I’ve been thinking a lot about coven guests recently, and therefore figured it was as good a time as any to lay out our current practices about them. (Why thinking about them? Well, first, we finally got the scheduling right to invite our former HPS to join us at the next full moon. And then someone else I know through some shared online spaces (who’s local) inquired very politely if we’d be open to a guest at any point. Plus, I’m working on writing up our decisions about practices, and I’m working on the bit about the guest one currently.)
One thing I want to be really clear about is that a lot of our choices about guests are born out of some very specific circumstances and decisions on where we want to focus. They’re not the right choice for every group – and they may well not be the right choice for us in a few years. But for now, we think they’re the best way to go for Phoenix Song. Your mileage may very well vary.
So, first, background, and then our choices.
A number of our choices right now come out of direct past experiences. Both members of Phoenix Song trained in a training circle – in other words, a group where one of the primary foci is offering training and other support to people interested in learning the Craft (in this case, in the context of a specific tradition.) The training circle offers introductory classes several times a year in the community, and people in those classes are often invited to a group ritual at a certain point. It was quite common to have people at ritual who were there for the first time – or even where it was their first group ritual ever.
There are many wonderful things about this. I happen to adore newbie questions, because they almost always make me see another side of something – what people ask, or how they ask it, or the particular area they focus on, or the things they pick up on first. I loved seeing someone relaxing as the ritual gets going, and things start to click for them – and I loved sitting around afterwards, over dinner, and talking about all manner of things.
But there are also challenges with this kind of set-up. It means that you have to plan rituals to be accessible to people without a lot of ritual experience, or without practice in other skills that are useful in ritual settings (centering, grounding, directing energy, etc.) I got fairly good at this over the years (as did my covenmate) – there’s definitely an art to writing rituals that will be meaningful both to someone at their fourth ritual, and someone who’s been doing this for 20 years, like our HPS.
I knew I eventually wanted to hive for a number of reasons. One is that the training circle hit a size larger than I can ideally deal with comfortably (which for me is somewhere around the 13 people range.) I kept finding that I couldn’t really talk to everyone in one evening, and I was much closer to some people than others. (even though I liked everyone.) That kind of setting is also really a stretch for me to maintain – especially as my job has been requiring me to be more and more proactive and outgoing in interacting with others. I knew that I’d be able to be a better priestess – and a better person, in a lot of ways – if my ritual life were focused on a smaller group with slower change in membership
These – and a number of other considerations – made me pretty sure that the coven I wanted to lead (and the one I think I’ll do best at leading – and really, why hamstring myself?) needed to be small, focused moderately tightly on a particular shared approach, and shaped in some practical ways (like how we handle scheduling, when we meet, what we do, how much preparation, etc.) by some choices that are different than the circle I ‘grew up in’, so to speak.
There are things we give up by doing that. But there are also things we gain. It’s not that one is better than the other in any quantitative way. They’re just different flavors of the same overall focus (the trad). Different colors of light from the same prism. Or, given our imagery – different incarnations of the same firebird.
Now, I am, perhaps being a very typical Virgo when I say this, but I really like my structure. I’ve also been heavily influenced by my day job, where I get to work with talented and passionate teachers who also need to figure out ways to talk about their actual practices and tools, and to determine whether various ideas are worth doing again next year (or next week,for that matter.) So, I tend to take a very pragmatic view, namely that it works best if you start an idea of what your basic values are, and then build practices that should support those values. Cross-check regularly, so that you’re sure you’re still getting the end results you really want.
We want to work closely, trusting each other.
My covenmate and I work very well together – we have a long history, back to our Dedicant days, of bouncing ideas off of each other, of wrangling contentedly until we’re both satisfied in a decision or an approach, and we have a number of shared preferences in how we do that. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes have some hard conversations (I’ve ended up in tears more than once), but I’ve always gone home happy and content with the way the conversation’s ended up. (The tears are more often my frustration at trying to sort something out than anything else.)
We want to add people to that eventually – but we also knew that we’d need to establish our own patterns first, and to try out new things, so that we could figure out how to welcome someone new and let them share in the work of the group in appropriate ways. We don’t expect them to be our best friends – but we do need and want a space where growing that kind of trust and intimacy and deep interaction is possible.
That means that we knew we needed time to work together without constant guests or changes. We made the decision early on that we would significantly limit how often we would consider guests: my rough guideline is once a quarter, though I’m open to exceptions in a good cause. As part of this, an invitation to ritual is the *last* thing we plan to do with someone we’re considering as a prospective student/new member: before that, we’d get to know them through some social events and discussion nights.
We want to build cycles of ritual.
In other words, we want to build sets of ritual that interconnect with each other, and that build on experiences in previous rituals. We both get a very deep satisfaction out of these rituals (we’ve currently done 2-3 ritual sets, but we just came up with a plan that would easily allow for longer strings of close connection without unduly limiting our options for any given ritual.)
The problem is, it’s hard to invite someone as a guest to the middle of these – so when we have them planned, it does limit some of our options for guests. We also want to make sure that our guests have as much time to prepare for the ritual focus as we do (generally at least a month) which means that we need to plan a fair bit ahead. (We don’t script our rituals out fully unless the precise wording is critical – but we do decide the general focus, the type of work we’re doing, and approximately how we want to do it, well in advance, so we can both mull it over, make suggestions and changes, and prepare ourselves as we see fit.)
We needed time to develop into our own thing, not a reflection of our parent circle.
Because of this, we have a general policy (which we expect to lift twice a year or so for slightly larger rituals) that we will have no more than one guest per every two group members. This means that the shared group experiences will always outnumber (for lack of a better term) the guest, and the guest will be able to get a truer sense of what our rituals are like. Even when we gain more people (eventually, down the road), we’ll likely prefer only one or two guests at a time.
When we have guests, we want to be able to focus on them – and their experience.
This means we both need to feel comfortable having them there, and that we need to have a good idea of what the reason for someone being a guest is. We agree that it’s good for people in our tradition to see what we’re doing, for example (and we’re both nervous and excited about showing off what we’ve been doing to our former HPS, as we were to our former HP). Likewise, when we have a prospective member, we want to make sure we have time and energy to help them, to answer questions, and to help them decide if we’re the right fit for them (as we’re also making sure they’re the right fit for us.)
These things are wonderful – but they do take time and energy away from other parts of ritual, to some extent. We need to explain more about what we’re doing, we need (as responsible ritual leaders!) to make sure they’re well prepared for ritual, and we need to make sure the ritual is something they can participate in in ways that make their time as a guest worthwhile. All good things – but they do take away from other work we also want to do at other times. Another good reason to be very thoughtful about when and how we have guests.
How this has worked in practice:
In the last year, we’ve invited our former HP for ritual (back in the late summer), and as I said, our former HPS will be visiting this coming full moon. (We do intend to invite other initiates from the trad who are interested after that.) We also think that our ‘not being outnumbered by our guests’ gives our guests from the trad a chance to experience ritual outside the dynamics they’re normally used to – something I’ve deeply appreciated myself a few times. If you go somewhere as a guest with a bunch of other people you work with very regularly, there’s always the temptation to keep to the same patterns from that work. Being by yourself makes it easier to get the full experience in the new thing.
We also expect to do two rituals (roughly each spring and fall) that are open to close non-trad witch friends (and maybe others, eventually.) This year, it was May Day and the Fall Equinox (the latter happens to be my birthday, and I consider it a very good excuse for a harvest-focused party.) Which ones we pick will depend on our own schedule demands, and what makes sense for our internal ritual cycles.
All in all, we’re really happy with it – we feel it’s a pretty healthy balance between developing and growing in the ways we want (and need!) to – and being open to guests in ways that we can truly welcome, rather than feeling overwhelmed by or uncertain of.