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.

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Leaving a group: the emotional side

I got several comments after my last post in various places about how I hadn’t talked about the emotional part of leaving a group. And they’re all right, I didn’t.

There’s a couple of reasons for that.

One is that I come from a stereotypically British family: talking about emotions at all, never mind mine in specific, is something I pretty much had to learn as an adult and proto-adult. (How I learned is an interesting story not relevant to this post). It’s still usually not the first thing I think of when talking about a subject.

But there’s another reason: I believe, quite strongly, that we can’t fundamentally control our emotions, but that we can (and often should) control what we do about them, or how we act based on them. So, when it comes to something like leaving a group – where we generally have advance warning – we do have some chances to decide how we’re going to act.

Besides, my idea of witchcraft – and magical practice in general – is that each choice shapes our future possibilities. That means we sometimes have to stop and not act purely in the moment, in order to give us more options down the road.

But back to the emotions.

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Leaving a group

This is a question that’s come up in two different places recently, which usually is enough to make me consider a post here. (One was a question from someone online about how to approach that conversation with a group she’d been working with, the other was a conversation with my student about my expectations around that once someone commits to being a Dedicant, just so we were both clear.)

The following applies to a group that someone’s made a significant ongoing investment in – I’m talking about becoming a formal student, member, or whatever else, here, rather than showing up when you feel like it, basically (that’s a whole other set of guidelines.)

Basic principles:

In general, I think that it’s good to avoid burning bridges unless you absolutely have to. Even if you think the people in a group are the lousiest people on the planet, the Pagan community is still pretty small. Chances are decent that you’ll end up crossing paths with them at some point down the road, or talking to someone who’s worked with them, or whatever.

Thus, while a good parting doesn’t need to be ‘happy and cheerful’ (it’s okay to have hard or hurt feelings), handling it maturely and thoughtfully, taking the high road, and tying off loose ends as much as possible has long seemed the best choice whenever you can. It will give you the widest range of future options in the community both immediately and in the future.

Existing commitments:

The first thing to do is stop and think for a minute, because it’s going to simplify the next steps a lot. Different groups, traditions, and paths have different ways to part, and different things to keep in mind, but here’s things to look at:

Have you made any commitments, agreements, or oaths…

about how parting from the group happens or should happen? For example, students in my group are asked as part of their Dedicant oath that if they decide the group isn’t a good fit for them, they will return to the group for a formal parting if at all possible. This is a recognition of the very real personal and energetic ties formed at Dedication (and at Initiation, etc.) and is meant to give everyone a chance to tidily resolve those energetic loose ends.

Having been on the other side of someone just disappearing a number of times, I was very clear on why this was a good idea even before I hived. Avoid breaking oaths. (If it’s a truly abusive setting, or there are good practical reasons you can’t do whatever the preferred mode is, see later in this post.)

Do you have any upcoming commitments to the group?

Are you currently mentoring someone? On the list to lead or create a ritual in the next 2-3 months? Have you taken on ongoing responsibilities for any task? Is there information about how to do something that lives in your head in the current use, and is not yet down on paper?

Take time to figure out some ways to handle that. You don’t need to find an answer for everything, but it is a useful thing to be able to hand the group leadership a clear list of what they need to find alternatives for, and how to maintain what you’ve been doing.

For example, I was the technology-answering person in my group for several years before I hived. I spent the time to write up the clearest directions I could about how each tool the group used worked (how to add an event to the calendar, someone to the mailing list, etc. etc.) They still asked questions about specifics, but it helped a lot to have a reference.

What will you say?

If other people ask you why you’re leaving the group, what will you say? Someone will probably ask, and it’s a lot easier to have an answer to this one if you think about it in advance. Good answers are generally brief, and avoid anyone’s dirty laundry. If you’re parting because you just want to go another direction, a cheerful “They’re wonderful folks, but I found myself going off towards [other thing].” can work well. If hte parting is a bit more fraught, something like “We were clearly going in different directions.” or “It wasn’t as good a mutual fit anymore.” or something general and simple works well.

(You may find that you do want to talk specifics: in general, I’d suggest this only with people who specifically ask you about the group because they’re interested in it themselves, and who ask you for your direct experience. Move forward, in other words, rather than getting stuck venting about what didn’t work.)

Think of what you want to say to the group members.

This may be more than one set of things. You may have things you want to share with the group leadership, but you should also consider what you want to say to other group members who may not hear all the details of why you’re making this choice. Again, focus on tying up loose ends rather than casting blame or getting stuck in past problems.

Consider the outcomes:

Are you considering leaving, but aren’t sure yet? Or are you really sure that it’s the thing you need to do? Is there anything that might change your mind?

If there is, this would be a good time to arrange to talk to the people who could do something about that – probably the group’s leader or leader’s. Make sure they know it’s a serious conversation (not a casual catching up) so they can plan appropriately.

If you know nothing’s going to change your mind, that’s okay too. Just make sure you’ve thought through each of your concerns first.

I do encourage people to take time with this step. Sometimes we feel pushed to leave a situation because it’s pushing us toward a change we’re not sure we want to take, or we’re hitting old baggage that we haven’t fully unpacked yet. If we don’t deal with that, we stand a good chance of hitting the same problem over and over again in other settings. If we deal with it a bit – even if we end up leaving that group anyway – we’ll be in a better place in the long run. That’s worth quite a bit of self-examination, I think.

It’s also possible that a group isn’t the right place for us right now – but that in a couple of years, either we change or the group changes (or most commonly, both) and it might be worth considering again. Being really clear about why you left helps make it a lot easier to see if coming back is the right choice down the road.

Communicate

Do not assume the group leadership are mind-readers. It’s not a good assumption. They may know you’re unhappy, or want to explore other areas, or just are struggling to deal with a complicated schedule, long drive, or something else practical, but they may not realise all of what’s going on. Having a clear conversation with them will help you as well as them.

You might have this conversation in their home, but it might be easier to have it in some neutral location like a coffee shop. (preferably somewhere that no one in the conversation has really strong ties to: don’t pick the HPS’s favorite morning stop!)

Maybe they have a solution you haven’t considered (if you aren’t set on leaving). Even if they don’t, it’s courteous to give them a clear explanation if you can, so that they can consider if they might want to change things in the future for other people.

Go into the conversation with an idea of what you want to say (which could range from “I’m really unhappy with how things are going, here’s what I think would change that” if you’d consider staying, to “I really don’t think things are working out, and I think I need to leave the group.”

They may have stuff to say. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) put up with abusive language, harassment, or anything else like that, but otherwise, you might consider staying – again, there might be something that you hadn’t considered that would at least make the parting easier for everyone).

Practicalities:

You will want to communicate any of your existing obligations. A list is handy here, that you can give them. Something like “I’d signed up for the May moon, Mallow might be a good person to handle this thing I’ve been doing and here’s directions on how I’ve been doing it, and here’s the books I borrowed from you.” Obviously, they may make their own choices, but at least you’ve done your best to point out the places they need to double check.

You may also need to ask the group for items, if, for example, they hold your measure as part of your commitment to the group, or it’s common for members to leave some items in the covenstead. (If this is the case, you probably want to think about how to get them back: depending on the situation, you might ask them to bring them to the conversation, to return them at a parting ritual, or to mail them or otherwise get them to you or make them easy for you (or a friend) to pick up.

Sharing with everyone:

You should talk about how to communicate your decision to leave to the group. Will you return for a parting ritual (at the next moon, Sabbat, or some other time?) Will there be a general announcement?

Will you want to continue talking to people in the group for any other reason (social events, overlapping circles of other interests, etc?) It might be good to talk about how to approach that. A good option is to give the group leaders time (a week or so if it’d be by email, the next obvious event if they’d do it in person) to communicate the decision, and then follow up privately with the relevant people. Again, don’t do a lot of venting and focusing on the bad parts, but do take a minute to say things like “I wish you well with Group, and I still look forward to getting together for horror movies every so often if you’re interested.” or whatever your shared interests are.

This is the thing I most regret about my hiving, actually – we all sort of knew when my last ritual with the group was going to be, but we weren’t as clear about it to students and prospective students as we might have been. I wish that I’d asked directly for some sort of announcement, or beenĀ  clear that I’d like to send something brief. I think it’s worked out okay, but people were a bit uncertain for a while whether I still wanted to see them or chat in other ways, or what was okay to bring up – and a simple email at the front end would have made that much simpler.

All that’s left at this point is to do the parting ritual if there is one, and to move on with your lives. Hopefully, by taking time to part well, you’ll have a much more pleasant experience if and when you run into each other down the road.

In really lousy circumstances

Sometimes leaving a group is absolutely necessary – but you know that one or more people in the group might be anywhere from totally inappropriate to emotionally abusive or even dangerous about it. (This last one is very rare, but just like romantic relationships going bad, sometimes other interactions take turns we really didn’t expect.)

Obviously, don’t do things you feel are unsafe (and do your best to catch this kind of situation in advance and get help if you need it.) Don’t go meet people if you’re pretty sure they’re going to gang up on you without any meaningful conversation. If you’re not sure, but want some options, think about bringing a friend from outside the group (who can sit with you, or at a nearby table) and help keep things on a more civil tone, or get help if they turn really nasty. (And again, meeting in a public space like a coffee shop helps a lot. Mall food courts generally have an active security presence, if you’re concerned about safety.)

If you feel you can’t discuss your leaving in person, sending a very simple email (no explanations needed if you don’t feel they’d be useful) is a good move: it helps make a clear break with the group. You may wish to consider turning your phone ringer off, asking a friend to check messages for you, or even staying somewhere else for a few days, just to help with the initial outburst of either questions or strong emotion.

Centering, grounding, and cleansing and/or warding your personal space might all be reasonable choices as well – not because most people will energetically attack you effectively (because most won’t!) but because it will help firm up your identification as separate from the group mind. And of course, if you have any realistic concerns about physical risk, talk to the police or other appropriate resources.

I’d also strongly advise packing away any tools, jewelry, or other items that are particularly strongly associated with the group for a while in this situation, and taking them out of your living space entirely for a period of time. In six months or a year or whatever you can come back to them, cleanse them if needed. They’ll have much less overwhelming emotional resonance for you, and you can deal with them in a more thoughtful way.

Technology and the coven

So, my day job as a librarian has a certain amount of spillover into how I priestess – I’m very committed to connecting people to information they care about, and this goes just as much for the coven setting as for the library.

But how to do it? Sitting this week at a library technology conference, I realised I really wanted to talk about some of the great resources out there, and how they can be used to make group work a little easier.

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More than a year

All right, so I’ve been more than a little overwhelmed since my last post – lots of job-related stuff keeping me busy, and limiting the amount of energy I have to write or focus when I get home. (And what’s left has been going into work with the coven and with other commitments, not writing about them.)

I do want to do a “One year later” post, though, so even though it’s a little late, here we are!

We’re still here!

First things first – we still exist! And, at this point, seem pretty likely to keep doing so, assuming that other factors (jobs, etc.) don’t force a change in physical location. We’re very happy with that.

We’re still small (two people, and in the process of considering a prospective member), but my covenmate has also been working privately with a student outside the coven context. Given our other commitments and things in our lives, we knew we wanted to take it slowly to start with – and I don’t regret that decision at all.

One of the things I believe very strongly is that balance between different areas of life is critical – and my job situation has been unusually complicated in the last year, with a lot of uncertainty and and change and resultant stress. So, I’ve been very careful not to push ahead too fast with the coven work, and instead to do things that stretch us, yes, but not overwhelm us. There will be other years.

What have we done?

  • Celebrated the Sabbats and the moons (generally full moon, but we swap to the new moon in months where the full moon and Sabbat come close on each other’s heels.)
  • Developed deeper and multi-faceted relationships with the deities we work with and honor. (You’ll notice I haven’t talked about this in detail, because it’s personal, but we’re doing it.)
  • Had ongoing discussions spurred on by various books and other topics. This year, we’re embarking on an in-depth study of the Anglo-Saxon runes, after taking a rune class together last December.
  • Done a lot of talking about *how* we want to do things, and why we’re making that choice – and documented them. It seems a little silly on one hand to document for a very small group, but we think it’s worth it to help new members understand where we’re coming from (and to remind all of us what we were thinking about when we made specific choices.)
  • Had a lot of good food and good drink and good conversation that challenges us to think of things in new ways.

What I’m glad we did:

  • Taking our time. I’m so glad we haven’t rushed this process, or set arbitrary deadlines for ourselves.
  • Writing things down: Both in public like this, but also in private and in coven-only notes.
  • Not trying to make every ritual the Best And Deepest Ever ritual. We’ve backed off from trying to do 4 or 5 things in every ritual – many of ours have had one central focus, and a bunch of conversation around that. Not only are these less stressful to arrange, but we’ve had many beautiful moments of serendipity by leaving that space.
  • Keeping things simple: we’ve deliberately kept our ritual set-up and coven items minimal and simple, so that we can set up and take down our ritual space in under 15 minutes (usually, it’s well under that.) Not only does this reduce stress, but it gives us more time for other things.
  • Deciding well ahead of time what we’ll generally be doing – but not scripting intensely. We have an idea, we talk about it, but we then run with it once we’re in ritual. Advance discussion gives us a chance to do personal work related to the ritual on our own, and to think about any things that might be an issue.
  • Taking a break from ritual with others. (Though I’m about ready to see about visiting our parent group sometime when my schedule frees up again.) I knew intuitively that I really needed the time to do our own thing, and I’m really glad I insisted on taking that time.

What’s next:

Assuming that a couple of things in the near future go the way I hope they will, our next step is going to be working on a bunch of student content – and then continuing to be open to new potential students and group members. I’m really excited about this, because I deeply enjoy teaching, even if Phoenix Song is not intended to be a teaching-focused coven.

I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the use of technology in coven work, but will be writing about that separately. (Can you tell that I just finished attending a conference on library technology? I’m always thinking about how to apply what I do in the day job to the other parts of my life, and especially so after lots of great conversation about different ways to use tech tools.)

But really, we want to keep doing more of the same – but with enough new that we continue to challenge ourselves to go deeper, further, and become more entangled with the mysteries we’re exploring.