By Raven Kaldera
In the early days of Neo-Paganism, many groups strove to be as nonjudgmental as possible, usually as a reaction to the religions of their upbringing. Some group leaders were careful to point out that while they might have administrative duties – making sure that the incense got bought, and that there were enough candles of the proper colors, and that the ritual speakers had all their lines – they weren’t there to tell anyone what to believe. Eventually, as some groups created more unwavering doctrine and dogma, it was slowly accepted in many of them that if belief in a certain theology is integral to the practice of the group, the leader (or the Council of Elders, or whoever else is chosen for the task) has the right and obligation to take on the task of Sacred Gatekeeper, deciding what beliefs and practices will be acceptable within that practice.
Part of the reluctance of leaders to take on the gatekeeping task has been the reluctance of Neo-Pagan group members to let them. Many Neo-Pagans left religions where they had bad experiences with gatekeepers, and they are wary of allowing anyone else to decide anything about their spiritual experience, ever again. Some individuals (and even some groups) commit strongly enough to this ideal that they staunchly support the concept not only of everyone choosing their own personal spiritual path, but of a group practice where there are no boundaries around what anyone might choose to do spiritually at any moment. People being who and what they are, however, this sort of thing rarely works for a mixed group of people. Spirituality may be deeply personal and individual, but religion is a group practice and any group practice requires compromise, if only to figure out what the heck this random bunch of people is going to be doing together tonight.
So now, to one extent or another, we have group leaders (or elders, or whatever title is used) whose job is to decide on and guard the boundaries of what-our-group-does from what-our-group-doesn’t-do. Part of that job will inevitably require them to evaluate the personal gnosis of anyone who wants to make changes based on inspiration of some sort. This is a heavy and uncomfortable responsibility. Most don’t relish the job of having to tell the bright-eyed member brimming with devotion and enthusiasm that after long and thoughtful scrutiny, this innovation does not fit with the concepts that the leader has been charged to protect. It’s hard to say those things in the face of someone else’s spiritual dreams, knowing that your decision may well be interpreted as a denigration of their devotion, their psychic ability, their intelligence, or even their sanity. It’s even harder to remain open and compassionate in the wake of the bitterness and resentment that often follows. The temptation to rebuff them, to enclose one’s self in the righteousness of one’s position of rules-guardian, is often strong.
This is why the leader of a religious group needs to remain compassionate and flexible about how the boundaries are enforced, and be able to come up with imaginative ways to make situations work. If it isn’t appropriate to do this activity that Quetzalcoatl has asked for in the main Greek-oriented Solstice ritual, might it be possible to hold a separate small ritual on another day? Could there be instead a workshop or discussion held about Quetzalcoatl? It’s also possible to tell the Message Bearer that things have to move more slowly; perhaps the group members need some information over time to get used to the idea of Quetzalcoatl, and patient “pre-briefing” over a number of months will bring a better result than forcing something onto a reluctant group.
If the personal gnosis is not something that the leader believes that the group can endorse at all, there’s a lot of credit that can be built by actively aiding the Message Bearer in question to find a group that accept their gnosis, or at least get them in touch with like-minded people. Just the fact that the gatekeeper is willing to help with that, or to designate someone to help with that, goes a long way toward counteracting the potential impression of all the personal denigrations listed in the last paragraph. There’s also a good deal of high moral ground in having done everything you can to be respectful of your member’s gnosis while still refraining from compromising your own boundaries.
In the event that the Message Bearer facing you down states that God X demands this and there will be consequences to pay if it doesn’t happen, the leader needs to be willing to verbally accept those consequences, even if the leader secretly believes that they are imaginary. (If nothing else, there will be social consequences regarding the leader’s relationship with the Message Bearer, and any other members who see the process happen.) This is where it’s often good for a leader to have a couple of trusted diviners that they can call on – if I refuse to do this because I don’t believe that my community will accept it well, will Quetzalcoatl really smite me, or is this particular Message Bearer overreacting and misinterpreting?
It also lends credibility if the group has a process for judging personal gnosis that isn’t just the leader’s whim. While the leader may have given the matter several days of deep thought and prayer and a couple of Tarot readings, it can still look like a whim to the people who don’t see that part. A public process that is moderated by the leader, or at least a public advisory committee, can lend more transparency and thus more trust to the process. (We’ll discuss a few examples of these in a different section.) More credibility is also extended to the leader whose own personal gnosis is publicly submitted to this process when there is any question in the group.
It’s fair for a leader who is facing down an intractable Message Bearer to remind them of their responsibilities as per the last section (perhaps by giving them a copy to read or reread) and then calmly ask how the Message Bearer intends to find a way to make the message convincing and acceptable to members of the group who honestly believe X or Y. It may help for the leader to remind the Message Bearer that those people are also under the leader’s purview, and also deserve to be part of his/her sacred trust to protect and be fair to all. Simply squaring off in oppositional positions of “Champion Of The Gods” and “Champion Of The People” will be counterproductive; it behooves the leader to undermine the assumption that those archetypal roles are inevitable, in any way possible.
(Some groups don’t have single leaders, but rotate the leadership or function in consensus. For these groups, the challenge is even greater. It doesn’t mean that they can ignore the standards below. Instead, it means that every single person in the group with influence must be held to these standards, without exception. No one ever said that taking responsibility would be easy.)
So, given that, what standards should group members – new and long-term – hold for the people who carry the sacred trust of being the spiritual gatekeeper for a group? We asked a number of Pagans this question over a period of time. How would a group leader have to behave in order to gain your trust as someone authorized to judge any personal gnosis you bring to their group? The following list is a reflection of those responses:
1. They are generally honorable people with a good track record of keeping their commitments and treating their members well.
2. They are known for being honest and not deceptive. They know what they know, and what they don’t know, and are clear about that.
3. They accept criticism gracefully and maturely, apologize and make amends for their mistakes, and firmly hold to their decisions when they don’t think the criticism is valid.
4. They are clear and open about their spiritual beliefs, including the values that they extrapolate from those beliefs, and how those values might be put into practice. (“One of our sacred poems says X, and to me that means that I should always do Y, and in a situation that called for Y I’d react this way.”) They are willing to talk about both their passion for their faith and the times when they’ve been assaulted by doubts. (Be suspicious of a group leader who says that they’ve never had doubts, if only about their ability to live up to their own faith’s tenets.)
5. They are clear on where their authority begins and ends, how those boundaries were set, and whether all the members of their group agree on those boundaries. They are clear on what the group’s core values and beliefs are, and whether all members of the group actually believe them, and to what extent those core values and beliefs are held in other groups of the same tradition. They do not claim moral or spiritual authority over people outside of their group who did not consent to it.
6. They have handled the personal gnosis of members skillfully in the past – “skillfully” meaning in ways that have not created clouds of drama, and have satisfied all members to the greatest extent that they could be satisfied while not compromising the structure of the group. They have implemented (or inherited and used) a workable system for judging personal gnosis that has proven itself to be reasonably reliable.
7. They speak courteously about the personal gnosis of others, both inside and outside of their group, even when – perhaps especially when – it differs strongly from their own. They encourage similar courtesy among their members, and quash backbiting. They may firmly disagree with someone else’s position, but they do not descend into personal attacks or unfounded accusations designed to throw suspicion on the character of people with opposing gnosis, and openly discourage such reactions among their members. They differentiate between unwanted behavior and unwanted gnosis in former members – rather than “Joe was an evil pantheist who thought that Pan and Frey were the same god,” it should be “Joe disrupted a ritual and upset people by calling Pan by the name of Frey even when we’d asked him not to bring that up in group rites.”
8. They react to accusations of bad behavior by group members by thoroughly investigating the problem before stating an opinion on it, and they ask group members to similarly reserve judgment until the investigations are finished and a report made. (This should be especially true with regard to bad behavior that stems from someone’s personal gnosis.) They discourage intra-group hysteria and drama, and provide a constant voice of reason. They investigate multiple sources of the accusations, and cross-check all sides equally. They do not consider harm to be done unless someone is willing to come forth and claim that they have been harmed; accusations that “I heard on the Internet that they hurt someone, but I don’t know who that is,” should not be counted as useful information in an investigation.
9. They react to accusations of bad behavior by people outside the group by first thoroughly investigating as to whether the actions of the accused will actually affect the group in any meaningful way, besides providing gossip fodder. If the answer is no, they remind the group of this and refocus them back onto their own practice. If the answer is yes, they thoroughly investigate the problem before stating an opinion on it, and again ask group members to reserve judgment until they are finished. They remember at all times that most people enjoy a state of exciting drama over a state of boring peace, and will consciously or unconsciously attempt to proliferate the drama. They remind people over and over that if something is alleged, it should be proven before it is believed. A good group leader is a speaker for the truth, and rumors are the enemy of truth.
10. If someone has at one point claimed to be harmed by someone’s actions, but is unwilling to discuss this or stand forth, the group leader should offer their protection for speaking the truth. If this does not suffice, the claimant must be told that their experience will be discounted if they are not willing to stand behind it. This is a hard point, and many group leaders give way before someone’s wish to be safely anonymous and still have their “attacker” punished, especially when it’s near-impossible to tell whether the “accuser” is simply too frightened or is unwilling to defend a partially or completely untrue accusation. However, the leader owes it to the group to give them trustworthy evidence as to whether to believe something that may affect them, and this sometimes means making unpopular decisions between privacy and group stability.
11. They react to fears of possible outside negative influences by calmly and objectively investigating the likelihood of the influence affecting their group (beyond merely frightening people). If the possibility proves itself to be negligible, they calm down the fearful in the group.
12. If , for whatever reason, they are unable to investigate any of these problems calmly and objectively due to personal issues, they appoint someone whose judgment they trust and who can be calm and rational about the problem (perhaps because they’re not involved with the group) to investigate for them. This assumes that they have such trusted individuals to call on, which they should.
13. They have good problem-solving skills, and they are quicker to attempt to resolve conflict than to start it. They are good at conflict resolution, and they encourage courtesy and appreciation for each other in all their members.
14. They are appreciative of the strong points of their members, and accepting of their personal idiosyncrasies. One Pagan woman commented that she was more able to trust the opinion of a group leader who accepted her as a person. Another commented on the importance of giving credit where credit was due: “Joe, if I wanted advice on X, you’d be the first person I’d come to. However, this is Y, and I need to listen to someone who’s as experienced in Y as you are at X. Where the problem infringes on X, that’s where I’m going to take your opinion more seriously.”
Being the leader of a religious group is one of the most difficult jobs ever given to a human being. It’s often assumed (even if it’s not part of your group’s official doctrine) that you will be some sort of intermediary between the Divine and the people, especially if you’re a priest/ess and not just an administrator. When a Message Bearer shows up, it can create insecurities: “I’m the priest, why didn’t they give me the message?” In some cases, it may be useful to ask whether the message was sent by this medium for a reason, a reason that has nothing to do with the group you protect and everything to do with learning lessons about your own triggers and issues. While that may not be the case, it’s certainly worth musing about, if only when you’re home alone. It might even be true if the message is entirely false; it might be the Universe testing your ability to gracefully handle such things. So long as we deal with real Gods and spirits, and they continue to be interested in assisting our evolution, such ambivalent lessons will keep occurring throughout our lifetimes.