I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast. Join me on an exploration of mindful modern magic, a journey towards deeper understanding of self and transformative individual spirituality. It's November 19, 2020, and on today's episode we'll be discussing spiritual community and leadership dynamics, why we even need spiritual communities at all, and how to go about finding or forming a community which enriches your spiritual life. Are you ready to grow your soul?
A huge part of my own journey and how I ended up in my own path was joining a local pagan meetup about 15 years ago. I started going because my wife (girlfriend at the time) had said she was interested in Wicca and she’d just recently moved from out of state, and when I heard about the group from a coworker I thought it would be a great way for her to meet people and have a community to hang out with. So we started going together.
I didn’t really have any interest in paganism myself at the time, I went to support her. But now, fifteen years or so later, she doesn’t even go anymore, and I’m the organizer of the group.
I tell this for two reasons, one of them being that lots of times we pick topics for the meetup that I wouldn’t otherwise think to include on the podcast. So I’m going to be doing episodes, like this one, which are inspired by the conversations we had at recent meetups.
The second reason is because the topic from a very recent meetup was actually finding, forming, and leading pagan communities. And one of the really interesting parts of the discussion got into the role of leadership in groups, and even how leaders get to lead groups and how they learn to lead.
Now, as a pagan community organizer myself, as someone whose entire path through this world was shaped by a community group, I know firsthand how important it is for there to be communities and groups even for those of us who are on independent, personal paths. And I also know firsthand how crucial it is to have good leaders for the spiritual community. Not good leaders in terms of whether they are good people or good at teaching or whatever, but whether they have good leadership skills. Not to mention intentions.
It’s an especially crucial issue in the pagan community because, unless you’re part of a particularly structured tradition, which is rare, there’s not much in the way of requirements or a system for becoming a group leader. There aren’t church authorities deciding who can be clergy and who can be leaders in other capacities and setting up systems to select and train them. Leaders in our community often get there just by declaring themselves leaders and gathering people who are interested in what they offer.
Which is both good and bad.
Good because that opens the way for our traditions to evolve and change. It means there’s not official gatekeepers determining whose ideas are worth sharing. It’s how early humanity developed culture and spirituality. Nomadic forager lifestyle is built on egalitarianism where there is no central leadership and everyone can be a storyteller and the community exerts social pressure to encourage and discourage behavior. That’s how much of the pagan community operates these days. Anyone can step into leadership, but those who are bad at it will struggle to find followers.
But the not good flip side to that is it leaves each of us to determine the value in whatever groups we deal with. We get to determine the quality of leadership as we go. And because we don’t live in a nomadic forager culture anymore, those social regulation systems aren’t something we’re used to using. We’re used to the idea of centralized authority, so when we follow someone we tend to give over too much control without knowing how to take it back.
Many of us who step into community leadership roles find ourselves having to make things up as we go along and sort out our own feelings about what leadership looks like. And what came up in the meetup discussion is that there’s really very little opportunity for learning leadership skills. So it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of general chaos in the community.
There’s lots of demand for various groups and communities to exist, but not a lot of willing leadership to take on the responsibility for creating and maintaining those communities, much less those who are willing and have the skills to lead. And that leaves many, many people frustrated and looking for someplace to belong. This is especially true in places like here in Southwest Missouri where a majority of the community still feels compelled to exist in the closet and in some amount of isolation for fear of family rejection or job loss or whatever.
The more bias there is against non-Christian spiritual paths, the harder it is to find willing leaders and the harder it is to form and maintain groups, but that also means there’s that much more need for them.
If you're enjoying this episode of Waxing Soul, subscribe to the show! Each week we will dive into a different part of the world of spirituality, magic, and self-evolution. Check out last week's episode for a discussion of how our spiritual history impacts our search for a path of our own, why trying on many different traditions isn't the best way to find the one that fits best, and what questions to ask yourself to figure out what you're really searching for. And come back next week when we'll talk about the nature of our power moods, why our emotional and mental states are so influential on our ability to function, and how we can do mood magic on ourselves.
We need community. Even if we’re introverts, loners, solitary practitioners, at some level, just because we are human, we need others around us.
There’s lots of reasons for that, things which will be episodes of their own as we go along, but here’s the reason I want to address today: I’m an alchemist, which means, among other things, that I think of everything in the universe as having a body, soul, and spirit. Spirit is life force. Spirit is the animating “stuff” we exchange between each other, between ourselves and what’s around us, between ourselves and the universe. We can share it, we can have more or less of it at any given point in time, it’s not something that just belongs to us. It’s like the soup of energy we live in.
Within alchemy there’s a discipline called spagyrics, it’s the creation of medicinal tinctures and elixirs which deals with plants and such in terms of salt, sulfur, mercury or body, soul, spirit. And plants don’t have a ton of spirit in them. It has to be added. To draw out the soul from the body and refine the plant into an elixir, you have to macerate it in spirit made from other plants, even other types of plants. I actually use Everclear because I’m a 21st Century girl who appreciates modern conveniences and doesn’t have room to permanently set up a distillation train.
And just like everything else in alchemy, the concept applies to the larger universe.
So to do our own spiritual work, to develop ourselves, we have to draw in spirit from outside ourselves. And since we’re way more complex than plants, that spirit takes lots of different forms. Simply put, we need communities because we need to participate in an exchange of spirit. Ideas, wisdom, emotional support, that’s the kind of spirit in which we need to be macerating to have any kind of fulfilling spiritual life.
It doesn’t work just to take in ideas and knowledge and sit with it in solitude forever. If that was a good path forward, we’d all just have libraries full of spiritual books and we wouldn’t be looking for others to commune with over it.
It also doesn’t work to just create your own worldview and spiritual way of being without interacting with outside ideas or experiences. Evolution always requires input and influence from outside ourselves. And it’s not even just about evolution. A plant only lives if it takes in sunlight and water and nutrients and it needs birds and wind and bees and such to spread its pollen and seeds. We’re no different, even in terms of thoughts and beliefs and feelings.
So we need some level of community.
Depending on various personal factors, the type of community we need will vary. But the common thread is that not just any spiritual context is going to be good for us. Not all exchange of spirit is beneficial. Some is toxic. So choosing what groups to be part of, what leaders to give our attention to, how to contribute of ourselves to communities, that’s all a super crucial part of a fulfilling spiritual life.
Now, not all of our need for community needs to be filled by formal, organized groups. We don’t all need to be in a coven, we don’t all have to join an order of some sort. Maybe you don’t really need a mentor as much as you need social support. Maybe you need guidance but you don’t need to be taught things. Maybe what you really need is to step into a leadership role in some way.
To be honest, I evolved into the leadership role with the meetup group, and it was as much a facilitation of my own spiritual growth as anything else. Taking on a role in the community to help maintain it for others or help others find their way is an important element for each of us as well, whether it’s leadership or not. It really is a lot like nomadic forager groups or tribes, where it’s not about hierarchy and letting the group shape you into what they want you to be. Nobody in our Paleolithic prehistory got to sit on the sidelines of their tribe’s way of living and being. Everyone had a role. And it’s the same for us in spiritual terms now. We need to have a role of some sort, one which allows us to contribute as well as benefit so that we continue growing.
And let me be really clear on this point – your community can literally take whatever form works for you. Maybe you interact with people online and talk about spiritual ideas even though you don’t personally know anyone. That was my community for a long time, talking about evolution and transhumanism on a band fan site of all things.
Maybe it’s just a small group of friends who shares similar ideas or interests when it comes to spirituality. I’ve got that too, my framily all runs in overlapping pagan circles.
Or maybe you really would benefit most from something formal and structured where you can be brought through levels of learning and initiation and such.
But the important thing is to remember that, at some level, none of us successfully navigate our spiritual lives entirely alone.
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So, you’re looking for a spiritual group to be part of or other likeminded people to hang out with. We all need this to some extent, and depending on where you are there’s a good chance finding a community to belong to, finding a group to really fits right is a challenge.
There are two difficult aspects here.
The first is figuring out what kind of community you’re looking for. Especially if you’re unsure where your path is or if you’re not following a relatively common tradition, finding a group where you find what you need is going to be hard, but definitely not impossible. So stick with me on this.
The other is figuring out where to find whatever it is you are looking for. The first thing to remember here is that your needs change, and you’re not picking one community to join and be a part of forever and ever. You can and should leave groups when they no longer fit your life or if they become detrimental to your spiritual being. You will change as you grow, the group will change over time, and that’s natural. That’s good. That’s the way of all things.
So finding community is important, but it’s not some life or death challenge you have to pass.
The second thing to remember is that if the kind of group you really need doesn’t exist, you can help create it. There’s a really really good chance that whatever you need, whatever you’re looking for, other people are looking for the very same thing. And in this modern world of global connections it’s easier than ever to find those likeminded people and collaborate with them to start up something new. So you always, always have options.
The download I have for you for this episode, and you can download that below, is the one I made for the meetup a couple of months ago when we talked about this topic, and it’s a guide to finding your tribe.
And I’m just going to take a moment to address the use of that word. It’s one I don’t use in general. I wouldn’t call the meetup a tribe, I wouldn’t refer to my framily as my tribe, that’s not culturally appropriate. However, words do mean things, and different words mean subtly different things, and what tribe conveys better than just about any other word is a group which doesn’t simply share interests but which shares a common culture and belief system and way of communicating which all ties into a spiritual way of being. It’s different than saying team or cohort or group or even community. So I’ve chosen to use tribe on this handout because I honestly think it’s the best word to convey the meaning for this context.
Anyway, what I have for you is a little guide to thinking beyond just the idea of finding likeminded people who share your spiritual culture.
There’s basically three things to think through:
The first one is what the group offers, because if you know you’re looking for something specific it’s really important that whatever group you join or create – and this is a good guide for thinking about it either way – it’s important that that group offer what you’re looking for. You know I like my metaphors, but it’s like if you’re a runner and you want to take on a marathon, you aren’t going to find what you need by getting into a once-a-week jogging group. So, same thing here. You need to find a group that’s compatible in terms of what they provide and what you’re looking for. And this is especially important for those of us who are building our own traditions or practices, who are outside the established traditions and religions. If you’re not interested in being Wiccan, for instance, then you’re not going to want to look into a traditional coven, right? Being really clear about not just what you are interested in or what you do need, but also what you don’t want or need.
The second thing is the structure of the membership, the role you will be expected to play in the group. That dynamic is really crucial for your ability to really benefit. Not everyone does well in the same kind of group setting, the same kind of structure. And not all kinds of group dynamics work for the purpose of what the group is supposed to be, either.
And then the last thing is the leadership. Who leads it and how do they lead? Because leadership literally makes or breaks a group. I can pretty safely say that every spiritual group I’m aware of which has broken up or disbanded did so because it either lacked leadership to keep going or because the leadership they had was toxic and dysfunctional. And one thing that’s true of all leadership always in all contexts: bad leadership causes chaos. Bad leadership causes people to leave.
Bad leadership kills communities.Tweet
So considering who is leading a group and how they lead, how leadership is passed on or shared, is definitely something to consider in terms of what kind of group you want to be part of. Or, you know, what kind of group you want to create. What kind of leader you can be. What kind of leader you want to find.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.