Cliques and open rituals

I’ve seen a number of comments online in the last few weeks about people who comment that they find going to open rituals hard, because they’re so cliqueish. I can’t evaluate their experiences (since I don’t live where they live, and therefore am not seeing the same things), but I do have some thoughts.

My experience:

Most of my religious life is done in a smallish group setting in the training group I’ve been working with for 6+ years (I’m in the process on hiving, so this is changing.) But I do go to open rituals in my community a few times a year (at Pagan Pride, and usually once or twice for other rituals put on by various groups or under the auspices of our local Covenant of the Goddess grove.)

I certainly have gone to public rituals where I didn’t know anyone (or only one or two people) – my first was about 10 years ago, and then a series of three or four about 7 years ago, before I found the group I’ve been with since. I’m currently looking at going to some events outside my local area, where I may know only one or two people (who have other obligations at the ritual).

Who’s there, and why?

The first thing I keep in mind that people go to public rituals for all sorts of different reasons. My experience of people who might be at a public ritual looks something like this:

  1. People new to Paganism and curious: not sure if this is for them.
  2. People who are exploring the local community, who are often looking to make connections with a teacher, small group, or other activities.
  3. People who enjoy coming to a couple of public rituals a year, but who don’t have any strong connections within the local community (and often don’t really want them.)
  4. Students or potential students of smaller groups who are encouraged or required to attend some public rituals as part of their training.
  5. People who have been around the local community for a while (who may do other group work as well), who like to come, see who’s doing what, and catch up with people they don’t see often (or to see how someone they know or a group in town does ritual.)
  6. Local group leaders, teachers, and other people who organise or lead stuff in the community (again, often to see what’s up with other folks, and sometimes to meet people who might be interested in their groups.)
  7. And sometimes, the people putting on the ritual are doing so as part of their training or other requirements in learning to lead a larger ritual. (Other times, the group putting on the ritual puts on larger rituals on a regular schedule.)

Some of these groups are more likely to be really open to meeting someone totally new than others. People in groups 1 and 2 often want to meet other new folks, but they also often want to meet people who are established within the local community. People in group 3 sometimes are open to newcomers – but they sometimes just want to come to a ritual someone else is doing, and talk to their friends, and go home.

Groups 4-6 may very well be open  to talking to unknown folks – but they’re also going to have other people they know, may want to catch up with, or maybe have other things to pay attention to. And the folks in group 7 may be frenzied and nervous beforehand, and desperately in need of sitting down, something to eat and drink, and a few deep breaths afterwards.

For example, I sometimes go to public rituals to keep students in the group I work with company (and in case they have questions afterwards, or need help grounding after the ritual.) In those cases, my first focus is going to be on the people I’m there with: I’m not going to be as able to wander around the room asking people who look like they don’t know anyone how they’re doing.

When is a clique not a clique?

What is a clique? Is it “There’s this bunch of people talking together, and they know each other, and I don’t know them?” Or is it “There’s this bunch of people talking together, and no matter where I try to introduce myself, I get totally shut out, even when I’m approaching it appropriately?” I’m not sure that *any* of the groups on my list are automatically cliquish. I reserve ‘cliquish’ for people who don’t let anyone else into the conversation, and who might as well be in their own homes for all the interaction they do.

Personally, if I’m in any of those groups (and I’ve been in all of them except #3 since I do have strong community connections) and someone comes up and says “Hi, I’m new, can you help me out?” I’ll be glad to do it. (Except if I’m leading ritual, in which case I’ll find them someone who can chat more, so I can get back to prepping.)

If someone comes and hangs around the edges of the space, though, and doesn’t ever indicate they’re interested in meeting people – chances are, I’m going to leave them alone.

That’s partly because I’m an introvert, and large group events tend to take a lot out of me already: it’s extra work to check on other people in the room. This means I tend to forget to circulate and check in with people unless I pay close attention to it. I do that at the rituals for the small group I work with, and I do it when I’m leading or helping with larger group rituals. But I don’t always do it when I’m a fellow participant at a group ritual.

It’s also partly because it’s what the culture I grew up in, and the culture I live in now (Massachusetts and Minnesota) feel is polite. If someone is alone, and isn’t showing signs that they want to be included (or that something’s obviously wrong), you let them be. If they’re crying or shaking, or obviously upset, then you help. If they say “Hey, I’m new, mind if I join you?” then you do what you can to include them.

Getting included:

There are some things you can do to improve your odds.

Advance notice:
If you know you’re going to a public ritual in advance, consider contacting the organisers and saying “Hi, I’m new to the community, I’m planning to come to X ritual. Is there a good way for me to meet people?”

You may not get a reply back (people are busy: it may slip through the cracks if one person reads the email, and someone else deals with more complex replies.) But you might also get useful information – that anyone still around at 9pm usually goes out for dessert after the ritual, or that there will be a meet-and-greet time before ritual starts, and to introduce yourself as new, or to ask for [Specific Person] and they’ll introduce you around.

It also lets the people running the ritual know that there are new folks there for certain, and may remind them to include some ways to let people introduce themselves/get involved.

Volunteer.
This is the single fastest way to my heart, and the heart of many other event organisers. You don’t need to volunteer for anything fancy: help setting up chairs, or putting them away, or putting out potluck food, are all very much appreciated. Find someone who isn’t immediately involved in ritual prep, say “Hi, I’m new to the community. What can I do to help?” (If you have physical limits, figure out a fast way to explain them: “I can’t help set up chairs, but is there anything I can do to help sitting down?” for example.)

If you volunteer, you may well meet people while you’re doing it (depending on the task), but I’m also much more likely to say “Hey, come sit with us” during the potluck if I know you’re new and want to meet people (which I’d know by someone volunteering and saying so.)

Pay attention:
Many group rituals will have either a chance for people to share names around the circle, an introduction for new folks before ritual, or some announcement about where to find people to eat with after ritual. Use these to your advantage if you want to meet people. If you introduce yourself, say “Hi, I’m [name], and I’m new to the area, and looking forward to meeting people.” or something else about that length. It’ll let people know you’re interested in chatting.

Many public groups will have some way to identify the people leading the ritual (ribbons, emblems, clothing, etc.) or they’ll introduce them before ritual starts. Make a note of anyone – especially people besides the priest and priestess (who will be busy before and after ritual): if you need help finding people to talk to, try them. (I think this is part of the job of offering a public ritual, personally.)

Be brave:
This is the hardest one: it can be really hard to tell if that group over there is open to some random stranger sitting down or not. Look for a varied group that seems appealing to you, and say “Hey, I’m new here: mind if I join you, or are you catching up with old friends?” If they say “Oh, gosh, we haven’t seen each other in six months, we might bore you.” you might want to go elsewhere, but chances are good they’ll say “Join us!”

If the first group you try doesn’t work, migrate, and try someone else. Hanging out around the food table or a firepit will usually get you near other people, and you can feel free to join in on conversations in these places unless they’re obviously private. Be polite, but don’t feel you need to be silent.

Share the conversational work:
If people keep trying to engage you in conversation, but you give one or two word answers, they’ll probably stop trying eventually, and go back to talking amongst themselves. Ask questions about the ritual, the area, the local community, the group that put on the ritual, and so on. (Be polite, but it’s fine to say “I hadn’t seen anyone do X before: that was really cool: how does that compare to this other thing I’ve read about?” for example.)

Be prepared with a short answer to likely questions like “What path are you on?” or “Are you looking for groups in the area?” or “How long have you been Pagan?”as well as the more common “Are you new to the area?” or “When did you move?” You don’t need to share your detailed life history but it helps to think about what you’re comfortable sharing or not sharing in advance.

Know thyself:
This one is perhaps most important. Not everyone thrives in the same settings.

It may be that going to a public ritual is fine for you for ritual reasons, but not a good way for you to meet people. It may be that a smaller Meet-up, Coffee Cauldron, or Pagan’s Night Out would be a better fit for you (these are smaller gatherings at coffee shops or local places to eat that are specifically designed for you to meet people. )

Or it may be that you’re most comfortable in a more traditional class setting – in this case, you might look for one session or short series of classes on a topic you’re interested in (introduction to Wicca, astrology, divination, a book discussion, herbs, etc.) and then see if there’s anyone in that class you’d like to get to know better.

It may also be true for you (as it was for me) that you figure out that you prefer smaller, more consistent ritual experiences, in which case you may want to explore smaller groups in your area. I also felt a lot more comfortable visiting the group I eventually joined than I did in public rituals, because everyone knew I was a seeker, and interested, and I didn’t have to go and find conversations to join. There were about 20 people at my first ritual with the group, and I knew some people there from the Seeker classes I’d already been to. It wasn’t nearly as intimidating.

Not everyone will be a fit:

There are a lot of fantastic people in the Pagan community. There are also people who are wrapped up in their own lives (sometimes with very good reason, if they’re worried about friends or family.) There are also sometimes people who are jerks, clueless, or even predatory. Use your common sense. If someone feels ‘off’ to you, go find other people to talk to.

At the same time, don’t write off anyone on a single meeting unless you are absolutely sure you *never* want to spend time with them again. Everyone has the occasional bad day: it’s worth giving people a second or third chance (in a different type of setting: quieter, one where they’re not responsible for the event, where they’re relaxed, etc.) before writing them off entirely or assuming they’re snobby or cliquish. Take your time before committing to anything (or any group) or taking sides in a local division of opinion.

Finally, if there’s a local networking email list, you may want to consider posting to it – or at least reading. It can help you get a feel for some names and faces. If you’re nervous about an upcoming public ritual, you could also post and say “Hey, interested in meeting people.” and offering some way to identify you. You’ll often find people who would be glad to talk and introduce you to others.

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  • Katrina

    Wow, I wish I’d read this before going to my community’s Yule Ball. I’m shy to begin with, and I’m away at college most of the time, so starting with a big group of people none of whom I knew probably wasn’t the best for me. But I feel a bit better after reading this, and can hopefully use it to make the next time better. Thanks!

  • Jenett

    You’re very welcome! I’m definitely in the “meeting people via a large group doesn’t work well for me” category myself – I have a much easier time in a smaller setting like a class or smaller gathering.

    I wish you luck in finding connection!

  • Kennita

    Just in case is isn’t obvious to anyone:

    Jennett wrote: “There are also sometimes people who are jerks, clueless, or even predatory. Use your common sense. If someone feels ‘off’ to you, go find other people to talk to.”

    If someone seems like a jerk or clueless, you may want to mention it to the organizer of the ritual; if they seem predatory, *definitely* mention it to the organizer — perhaps prefaced with “Maybe X is having a bad day. but…”. There are any number of ways that it might be appropriate to handle the situation — from leaving it go, to talking to the person, to talking to his/her high priest/ess. Some paths find it a violation of vows to involve civil authorities, and in any case one hopes it would never get to that point. In any case, it seems it would be helpful for the organizer to know that X’s behavior is bothering newcomers.

    • Jenett

      Kennita –

      A great point, and one I’ve made in other places on this site.

      One reason it’s not highlighted here, though, is that in the context of an open public ritual, it’s really varied what the organisers can do. The same group putting on ongoing events has more options than, say, a setting where the ritual organisers rotate. And a totally open public rituals (where the person causing trouble may not be known to anyone there, or not affiliated with a group or teacher who can educate them or put pressure on about appropriate behavior) also have limited ways to keep people who cause trouble out.

      I definitely agree that if something really uncomfortable or inappropriate happens, passing that on to the people running the event is worth doing – just that it’s also good to be realistic about what might or might not change as a result, and to be ready to take other steps you yourself can control (like finding somewhere else at the event to be).

  • Anna of Portland

    I am in my 50s and an avid walker and hiker. I’ve been a solitary since my coven disbanded in the late 1990s. I really would like to find other solitary women who enjoy the occasional large gathering, so that if we attend, and it ends up to be too impersonal because too large, we can simply go back to each other’s homes and start a nice crackling fireplace, have tea and do our quiet solitary communing. I am too old to be trying to meet young pagans who do not have the generational understanding that I do. If I meet them in a quieter setting it can be good, but big groups of anything do not attract me anymore like they did when I was 20 to 40. I am quieting down now, and want to find solitary pagans who enjoy small groups for ritual and dinner. I will always love hiking in un-populated wilderness. Have been a pagan since 1960 An up here in Oregon for 10 years, I don’t know how to meet solitaries who believe like I do. It makes me lonely and I miss the communion of pagan friends.

    • Jenett

      Anna –

      I know some people in your situation have had good luck with a couple of things – maybe they’ll work for you.

      One option is to check out local social gatherings like a Meet-Up or Pagan Night Out or something similar. The idea isn’t to expect to go all the time – but instead, to show up every so often, see if you connect with anyone there, and find ways to get together outside of that.

      The other is to look at occasional events. For example, you might look at putting up notices (on Pagan listservs in your area, Witchvox, etc.) aimed at people you’d most like to get to know better, and have it in some setting that’d be appealing (a walk in a botanical garden, a gathering at a tea house, hiking, etc.) See who shows up. Again, you may need to do this several times before you get a core group of people who enjoy each other’s company, but you’d have a place to start.

      Good luck with your search!

  • BlackCatEmpathy

    Thank You so much! This was very helpful!