Over the last several years, the North American Pagan community at large has been engaged in an often turbulent process of self-examination. A lot of allegations of abuse, bigotry, and oppressions are surfacing very publicly as the greater Pagan culture is forced to face its own shadow wounds. Debridement of such wounds is rarely a pretty or painless process, especially when that process reaches a plenary level.
As I’ve watched these events unfold, learned more about the horrific abuses committed by community leaders, and gone through my own inner process of razing the metaphorical pedestals upon which I had placed some of the authors and leaders whose teachings I drew on passionately while beginning to venture down a Pagan path, I have often come back, over and over again, to the question of what makes for a safe, positive, healthy Pagan leader and a safe, healthy organization, to include one that exhibits characteristics I believe are inherent to good feminism, as well.
Years ago, I wrote a bit here about some of my thoughts on this very question by addressing my belief that religious leaders, Pagan or otherwise, need to remember to be teachable. In that post, I said:
“When I stay open, when I consciously remain teachable, I hold space for Divine Lessons to reach me. When I remember this, I bear witness to Goddess’ presence and leadership in others, as well as myself. When I receive these new lessons with gratitude, connections are deepened, knowledge bases expanded, and perspectives widened for everyone involved. Those moments are holy, precious. In those moments the Divine blossoms within us and between us. And we are all renewed.
Without teachability, spiritual leadership in any form, field, or tradition doesn’t stay sacred for long.”
(I believe this holds true to feminists of all or no religious background, as well. Good feminism also remains able to learn and evolve over time.)
A friend of mine recently shared a link with me from a group called Families Against Cult Teachings, an organization founded a few years ago by a man whose daughter committed suicide after becoming involved with a cult leader. The link contained a resource sheet for clergy, church volunteers, and church staff with a list of characteristics FACT says are common in safe religious organizations. They assert that a safe religious community and/or leader:
-Will answer your questions
-Will disclose information
-Is often democratic
-Will not vilify or excommunicate former members
-Will not have a negative paper trail (court cases, news articles)
-Will encourage communication and existing friendships
-Will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations
-Will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy, and self esteem
-Will admit mistakes and accept constructive criticism
-Will not be the only source of knowledge and learning
I appreciated her sharing this list with me because, in addition to probably being useful for the monotheistic religious organizations it appears to be aimed at, it seems to me to be a great starting point for evaluating how well Pagan/polytheistic organizations and leaders are doing in fostering safe space, as well, as the Pagan community continues to evolve. It also seems to me that most of these are characteristics of positive feminist spaces, as well. By examining ourselves and our organizations with this set of criteria, we can actively seek to remain teachable as religious leaders and as feminists, evaluating where we may be falling short, and even considering where we might expand upon, add to, or even challenge this particular list of criteria.
Many of the characteristics from FACT’s list connect deeply for me to my continued commitment to being a teachable feminist religious leader, as well as, seeking out other leaders I can learn from and communities I can participate in that share this commitment to teachability. Welcoming questions, including ones that offer constructive criticism, is an important piece of this for me.
Committed leaders strive to do their best in their service to community, and in the process, sometimes we do screw up. We bungle a community event, we’re tired and lose our temper, we end up in over our heads. It happens. To expect ourselves and the feminist and/or religious leaders or communities we cherish to be zero defect is unreasonable. It’s what happens after we screw up, how we field the questions our missteps generate, and how we learn from the criticism that arises that becomes where we prove our mettle as leaders. It’s also where we demonstrate that our organizations are places where mistakes, learning, restoration, and healing can happen in healthy, empowered ways.
Another characteristic on FACT’s list that is near and dear to my heart and necessary for maintaining a teachable style of feminist religious leadership is this concept of cultivating an openness to other sources of knowledge and learning. (My recent commitment to a new career path as a librarian resonates deeply with this concept of defending the freedom to seek a wide variety of sources for learning.) It is one of the things I passionately appreciate about the organization in which I’ve made my religious home. The SOA community – longtime members, leaders, and newbies, alike – seems to adore it when someone discovers and then shares within the community a new, potential resource for learning more about the history and culture of the Iron Age Britons, the Western Mystery Tradition, Welsh mythology, Welsh herbalism, our Sacred Landscapes, Celtic languages, etc. During our annual online conference, AvaCon***, I always come away with an enormous update to my “to be read” list!
As you read over FACT’s list, what comes alive for you? What characteristics do you feel are good measures of safe leaders & organizations? Where do you feel you and the organizations that are part of your feminism and your spirituality could do better?
***AvaCon is the Sisterhood of Avalon’s annual online conference that is open to all women with an interest in the Avalonian Tradition, Celtic spirituality, & Women’s Mysteries. This year, AvaCon 2018 is this weekend, April 14-15. Conference registration is by donation. If you’re interested in joining us, please see our website for more information.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon. During 2018, she will be presenting at the SOA’s annual online conference, AvaCon, as a part of Land, Sea, Sky Travel’s “A Year With Our Gods” online conference series, & at the third annual Ninefold Festival in the Colorado Springs area. Kate’s work is published in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.
9 thoughts on “Leadership and Community: Continuing to be Teachable by Kate Brunner”
The bottom line is that we must be our own authorities in community with others. We can learn from others, but we should never accept anyone’s teaching or authority on faith. And anyone who demands that we accept her or his authority without question is someone to stay away from. Nor should we be ever asked to accept the teachings of any tradition on faith or without question. We all know that there are many bad things in the scriptures and teachings of the well-known patriarchal religions. “Paganism” is a broad umbrella that also often includes patriarchal traditions such as ancient Greece or the Celts. Feminism as has been said places a question mark over all patriarchal texts, traditions, and authorities. And since almost all traditions or our interpretations of them are influenced by patriarchy, every text, traditions, authority, or interpretation must be questioned. Period!
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Oh, you are so right Carol. I think it is critically important to see that Paganism (and any other self proclaimed spiritual tradition) not only includes patriarchal traditions but supports them. I immediately think of Athena, Greek Goddess of War – supposedly a goddess of wisdom.
To me this list appears to be a fundamental resource not only for religious leaders, but for political leaders as well. Particularly the following two lines would suit well to some of the most important political leaders of this world.
– Will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy, and self esteem.
– Will admit mistakes and accept constructive criticism.
You make a critically important point. We must remain open and teachable.
I do not follow any spiritual tradition because I am the author of my own spiritual path – creating and celebrating ritual in a way that feels right for me.
I am immediately suspicious of any religious leader – someone who supposedly knows more that we do about ourselves and the direction we need to be going in. In my opinion, only each one of us can make that determination.
Sadly, oh so sadly only too often we are seduced into these cults because we don’t believe that our answers come from within.
Brava! I can’t pick an item in the list that calls louder than any of the others. It’s good, though, for any leader not to have a negative paper trail. And it’s good for leaders not to vilify former members of a group. I’ve seen that done.
One idea that should perhaps be on the list is that a leader should not believe his or her own PR and the often effusive praise of followers. I was once friends with a priestess (?) who started believing it when good but inexperienced women started referring to her as a goddess. Believing oneself a goddess–i.e., all-powerful, always right–isn’t good. It leads to cultishness. Which is what happened in that “church.” Hubris isn’t good for anyone. But we know that, right?
This seems good advice for everyone – always keep learning in critical openness to information/knowledge. It’s how we grow, and avoid being enslaved by charlatans who present themselves as “the Answer”. Does tend to get us into trouble with “authority” though!
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Thanks so much for this thoughtful and thorough post, Kate. Thanks for sharing the list, which is applicable to any situation or relationship in which there is potential–or actual–abuse of power.
Great post, Kate! Teachability is an important value everywhere in my life. And those leaders who no longer learn (are not teachable) are often, if not always, those that impose their “wisdom” on others.
In my youth, I followed the dictum, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him” (the title of a book in the 1970s), believing I had to discover my spiritual path all myself. In my later years, I have found respectful, open-minded teachers from whom I could learn. But I believe that being a “follower” needs to be a process of constant discernment.