I'm just kidding. There wasn't what I'd call an "ulterior motive", but I did create this group at this particular time (though I'd been considering making it for a while on another site as well as here) is because there is a lot of...turmoil in my study circle and I'm hoping for a bit of advice.
The situation is very difficult to describe, so I won't go into a whole lot of details, but my first question is: does anyone have any advice on creating an atmosphere (or projecting an energy) conducive to allowing people to speak openly about their problems with the way a group is run or the way an individual acts? I don't know if it's that they feel they can't talk to me (which might be tied to my personality and the fact that I'm somewhat shy), if they're not comfortable with the group or members to do so, or if they just...don't.
I know the problem of people talking behind others' backs isn't only a Pagan group problem, but it's running rampant in my group. I've addressed that if we had achieved the "family feel" that so many of our members had stated they felt, this shouldn't be the case, but it continues. The worst part (for me anyway) is that it's apparently centering around me.
The other issue I have and would love advice on is getting people to help out. There's a lot of discontent with the fact that I do so much for the circle (and talk of how I've elevated myself to the role of "HPess" of the group by doing all that I do), but I've given ample opportunities for others to help. No one volunteers. I feel like I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.
There are many more issues, but those are the ones really eating at me (and the group) right now.
Before I go into any of this, I'm going to be very honest - you're facing down the inherent difficulties of a consensus-based group, darlin'. I've been part of such groups, and they've always been problematic. Always. On one level, it's the reason why Traditional Craft is definitively not consensus-based: the High Priestess makes the decisions. She has the right to levy expectations of you, and you can either hop-to, or you can vote with your feet. That's it. Ultimately, the buck has to stop somewhere, and the High Priestess (aided by the High Priest) has the responsibility as that stopping-point.
Of course, that's not altogether helpful for your situation.
The first one is what we call "back-channel chatter." Everyone talks about the issue to everyone else, save for the people who're actually involved. This is a problem in every group. It's been a problem in my own young coven, and has been an issue in my mother coven, too. Back-channel chatter is divisive, counter-productive and only serves to alienate and form an "us against them" mentality. There is NOTHING useful that comes out of back-channel chatter, save to begin putting cracks into the group, which will eventually grow to shatter the group.
When someone comes into our groups, we make them aware that this activity is not welcome. If we cannot muster the integrity and adulthood to go directly to someone with our problems, then we cannot be in proper fellowship with one another. If we cannot address our problems directly to one another, all in the spirit of compassion with one another, then there are no spiritual ties that bind us. It is hard to do - we are often taught to avoid "conflict." Particularly women in our culture, honestly. But this is not conflict. This is coming to one another and saying "I am concerned or hurt, but I know that I can trust you would not do this to me intentionally, so I am coming to you with this problem. In return, you know I am not saying these things to hurt or malign you, but only so that we can mutually find the good in this."
This is not easy. This is very, very hard. Lots of people simply cannot do it. Also, to address your "if we truly felt like a family" comment - this IS how many people relate to their families. There is someone in a place of power in the family, and you don't get to question them, so you talk about them behind their backs while denying to them that anything is wrong. This is a major issue with spiritual community work - the closest natural analogue to it is familial relations, so people almost always bring their family issues to it.
As for the other issue, you are very much damned if you do, damned if you don't. There is only one remedy to this - let the group fail occasionally. I'm not sure how your group operates, but this may be as simple as pre-establishing who is responsible for what role in a ritual, and if no one volunteers for the roles, then the ritual doesn't happen. This may mean getting together and dividing up the ritual occasions, with you taking one or two of them, and then asking others to volunteer for them; if no one volunteers for it, then the ritual doesn't happen.
Some people don't want to lead, don't want to organize. Others want to, but are intimidated by the kind of knowledge necessary to do so. Remember, particularly in an endeavor like the Craft, leadership requires not just the ability to lead, but also the knowledge to lead others through it. If even one of those is missing, that person will not function as a good leader, although you can help them.
And tell them how you're feeling. Make sure that they know that you don't want all of the work you've had to assume, and that you'd greatly appreciate it if others took some of it off your shoulders.
But I will tell you this - people will always resent a leader who rises to the top. They'd rather have a leader who is a leader from the get-go. In the first instance, there will always be the niggling suspicion that a leader who has risen to the top did so at the expense of others - even oneself. This may be what some of your folks are feeling.
I'll be honest with you. You're not likely to find someone to take these things over from you. It sounds like you're doing exactly what you need to be doing: you're invested in this group and its activities, and if no one else is going to step up, then you'll do it, by damn. It's the role that a High Priestess adopts, hun, except that a High Priestess has the right to expect contribution by her coveners, by Tradition. You've got a consensus-based group, and if they don't wanna, you have no recourse to making them.
Best of luck, darlin'.
Everything Oakthorne said (and also why I refuse to run a consensus based group), and two other thoughts...
If I remember right, you're still a very new group, right? (As in, under six months). That means that you really don't have a lot of established norms for how things work, and that gives you a chance to say "Hey, wait, let's see how things are going." You could start with the really clear cut stuff "It seems like what I've been doing - asking for help - isn't working for some reason. I can't - and don't want to - do this by myself, I want this to be something that everyone contributes to. Let's look at some different ways to make that work."
You might ask people to list the stuff they might be interested in helping with. This can be easier to do if you give a long list of different kinds of tasks and give them a chance to think. Everything from 'plan ritual' to 'lead ritual' to 'take a smaller role in ritual' to 'pick up supplies for a session we're making something in' to 'help clean up beforehand'. Ideally, you end up with a good sized list of tasks, some of which require physical energy, some of which require reading, studying, or preparing notes, some of which have an arty or creative aspect - you get the idea. People may then see ways to volunteer that they hadn't really considered before. Talk about picking something everyone's most comfortable with first, and then after a few months, encouraging people to try stuff that's a bit more of a reach for them.
(You also have to make sure to recognise the work everyone does: often people doing non-ritual tasks can feel ignored compared to the people who do stuff in ritual, for example, so it can be extra important to say "I couldn't have done [other thing] if I hadn't known you'd be right in there to help with the cleanup." clearly in ways everyone can hear.)
And then, as Oakthorne says, don't schedule anything where there are insufficient volunteers. You could do a list of the absolute core things that need to happen for an event (i.e. for a ritual, someone has to design the thing, someone has to run the ritual, and people have to take whatever parts are necessary in it. Someone has to get supplies, if there are supplies needed, someone has make sure everything gets cleaned up. If you don't have people for all those roles, then no ritual. There are other tasks - altar decoration, getting seasonal flowers, whatever, for example - that are nice added things, but which are not as essential, so knowing what the absolute bare minimum is should help guide conversations of what you need.
On the back-chatter part: again, I agree with Oakthorne. One of the challenges with a new group is that people have to trust you to deal with problems before they bring them to you - so how you handle this one *could* make things a lot easier for you down the road, or a lot harder.
Getting stuff out in the open can be hard, especially if your personality doesn't lean toward making that easy. My HPS can do it - she exerts this warm calm soothing energy without thinking about it. I have to work a lot harder at it, and after I spent a couple of years trying to do what she did, I gave up and started trying to do what I do naturally better - which is that I figure out ways to spend time one on one with people. When there are difficulties, I try to schedule those conversations close together (within a week or three).
Whatever we do has some stuff that isn't related to the difficult bits (going to a movie or exhibit or whatever together we enjoy, having a meal where we talk about lots of other stuff), but sometime during the time, when we're both relaxed, I have a chance to say "Hey, I've been noticing this in the group, and I'm not sure what I can do to help make it better. Do you have any ideas?" And then scheduling a time for the group to talk in general about any issues that have come up. I've found that talking about it briefly one-on-one helps people feel more confident in talking in the group, and that it certainly makes it easier for me to pinpoint the problems and suggest things myself. "I've heard from a couple of people that they're frustrated when I do X. I've been trying to do X because Y, but thinking about, I can see some other ways to do that, and I'm sure you could suggest others. So, let's brainstorm."
In your case, this might be something like "I've heard from a couple of people that they're frustrated in the direction of the group, and my trying to run things. I've been doing that because it feels to me like if I do things, they won't happen, and I really want to enjoy group ritual and study sesssions with all of you. So, how can we make that work better, so that everyone gets a chance to help with things they enjoy, and so that we can all have the kinds of experiences in the group we want?"
(You'll notice this isn't precisely an apology: I think there should only be an apology if you actually have something to apologise for that you feel sorry about. What it is is a public course correction, a restatement of where you see the group goals, and asking for help on how to get there.)
You may also find you need to determine some sort of qualifications - that if people *never* volunteer to help with anything, maybe they can no longer be part of the group, for example. Obviously, don't dictate that, but you can definitely ask the question of "Ok, if we're a consensus group that wants to do X and Y and Z, what do we do when that doesn't happen?" Chances are, you may lose group members who don't want to do the work - but you'll keep the ones who do, and likely gain others down the road who do too.
First I want to say I love you guys for your in-depth responses. Since posting this, I've only spoken with one member still but we are sending out holiday cards with a recommendation form so even those that are shy can have input. I wanted to spend one-on-one time with everyone, and I still plan to after I return from my holiday trip home, but I felt these issues, if left too long, would result in people leaving. I heard from said one member that many people were considering leaving and one member who had told me he was taking a break due to personal reasons was, in fact, leaving. So, we felt it best to send them out as soon as possible and it seemed more personal to do it this way than emailing them out or calling people.
I love that you both pointed out the issues with consensus-based groups. It's quite true, and it's the reason I always wonder how those consensus-based covens do it (or would that be the secret to eclectic covens failure rate?). However, most study groups I've seen work this way. When it becomes less based on consensus and real leaders run them, it's more like a teacher with a bunch of students than what we're looking for (and our members are looking for). So, we're kind of stuck trying to work our way through the problems.
It's funny, when I talked to that member I started to wonder why it is that new potential leaders/clergy are often given the suggestion of starting a study group to make sure it's what they want to do before starting a coven. Don't get me wrong, I know no teenager or twenty-something is equipped to run a coven, but a study group seems to be, in my opinion at the present time (and I might look back on this in twenty years, laugh, and exclaim about how stupid I was) is more difficult. You have people on all different levels of experience and education that you're trying to please, a consensus-based organization, no set training, and, often, no one with years and years of adequate leadership training to run things/help out. I guess if a potential leader can get through all that, they can do anything? Lol! Did I just find the lesson? But seriously, it does take a different set of skills.
Anyway, back on topic: Oak, thank you for bringing up that point about family. It is how people relate to their families. Looking back, I've even been guilty of relating to this group as I do my family sometimes even if it didn't involve talking about them behind their backs.
On to letting the group fail, Brae and I discuss this a lot. We did, in fact, let it fail once at our Yule party. We started off our ritual work writing a ritual together at Samhain, but after that we decided to let one person (or small groups) write a ritual for each Sabbat to show their own personal styles, paths, etc. The person who volunteered for Yule didn't do it and we didn't step up. I think a few people noticed what happened and what was going on, but it hasn't changed anything yet.
Jenett: I like the idea of giving a diverse list of activities out. That might make it easier to understand 1) how much work really goes into the group and 2) how best they can contribute. *runs off to work on such a list*
And thank you for pointing out the "not an apology" bit. That's definitely something I needed to read since I'm the type of person who apologizes twenty times for things I didn't do.
Again, thank you so much for all your input!
Glad to help! I think given your time constraints sending something out by mail is a good thing - it at least lets people know you're aware of concerns and listening.
On why people recommend study groups - yes, they have challenges, but it's easier to get out from under the bits that aren't working than it is in a coven. Once I commit to a student, for example, there are a bunch of oaths, energetic connections, and other things that we *can* bring to a close, but it's more complicated than someone just saying "Done now." on either side. A study group has fewer of those commitments, so it's easier for people to go when they need to.
The other thing I'm wondering is if trying to do study sessions *and* rituals might be a bit much right now. You might ask and see what people think, or maybe cut rituals down to just 4 rather than 8. Creating and running ritual is a very new set of skills for many people, where reading/learning/discussing are all things we're at least somewhat familiar with from school (even if in a Craft setting, they work a bit differently and have different goals.) You might find it easier to get volunteers.
The one other thing about consensus is that it's hard to do well. I do know people who manage it. (The husband of my HP is a senior teacher in Reclaiming, so he's had a lot of experience with it) but it means that everyone has to agree on what consensus is and how it works.
Contrary to popular belief, that isn't "Everyone has to agree". Formal consensus also has an option for "I don't want to do X, but I don't see any reason the rest of you shouldn't do it if you want. I just don't want to help with that." If that's part of the issue, maybe there's ways around it - have some people just come to discussion sessions, and some to ritual, if that's what they want. (That said, that can get tricky, since then you may have people who are in the same group who don't really know each other or have any sense of trust.) Often, I see poeple who assume that consensus means everyone has to agree - so nothing happens - when if you apply some of the variations, there's more flexibility.
I think the other thing about groups is that - even in really structured groups - the drop-off rate is tremendously high. In the group I trained with, for every 100 emails of interest, we'd get 10-15 people at our free introductory seeker classes, and maybe 4 of them would consider continuing with the group. Of those 4, maybe one would make it to considering initiation.
People will sort themselves out of groups that don't fit them, but sometimes people seem to feel they need to make a big fuss so they feel it's okay to leave. (In other words, they don't have enough sense of agency in their life that they feel they can make the decision, they need to be able to point to something 'wrong' with the group to make them feel they can leave.)
As long as the person isn't truly abusive/nasty/whatever, I usually let it go and I don't take it personally (it's sort of like a toddler throwing a tantrum over something: it's a stage some people are at, and it's really not aimed at me, I just happen to be the direction they're pointing right now). If they are nasty, I do make a point of passing that along to anyone who asks about them as group members (and I do talk both to my own parent group, and to other group leaders in the area on occasion.) And of course, if they do share specific frustrations, I run those by my own self-evaluation and some chats with trusted friends, to make sure it isn't something I should fix. But I don't assume the problem is me, or even the group - just that person's fit with the group's goals and practice.
Excellent point about the rituals and discussions. That's exactly what we're discussing doing right now. I'm thinking around 3-4 Sabbats/Esbats are plenty. We might still *go* to other rituals that local groups hold to see the differences, expand our network, etc. but we only *hold* 3-4 a year, I think. This has been an issue since we were pressured to start doing rituals. I wanted to wait at least until we had a few workshops and/or discussions on ritual itself, but many members said they wanted to do it. So, we did. And so far only 2 people volunteered to write rituals (myself and my student who is also a member of the study circle).
Oh, I'm extremely familiar with drop-off rates! I ran a student group in college. We'd get about 50 RSVPs for every event we had and end up with about 5 people in attendance. The current study circle members look at me like I'm crazy when I accept new members to our website since we can only accept about 10-13 members due to housing issues (there's just no room anywhere that we normally meet!), but I know that even if we have 20 new "members" to our website, 5 will actually post something, and maybe 2 will apply to become members of the study circle. We've also already had 2 people leave the group...which brings me to your other point:
I love you for pointing that out about people needing a reason to leave a group! I hadn't even thought that because I'm personally not that kind of participant. It clears up a lot that has recently happened in our group, though. I won't go into all of it because it's complicated and becoming quite personal towards me, but it relates strongly to what you said.
I think the thing that's truly bothering me (aside from the fact that I put so much work into this group and it seems to be falling apart) is how personal this seems. I completely understand how back chatter can ruin a group because if anyone had come to me with the problems they were having with the group, I wouldn't have taken it nearly as personally as I do knowing they were talking behind my back. There's also that one former member who has taken things too far, IMO.
I've been a (somewhat) prominent member of my local community since I restarted the student group on campus about 5 1/2 years ago. I've had a decent reputation too, and I'm worried that the people talking behind my back and talking of leaving will be like the former member mentioned above and use this opportunity not just to leave quietly but to attempt to ruin the reputation I've worked on (and am still working to build).
I don't know. I know I'm taking this entirely too personally and probably need to calm down, and I know that. But it doesn't stop me from thinking about it pretty much non-stop.