Coming Together: A Look at Pagan Group Structure

Humans are fundamentally social creatures: we love to get together. We are educated in groups, we work in groups and many of us worship in groups. But what, exactly, is a group? A group of people working in the same room, or on a common project, does not necessarily make a group.

When people work in groups, there are two different factors involved. The first is the task to accomplish, teaching a class, holding a ritual, or doing community outreach are examples of tasks. The second factor is process of the group work itself, the mechanisms by which the group acts as a unit. If group members don’t pay enough attention to the process, the value of the group can be diminished or even destroyed. The synergy between task and process makes group work attractive despite the possible problems (and time spent).

Simplistically, a healthy, functioning magickal group leads to a spirit of cooperation, coordination, and common mores. Magickal groups can be particularly good at combining talents and providing innovative solutions to unfamiliar situations. The wider skill set and knowledge base found within a magickal group is a distinct advantage over that of a solitary practitioner. They are excellent environments for transmitting data across generations and keeping that information intact, while adding the wider experiences of its members.

An adequate definition of ‘group’ strikes the balance between being sufficiently broad to include most social collectives but those that are not true groups. I particularly like this definition: “A group is (a) two or more individuals (b) who influence each other (c) through social interaction. [1]” Can something so scientific be applied to magickal groups, those fluid, changing, fantastical creations that seem to exist without rules, or even despite them? Yes.

Within Paganism there are a range of group structures, from freeform to strictly hierarchical, with several variations in between. Each type of structure has its own requirements and choosing which style best suits your personality and vision is crucial. The key question to ask is: how much structure do I/we need? Think about where your strengths draw you: you may prefer the clear authority of the hierarchy, the intuitive, flowing feeling of a freeform group, or perhaps something in between, or even not yet formulated.

For the sake of discussion, I have divided the myriad types of magickal groups into four basic structures: hierarchical, wheel, circle, and freeform. These labels are not intended to be anything other than guideposts, terms that allow me to discuss the pros and cons of these different styles. Throughout my years as a witch I have personally witnessed the positive and negative aspects of each kind of group.

Hierarchical: The image associated with this structure is that of a triangle. A hierarchical group is one in which structure and codified knowledge plays an important role, even if it seems to be ‘made up’ as the magickal group members go along. Generally speaking, no matter how small the group is, the roles are specifically defined and are not rotated through the membership. Hierarchical magickal groups generally have specific definitions for each member’s level of learning, usually called degrees. Hierarchical magickal groups tend not to advertise actively for new members and are fairly specific about what kind of person they feel is most appropriate as a candidate to join. They view advancement through the Degrees or continual (measurable) improvement of the Self as the primary reason for participation in the magickal group.

Decisions flow from the top downward, with communication (and particularly, change) flowing more easily through the lower levels than upward. It takes a particularly even-handed and open-minded leader to function well in this structure as the triangle easily leads to an extremely authoritarian model in which the leader has power over the other members, rather than sharing power with[2]. The triangle, however, provides clear lines of authority and decision-making.

As I said earlier, all structures have potential problems. A hierarchical concept of Deity and priesthood can leave too much room for authorities to interpret what Deity wants. Usually this is unquestioning obedience, but sometimes it is the donation of resources (time or money) to the authorities’ control. When hierarchy is an inherent part of religious belief, there is a system in place that allows the priesthood to claim to speak for Deity, and in doing so claim special privileges for him or her self.

The triangle’s downside is that negative politics and dynamics may prevent members from growing in self-knowledge and/or advancing through the Degrees. Some may be ‘promoted’ although they have less knowledge, because they are ‘popular’ or because they please the leader (s) in some fashion. Speaking against authority figures may be discouraged, although lip service paid to all being equal. Members in positions of authority may enjoy the power gained too much and misuse it for personal pleasure, rather than for the good of the group.

Hierarchies can breed stagnation, with new ideas and beliefs seen as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad, ’ and not accepted. The triangle is where one finds members saying that theirs is the One True Way, even if it is only by implication rather than an outright statement.

Circles: Circles are the huge continuum of magickal groups between hierarchical and freeform and can best described as a gathering of people for a specific purpose—worship of the Deity, learning the Craft, casting spells, developing psychic abilities, etc. Although they may have roles like a hierarchical magickal group, circles will also tend to have rotating leaders, with several, or all, of the members of the group taking turns in that position. Their training tends to be very practical—a matter of ‘do what works, ’ rather than ‘our teachings say.’

Circles are an excellent situation in which to explore a variety of roles with many permutations. In these groups, multiple sources of information are accessed, depending on the leaders’ background, philosophy, and prior training. As well, a variety of perspectives are often presented as equally valid, preventing a reliance on the ‘One True Way.’ Membership is usually stable with an agreed-upon screening and intake process.

Circles are especially valuable when the group wishes to explore non-hierarchical and mutually empowering methods of dynamics. Many feminist witches, such as Starhawk and Diane Stein, believe that the best way to break out of the ‘programming’ of daily life is enact circles magickally, constantly, and they make a very good point. We live in a world of triangles—hierarchies—all around us. At work, at home, in nearly every aspect of our lives we exist within a triangle of power-over. For some people, the shared responsibility, and leadership of a circle is a vital component to healing and empowerment.

The negative side to the circle comes when it does not have a strong core of members and lacks sufficient organization. Lesson quality may range from excellent to mediocre, depending entirely upon the personal knowledge of the teacher. It can be difficult for members to see the ‘big picture’ or grasp that there is more knowledge to be learned than that taught by the circle. There may be petty squabbles among members and no person feeling empowered to say “Enough!”

Rotating leadership may contribute to a feeling of chaos if each imposes a radically different vision on members. Circles may also do a disservice to those people who are ‘natural’ leaders or organizers if they end up feeling stymied or held back by the circles’ inherent lack of formal structure.

Wheel: Borrowing some of the best from hierarchies and circles we come to the wheel, the most difficult structure to create, especially since we have very few models to refer to. The most well-known is that of Reclaiming Collective. The wheel derives its strength from having a stable ‘hub’ of leadership, with equal divisions of responsibility radiating outward from the hub, and then spread among the larger membership.

As in a circle, roles tend to rotate among members as each contributes differently and multiple sources of information are accessed, depending on the leaders’ background, philosophy, and prior training. The membership within a wheel is usually stable with a process for taking in new members that involves some degree of screening and common agreement.

As with a hierarchy, wheel groups tend to view advancement through the development of the Self as the primary reason for participation in the magickal group. In this structure, training provides a solid background in many areas of magickal knowledge, as well as a thorough grounding in the Mysteries.

The downside to this structure comes when the membership becomes too rigid in its views of what is ‘right’ or acceptable to train and learn. There is a tendency for most of the work to be done by only a few members, perhaps only those at the hub. It also may be difficult for radical change to occur, with the illusion of transformation offered to those who desire it but then run afoul of a diffuse leadership unable to actually enact change.

Free Form: At the opposite end of the spectrum from hierarchy is the freeform structure. These groups are very informal, with membership generally in a state of flux; people show up or not as their lives allow. There is rarely any specific outlining of duties or roles, although a successful freeform group will probably have members who make sure the details are handled and that things are somewhat organized. Freeform groups have few if any rules. In order to remain in existence, many freeform groups will transmute into the more structured and stable circle.

For members interested in working with a highly eclectic group of people, this style is perfect. Membership is fluid, with huge amounts of information shared over a wide range of topics. (Most email lists that call themselves cyber covens are actually freeform structures in my opinion.)

The potential negatives for the freeform group are related to its lack of leadership. Although in a circle the leadership may feel chaotic or weak, it is nonetheless present and can be invoked. In a freeform group there is the potential for secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulation from a covert (as opposed to an acknowledged) leader. There can be a total lack of guidance, direction, and support for newcomers, with a strong flavor of ‘we already talked about that, go look in the archives.’

Whatever structure appeals to you, knowing the strengths and weaknesses can help you understand how to support the group in its tasks and maintain better processes. A bit of self-awareness will go along way in helping you to decide what kind of group best meets your needs.

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