Why meet first?

Connecting : heart made of smaller hearts on teal circle background

I was listening to a podcast (episode 26 of That Witch Life, which came out in January 2020), and one of the audience questions they got was from someone who was trying to find a coven, but couldn’t figure out why groups wanted to meet with them first, before inviting them to any events.

That, and some other conversations in the past few months reminded me that finding a Pagan group is in some ways like other ways we meet people, but sometimes it isn’t – and those differences can be confusing. Here’s why I meet with people somewhere public first. (And why it’s not actually the first step of my process.)

What a public meeting involves

Usually, the initial meeting involves the person interested in the group (who I’m going to call the seeker) and one or two people from the group.

Normally, these are people with leadership roles or extensive experience in the group – the high priestess, the high priest, senior members, etc. If the group has someone who is specifically focused on teaching new members what they need to know, that person will often be part of it. It’s usually one or two people from the group because more people can feel a bit overwhelming to the seeker.

Good locations for the initial meeting don’t have too much background noise, but are in a public location with other people nearby, but not easily able to overhear. A coffee shop, mall food court, or inexpensive restaurant are all common choices.

I suggest two coffee shops near where I live, so people can get a sense for how long it will take for them to get to group events at my home.

Why meet in public?

There are lots of good reasons for the first meeting to be in public.

Safety. Most Pagan groups meet out of someone’s private home. Especially for those of us who live alone, inviting an unknown person over without any other context (when the person hosting may be in their home alone) can feel more risky than we’re comfortable with.

Many people who are looking for Pagan groups are amazing – but not everyone is. When I was a student in my training circle, my high priestess had a scary experience with someone who called about 20 times in a 24 hour period, talking about demons and things that were frightening him. She was able to get in touch with the man’s wife and make sure he got the help he needed. It was a lot easier to deal with that situation by phone, rather than have someone banging on her door late at night.

Now, that’s the one scary story from ten years of that group – but I’m convinced that’s largely because the group had such a clear process of meeting in a public location first, for a series of introductory classes for seekers, before seekers were invited to rituals or other events at private homes.

Social ease. Meeting in a public (neutral) place means either party can cut the conversation short more easily. The seeker can decide it’s not a fit, and arrange to leave sooner than expected – but so can the group member(s). If you’re meeting in the covenstead or private home, the host can’t just get up and leave, and it can feel very awkward to nudge someone out the door and hope they go.

Fit matters. There are lots of people out there who are interested in groups – but who don’t take the time to figure out whether a particular group may or may not be a suitable fit for them. An initial meeting in public (maybe with a step before it, like I describe below) helps respect everyone’s time and energy.

Adding new people to an existing group does disrupt what the group can do a bit. You need time to make introductions and explain in more detail what’s going on, and to check in with the new person. It may involve (especially in a closer group like a coven) rearranging some planned events that require more trust and comfort with each other. For this reason, it’s pretty common to have a process of easing a new person into the full group experience.

From the seeker’s point of view, a first meeting also gives you a chance to learn more about them without being in the middle of a group event. You may find out that the group doesn’t focus on the things you’re interested in, or you don’t think you’ll feel comfortable doing ritual and magic with them (or whatever they do). Figuring that out quickly is in your interest too.

Timing can be an issue. Many groups are only open for new members at certain times – sometimes this is during part of the year, sometimes this is when there is time and energy available to add new people. Many groups will be pretty open about what their availability is.

What to expect

Different groups have different processes for meeting people. Some groups do a short (1-5) series of intro classes periodically. Some start with a public meeting. Some start with a letter of introduction. Often there may be more than one initial step.

Check the group website if there is one. It probably explains their steps, and why they chose those. Reading this will give you a much better sense of what they’re looking for, and what to expect. 

If you have accessibility needs (you need a quieter space, specific lighting, step-free access, etc.) let them know when they arrange the meeting. I ask explicitly up front, but many people are glad to figure out a mutually agreeable option.

When you get there, it’s polite to the meeting place to buy something, but it can be cheap (soda, cheap coffee, a cookie). Expect to buy your own, rather than be treated. You’re meeting someone who’s taking time to talk to you, even if you’re hoping for a long-term interaction.

For a face to face meeting, you can expect an hour or two of conversation. You will likely asked what your background with witchcraft, Paganism, or other relevant topics is, a little bit about your religious and magical background so far, and why you’re interested in that particular group.

The group will probably explain more about what they do and answer questions you have. You may be asked about books or resources you’ve found useful, or things you haven’t found helpful, or similar topics. This helps the group get a sense of what you know and have focused on so far.

If the conversation goes well, there will probably be some more practical and logistical questions, like making sure you’re aware how often and when the group meets, that you can get there reliably, and so on. Then they’ll explain what the next steps look like. They may also ask about family commitments (is childcare going to be a scheduling issue for you?)

How I do things

There isn’t One True Way to meet new seekers, but I have a specific approach that works for me (and works pretty well for the seekers likely to be a good fit for my group.)

A word about me: I have some chronic health things that come with fatigue and stamina issues that often limit how much I can schedule outside the essentials of my life (work, groceries, and necessary errands.) Usually I limit myself to two things outside the necessities a week, and those cover everything from time with friends to (also important) things like doctor appointments.

So if I’m meeting with someone interested in the coven, I’ve probably rearranged other things in my life to do that. Sometimes I’ve given up a chance to do things with friends or go to the movies, sometimes I’ve rearranged when I’m doing non-urgent errands.

Because of this, I set up my approach to reduce the chance I might set up a time to meet someone, and find out within the first ten minutes we’re really not a good fit. (And also reduce the chances of showing up for a meeting and having them ghost me, which happens to a lot of Pagan group leaders.)

I ask people to read the group website (which answers a lot of questions) and then send me a letter of introduction. This sounds formal and complicated, but as I say on that page, you can give me a sufficient answer in about one paragraph per question (so six paragraphs).

Part of the reason I ask for a letter is that (unlike some groups) there’s actually a fair bit of info about me and my background linked from the coven site, so the letter helps balance out the fact I don’t know anything about the seeker yet.

Once I get a letter, I read it, sleep on it, and then write back. If I am sure there isn’t a good fit (see the next section), I’ll suggest other options if I think there’s something that might work for them in the area, or suggest books or other resources. I’m also generally up for meeting people for coffee if my schedule isn’t too busy and my health is okay, but I’ll give less priority to scheduling it than I would someone who might be a fit for the group.

The letter means that when we meet, I can focus on asking questions related to their specific background and interests, rather than starting from zero. It gives them a chance to think about what they want to say, and it gives me a chance to see what they do with a task that requires some degree of self-awareness and complexity. (My witchcraft is sometimes full of both…)

Some examples

I make it clear on profiles about the group, and especially on the website, that we are an initiatory religious witchcraft group with a polytheistic approach, with a focus on understanding why we do things, not just what to do. 

Sometimes the initial interactions make it really clear that what they want and what I’m offering just don’t match up at all. Sometimes some things match, or there’s a pretty clear match.

A while back, I went through a year worth of contacts and wrote up some notes, so here’s some examples (with identifying information removed)

Not a great fit, didn’t meet

Because we’re a religious group. Someone started with a two sentence question. When I wrote back, she said she wasn’t interested in the religious parts of Wicca. Since our practice includes building a relationship with multiple deities, that isn’t a good fit.

The fact that the initial communications were very brief and abrupt also wasn’t a great sign, though I was willing to see where it went. I never heard back.

Accessibility mismatch. Brief message, focusing on the fact she would need a ride to all events, due to disability issues.

Now, coven leaders are often busy before and after group events – they need to get ready, get the space ready, or put things away and rest afterwards. They may need to talk to someone who’s staying late for a little bit of private conversation. It’s often not possible to depend on the coven leader(s) and group hosts for transportation.

In my case, my own health issues mean I often need to space out getting ready depending on how I’m doing, and I may need to sit down and take a long break after we finish the group work (sometimes I’m not safe to drive for a while.)

One of our group requirements is that people figure out a way to get themselves to group events (they can walk, drive, bike, get a ride from someone else in the group, use public transit or a ride service, but they need to be in charge of figuring out the options themselves.)

I sent information about what I could and couldn’t accommodate and the coven accessibility page, and never heard back from her.

Someone currently in long-term treatment. Another person was in a long-term treatment center for mental health issues. That’s a time consuming program, and not compatible with group meetings.

(I also have a requirement that any health issues have been reasonably stable – no major treatment or medication changes for six months – before starting dedicant training, since that can shake things up a lot for someone, andI want them to have a stable base first.)

I pointed her at the online resources, said I’d be glad to meet up for coffee to suggest some other options she could work through on her own. I never heard back.

Interested in things that are exactly what we don’t do (while still being religious witchcraft). Someone emailed and was still working out what she was interested in – but the specific things she mentioned are deities and practices that are among those we don’t do much with for various reasons.

She also mentioned that practicing at home was likely to be impossible for her, due to her roommate situation. Students in the tradition do need to have a regular personal practice (flexible in terms of what you need and location) but also need to be able to practice ritual portions to learn them. (Private time in a bedroom for 20-30 minutes a couple of times a week would be fine, but ‘never’ won’t work.)

I wrote back saying that didn’t seem like a possible fit, suggesting some other resources, and (you can hear the refrain here) never heard back.

Almost a fit:

Someone in law school. She got in touch and I met her for coffee, but law school is a demanding life, and she was in a program that involved regular internships rotating through the year that might take her away from our area. This isn’t a great fit for a dedicant year!

She emailed a couple of times with questions, and I’ve enjoyed sharing resources with her – she asked great questions!

Great conversations:

In that year, I met with people a couple more times for other reasons (not a fit for the group, but worth talking to), and also ended up with two students in the coven. (That’s out of 11 total contacts, to give you a sense of the proportions.) The two were both great, one is now an initiate, and the process worked for all of us as intended.

Those conversations started with perfectly reasonable letters that gave me good places to focus the conversation.

In one case, meeting in person pushed me from not being sure about the fit (based on some things in the letter) to being sure I wanted to try. That’s part of why I do the meeting the way I do, because I want to give myself (and the other person) that chance.

[Posted on March 29, 2020]

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