Apr 032011

What is leadership? Is leadership about having power? Is it about being the center of attention? Is it about authority? For some people it is all of these and more. But in my opinion, leadership is about taking responsibility. This is a hard lesson for some folks to learn – so hard, in fact, that they never learn it. Choices come from taking responsibility and that is the real power – being able to make your own choices. But the ironic twist is this - being responsible also places boundaries on those choices, because your choices have to represent the good for all, not just what you personally want.

The stereotypical HPS (high priestess) is incredibly psychic, she knows what is going on in everyone’s head, she says jump and everyone does. She is the ultimate authority, never wrong, never with normal human foibles. She is all-wise, all-powerful, at the center of the circle. She directs the power of the circle, because each person raises it and hands it over to her. Many folks who are interested in forming a coven, think that by becoming the high priestess that they will somehow become transformed into this person. (Or if they are incredibly self-deluded they think that they already ARE this person.) They like being the end-all, be-all of their witchy universe. In order to maintain this fiction, a couple of things can happen. I should note that this is applicable to males too. They enjoy playing the high priest, and in the most extreme cases, act as though the high priestess role is secondary or unnecessary. I will continue to write this in the feminine. Just be aware that you could easily substitute HP (high priest) and he/him for the HPS, she/her.

Beware of these Leaders & Structure Types!

Lots o’ Newbies
If you have a lot of people new to the craft, then they generally come in with this preconception of the HPS. The HPS can keep some of her older members by putting them in higher positions or making them her trusted advisors. Basically she needs to get folks to buy into that structure (with her at the top) and she does that by giving them their own positions to protect. This structure can actually last for a while, especially if it is in an area with a very transitory population (i.e. college towns). It usually breaks down when 1) her trusted advisors start challenging her because they want to be at the top or 2) there aren’t enough positions for the newbies to transition into. This structure depends a lot on very delicate balances of power at the top. This balance can turn into a full-fledged struggle for power.

The Weaker the Better?
An HPS can maintain her fiction if she only gathers weak people around her – people who want to be told what to do, how to do it, etc. They aren’t confident in their own abilities and the HPS actively works at keeping them in that space. With lots of weak members, usually the HPS spends a great deal of time and energy in manipulation. What makes these members weak is that they will abdicate all of their power and responsibility to the leaders. The payoff for the HPS? She has created a coven that actually feeds off of her energy!

Form, collapse, form again, ad infinitum…
Some never get it. They form a group. The group collapses. They blame the former members of the group. They try to form a new group. The new group collapses. They blame the latest members. They continue this cycle over and over again. Usually between the group cycles they go through the “I am a proud solitary” thing. This is not to say that being a solitary is not a fulfilling practice, because it is. But they keep coming back to the coven/group formation stage. They desperately need to be at the center of things, thus they keep trying to form a coven to meet their own personal needs. The members in the group eventually come to the realization that the group isn’t there for everyone, it is there for the leaders so they can be leaders. A note here – very often these folks will cycle through different traditions with each group formation. There aren’t enough witches, so they try Asatru or druidism or OTO or CAW or (fill in the blank).


What to Do?

In all of the above instances, there is usually a great deal of psychic vampirism or energy sucking. The leader needs the group because it feeds them in some way. Sometimes it is energy, sometimes it is other things. Look, having a group shouldn’t be a substitute for the missing pieces of yourself. That is something that you need to work on to be a whole, balanced person. People who use groups to avoid working on their weaknesses are hurting themselves and their coven mates.

What is true for everyone else in the coven is the same for the HPS. She should be working on her own issues. Sometimes there is a backlash from the people in her own group who have put her on the pedestal. The pedestal can be quite high and the fall can be quite devastating. And fall the high priestess must, because she is just a human being. Problems can eventually arise when the newer members of the coven come to find out that she isn’t – can’t – fulfill the role of the stereotypical HPS. They become hypercritical because she isn’t perfect – the Goddess incarnate. In some cases the newbie, who always thought that being a high priestess was forever out of reach (because they had very outlandish ideas about what a HPS actually is) then becomes convinced that they are better suited to the job and that they should be the HPS. This is an interesting reversal. The new member does not recognize all of the other skills that come into play when leading a group. Power within and power over are really different things. Sometimes people have trouble distinguishing the differences. They see power over as a manifestation of good leadership and power within as being weak when the opposite is true.

In our group, every member has the right to veto anything. This is truly shared power. Because I do not act as the stereotypical HPS, many people have thought that I am weak, and that the group was just waiting around for them to personally step in and be the leaders. I would laugh if it weren’t so distressing. These folks see the group as ripe for the picking and an easy way to get their own power needs met. They are usually frustrated when they realize that they won’t get their own way.

If you are thinking about becoming the leader of a group, you need to be prepared for what will come at you. Being publicly known can be even worse. It can arouse jealousy and then the rumors start flying. Many years ago, a couple of people started rumors about how terrible of a high priestess I was. They added (big surprise) that they could do much better. They also said I didn’t have any power, couldn’t do effective magick, etc. But then, the same people started rumors that I was causing all sorts of bad stuff to happen – some of it unimaginably bad. They even credited me with causing things to happen that I didn’t even know about until years later. Some of these accusations were very hurtful and were by people that I had really trusted and thought of as close friends. Personally, working through the hurtful feelings and the subsequent damage took a lot of time.

In spite of the hurt I felt, I also thought this was pretty amazing. On one hand I am weak and worthless, and on the other, I can affect all of these lives with my magick!

People can be irrational and personally vindictive. There really isn’t much you can do except to continue to be the person that you are. The detractors eventually run out of steam and hopefully, an audience. Usually they are into some sort of power trip and if they don’t get their satisfaction from you, they will turn their attentions elsewhere. Unfortunately there really are some bad groups out there. But what I am trying to say is that gossip won’t always tell you the truth. Meet folks. Listen to your intuition. Decide for yourself.


Why Bother At All?

With all of this said, you might wonder why someone would even be a HP/S. I guess I would have to say it depends on where your gifts are. Some people are just naturally good at handling leadership roles and developing/running rituals. I used to think that anyone with the right training could handle the ritual end of things. I don’t believe that anymore. I have seen rituals from many, many different people – from complete beginners to experienced, trained ministers and just about everything in-between. I have found that more training does not necessarily mean better ritual. Don’t get me wrong, I think that people can always improve these skills. But it does seem that some folks have a natural knack for it and others don’t. Creating a ritual is not simply about writing down some words and assigning some parts. (Alas, this is another essay!) Also, dealing with group dynamics is part of the skills necessary for facilitating a group. Being able to teach is very important too. In Janet and Stewart Farrar’s book, A Witches’ Bible they state that, “She [the high priestess] is expected to be a combination of teacher, psychiatrist, nurse, mother-confessor, referee, scapegoat and reference librarian.” When I read this description I smiled, because of how close to the truth it is. It doesn’t mean, though, that a HPS can do all of these equally well, just that she has to do it at one time or another, and hopefully with some success.

  2 Responses to “On Leaders and Coven Structures”

  1. I just recently became the High Priestess to my coven which is technically still, dare I say, under construction. We’re coming up with rules and becoming more structured. My coven only has three members at the moment and although one of them does not seem up to the task of the path set before her I know that I myself have a ways to go. Our other member seems like she would be a much better candidate for High Priestess but she is not confidante. She has refused to be the High Priestess at least until she knows she can be. So now that leaves me. I am currently filling the space and have a lot to learn. I focus so much on the theology and religious aspect of Wicca that I have almost ignored the craft part and find myself at a loss. There is only so much I can find for free. And although I feel slightly uncomfortable pouring out my problems here I feel its for the best. I was just wondering if you have an witchy advice for me. Blessed Be and Happy Casting!

    • I totally understand what you are saying about the difficulties in starting (and maintaining) a group. It is a labor of love – and a LOT of work. Please feel free to e-mail me if you have questions or concerns. I am trying to be more active on here and hope to get into a regular writing groove soon!

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