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Joining a Coven or Other Pagan Group -- Red Flags to Avoid

Author: Bronwen Forbes [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: August 30th. 2009
Times Viewed: 11,264

In an earlier article here on Witchvox, I talked about the need to decide whether to join a group or stay solitary in your early days/years on the Pagan path. If you’ve chosen the group route, there are still some things you need to know before you actually become a member. Much as we’d all love to believe that the Pagan community is above such things, there really are some groups – and group leaders – that care more for their own egos or bank balances than your education.

Here’s how to spot the worst of the worst:

Stay away from any group that tries to convince you that theirs is the only true path of spiritual development. The Pagan community includes Witches, Druids, Asa Tru, Dianics, Radical Faeries, British Traditionalists and Greek Reconstructionists, just to name a few. It’s a pretty poor coven that manages to say – with a straight face, no less – “we are the only ones who have the Truth” (whatever that is) . Trust me, you already know better than that.

Watch out for any leader, male or female, who uses sex as a “fee” in order for you to be accepted into the group or to receive further instruction. Way back when I was a novice Pagan, there was a local community leader who preferred women – young SINGLE women – as students. Fortunately for me, he very politely steered me to the only other coven in the area once he realized that I was married.

When the stories eventually came out that he was demanding sex on a regular basis from his female students, I felt like I’d dodged a bullet. I’ve heard the rumor that some British Traditionalist groups incorporate sexual intercourse into some of their high-level rituals; I am not referring to that practice here.

Abuse has no place in a Pagan ritual. By abuse, I include physical, sexual and emotional. Over the course of about three years I was physically slapped (repeatedly!) , sexually touched by someone I’d rather not have been touched by, and verbally abused by someone who was supposedly channeling the African goddess Oshun – all in ritual. Eventually it all got to be too much for me, and I became absolutely ritual-phobic for a while; I could not sit in a cast circle without panicking (I’m better now) .

Please be aware that I am not including before-the-fact consenting (very important) adults who choose to incorporate elements of BDSM into their worship practice. If you find a group like that, they will tell you so up front, and leave the option to participate up to you.

Run screaming from any group or leader who uses intimidation or “guilt-tripping” to get you to do what they want instead of what your inner guide thinks is right for you. If you are training with a coven, you may not always understand right away why you are being taught something. However, this is not the same as making you feel gut-wrenchingly scared or guilty if you want to sit with your hospitalized spouse when you “should be” attending a holiday ritual, stay home with a sick child rather than go to your Wicca 101 class, choose to have a bill-paying job rather than work in the group leader’s witchy shop for free, or even leave the coven.

The required or unknowing use of hallucinogens or any other drug for spiritual development has very much fallen out of fashion in the Pagan community since the 1970s. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Also, be wary of any group that has no qualms about serving you ritual wine even though you’ve told them you’re not yet twenty-one.

Likewise, if you have told your group leaders that you are a friend of Bill (or pregnant, or on antibiotics) and they continue to expect you to actually consume wine or mead in ritual – as opposed to helping you find a way to honor the fermented stuff without physically drinking it – you may need to leave this group alone.

A legitimate leader should not be evasive, vague, or inconsistent when asked about his/her background, training or credentials. Even if this leader is not British Traditional, he or she should have some sort of verifiable history. My spouse and I received many kudos in the Pagan community by honestly telling our students that we are not classically trained but started our coven in response to 9/11. We did not invent a lineage or elusive Wiccan grandmother and this impressed people. A likewise honest coven leader should impress you.

You are not likely to learn very much from a group in which more energy is spent on political infighting, fundraising, or recruiting than on spiritual development. There’s nothing wrong with raising funds for a community project – a newsletter, gathering or Pagan Pride picnic – but it should be the responsibility of the community as a whole, not just your coven or grove.

Run, do not walk, away from any group that blames all the “bad stuff” that’s happened to the group as a whole and to individual members on the student who just left. The longer you stay, the more they’ll be able to scapegoat you for when it’s your turn to bail out. Good groups, groups that legitimately have something to teach care more about the quality of students than the quantity.

Any coven leader worth the title would rather have five good students who are committed to enhancing their relationship with the Gods than twenty-five students who just think Paganism is “cool.”

Should your coven or grove have any sort of collective financial obligations, worry if the leaders are vague or secretive about the funds they collect and the use to which those funds are put.

It’s okay to ask students to chip in a couple of dollars if, say, the group is charged a fee for holding classes or workshops at a particular room or hall.

It’s not okay to be asked to “tithe” a certain amount to the coven leaders on a regular basis solely for the privilege of being in the group. You are doing nothing more than paying their mortgage or funding their next vacation to Hawaii. And no legitimate Pagan or Wiccan teacher charges for classes or initiation.

Ever. No money. Period.

Above all, don’t participate in anything you feel isn’t right for you! If a group displays none of the above red flags but you still get an icky feeling about joining – don’t. If you join a group and just aren’t comfortable with what you’re being asked to do – vote with your feet and leave.

Be aware, though, that there is a mature, adult way to leave (peacefully, quietly, with no community gossiping or badmouthing later) and there is a childish way to leave (with a loud temperamental flounce and constantly cutting down the group and its members to the community at large) and it’s your choice which way to go. If you stay true to your own morals and ethics, don’t worry! The Gods will eventually lead you to some wonderful people who share those ethics.

May you be very happy in the group that’s right for you!


Bronwen Forbes

Location: Bloomington, Indiana


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