Why a coven might not be open right now

Connecting : heart made of smaller hearts on teal circle background

Reaching out to a group or possible teacher can be a nerve-wracking thing!  Sometimes, you won’t get the reply you’re hoping for. This article is here to explain a particular piece that sometimes confuses people looking for a group – why a group may not be open to new members right now.

Also, here’s what you can do next if you’ve gotten a reply like that from a group you’re interested in.

Small groups have natural size limits

I often put this as ‘only so many people fit in my living room’. 

Most covens and other small Pagan groups meet in private homes. That means that someone in the group has to have enough space to host them.

Hosting means there’s enough space for people to sit during discussion, and enough space for people to stand to do ritual without knocking things over. (Traditionally, a 9 foot diameter circle will fit a coven of 13 people if they’re reasonably amiable about it.) 

Obviously, there are options for larger ritual groups, but they are often especially awkward for groups in the 10-25 person range. Too big to fit in most living rooms, but not big enough to be able to reliably fund rental space unless at least some group members can be quite generous (and finding rental space for every group event can be time consuming to manage, as well as expensive.) 

But there are other reasons covens are small, too. Part of creating small group magical ritual is often described as creating a group mind, or as getting the whole group linked up with a shared goal. Obviously, that gets more complicated the more people you add.

As the group gets larger, some people won’t be interested in that particular focus, and it gets harder to find a meaningful focus that everyone can engage with enough. It also takes time and practice for a group to get used to working with each other (discussed more in the next section.) 

Some of this even fits with what we know about psychology. You’ve probably seen this yourself, but as a group gets larger, it becomes more likely to fragment into smaller sub-groups.

Twelve or so people is about as many as most people can have ongoing close interactions of a particular type with in a particular context – when the group gets larger, people will start focusing on the people they get along best with. In a social group or a hobby, that’s often not a big deal. When it’s a group that is supposed to be working closely together in ritual, that can be more of an issue. 

In other words, once a group gets beyond traditional coven size (about 13 people) it has to become a different type of group. The people currently in the group may not want that. 

Adding new people is complex

Even if you’ve got the space, adding new people is complex. It may seem simple: you arrange one more place to sit, one more person shows up. However, there’s a whole set of things that need to happen when bringing someone into a new small group, whether that’s a coven or a monthly book group, or a gaming group, or a hobby group. 

The new person will need to get familiar with the group, and the group with them. In a small group, that’s fairly straightforward: the new person comes to some events and activities. In a group of five or ten people, everyone in the group will get a chance to interact with the prospective new person over the course of a couple of events. In a larger group, that’s going to take more time (and chances are it will be a bit uneven, because that larger group will be broken up into smaller conversations a lot of the time.) 

You don’t want to add too many new people at once, because it’s hard for the existing members to get to know them as easily, and it can also destabilise the group in weird ways to add too many new people at a time. 

In witchcraft groups, there’s often an element of training and learning. Someone new to the group will need to learn how this particular group does things. That can range from a couple of meetings to a year or more of focused training. During that time, someone will need to spend time teaching them, helping them practice skills, answer their questions, explain things as they come up. That takes a lot of time. 

When I am working with Dedicants (my tradition’s term for people learning about the tradition and working toward possible initiation), we meet every two weeks for about three hours each time. Besides that, I have to prepare for those classes, set up space (and clean the house) and do a number of other tasks.

Due to my job – I’ve done a lot of on the fly instruction about things I know well for years – and past experience, I don’t need a whole lot of time to pull together notes to teach a class once I know what I want to cover. But many people need at least as much time to prep to teach a class as it takes to teach it, and it’s quite normal to need double the amount of time to prep a class.

On average, for me, having students is three to five hours a week of effort for the group that isn’t there in the same way when there aren’t new members being considered for the group. 

That’s very worthwhile and important effort, but it’s important to keep it in proportion. For a lot of groups, that means having a couple of students begin at the same time, working through the Dedicant training together, rather than having several students in different stages of learning that material and about the tradition and group.

(There are also some things I consider serious pedagogical benefits of having a small discussion group – people will ask questions in different ways, and everyone can learn from that.) 

Once people are initiated, it’s often easier to manage the scheduling, for a variety of reasons (either the material is more individualised, or it can be more easily shared around amongst the initiates, so it isn’t a burden on the same teacher or teachers for an extended period.) 

What to do if a group is currently closed

So, you’ve written a group, and gotten back a note that they’re currently closed. That can feel awful. Seekers may spend a long time trying to find a group near them (or a group near enough, that does what they’re interested in.) It’s nervewracking and even scary to reach out to strangers. To have those strangers say “No” or “Not right now.” can really send you for a loop.

What can you do about that?

First, when you’re ready (give yourself a day or more if you need to), take some time to read things through carefully.

Read the reply you got. Does it say “No, not at all?” or does it say “Not right now?” If it’s not a possibility now, did the group or teacher suggest some options? While you’re thinking about that, check out any links they provide (for example to a group website).

I recently turned down two potential Seekers. Both emailed just after I’d started the current round of Seeker classes. I provide quite a lot of info about the group on the group website, and ask potential Seekers to share some general information so that we can have a meaningful conversation when we meet in person.

In this case, neither of them shared much information about themselves, which makes it a lot harder to figure out what they’re looking for (I’m a witch, not a reliable mind-reader.)

In both cases, I wrote back and said “Sorry, I’m not open for new Seekers right now, we just started a series of classes, and it will probably be next spring or early summer. Here’s a lot more group information, here’s the Seeking site if you haven’t found it, I’m also glad to meet up for coffee somewhere public if you’d like, to talk about some options and resources.”

Neither of them replied to me. Which on one hand is fine! People can decide that. But most places don’t have that many active covens who even occasionally take students, so it can make your life a lot more difficult if you avoid the options that are there. 

When I meet with people, I’m glad to share some local resources, suggest some books, talk about what the options would be if they’re interested in becoming Seekers with me (usually I’ll aim them at some specific reading and see what they think of it, and be available for general questions by email.)

My coven doesn’t usually do guest-friendly rituals right now, but if we did, potential Seekers who’d met with me at a coffee shop at least once and expressed ongoing interest would be on that list. I’d email them when we did start looking at opening up for classes again. 

So, if you get a “Not right now” see what else is on offer. Even if you decide that group isn’t a good fit for you, group leaders often know other people leading groups in the area. They may be able to suggest groups that don’t advertise their presence. If you make a decent impression, they may recommend another group leader spend some time to help you out.

(If someone makes a decent impression on me, I’ll definitely reach out to people I know and see if they’re up for a contact. Some of those people don’t directly lead groups or show up on searches a Seeker might do, but they know other people and connections.) 

Group leaders don’t say “I’d be glad to chat about other options in the meantime” if they don’t mean that. If they’ve made that offer, consider taking them up on it.

Spend time preparing yourself

There are definitely things you can do while working to find a group to make it easier when you find a group.

First, I recommend Thorn Mooney’s book Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide, a great and recent guide to looking for groups. Much of it is also applicable to other forms of group witchcraft or learning from a teacher. (She also has a great blog and YouTube channel.)

If your life isn’t reasonably stable, work on that.

You don’t need a high-paying fancy job – but a steady and reliable income (yours or one you share in) goes a long way. If you’re not currently working, are you doing something that contributes to the larger world? That might be volunteer work, being the parent at home with children, creative work, going to school, or all sorts of other things. If you’re not doing something formal, consider what you’re doing informally.

If you have chronic health issues (physical or mental), it’s a good idea to get those as stable as you can before seeking initiatory training or more intensive group work.

Many groups will ask you about health issues (again, both mental and physical) and will want to make sure you’re in a good place to add something else to the balance of your life. They may also want to know about the effects of specific medications, since some can affect how you may need to approach skills like meditation. 

Once both of those are solid, figure out a way to begin learning and keep learning.

Read, listen, watch things broadly. 

There are some topics you may wish to avoid if you’re looking at initiatory training – basically, avoid anything that’s talking directly about someone’s initiation or initiatory rituals in specific. You may find that you prefer to discuss these with a future teacher or group.

(A number of people, me included, found that having specifics in my head took away from the experience when it happened. Until you have a better sense what you’re aiming for, skipping over those bits will give you more options later.) 

Begin building a personal practice

Ideally, build one that helps with common core skills but is fairly flexible, especially if you’re hoping to approach a group in a few months or a year. Meditation skills, simple seasonal or deity devotions, a regular practice of personal energy management will all likely help down the road.

If you’ve made contact with groups (but they aren’t taking new members right now), this is a great question to ask them. They may have recommendations for places to start, or other resources that can help you.

Also, this is a great way to indicate continuing interest to a group. I’m always pleased when I talk to someone, and then a couple of months later, they check in and say “I’ve read this thing you suggested, do you have something else?” 

Of course, be reasonable in your requests – you’re not a student or group member yet, so you’re probably lower on the priority list, and it may take a couple of days (or sometimes longer) to get back to you. And you’re probably getting half an hour of someone’s answer, not three hours. But you never know! If someone doesn’t feel they can answer, they won’t, or they’ll tell you what parts they can address. 

Read the group information again.

You may spot things that will help you out later on. I recently had two requests from possible Seekers, both of whom sent very brief messages from one place where the group is linked. That location links to the coven website, with a lot more information, including what to share in a letter if someone is interested in learning more about the group (what I call a letter of introduction.) 

This may seem like a weird process, but there’s quite a lot of information out there about me, and it’s linked from all the places someone might find out about the group in the first places. I ask Seekers interested in my group to send a moderate length email (many people can answer the questions in five paragraphs pretty easily. Someone with extensive experience elsewhere might need a bit more space.) 

But I also use that to link to a lot of other material that would give people interested in the group things to ask about (like what books I might recommend early on), and the site also links to my blog and posts here (with a ton more material to work with.)

Check in at the appropriate time.

If someone says “check back at this time, we’ll have a better idea then…” that’s encouragement to do that. You can stick a note on your calendar or todo list, however you track stuff in the more distant future.

Groups tend not to contact people who’ve been in touch without prompting (for a variety of reasons), but it’s also okay to ask if they have a way to do that if they open to considering new people.

[Posted March 29, 2020]

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