What do you bring?

Recent conversation with a friend applying for training with a particular teacher near her got me thinking about a common question. A number of groups or teachers ask some variant of “What do you bring to this group/trad?”. She found it hard to answer – and in talking about it, I admitted I found it hard to answer too, back when I got asked it. (And yet, it’s on one of our lists of interview questions for prospective members, because it really is an interesting question.)

Part of the problem is a standard interview issue. What do you say that fairly demonstrates the stuff you’re good at without coming across as being arrogant? There are obviously ways around this, and many of the standard job interview approaches also apply to religious groups.

But part of it is more complicated. After all – especially with experiential things, like an oathbound trad – you may not have a lot of specific information to go on. Learning about a group, you may not know all of the things that they particularly need or value.

I’m reminded of a long stint of volunteer work I did for LiveJournal (for the Abuse/Terms of Service team, which handles user concerns and some legal issues), where our manager was very attentive not only to whether people were generally competent – but how they fit into the overall team.

I have a real knack for explaining things about technology to people who are not technology users (but particularly parents and teachers or administrators concerned about student online behavior) in a way that is realistic but compatible with the site’s policies. I’d calm them down, give them meaningful options, and they’d go away.

On the other hand, there’s all sorts of things I didn’t deal with as well. I don’t do aggressive particularly well, and while I can cope with it coming towards me, I’m not always good at squashing a particular kind of trouble-making behavior (people keep trying to see if they can get me to back down.) Plus, there were types of cases I just didn’t much like doing. (Everyone has something like this.)

If the entire team had been made up of people like me, it would have been skewed and one-sided, and there would be gaps. And it’s the job of whoever the gatekeeper is for something like that to be aware of that – and to make some decisions based on it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that if we get a prospective group member who’s just like me, or just like L, that we’re going to turn them down, because we’ve already got one like that. But it does mean that we might probe a little more for what the differences are – what strengths they have that we don’t have, what weaknesses they don’t share – and over time, encourage them into a position that continues to develop the new stuff and fill in the gaps.

Which still doesn’t help you answer the question. But it does mean that I think the ideal answer to it is something about “Here’s what I am that may be of particular interest to you in your setting.”

If I were answering that question today, I think I’d say something like this:

[but maybe shorter]

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I’m not the earliest adopter of technology, but I’m usually at the end of the first wave, when I’ve had a chance to see how it’s most useful and how it fits my specific needs. And I do use technology – broadly and deeply, depending on what it does and what I want.

More than that, I’m a process geek. I am fascinated by how things work, how they fit together, and how to make connections between them. I am not interested in technology because it is new and shiny, but because it has the chance to make something better. Smoother, kinder, simpler, leaving more time for all the other passions and things I’m interested in. Better.

Information is my profession, my hobby, my toy, and my comfort. I can no more stop reading, stop learning, stop trying to understand, than I can stop breathing. But with that information, I bring a wide-ranging memory, a lot of background, and all sorts of other intellectual resources to whatever questions I come across. I don’t know everything – but I know a little bit about lots of things, and can often get up and running on figuring something out fairly quickly. (As long as you don’t actually require me to do the practical science and math parts, where my theory is a lot better than my actual skills.)

Experience is harder for me – but it’s something I know I must engage with. I know that I have to get my nose out of the book, and out of the library, and away from the screen, and I must go and try things. Over the years, I’ve learned more and more how to do that – and I deeply enjoy the time with wool twisting through my fingers, the feel of bread dough under my hands, the harp strings over skin, or the intricate dance and art of close group ritual.

More than anything, though, I’m a synthesist. I need to know the context of something to make sense of it. Facts and dates in history are meaningless for me without knowing the stories of the people who lived – and the arts they created. I am fascinated by the ways to approach library searches and information gathering – but they’re useless without real people’s questions.

I bring all of these to any group I’m part of. Past experiences have taught me not to overwhelm people (and mostly, how to avoid people feeling bad they don’t know the same things: I certainly don’t expect them to, I just think knowledge is nifty.) I’ll feel my way cautiously along until I get a sense of how much sharing of tangents and other unrelated information makes sense.

But I’ll also sit down some night, look at something that’s been going on, and come up with a new way to look at it. Or a new list of resources and ideas. Or a way to present something better. I can’t tell in advance what these things will be – I just know they’ll happen, and when they do, they often help.

Learning about a group

As we move forward to considering new group members this fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want them to know about the group – and about what questions I hope they’ll ask me (at least, if I haven’t already shared the information.) So, a post about some of these related issues.

Sources of information:

First, there are a number of possible sources of information (in general terms). Some of these include:

Handouts/flyers:
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.

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, 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.

Initial email:
I should do a post soon on “emails I’d love to get from seekers”, but in the meantime: 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.

Initial meeting
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 new 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. In practice, this will be at least two members of the group, plus the person interested, and we’ll sit down and talk to them a little about a range of things. (I’ll talk more about our “Interested in us?” process sometime soon, since we’ve got a potentially interested person we’re meeting with next week.)

Further conversations:
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.

Look over at my list of questions to ask yourself for more detail on some of these.

Location:

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.

Focus:

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 year or three. 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. I’ve got a post breaking down some of the costs of group work for the curious.

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. Again, my list of individual questions has lots of things to consider.

Behavior:

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.

Approach:

I’m really fond of the idea of figuring out what my victory conditions and my fail conditions are for choices.

For example: the new 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 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.

Time costs of group work

This post goes with my previous post on financial costs of group work, as I think that being aware of the time we spend on something is also an important conversation to have.

Getting there:

Obviously, besides gas to get there, it’s going to take you time to get to where you’re meeting. My current driving time is 0 (for things I host) to about 30 minutes each way (heavy traffic, right after work) at my covenmate’s. More normally, it’s about 15-20 minutes. At 2-3 trips a month, that’s 40-90 minutes of driving time. Pretty reasonable.

In my former group, the drive was a bit longer – more like 35-40 minutes, and sometimes worse. When I was doing 8-10 trips out there a month, I was spending at least 4-6 hours in the car. This was slightly less fun, especially with later evening events and getting up early for work.

Preparation:

If I’m hosting, I need to spend about 2 hours preparing in advance. I live in a little tiny house (more on which in a future entry, because I want to talk about how I’m thinking about what a covenstead is), but 2 hours is plenty of time for me to do a thorough cleaning, sweep, do all my dishes, move the furniture that needs to be moved in advance of ritual, move the computer, and so on.

The good news is that much of this is work I should be doing anyway (general housekeeping) and I can keep on top of it fairly easily, or split it up over 3-4 days. The ‘day of ritual’ preparation (stuff that must be done that day) takes about 20-30 minutes, mostly moving furniture and computer and sweeping afterwards.

Ritual bread baking (for use in ritual) also takes time: the basic recipe I use means I need to be home for about 3 hours. However, most of that time is rising time: I can be doing things on the computer, cleaning, petting the cat, or working on a hobby for all but about 20 minutes.

Ritual:

Ritual takes as long as it takes, but generally, we plan on 2-3 hours (including setup and food after) for a moon, and generally longer (4 hours, sometimes more) for a Sabbat, because what we’re doing in ritual is often designed to take longer.

Discussion:

We schedule our discussion nights for a worknight, and I get up early (I start work at 7:30, so get up around 5:30.) So far, we’ve been finding that a 6-9 or 9:30 discussion works really well for us, and we’re trying to do 2 a month. 7 hours, give or take.

Classes:

In my former group, classes were twice a month, once for around 3 hours, and once for 4-6 hours. In the new group, I want to leave it somewhat more open ended, with the idea that student and teacher should be seeing each other twice a month (because this helps build connection, and keeps things on track) but that times can be variable.

Class preparation time, now, that’s a tricky one. With an existing curriculum, like the one my former group had (where teachers for a specific class had notes to work with), preparation is mostly reviewing the material, and teaching – pretty quick for most of us. For the new group, I’m redesigning from the ground up, so of course, it’s taking hours and hours and hours for each class, plus a bunch of time for the overall structure.

(This is what happens when I work in an excellent high school for years: there are all these educational theories I’ve seen in practice that I want to make some use of.)

Personal work:

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I believe that the foundation of good group work is personal work. Yes, this is hard. No, I don’t always manage to do it. My personal goal, these days, is 5-10 minutes of moving meditation work in the morning, 5 minutes or so of devotional work as I begin my day, and ideally 10-15 minutes worth of meditative or astral work in the evening. I’m trying very hard to add 10-15 minutes of musical work each day, too.

It’s a goal – I usually manage two of the three on a good day.

I also spend a fair bit of time (probably an hour a day) reading material that directly impacts my religious life – online Pagan discussions, books, magazines, and so on. I also spend time on a regular basis writing material – posts in those discussion, entries on this blog, posts on LiveJournal, and so on. (This probably comes out to half an hour a day, but there are days I’m writing for 4 hours, and days I do none.)

Costs of group work

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about are the actual costs of group work – in terms of both time and financial cost. I’m not talking about paying for training, mind you – just about the other things that go into it. With rising gas prices and other costs, I’ve seen more discussion of this in people looking for groups, but there are very few specifics out there.

Now, obviously, I have one set of experiences: the numbers below are not going to reflect everyone’s experience. But I do want to put some concrete numbers out there (along with where they come from) so that other people can get a general idea of some patterns.

(This gets very long, so you click on to read the details)

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We are here, right here among you…

Recently, I’ve been seeing the phrase “I can’t find anyone near me to learn from!” quite a bit more often. And there are times it makes me wonder.

The most recent was a few minutes ago, on one of the local email lists for the Pagan community in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) area, where someone was posting because she can’t find anyone near her to work with.

There’s a reason the Twin Cities are sometimes referred to as Paganistan.

We have a large and active community, especially given our relative size. There are public rituals, classes (free and otherwise), reasonably local festivals, and three local stores focusing specifically on the Pagan community. Last year’s two day Pagan Pride weekend had 35 workshops or discussions, 5 rituals, and a wide range of entertainment, vendors, and informational booths from groups in the area. (I’m on the board, I get to be pleased with this.)

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