A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism

This is taken from a Facebook conversation which I initiated on my wall. I have included only my comments, and summarized some of the questions that arose.

We (meaning western polytheists, and still I resist the idea that there is a big We – we are too small and too diverse) have an opportunity. If we really do want to bring polytheism back (the Gods never left), and grow the polytheist community, (which I take to actually mean grow the religious movement of polytheism in the West), we have the opportunity to do that from the roots.

Now is our chance to do our best to root out totalitarianism, Authority and power over, and oppression. To really examine what it is we want, who we want to be, and how we want to build the community.

Yes, we are steeped in monotheism. We are steeped in capitalism and patriarchy. It has infiltrated us and infected us whether we’ve diagnosed it or ignore it or not.

We look towards the world religions and easily pick apart what is wrong with them. But when we turn the same discerning eye to our own, we pick apart each other. This is not growth. This is the disease.

All of the world religions have issues with the power that is in the hands of the priests. That power corrupts. Some more than others, as there are individuals who resist. But at the top that power inevitably turns it’s gaze toward money, to how they can profit from religion. Look at the mega churches. Even the Hindu temples in India – one of the longest unbroken “polytheist” (our definition not theirs) traditions – often demand huge amounts of money from devotees.

At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.

We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.

This is the time. We have to change. We have to do the Work.

But what about creating structures to support the growth of polytheism? What about religious organizations? What about those who approach polytheism from a religious, as opposed to a Witchcraft perspective?

I’m not disparaging the creation of structures and religious organizations. That is good, hard work and I’ve done a lot of it myself. They aren’t for everyone, but they do serve a purpose for those who want/need them.

If that is one of the paths that people want to take, one of the directions polytheism is going, then it becomes essential to examine the power structures within them.

Whose responsibility is it then?

It is all of our (those that identify as a polytheist) responsibility. Organizations do not exist in a vacuum; structures rise from the ground upon which the foundation is built. What are we fertilizing that ground with? How are we remediating it?

I have a hard time separating it from the same responsibility that requires us to examine privilege, to call out bigotry, to say “this is wrong and I will not tolerate it in my community”. It is all a symptom of the same disease.

The tendency that I see within religious and spiritual circles to withdraw, to insulate, to isolate and say “this is my practice and my community and I don’t care what happens over there” is troubling to me. On the one hand, I get it – we are an individualistic bunch focused on claiming our own authority and power. But I don’t understand how we can advocate full community engagement with social justice issues, and not with our religious/spiritual communities. How is that behavior any different from the Christians that ignore and tolerate that awful Baptist Church (whose name is escaping me at the moment ironically)?

Yes the first line of responsibility rests with those who are directly involved in the organization. But we all know that that does not always work, and that being in the center of something often renders people blind to the dynamics at play. It requires outsiders to call attention to it.

And if we are, as I see, in a position to truly examine and improve these issues, it is going to require everyone’s involvement. We are not to blame for the influences at play, but we are going to have to be responsible for resisting and changing them. If not us, then who?

So yes, we can start with the ground upon which our feet rest (our immediate community and community relevant issues). But we can’t ignore that there are other patches of ground (communities) all around us, stretching as far as we can see and beyond. And that all that ground is a part of the same planet (global community) and is all being poisoned by the same things (power, greed, the -isms).

Are we excluding people?

I think we are, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertently. People should feel comfortable claiming whatever identity and associating with the group that they are most comfortable with – and if something is keeping people out from what should rightly be their place, that needs to addressed and corrected.

What about the growth of Polytheism and making sure we only include polytheists?

This question echoes the questions that many groups ask around inclusiveness and identity. It is the same question asked of, for example, “women only” groups, which often receives huge amounts of rancor and pushback.

Self identification is my sticking point. Once someone self selects, if then their behavior is determined to be detrimental to the group, the behavior can be addressed and ultimately they may be asked to leave.

But even larger than community based groups, I hear from MANY people that they are not sure if they are welcome in polytheist spaces, are not sure if the Polytheist movement is for them. This seems to stem largely from interactions with a vocal minority of people seeking to define what Polytheism is for all of us, and intentionally excluding other input and conversations.

I also want to see polytheism “grow” in that I want people to be validated, to have access to the community that is the most relevant to their experiences, and to be able to share what we learn with the wider community – including those outside polytheism – because there is much wisdom in the way we (sometimes) approach the world.

But at what cost does that growth come? Our current examples of growth in movements and organizations are not the most healthy. We can do better.

And if our entire religion/movement is going to crumble because we “let in” a few of the wrong people, or because not everyone agrees with us, then it was probably not very strong to begin with. We have to build it to withstand those things. We have to have healthy soil and solid foundations, a strong guiding ethos. We have to practice what we preach. Or we deserve to fail.

RWS_Tarot_16_Tower
The Tower from the Ride Waite Smith tarot. Wikimedia.

Guidelines for Effective Meeting Facilitation

I’ve been attending many community meetings again recently, and it has reminded me that meeting facilitation is a skill to be learned, practiced, and perfected, like any other. Here are some guidelines for how to facilitate an effective meeting, gleaned from my own experiences and training during 10+ years in community organizing, spiritual service, and non-profit work.

Connecting_hands

You need a facilitator. No really.Many community based groups are non-hierarchal and function with shared power, and rightly so. Unfortunately I have seen meetings devolve into counter-productive chaos in an effort to avoid appearances of any one person being in charge. The purpose of skilled facilitator(s) is to help create and hold the space for the work of the group, so that the group can achieve its goal. It is a position of care, not authority.

Select a facilitator. This may be the person who organized the meeting, or the group could agree on a facilitator. You could also share the role – for example, having one person as a time keeper, one as a discussion guide, one who is responsible for keeping the group focused.

These are the essential responsibilities of the facilitator. A facilitator should have an understanding of group dynamics and feel comfortable pulling quieter individuals into conversation while also keeping the more talkative people in check so that they do not overrun the meeting. (How many meetings have you been to where one person took up the majority of the meeting and never really said anything of relevant importance? Yeah. We’ve all been there. That is an example of poor meeting facilitation.)

Set the goal of the meeting. Even if the purpose of the meeting is to socialize with the goal of networking, setting an intention is essential to a successful meeting. Not everyone will have the same goal in mind when coming to a meeting; even if it has been discussed prior, perspectives will differ. Establishing the goal at the beginning of the meeting will help make sure everyone is focused on the same thing. You can state the goal verbally or write it on a piece of paper and display it. Displaying the goal also gives the facilitator something to bring the group back to when the group begins to lose focus.

Create the framework. Once the goal is set, you want to establish how that goal will be accomplished within the context of the meeting. This includes setting an end time, discussing the activities that will occur, and reviewing the points of discussion. This process will help alleviate any lingering confusion. Depending upon your group, this may also be written down and displayed, or it can be a verbal process.

These steps are a part of building the container for the work, of establishing the focus and boundaries for the meeting so that participants are able to comfortably explore during discussion, feel valued, and leave with a sense of accomplishment. This does not have to take more than the first few minutes of the meeting. Think of the beginning of many wedding ceremonies “we are gathered here today to…” Gather everyone together, state the intended goal, go over what will happen, remind everyone what time the meeting should wrap, and then (if appropriate) ask if anyone has any brief points or questions to add. Then move into the meat of the meeting.

Check in/Introductions.Depending upon the size of the group and the familiarity of the individuals with each other, it is often helpful to do a brief check in and round of introductions. If the group is new, or if there are new people in attendance, doing brief introductions will lift comfort levels and give everyone a better idea of who is present and what perspectives they bring. The facilitator should give an example of what should be shared during the introduction, such as their name, what brought them to the meeting, what experience they have with the subject, and what they hope to accomplish, and reinforce that this is a brief introduction and should not take more than a minute per person.

If the group is familiar with one another, a brief check in will help everyone get settled, enhance group cohesion, and improve flow. Allow each person no more than a minute to say how they are feeling, what they want to accomplish during the meeting, and any questions they may have.

This period of the meeting does have the potential to go off-track rather quickly, so it takes a skilled facilitator to manage. Setting the guidelines and sticking to them, by reminding people to stay on track and within time limits will help. It is up to you whether to do this before the goal and framework is set or after, and will depend on your group. I have found it is more helpful for the flow of the meeting if it is done afterwards.

Some groups will pass around a stick, rock, or even a small hourglass (the minute kind from board games, for example) to facilitate the process. Whoever holds the item has the floor to speak and cannot be interrupted except to bring them on track and remind them of time limits.

Facilitate discussion.Now that the container has been created and everyone has been brought into the meeting during check in, the hard part of facilitation starts. In any group there will be a variety of personalities, experience, and comfort levels; managing that so that the meeting is effective and everyone feels like their time was well spent can be a challenge.
The role of the facilitator is to guide and encourage discussion, help people stay focused, and reign in tangents. A variety of skills will help you as a facilitator. A basic understanding of group dynamics, power dynamics, and individual psychology particularly as it relates to intro- and extra-version will go a long way. This will help you pick up on subtle energy shifts and notice when someone is on their way to dominating the discussion. Introverts are not necessarily shy, but they do take more time to process information, and thus are slower to respond. Extraverts are not always domineering, but they do like to process information out loud, and thus are often the big talkers.

A solid grounding in active listening is a great benefit to a meeting facilitator and will help to balance the needs of introverts and extraverts, who will both benefit from the practice. The facilitator can also help the talkative individual get to their point quickly, and then summarize their main point succinctly, thus giving the less talkative people an opportunity to process the main point and respond. It may be necessary to actively engage the quieter individuals. Putting people on the spot doesn’t always work, and I have had success with saying “I would like to give us a minute or two of quiet to reflect on what has been said. Then let’s hear from some people who haven’t spoken as much.” This brings some air into the conversation, puts the breaks on the overly talkative and allows space for the quiet individuals to be heard. (I am an introvert myself, can you tell?)

Some groups will pass around a stick, rock, or even a small hourglass (the minute kind from board games, for example) to facilitate the discussion. Whoever holds the item has the floor to speak and cannot be interrupted except to bring them on track and remind them of time limits. This can help balance out power dynamics, and give everyone an opportunity to speak, but it can also be a bit cumbersome. Try it out in your group and see if it works.

It may also be helpful to have someone who is not the facilitator take notes of key points brought up in discussion, so that they do not get lost. To wrap up the meeting, review the key points, give a few more minutes for discussion, and then decide on next steps. You should always end the meeting with a synthesis and “what’s next” so that people don’t leave wondering what was accomplished and what happens next. And of course, a big dose of appreciation all around for getting through the meeting, which hopefully was much more enjoyable for everyone with proper facilitation!

If you have any questions or would like some individualized help with developing your facilitation skills, or would like to discuss a group dynamic you are trying to manage, please do contact me!

Resources

Here is a great tip sheet from AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance)

Some thoughts on evaluation and roles from Training for Change

On Leadership, Mentoring, and Embracing Change: A First Timers Reflections on PantheaCon

(This is the second post in my series based upon my experiences at my first PantheaCon. Though I discuss one of the PCon panels, the issues of leadership and developing communities reaches far beyond. I hope this contributes to continued discussions on how to create healthy networks of communities)

One of the panels I attended at PantheaCon was Turning the Wheel: Nurturing Young Leaders and Embracing Change.  Many of the panelists discussed their challenges as leaders, and the strides they have made in trying to reach out to the next generation. There were some very good points made, and overall I wish we had much more time to really delve into the topic.

 

The recording is now up on Elemental Castings. I encourage you to listen to it – you may hear things differently and leave with a different take away.  Besides, there was a lot of laughter. Don’t take my word for any of it. Go listen!

Now, this panel was not staffed by young people – they all seemed to be around 30 and over – and this fact was owned up front by all of the participants. Jason Pitzl even yielded his chair to a younger leader when (teasingly) called out on it. I have great respect for many of the participants that were on this panel and seeing that this subject, which is something I am passionate about, was going to be discussed was one of the reasons I decided to attend PantheaCon for the first time.

I’m also glad that I did not agree with everything that was said, because it got me thinking in different ways about how we approach creating networks of healthy communities.

One of the things that got me about this panel was that, when it came time to ask questions, a few college-age Pagans spoke up, and asked about how to get invited into established spaces, how to be taken seriously, and what can they do to pursue the path of leadership. The responses that were given by the panel came across to me like a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. The suggestions included “just be persistent, knock the door down, push against the glass ceiling, make yourself be heard, fake it until you make it” and eventually people (implying people in positions of leadership) will take notice. I know the people on the panel are not proponents of bootstrap mentality, and I understand what I believe is the sentiment behind the responses: Don’t give up, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, don’t let anything hold you back.

But I’ve also heard these same pieces of advice from people who were in powerful positions and used them as ways to abdicate themselves of their responsibility to mentor and guide. And the same rhetoric is used by the individualistic, self-determination, capitalist proponents.

I was a young leader. By 25 I had co-established the first Goddess Temple in the Southeast, was leading large group rituals, had been teaching for several years, and facilitated a few small Circles. I’m not the majority, I understand that. But I had a lot of support along the way, people that somehow recognized what I was still figuring out, people that showed up for me, who welcomed me and guided me. It was hard. And I did a lot of it by my own determination and persistence. But never was I told to just pull myself up by my bootstraps and keep going. The people that I am honored to call my friends and supporters (both here and across the veil) were always there to help me – even if I didn’t always see it at the time.

I’m in my early 30s now, and personally I feel that it is an even more awkward stage than the 20s… but we’ll get to that later.

How does this expectation that young people are supposed to figure it out on their own help to create healthy, creative, accountable communities? As one friend put it, in the 70s and 80s we(they) had to figure it out as they went along, because it hadn’t been done before. But now, there are at least two generations of Pagans that can help the next generation. They don’t have to make it all up. The way I see it, this generation is the first to truly have the opportunity and the burden of learning from those who came before and then working towards building a better future. But, it is up to us (the old guard) to change the culture so that it welcomes new leaders, new ideas, and new experiences. That is our responsibility, not theirs.

We seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the next generation.

We’ve allowed a very culturally-embedded difference to become a battleground – the generation gap. All too often I see an Elder or a Seeker denigrated because they said the “wrong” thing or don’t follow the same theory of tradition and practice that someone thinks they should. The younger generation looks at the older generation as people on pedestals that are holding them down, and the older generation looks at the younger like up and comers who are trying to change everything they worked so hard for. There is no trust, no love, no appreciation. This generation gap is only serving to divide and conquer. If the elders are always dismissive of the youth, and the youth are always angry at the elders, how will we ever learn and come together and work on the really hard stuff? We won’t. And then the ‘Oppressive Powers That Be’ win.

Our movement is inherently resistant to authority and rejects the idea of there being centralized leadership, which is a powerful resistance in this world. But the fact is we do have leaders and people who step into roles of leadership. These people are the Big Name Pagans (rightly or wrongly so) and the person who decides to start a group in their town because there is nothing else. We can acknowledge this and choose to model a different way, a healthier way, of shared power and well-developed leaders. Or we can continue to ignore it and suffer from those who will use the opportunity to seize power and wield it harmfully. I think it is time to model a better way.

So, how do we help develop the next generation of leaders? How do we create healthy networks of communities?

There are many ways to develop leadership, but as a movement Earth Based Religions (which I use as an umbrella term) are just starting to figure it out. So we look to other religions and other fields, gathering what feels right to our bosom and cutting away the rest. It’s a process, and with all of the other causes that are so front and center (and rightly so) it sometimes feels like this one should take a backseat. But I think it is essential to the healing and change we need. We haven’t been doing it right – and I can tell you that the younger generation sees it, and feels it, and doesn’t want to inherit it… and has some pretty damn good ideas about how to change it.

I actually don’t believe that you can ‘teach’ leadership. You can teach some tools, share your own mistakes and talk theoretical scenarios. But you can’t just get up in front of a group, give a presentation on leadership (or a hundred presentations) and then say they are ready to be a leader. Leadership must be developed. It is a continuous process. It means making mistakes again and again and again. And it takes ongoing support.

My favorite leadership development model is a mentorship model. This model is one of the most time and energy intensive, but also has the greatest potential for individual and collective reward. To be successful, it also has to have a solid foundation of respect and trust, with a clear understanding of expectations and commitment.

Learning never ends, and even the most experienced and skilled among us will have times when another perspective or someone else’s guidance is helpful. Never should we place a leader, elder, or mentor up on a pedestal and expect them to always have to figure it out on their own, either. Being in a position of leadership (as opposed to claiming a Title) is often tiring, draining, stressful work with little reward and few opportunities of reciprocity. We must build networks of support; communities that share power and value each other’s experiences and insights.

Naturally, these networks must be developed. You can’t create community-by-policy. And reciprocity becomes a huge issue – it can easily start to feel like you are doing all the giving and none of the receiving while mentoring. We can’t – and shouldn’t – dictate community or try to create it through policy. But we can create some loose structures to support the nurturing of community. For quite some time, I’ve been tumbling around the idea of a mentorship network.

Now, I actually detest the term “mentor.” So, in tumbling around this idea, and discussing it with my dear friend Byron Ballard, I came up with the idea of Buds and Blooms.

 

A healthy community, like an ecological system, is one of diversity, solid roots, room to breathe, supportive shelter, and healthy nourishment. The smallest beetle to the largest mammal and everything in between all have an important role to play; without any of them the entire system collapses. We must remember this in our networks and models of leadership as well.

So, a healthy leadership network has buds and blooms – but even the blooms need the support of the rest of the community to thrive, and the buds need the support so they can come full bloom. Different plants have different blooming cycles, just as different people come into their own bloom at different periods of their life – and they may die back and re-bloom again and again.

This network of buds and blooms would allow everyone the opportunity to mentor and guide someone else, thus fulfilling the need for a feeling of reciprocity and building a community of support. Everyone would be paired up with their own bud, even those in their first sprouting. (Ok, am I losing you in the metaphor? Let’s just break this down into straight-forward terms)

My ideas for the development of healthy leadership are based in the belief that all voices and points of view are valued, and everyone has something to offer. The newest of newbs can support other newbies on their journey, and offer perspectives on the experience to the person guiding them, so that person can continue to grow as a leader. Experienced leaders can support one another instead of compete, and help each other through the journey of leadership with all of the ups and downs and mistakes and victories and exhaustion.

Its been shown in mentorship models (yuck) that it is best to partner with someone who is not so far removed from your own current level of experience, so that they can still relate and feel the relevance of what you are experiencing. So when looking for a mentor, keep that in mind. Don’t aim for the BNP with 30 years of experience if you are fresh with 2 years of experience (and that is for many reasons). Discuss your current experiences, what you are struggling with, what you hope to learn – and if the person can’t relate to any of it or talks down to you in any way, they are probably not the person for you. Get references, ask around about their style and if anyone has any concerns. Once you find someone you can relate with, then it is time to set very clear agreements and expectations for the both of you, and create clear lines of communication.

Ok, back to my metaphor of the buds and the blooms and creating some structure to help nurture leadership and communities.  I know we (as in the umbrella we) are generally resistant to structures – but, given the minority of our religions and spiritualties, and that many people do not live near others who can provide them guidance or can’t publically seek others out for any reason, I think some structures can have a place. So creating a network of individuals to guide one another could be a huge gift to our communities. There would have to be some kind of vetting process, particularly for Blooms. People would be paired and grouped in small nexuses (like galaxies), according to a diverse yet complementary mix of experience and needs, sharing support and power among one another (which would also help prevent any abuse). The validity of all perspectives and levels of experience would be emphasized and valued, while also creating the space for guidance for all regardless of experience.

Let’s take each other off the pedestals, offer our hands to those patiently waiting in the wings, and call each other in to the circle. We are all sacred, all divine, all worthy of respect and all inherently valuable. It’s time to co-create the future we deserve, take back our power, and show the “normals” how it can be done.