People often find their initial explorations of the Pagan community a bit confusing – there are so many different sorts of groups and opportunities. If you’re looking for ways to connect with others, or hoping to find a group or teacher, it can be very hard to figure out what to focus on, or what group information means.
This article talks about some of the different options for interaction with groups and teachers (for public events, see the article on getting the most out of community events.) Most of the terms here apply mostly to witchcraft groups.
There are a number of different ways people practice religious witchcraft, so let me start by talking briefly about some of them, and then in more detail about different kinds of groups. It’s very common for people to take part in a variety of experiences at different points in their life, or combine different practices.
If you’re curious about what it means when you’re reading information about a group, skip to the last question.
Many people have what is called a solitary practice: they do things on their own. Many people who are solitary practitioners create their personal practices from a wide range of sources.
However, sometimes people who train in a tradition or start out working with a group end up practicing solitary too. They may move away from groups in the tradition, they may want to do other things, their life (childcare, job schedules, health issues) may not allow for regular group work.
People in groups also have a personal practice, though calling it ‘solitary’ doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re also doing group stuff. A personal practice may not duplicate things done with the group – for example, you might not do a group ritual for a given Sabbat and a personal ritual on your own for the same Sabbat. But you might if there was something you specifically wanted or needed to do that wasn’t part of the group working.
These days I have a small coven, but I also have my own personal practice. (Check out details of my practice over time including links to my regular updates, to get a sense of the balance.)
When I was living in Maine, my practice was better described as solitary, because I wasn’t doing any group ritual or other religious activities with anyone except very occasionally at festivals or other events.
Up to you! For most people, their personal practice (whether they’re solitary practitioners or work with a group) probably ranges from a few minutes some days to hours on others.
It also depends on how you count time – does hanging out on a Pagan discussion space online or reading books about a Pagan topic count, or only time doing ritual or magic or meditation?
A few friends, a ritual group:
Some people who are mostly solitary do occasional practice with a few friends, maybe only a few times a year. Other people don’t do ritual together, but do get together with friends to talk about and share materials, make visits to stores, festivals, or events, or do other activities.
Many people consider this different than a coven because there isn’t a single shared path, consistent schedule or method of ritual. In some cases, people may actually have different Pagan paths, but come together for specific reasons or rituals (and so ‘coven’ is really not appropriate, because that’s a term from religious witchcraft).
In general, these kinds of groups don’t advertise: you normally need to know someone who is part of one who may suggest you to the other people. There usually isn’t a formal process of membership, more a casual “Hey, want to come to X and see if it’s a fit?” like you’d get an invitation to a party at someone’s home.
I’m part of a ritual group that meets roughly on Sabbats (schedule allowing). It is hosted at one household, with several other friends of the household invited. Since there are small children in the mix, we often have a general seasonal activity and a more focused ritual later in the evening if we feel it’s useful.
None of the people in the group actually share a religion (the two closest are me and a friend who is studying a quite different line of religious witchcraft than the one I’m trained in.) We have a general ritual format that works for us as a default, and adjust it for specific rituals when needed. We’re open to potentially adding more people, but it’s not open to complete strangers.
Depends how often the group gets together, but a few hours each for Sabbats (8 times a year) or on a lunar cycle (monthly, roughly) are pretty common. Some groups get together more regularly. There may be more general social time with these groups, too. For example, getting together for ritual, but then staying for a meal or a movie watching night with other family or friends who aren’t part of the group.
Open ritual groups:
These groups provide open rituals at various points. In religious witchcraft groups, these are usually the Sabbats, but sometimes also full or new moons. Generally anyone is welcome as long as they follow the rules for the event.
These events are usually held in some sort of public rented spaces, sometimes in parks. I’ve been to public rituals in Quaker meetinghouses, Unitarian Universalist churches, campus chapels, schools, and community centers. Sometimes, they’re held in someone’s private property (which may involve a brief email exchange to get specific address or time information.)
These rituals may have different people (or different numbers of people) at each ritual, depending on individual interest, schedules, etc. In some cases, they can be quite large. A number of places have Samhain rituals, for example, that include dozens or hundreds of people who are not otherwise familiar with each other.
These rituals often ask for a small donation ($5-15 US is common places I’ve seen) to help cover rental and other expenses, and there may be a potluck or other simple feast afterwards, but there’s usually no need to RSVP and no ongoing commitment beyond whatever volunteering you take on.
Sometimes these groups that will say “Pagan Church of… ” or “Wiccan Church of…” which can sound very odd. Often the name is because of legal options available to churches (or religious groups that describe themselves as churches) in that state.
Non-witchcraft focused open ritual groups may use terms like “Grove” or maybe “Tribe”. Other terms include “Community” or sometimes “Circle” (described more in the next section.)
There’s a group in my area that offers public rituals for full moons and Sabbats, as well as intro classes and occasional other events. They do events in a community building that’s easily accessible by public transportation. They have a general ritual format that is comfortable for the person generally leading the ritual, but are willing to consider alternatives if there’s interest. They’re open to anyone who wants to come (who agrees with the organizing group’s code of conduct, which is pretty straightforward.)
I’ve also been to open rituals where a coordinating committee scheduled and arranged the events on a regular schedule, but different people took on responsibility for designing and running the ritual, and you could get very different ritual styles ritual to ritual.
The nice thing about public ritual groups is you can come to some and not others, depending on your other commitments. Most rituals will probably run 1-2 hours, with some time beforehand to set up, and time after for a little bit of social conversation. The full moon rituals I’m currently going to (the first group above) start gathering around 6 and I can get home around 9 (a 20 minute bus ride away).
I mostly only go to full moons there because I’m likely to be busy with Sabbats with the ritual group with my friends. One of the challenges of multiple ritual groups is either conflicting schedules, or spending a lot of time in one or two weekends at group rituals.
Some groups are focused on a specific path. Usually, these groups have some things in common:
- Specific shared practices.
- Some shared ritual experiences (see the section on initiation below)
- Set method of leadership or getting things done (details can vary a lot!)
- Often meeting in private homes (though sometimes also in rented spaces)
Circle or coven:
Some witchcraft groups use the term circle (which often indicates they are training-focused, or more flexible with some things). Sometimes you’ll also see these referred to as training circles, small groups, or closed groups.
Others use the term coven, which usually implies they’re more tightly-knit and focused. They can be slower to add new people, and often expect that new members will stick around for a while.
In many ways, the two can look the same.
Usually these groups meet in a smaller rented space or in someone’s home (depending on the size and options). They don’t generally advertise the date and time of specific rituals, but do let people know the group exists and is open to potential new members through postings on Witchvox and other Pagan sites or discussion spaces, having a website, flyers at local stores, or participation in area events.
To go to a ritual, you usually need to meet up with members of the group and then (if that goes well) you’ll get information about rituals and other events.
Sometimes teaching circles and other groups more open to new members will offer a series of intro classes as a way to get to know people (and for people to get to know members of the group.) If so, these usually range in cost from free to a small fee to cover space rental and other direct expenses.
For people interested in a coven, a more common process is a brief exchange of emails, then usually a face to face meeting in some public place (like a coffee shop or local restaurant.) If that goes well, there may be some other meetings with members of the group, and eventually an invitation to an event. (Not always a ritual!)
These days it’s pretty common to know you’re approaching a coven and get some initial information about it but in the past it was sometimes the case you’d be invited to a series of events with a range of the coven leader’s friends long before you knew there was a coven for certain or who was in it.
Covens often include an initiatory process (circles and other groups can too, but might not), and the membership is normally kept smaller (under 13 people is common) while circles can be larger.
Outer Court / Inner Court
One other phrase you may see about groups is people talking about an outer court and an inner court. Some groups have a closer circle – sometimes this is made up of initiates, sometimes of initiates and committed students – but also a larger group of people who come to some events but not all. For example, maybe the Outer Court folks come for Sabbat rituals, but the Inner Court gathers for full moons and classes as well.
Some people find this very confusing – if you’re a part of the group, wouldn’t you want all of it? But it turns out that some people don’t. Maybe they have limited time, and know they can’t make it to the number of events expected of the Inner Court. Maybe they used to live closer, and moved far enough away they can get there for a few events, but not as many.
Sometimes it’s about what kind of commitments someone is willing to take on: since Wicca and many religious witchcraft traditions consider people who pursue initiation to be priests and priestesses (roles that usually come with some specific commitments), the Outer Court gives people a chance to gather with likeminded people for religious ritual, but without making the commitments they’re not wanting to do (at least right now.)
There’s a lot of variation in how all groups work, and inner and outer court groups are no different, so if you’re interested in a group like this, ask them what their practices and expectations are.
The group I trained and worked with for most of my time in Minnesota was a teaching circle. They offered a series of 5 intro classes three or four times a year (usually at one of the local Pagan stores or a public park building that had meeting rooms) as a public service.
Once someone had come to 2-3 of the intro classes (enough that we’d covered some basics and felt comfortable sharing a home address with them), they could come to rituals for Esbats and most Sabbats.
People could then decide if they wanted to apply to be students of the group (which was a more involved process to make sure it was a good fit) and Dedicant (pre-initiation) classes were taught each year as a small group (usually starting with 5-10 people, with maybe half that finishing the year: that kind of completion rate is pretty common in this kind of teaching groups.)
The process for being considered for initiation was pretty similar to that for many covens, but the group’s goal was not necessarily to have people initiate into the tradition, but to provide a solid grounding in witchcraft that people could use to build their own practice.
I also ran a (very) small coven for several years after that, where we continued the practices of the tradition, but focused on specific parts of our practice, and wanted to be more careful about who we took on as students. These days I have a slightly larger small coven, which is great.
In both circles and covens, members are usually expected to be at most group rituals (with reasonable exceptions for things like illness, work events you couldn’t schedule around, and other unusual things that come up in life.)
In the training circle, commitment for the Seeker (intro classes) was 2 hours for each of 5 classes, usually every other week.
We ran both full moon and Sabbat rituals usually on the nearest weekend. Full moon rituals would be 3-4 hours of time, and Sabbats would be 5 hours (both including some gathering time at the beginning and social time after.)
The commitment for Dedicant classes were three hours one class, five hours the next, alternating basically every other week. (The longer class gave us plenty of time to practice skills or do things that took longer). Dedicants also had at-home practice of skills and 5-10 hours of reading and writing type work at home each month.
Time for initiates involved attendance at full moon and Sabbat rituals, but also often initiate-only classes or rituals (once or twice a month), plus meetings about teaching and other activities of the group or for ritual planning in addition to rituals and whatever teaching for Dedicant or Seeker classes they might be doing.
Initiates may also be involved in setting up and cleaning up after ritual, and whoever lives at the place where ritual takes place usually has to spend some extra time cleaning and preparing in advance and afterwards.
For most of my time as an initiate, I was spending 8-10 hours most weeks on group activities and training (either my own classes or helping teach others), on top of my own personal practice.
When we began the coven, there was a lot less time commitment (because we were not working with multiple students, and because we deliberately simplified some of our practices around how long it took to set up and clean up for ritual.) We usually spent about two hours per ritual plus an hour or so talking over food after, plus another discussion night during the month.
Last edited May 18, 2017. Reformatted and personal examples updated in November 2020.