First, there are a number of possible sources of information (in general terms). However, they share different kinds of information, so it can be good to have a reminder of what to look for (and expect) from a given source.
Types of materials:
Handouts/flyers: (usually found in a local esoteric store or community event)
Typically short (a flyer’s probably under 100 words) but enough to find out what’s out there, and check out their website or contact them for more info. Very general idea of their focus.
A profile on Witchvox or a local Pagan networking site.
These are usually brief – 2 to 5 paragraphs, maybe – and don’t have a lot of detail. However, they are enough to get the basic idea of what a group’s focus or interests are, and to weed out anything that absolutely isn’t what you’re looking for. (Confused by navigating Witchvox? Here’s a guide.)
Website or other longer material:
Websites will have far more space and can give more detail. If you’re looking at a group in a well-known and widely-spread tradition or path, also do some reading on the path/trad in general: it’ll give you an idea how the specific group fits. Make note of any inconsistencies: you probably want to sort them out or ask about them later.
Emails should be short, to the point, and focus on any make-or-break information for you. Save your religious history, the weird thing that happened last weekend, and your esoteric view of the world for later. What’s a make-or-break thing? General schedule, location, medical considerations (allergies, mobility issues, etc.) and anything else that would make a group an absolute no-go for you. You can see more options over on my page about first email contacts.
Commonly, there’ll be some sort of meeting in a public place. There’s two common options here: meeting in a coffee shop, or some sort of intro class or event. Either way, they’re an excellent way to get a lot more information about a group.
My former group offers a short series of public (by donation to cover expenses) intro classes. These give a chance to see how group members interact, and give you a sense of the primary interests and focus of the group. (For example, the fact that ethics comes up early and often)
My current group is going the coffee shop route, because our focus as a group is a little different, and because I do my best in one on one conversations with new people.
As you get to know a group, you’ll have further conversations with them – and often, many further bits of information will come out quite naturally. For example, a group may not talk extensively about their history in the first meeting (just briefly), but as you spend time with them, you might hear casual references to their teachers, other tradition members, etc.
The rest of this post is about the kinds of things you might want to find out from all of these sources combined.
What you might want to know:
Obviously, some things on this list will matter a great deal to you. Others may not matter much at all. Some may matter only in a purely practical sense once you attend group events. Pick the ones you’re interested in – though I’ve tried to give some context for why these pieces of information might be of interest early on.
Meeting place: Can you get to it (by whatever form of transportation you’d be using) at the times events occur? (Many buses run different weekend schedules: at my former group, this meant getting to the covenstead by bus on weekends was quite complex and involved a long walk – not a great combo in a Minnesota winter.)
Kind of meeting space: It might be a private home, a rented space, or some combination. Is it the same consistent location or different ones, depending? Where they meet will have an effect on the kind of rituals they do (due to privacy and practical issues). Using a consistent space can build up a persistent energy and ritual focus, but using varied spaces can help make use of the best space for a particular ritual.
Questions related to your specific needs: Think about everything from allergies to mobility issues to any other things that would make a space better for you – or a big problem.
Group focus: Are they working in a particular tradition, path, or religion? Is it an open group, a closed one, a teaching-focused group, a working group, or what?
Now and future: For example, you might want introductory training now – but if you’re looking for a long-term group commitment, you also want somewhere that isn’t just focused on training, but that has other things to offer. Does this group do that? (Groups that don’t are fine, too – just be aware in advance.)
Doing things together: Obviously, you probably won’t get a rundown of every single thing they’ve ever done – but it can be good to know what general things they do, or to get some examples of recent group events over the past few months. This might include questions like how often they do specific things (meditations, spellwork, etc.) in ritual.
General ritual structure/method of doing things: For various reasons, you may not get the full complex explanation up front (see the last section of this post for some reasons why), but you should be able to get a basic summary. Many groups will have attendance at a suitable ritual as part of their getting-to-know process, where you can see for yourself.
History of the group:
Length of time they’ve been around: Duration is not a good marker for quality – but a group that’s fairly new will have some differences than one that’s been around for 10 years. It’s good to know which one you’re working with.
Level of training/experience of group leaders: Again, number of years is not perfect – did they do 5 years of intensive training, or one year ten times? But how did they learn what they’re teaching and doing? Did they get experience helping to run a group before leading one?
Experience level of group members: This can be tricky – there are all sorts of reasons for shifts in small group membership – but healthy groups probably have a few members who have extensive experience, a few are fairly new, and some who are in between.
Be a little cautious of groups with one or two experienced leaders, and where everyone else is very new. There are some good reasons – for example, a training-focused group together only for the duration of training or a newly founded group in their first few years of activity. But it’s also sometimes a sign of a leader who can’t stand to be challenged, or of some other less than great dynamic in the group.
Community interaction: Is the group involved at all in the broader Pagan community? Do they belong to a larger umbrella organisation like Covenant of the Goddess? Do they sometimes participate in (or host) general public rituals, teach open classes, or anything like that? Not all groups do these things – but it can be a good way to learn more about the group.
Connection to other groups: Within a Wiccan or Wiccan-based setting, this is where we start talking about their tradition. How do they fit with other groups in the tradition? If possible, learn a bit about how the tradition normally handles things, and use it to compare with the specific group. (This is hard for small trads, though.) Ask more questions about any differences you find.
Lineage: Some traditions pass down an energetic connection to the tradition (and often the deities of that tradition) through what is referred to as ‘lineage’. If this matters to you, ask how you can confirm their lineage. (This is not a question to ask straight off: it’s a question for when you’re at the point where you’re seriously considering a commitment to them.) You may also wish to ask tradition-specific lists or resources for help.
Expectations and commitments:
Time: Weeknights? Weekends? At times you’re able to attend, or times you have other commitments? How often do they meet, and for how long? Does this fit into the rest of your life? For training groups, ask about how much time they expect you to spend on at-home work on a daily basis.
Costs and expenses: Charging for training is a complex conversation in Pagan settings, as a number of traditions forbid charging for initiatory training, some groups ask for dues for expenses, and some teachers charge significant amounts for training. Are this group’s practices in line with the rest of their tradition or path? If that’s not relevant, do the costs seem to be in line with what they say they value?
Other expenses: Beyond this – there are always going to be some expenses associated with a group. These might include sharing in supplying consumables for group ritual, bringing potluck food, and so on. You may also need to acquire specific personal ritual tools, books, or other things. Other pages on this site have some additional ideas and options for doing this inexpensively.
Group practices: Ask about any group practices or approaches that you care about. For some people, this is working skyclad. For others, it’s questions about the role of gender in ritual. For some, it’s about focus on specific deities, cultures, or other aspects works for that group.
Finally, we move into the more nebulous things. One thing I really want to know about any group I’m interested in – Pagan or not – is how they behave, how that behavior fits with their stated values and priorities.
I always suggest people interested in a group make a serious attempt to see a group in action in ritual, in some sort of teaching setting (whatever makes sense, depending on how they train), and in some social settings. This gives you a good range of data – and should give you a chance to see at least one situation where something doesn’t quite go right, and how people deal with it.
One of my favorite things is to observe how someone treats waitstaff in a restaurant: it’s often quite revealing. (In general, any ‘treating someone who is lower on the status pole’ setting will do.) How do a group’s leaders treat students or less senior members? How do they treat each other?
It’s important not to make a decision based on a single interaction (unless it’s truly a deal-breaker for you). Everyone has bad days – but more importantly, people come from different cultures and backgrounds. What looks like a no-holds barred painful argument to many Scandinavian-derived Minnesotans (my current home) can be totally normal wrangling in the Irish or Italian homes of the Boston area where I grew up. It’s good to see how people treat each other after a disagreement, not just the disagreement or frustration itself.
I’m really fond of the idea of figuring out what my victory conditions and my fail conditions are for choices.
For example: my coven? My idea of a success for it is if we have a few people who are deeply interested in what we’re doing, willing and able to participate regularly and sincerely, and we have ongoing things to do together.
I don’t, however, care about having lots of people (and in fact, that’s a failure condition for me: I really do best in communities smaller than 10-12 for closer emotionally-involved work). I enjoy well-staged production rituals, but I don’t care if I don’t have them. I care about having a reputation for cluefulness and general competence – but I don’t care about being popular or whether people not involved directly in what I’m doing agree with all my choices.
These things shape how I make choices for my group – just as similar things shaped my own search for a group. I wanted a group I could learn from, a group that I could build a solid structure with. What I found was much more than that. There were things in my tradition I didn’t know I wanted or was looking for, but found, which is both the way it should work, and yet something you can’t plan for.
When someone won’t answer:
It’s quite possible to hit on a topic that gets into a discussion that’s usually considered private to the group. And, for some groups, there may be oathbound material – or simply material that gets very complex to explain unless you take quite a bit of time.
For example, I can do a general description of how we approach constructing our ritual circles. But if you want me to start getting into details or specifics, that’s a much longer conversation – and really not suitable for an initial meeting, because some pieces of it are things we talk about only with people who really need the details, or they just plain take a while to explain the different facets of. So, initially, we start with some basic stuff, and delay the long/involved conversations until someone is a student.
Some of it is for privacy/safety reasons. I’m glad to give general information about where we hold meetings (neighborhood/area of the city), but I’m not going to hand out my home address on a first contact. (And, because I’m somewhat averse to answering my phone, I’ll give people my email address long before I do phone number, unless they have a particular need for phone calls.)
This topic deserves a longer conversation, but this at least gives you a place to start.
[last edited January 14, 2011]