Group work

A conversation else-Net has me thinking about the topic of groups and unpleasant experiences. Like so many other things I talk about, I think it’s more complicated than This Group Good, That Group Bad. The long and short of it is that people are complicated, and groups of people are even more so, and that there’s a bunch of things that go into the interactions.

My basic principles:

We always should have the right to decide whether we are walking into a particular ritual space at a particular time with particular people.

This really is my most basic principle: you can’t force trust, you can’t force connection, and people have the right to decide if they want to be there. That includes being able to ask questions about what’s going to happen, but doesn’t always mean they’ll get complete answers (an initiatory trad may, for example, say “We’re not going to be specific about everything our initiation includes” – but people should at least get the chance to hear that answer and decide what they want to do about it: maybe they feel there’s enough trust there to feel comfortable not knowing everything, maybe they don’t.)

This also doesn’t mean there might not be consequences for saying “Not today”, but they should be proportional to the issue – there’s a difference between “This one ritual is not a good fit for me right now” in advance while finding someone to take on specific commitments you usually handle versus bailing on your commitments last minute, for example.

(I’ll also note that sometimes pushing through that can be very powerful: reading through back journal posts recently, I was reminded of having to go to a very Lupercalia focused public ritual the February after my ex-husband and I divorced, at a time when seeing people being happily romantic or sexual together was still pretty hard going.

We had students who wanted to go, and the other people who might have gone to help out (with explaining things, extra help with grounding unneeded energy afterwards, etc.) weren’t available. I thought really hard about saying “I just can’t do this this particular month.” but ended up going, and finding that a) it was not as hard as it might be and b) I learned some interesting stuff about myself in the process. Best ritual ever for me? Nope. Glad I went, even though there were really hard bits? Yep.)

Not every group is right for every person. This is a feature, not a bug

Sometimes people want something so much (especially in situations like the Pagan community, where local options can be sparse on the ground in some areas) that they’ll stick around a group that isn’t a good fit until either something really drastic happens *or* they find (or invent) a reason that they feel justifies their need to leave (rather than leaving when smaller, but very reasonable points indicate something’s clearly not the right fit.)

This is a really normal human behavior, but it does cause a lot of wear and tear on everyone involved while it’s happening.

And more to the point, it can sometimes  be really hard to tell from the outside what is inappropriate behavior on the part of a group or teacher, and what is the person seeing an experience as justifying their departure that, in the grand scheme of things, was actually pretty normal and reasonable.  (I’ve seen this from pretty much every perspective at this point.)

When doing major transformative work, stuff comes up.

That’s actually sort of the point. The problem is that we don’t always have the skills to navigate that with grace and good will the way we’d like.

One place this gets talked about is the 2nd degree in 3 degree systems: this is often associated with dealing with the shadow self, looking at the stuff that’s not easy for us. And in some ways, it can be a lot like being a teenager again: it’s also a stage of moving from being a student in a particular path or tradition, to being an independent leader in the path or tradition. A lot of the same feelings of being a teenager can come up for a lot of people – pushing back against their teachers to set boundaries, doing stuff differently just to do it differently, all sorts of things.

(I was very aware of this when I worked through my 2nd and 3rd degrees, and I had a very clear goal of continuing to care about and talk to my teachers throughout – which we all managed. But there were also some rough spots that in hindsight I wish I’d handled a bit differently. Again, we’re all human, and sometimes our rough edges catch other people in ways we don’t expect.)

There are any number of other places it can come up – the point is that some people have better skills for navigating this than others, and that some things about framework can help. (I think it’s easier if you get it out in the open at least a couple of times, though I know some people who disagree and have good arguments for why.)

People will often not tell you the stuff that makes them look bad. This is also normal and reasonable.

This means that if someone leaves a group, they’re more likely to share the stuff that they feel was done to them, rather than the stuff they did. (Think about any conversation you’ve had about a friend breaking up with a romantic partner: it takes a while for most people to settle down and admit the stuff they messed up to anyone but maybe their closest friends.) The stronger and more difficult the feelings, the more true this tends to be.

That doesn’t mean they’re lying, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take what they say seriously – it might well be true. But it might not be the whole picture, either.

People (including group leaders) are human and will mess up sometimes.

Sometimes people (including group leaders) will go through periods in their life where they make some not-great decisions, or the group goes in a direction that’s not a good fit for some members. Healthy groups have some way to moderate this, generally (whether by having some feedback options for the leader, a decision-making process that includes the group, or a clear agreement that people can take a break if they need to.)

But sometimes, stuff happens that wasn’t anyone’s direct intention, and people get hurt, or feel let down, or lash out. That hurt and pain is real – but at the same time, I think it’s good to try and avoid spreading more of it when that’s feasible.

Sometimes the best plans go in one ear and out the other, through no one’s fault.

Anyone who’s been around an initiatory trad for more than a few years probably has at least one story about this. Sometimes, you can give someone all the warnings and advance notice and “Are you sure you want to do this?” in the world, and it doesn’t stick in their head.

I can recall at least one conversation with someone post-initiation where they said “You never mentioned anything about X”, and we had to actually show this person the class notes, and our own notes about the discussion we’d had, before this person would believe that we had in fact done our utmost to be clear about it.

Again, healthy groups will generally have some way around this. My preference these days is multiple formats when consent is really critical: covering it in a conversation, but then asking someone to rephrase it in their own words in writing, for example, but even that can fail. Brains and psyches are complicated.

But any group that’s survived more than about 10 years probably has *something* going for it for at least some members.

Especially if the membership has varied over that time – you have some people who’ve been around a long time, some people who’ve left peaceably, some people who’ve come in over the past couple of years, etc.

Groups that are flat-out regularly abusive, or even just plain perpetually incompetent tend not to make it to that 10 year mark, or will have a perpetual cycle of people who are in the group for a year or two and then leave. Younger groups, it can be a bit harder to tell, but generally a range of longevity of people in the group can be a good guide, as can whether people sometimes come back to the group after a break.

(Note that I’m talking here about groups that don’t have a lot of social power in the larger community: long-standing groups where there’s social pressure to attend, people feel they need to go to ‘get ahead’ or ‘make connections’, or that are much larger communities (hundreds of people) have some different dynamics. But that’s not the case for most Pagan groups.)

So, what does that mean?

Don’t write off a group based based on very vague information.

The rumor mill does really strange things sometimes. Before passing on information about a group, or deciding that they’re not for you (if it’s a potential fit), dig a little deeper, and try to find people with direct experience, or who can at least give specifics about what *type* of problems.

For example, one person might find that someone correcting them very bluntly or someone raising their voice briefly when upset feels and is abusive to them, based on their past history. Other people might not find those things a problem at all if they come from a different background, and most people would probably agree that these things are not, by themselves, always abusive actions.

I know people who’ve felt that the fact I use big words or try to use very precise language is demeaning or even abusive to them, even though for me, it’s a part of my background, education, profession and personality to use them. I’m always glad to stop, explain, and adjust as much as I can, and once I know it’s a sore point for someone, I’m extra careful. But there’s only so far this can go before it starts being harmful to me by making me feel I can’t say anything at all without cross-checking it extensively, which is not how I want to spend my religious community time.

Sometimes very nice people with the best intentions in the world should just not be in the same space doing some kinds of work together. It’s no one’s fault when we rub edges that sharply, but we need to recognise what’s going on.

Getting more specifics can be very helpful. Someone saying “Yelled at me a lot” gives you something to look at. Someone saying “I felt pressure to be sexually involved with a teacher” is specific and clear. Someone saying “I felt that these ritual practices were dangerous without any benefit to Gods or humans” is something you might or might not agree with – but at least you can look at it (and ask more questions.) Someone saying they found a group leader’s personal life choices (around orientation, relationship agreements, etc.) distasteful is certainly a choice they get to make – but it may not be a problem for you.

Once you have the specifics, you can also compare them against a group’s statements about how they work, or what their ethics are, or whatever else is relevant – hypocrisy is definitely a big warning sign of potential problems.

Learning what other people think of a group (or its teachers) is important, but they’re not you.

If at all possible, talk to people who’ve left the group under varied circumstances (if you talk to people who left feeling very hurt, try talking to people who left because it just wasn’t what they needed, too). Talk to people who know the recent history of the group (last year or two) not just people who knew the group five or ten or fifteen years ago: groups change, people change, and things might be different now.

But at the end of the day, you need to make your own choices about what you do with that information.

Go ahead and ask group leaders about why people have left the group in the past.

You probably won’t (and shouldn’t) get specifics about individuals, but in a group that’s been around for a while, a self-reflective group leader might well say “We had some people leave five years ago because of concerns around X. Since then, we’ve done Y and Z to make sure people know what commitments we ask for and why, and things A and B to better handle concerns as they come up.”

I am certainly open to being asked that kind of question, though phrasing does matter. Something like a job interview appropriate phrasing “When people have left this group in the past, why did they leave?” is probably better than something more accusatory. It’s also totally fair game to ask “What’s your process if someone seems to be having trouble fitting into the group?” Matching both against other stuff you’ve heard can give you some idea of what you’re comfortable with and where the truth of stories might lie.

Of course, timing matters here: generally a question like this should not be the first thing you ask. It’s a good thing to ask after you’ve gotten a chance to participate in a couple of conversations or public events with the group, but before you make any kind of ongoing commitment or membership agreement. (Groups with more requirements for joining often build this kind of conversation into the process, but you can also ask for time to ask some questions. If a group doesn’t want to do that with you in a reasonable time frame given their other commitments, that’s a good time to consider other options.)

Other topics:

Of course, these aren’t the only things to think about when considering a particular group, teacher, or practice – I’ve got more up at the CARE pages on my Seeking site with a wider range of questions. (And working on the commentary pages for that is on my list of things to do after Paganicon’s over.)

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