court, fast food place, or somewhere else that’s neutral. It’s not witchy, but it’s very practical.

It’s a lot easier for either of you to walk away from the meeting if it’s not what you expected or something feels off. Most public rituals or networking events will be in public spaces, but if something isn’t, ask if there’s an event coming up that will be.

Have your own transportation or way home. If you’re going to an event or ritual or group meeting, make sure you can get home. Sharing rides is great later, but going with someone else when you’re new can make it harder to leave when you’re done, or if you don’t feel comfortable or safe for some reason. (Or if the thing is great, but just gets overwhelming.) Figure out the public transit, have money for a ride service or cab, whatever makes sense for the location. 

Each of these tips will help you explore the community, and give you more time to evaluate what’s going on in useful ways.

Posted February 3, 2019.

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