Intentional early departuresSometimes people leave a group before they are ready to branch off because of something unrelated changing in their lives. Others leave because their needs or expectations are just not being met. Sometimes members discover some personal incompatibility that cannot be reconciled. Sometimes they run into serious disagreements with the leaders or with other members.
Sometimes it’s the group leaders who decide that this person no longer belongs in the group. Their decision may be grounded upon many different reasons ranging from no-fault incompatibility to insubordination to serious breaches of ethics or safety, or even oathbreaking. If the leaders sincerely believe that the person being ejected is unethical or dangerous, they may publicly warn other groups, lest those groups inadvertently open themselves to the same problem. They may be entirely correct, honestly mistaken, or mean-spirited and vindictive when they spread the word about an expulsion.
Why do they go?People leave groups, or are asked to leave, for a whole range of reasons. Different types of reasons tend to arouse different levels of acrimony.
DEPARTURE FOR UNRELATED CAUSESPeople follow their bliss, and so they should. Sometimes this leads away from your group, or even away from Pagan practice altogether. If they find the next piece of the puzzle at the nearest Buddhist meditation center, they won’t be the first Pagan to do so. Honor the person who is true to their own inner leadings. It shows how well you taught them to listen.
He got a great new job in Minneapolis. She’s moving in with her sweetie in Florida. They inherited her parents’ house just outside of Chicago. Your group is in Albany. No way they can commute. Perhaps you know a good group in their new location and can make some introductions.
She had a baby. He got into medical school. Neither one feels they can do justice to their new responsibilities and your group’s rigorous training program. They may leave, or they may take extended leaves of absence. Respect their realism and, if the door is open for their eventual return, make sure they know it.
are inevitable. There are no problems to be resolved,
and so there need
be no hard feelings. The reason the person is going
lies in some other
part of their life, entirely outside your group.
Trying to hold them
only lead to resentment. Let go gracefully and you can
keep a friend.
ritual might help all concerned draw closure.
COMPATIBILITY ISSUESCompatibility issues can arise from many causes. If they are discussed and addressed in a timely manner, they may well be satisfactorily resolved. At worst, the member will leave in a friendly manner. Here are some typical compatibility issues:
Differences in interestsThe member particularly wants to learn about some specialty, for example shamanic journeying, but nobody is qualified to teach this and the rest of the group is not really interested in it. Neither side is right or wrong, just different.
Some differences of this sort are caught in the screening process, but it’s entirely possible for students to discover strong interests, even a sense of calling, later on, after they’ve had a broad survey of related subjects. If you know a group that specializes in what this person wants to learn, it’s time for a friendly referral, and possibly a friendly transfer.
Differences in aesthetic or ritual styleSome of us are more formal “high Episcopagan” in our approach, while others are more shamanic “holy Pagan rollers.” A beginner may well not know what he or she prefers, so this incompatibility is less likely to be identified in screening. Again, consider referral or transfer.
Logistical conflictsOne member has a conflict with the meeting day or time most convenient to everybody else. Commuting difficulties. Conflicting family, school or career obligations. Child care problems. It’s possible that another group can accommodate their needs, more likely that they will need to take a longish leave of absence. If they can leave without anger, the door stays open for their return when external circumstances clear up.
Pacing issuesPacing issues typically involve differing expectations as to how fast the group is moving, or how fast the student is working through the group’s curriculum.
In our own teaching groups, we’ve had different people complain (at different times, thankfully!) that we’re asking for too much work, or providing too little formal instruction.
One particularly tricky situation is the case of the ‘coven potato,’ the person who doesn’t seem to be learning or growing. This person could still be a warm, supportive presence in the group, and do their full share of the work (like helping clean up after meetings). They may be a beloved friend to all group members. But there’s only just so much space in your living room. What happens when you fill that space and develop a waiting list of eager seekers? The answer to this dilemma seems to lie in whether you consider your group’s primary purpose to be teaching or worship.
Another pacing issue is the promotion/holdback dilemma, which arises when one of the group’s members has completed most or all of the group’s formal instructional objectives but, in the considered judgement of the group’s leaders, is not yet ready for promotion to the next level of responsibility or empowerment.
This issue is not unique to religious groups: it could just as easily arise in a martial-arts school where the student has mastered the physical or technical skills (the ‘moves’) for a particular level of accomplishment, but has not yet developed the mature situational awareness to know when to fight and when to retreat from a conflict.
Pacing issues can often, but not always, be successfully resolved. What underlies them is the dynamic tension between the needs and desires of each individual member and those of the group as a whole. If you feel stuck, seek outside help from a respected elder, perhaps your own group’s Grandparent.
Personality conflictsPersonality conflicts often simmer quietly below the surface of the group’s awareness, eventually emerging as an unexpected, painful and destructive exit fight which may propagate through the entire group. Some examples:
“He’s gay and promiscuous,” she said, in great anger, “which means he’s at a high risk for AIDS. If he gets sick, he’ll be a huge drain on the group’s energy, both practical and spiritual. You have to either convince him to limit his sexual contacts or ask him to leave.” Ironically, she was chain-smoking as she issued her ultimatum.Look a bit deeper and you’ll probably find unexamined assumptions. The members who are in conflict are very likely unaware that they are working from different understandings of human interaction or spiritual development. When these differences are made conscious, and if people have the will to work them out, they can almost always be resolved. People can allow for their differences and make small adjustments to accommodate each other.
for community portrays the members of a sangha
as rough stones
a tumbler, gradually polishing one another. This image
is worth any
leader, become convinced that there is a real
difference here, not of
but of principles and values, and that the minority is
right, then even
if this is a minority of one, you must support them
and let the chips
In the short run, this may result in a group with two
better than losing the group’s authenticity.
Issues of ethics and safetyUnfortunately, sometimes people go suddenly and dramatically wrong. They become dysfunctional, pathological or even corrupt. Sometimes, this happens to group leaders or even to whole groups. It happens in every religion. Ours is no exception. Members can and should leave groups that have become corrupted. People who are unethical or dangerous can and should be banished from groups. But it’s not always that simple: group members who challenge incompetent or corrupt leadership might be pre-emptively banished to punish or silence them.
We’d advise those of you who observe such break-ups from outside to act sensibly, just as you would when you hear about somebody’s marital break-up:
Toxic groups: symptoms and cautions for membersHere’s the hard truth: you may feel that inappropriate, unethical or dangerous things are happening in your group. You may be right. You may be wrong. Either way, you should leave. If you can’t feel basic trust in the group and its leaders, it’s unlikely that you will learn or grow in that environment. Appropriate challenge and demanding work can also be uncomfortable, but most sensible folks can tell the difference between a charley-horse and a sprain or fracture.
Unethical or dangerous things can happen in groups, behind a veil of secrecy and a manipulative leader’s cult of personality. Beware if you are directed to avoid contact with other Pagans or if your teacher tries to censor what you may read or hear. A teacher who wants to be your only source of information might simply be afraid that you’ll find out how ignorant and/or incompetent they are. Or they may want you to believe that their wrongful acts are “normal” in the Pagan community. Here, in no particular order, are just a few things to watch out for:
Whistle-blowers or raiders?The distinction between whistle-blowers and raiders is a convoluted one. We said it just above, but we’ll say it again. Beware, beware of censors and control freaks, of group leaders who try to put blinders on their members, to deny members alternative sources of information or bases for comparison.
As Witches, we also uphold the principles of confidentiality. However, many good things can be taken out of balance or used for abusive ends. Healthy confidentiality applies to personal privacy, to workings still in progress, to techniques that should only be in the hands of those mature enough to use them wisely and to a few markers of identity, “secret club handshakes” by which we can know our own. When the expectation of secrecy extends much beyond that, it can easily become a set of blinders, a mechanism of control, a scab beneath which corrosive “family secrets” can continue to fester.
Group members may, without violating appropriate confidentiality, talk with friends who are not part of their group about some of what they are learning and doing in group. And sometimes caring friends hear stories that give them pause, that resemble some of the dire warnings we just ran through. Now what? A caring friend speaks up, before real harm is done, right?
Our community frowns on “raiders,” manipulators who foment conflict and discord in other people’s groups in the hope of luring away their members. This is ego-driven, mean, destructive behavior. A person who attacks some other group also weakens the inter-group trust and respect that is essential to healthy community.
And yet, consider this: group members are not property. It’s surely not right to restrict their access to information as a way of keeping them dependent on you, tethered in your group. We have room in our community for a wide variety of approaches and working styles. People can and should find the group that suits them best, and that may mean a few false starts before they can really settle in.
Gwyneth holds that in Pagandom in general, and amongst Witches in particular, people can and inevitably will sort themselves out according to chosen working style, liturgical preference, and social orientation. It’s silly for any group leader to think that they can prevent their members from finding out what their other choices amongst various groups might be. It’s all to the good, then, to encourage frank and open communication between groups, so that people can find the place where they will be the happiest together.
There is a difference, however, between frank and open communication and malicious gossip intended to destroy somebody else’s student/teacher relationship.
TELLING THEM APARTSo what is the difference between the caring whistleblower and the mean and destructive raider? How do I know, if I hear something that causes me concern, when to speak, when to wait for questions and when to hold my peace?
Judy would like to suggest that the Rede is, as usual, an excellent guide. What they are doing in that group across town may be very different from what you would do. But unless you perceive an imminent, serious danger of harm to individual members or to the community as a whole, it’s not your place to intervene. Disrupting the peace and trust of somebody else’s group is also potentially harmful.
Ah, but what is harm? What danger is immanent and serious enough to warrant crossing this boundary? The answer to that must lie within your own conscience. So all the usual advice for working through tough issues applies: think clearly and meditate deeply, use whatever divination methods you prefer, and consult with trusted elders.
PROTECTING YOUR OWN GROUPMeanwhile, here are some suggestions for protecting your own group against raiders:
ResignationsFor all of the reasons described above, and probably many more, people choose to leave Pagan groups, sometimes abruptly and painfully, often before they have completed the group’s training curriculum. Although they are not qualified to branch off within their original group’s Tradition, some will create bootstrap groups based on what they had learned so far and their own ideas and/or research. Most will say some sort of farewell to their erstwhile teachers.
Depending on the reasons for their departure, the intensity of their feelings, and their capacity for dignity and self-control, this farewell could range anywhere from a tearful final visit to obscenities and slanders broadcast on the Internet. We’ve received both.
Exit interviewsIf they’re leaving because of some incompatibility, personality conflict or perceived grievance, any responsible group leader would want to know why. Sometimes you can invite them to meet with you and talk about it, or just have a frank phone conversation. If this is possible, it will help you both reach some closure. This delicate discussion must be handled with respect and tact, even though the circumstances surrounding it may be emotionally charged. Don’t argue with, harangue, or browbeat the departing person. Don’t cajole them to remain or return. If you do, the chances of mutual understanding rapidly diminish.
Honoring complaintsWhen a member leaves angrily, those who remain are likely to feel defensive. But sometimes the “deserter” had a good point. Wait till the worst of the emotional bruises have faded, then re-examine their stated complaints, as analytically and objectively as you can. Then examine them again, this time meditatively. Try doing a role play in which you take the part of the person who left. You may also want to take counsel with other group leaders, or with your own teacher. The aggrieved member may have identified a real problem with the way in which the group functions, or in its decision-making or consultative processes. They’re gone, so you’ve no further need to be on the defensive about their points.
If you find some merit in their complaint, and you address the problems thus revealed, you can prevent further painful departures, and improve everybody’s experience within the group. If you have fostered a climate of open communications within the group, the aggrieved member may even voice their grievance before it’s too late for them. If they feel heard, if they see efforts towards improvement, they may stay with the group after all.
Exit fightsSome people seem to be unable to simply decide that a situation no longer meets their needs, make polite farewells, and move on. To quietly go away would feel to them like they were breaking a commitment. Instead, they need to justify their departure with raging ‘exit fights.’ They may even try to incite other group members to join them in a walkout. And, to complicate matters, sometimes their grievance is righteous, and they are encouraging other members to leave a group that is dysfunctional, or even pathological.
It can be very difficult to distinguish beforehand between an exit fight which will justify a resignation, and a particularly intense disagreement on principles. Intense disagreements can be beneficial to a group, since they can bring into focus those new and challenging ideas which help a group’s process remain fresh and forward-thinking. Group leaders should demonstrate respect, openness and a willingness to hear out all group members, regardless of their level of experience or their verbal sophistication. This fosters a group atmosphere in which you can hash out disagreements and harvest good ideas from them.
ExpulsionsSome of us call this ‘banishment.’ Other terms include ‘disfellowshipping’, ‘banning’, or ‘reculing.’ They all amount to the same thing in the end: the enforced departure of a member of a group, under terms and timing not of that member’s choosing, and for what the leader considers to be good cause.
Those are all harsh words, implying severe punishment. This section will focus on expulsion as a response to serious wrongdoing, because that is the most painful and difficult task a group leader is likely ever to face. It’s important to remember, however, that group leaders might sometimes have to ask somebody to leave for reasons of simple incompatibility, personality conflicts, etc. These situations are still difficult and embarrassing, but not nearly as traumatic.
Considerations for the leaderGroup leaders generally have major emotional investment in the continuing stability of the group and the collective well-being of its members. Accordingly, expulsion feels to most leaders like the emotional equivalent of an amputation, a bitter, wrenching last resort. It should only be used in an irretrievable situation, when all other avenues of remediation have been exhausted. It must be done fairly, righteously, unambiguously, and with full consideration of extenuating circumstances.
ConsultationCheck in with experienced group leaders. They may have survived similar situations, and have good ideas for you. If you really do need to expel this member, they can offer you emotional support. If at all possible, seek the counsel of your own teachers, and other elder colleagues whom you respect and trust.
ConfrontationIf a group member is being so difficult or disruptive that you’re considering asking them to leave, basic fairness requires that you warn them and give them a chance to improve their behaviour. Appropriate confrontation is a difficult, demanding act of grace. Here are some basic guidelines:
JusticeThe toughest question of all is this: how do we ensure that an expulsion is fair and righteous?
Be absolutely sure that you are accusing the right person. Sometimes people try to redirect the blame for a bad act to an innocent third party. If you confronted the person you suspect of inappropriate behaviour, they may have claimed that it wasn’t their doing. Hopefully you heard them out fully and investigated their claims thoroughly before proceeding to expel them.
On the other side of the balance, sometimes the individual member is clearly in the wrong, and some or all of the grievances expressed by the member may be ‘red herrings’, aimed at further obfuscating the situation.
If you are considering expelling one member because of complaints made by another, carefully consider the possibility that a personality conflict, and not principles or values, was the real motivation for the complaints. Be absolutely sure that you have heard out both sides of the story. If there is the slightest possibility that you might be, or even seem, partial to one side, ask a respected elder from outside your group to hear out both sides and advise you. The toughest thing about distinguishing a personality conflict from a legitimate complaint is that it’s usually both!
The person who is about to be expelled from the group must be told why.
They must also be given an explanation of how they might make amends and possibly earn their way back into the group. People do change and grow over time. The banished person might come to understand and regret their bad actions, and might become ready to resume following a spiritual path. In your present state of hurt and anger, it may seem to you that nothing short of Divine intervention could accomplish such a miracle. Well, remaining open to that possibility is part of being religious, is it not?
Often the departing person maintains contact with one or more group members with whom they were most close. If the former member is angry and resentful, and they probably are, they may try to persuade their friends who have stayed to leave the group as well, acting, at least temporarily, as a raider.
With human good will and Divine blessing, sometimes this continued communication becomes the channel for renewed communication and reconciliation, leading on a few occasions to the person’s decision to return to the group. More often, though, the best we can hope for is that cordial communications can be restored, and that bonds of friendship survive the temporary strain of angry departure.
ResolutionA member leaves a group. There’s a gap in the group mind. Even if they were offensive or frightening, they were part of our shared experience. We may also have been wounded by the manner of their departure. We need to heal ourselves and our group, and to feel into the new pattern of how the group will feel and will work without this person.
Grief workRemember Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her famous theory of stages of grief? We’re not so sure things are ever that neatly sequential, particularly not in tangled situations like these. Still it’s worth reviewing these stages, just as feelings and reactions that might come up.
After emotions have settled some, a facilitated discussion of the issues surrounding the departure might help the group understand what went wrong. They may decide to make some changes in the way they do things to correct any problems they identified and make further difficulties of this kind less likely.
Eventually, we become ready to draw closure on an unpleasant episode and move on with our individual lives and our collective work. Ritual is a way of telling our deep minds that we have reached that very welcome bend in the road and are ready to proceed.
Some thoughts for the person who is leaving a groupIf you’re leaving a group in peace, because of other circumstances in your life, you may be happily anticipating adventures. Still there’ll be a touch of sadness. You’ll miss old friends. If you’re leaving a group because of simple incompatibilities, etc., the sadness may be more pronounced. Be gentle with yourself, and take some time to rest, heal and clarify your wishes before you try to join another group.
But this section is mostly for the person who had to leave. Either you perceived that the group was so corrupt that you could not remain or you were expelled. You resignation may have been your best choice in a bad situation, or a terrible mistake. Your expulsion may have been just or unjust. All of these possibilities collapse to one immediate certainty: you’re hurting and very probably traumatised by the disappointment of all the high hopes with which you joined that group. And you’re very likely facing it alone.
First you cry. Then you rest. Then you heal. We promise: the Wheel turns.
Take care of yourself physically. Be careful about nutrition, sleep and exercise. Do those things that relax you and give you pleasure. Take your time. Take it easy.
When you’re feeling better, you’re going to want to reflect on what happened, see what you can learn from it. We strongly recommend that you seek help from someone experienced whom you respect and trust. You might feel safer just at first with a professional counsellor, somebody unconnected with the conflicts you recently went through.
This is tough, but we’re asking you to examine the possibility that you were wrong, or even that the person who expelled you was right. Remember, the only thing you can change is your own behavior. So, if you want better experiences in the future, you must ask yourself this terrible question: how did you contribute to the situation? What did you do that you should do differently next time?
Let’s just assume that you did nothing that was morally wrong. You were the innocent and injured party, the victim of a predator or exploiter, of a dysfunctional group. Well, you chose that group, you gave your trust to the wrong person. That’s your lesson.
There’s always a lesson, always, and bane transforms to blessing when you find it.
But what if you did something that was not just dumb but actually morally wrong? What if you broke your oath? What if you intentionally did harm? What if you were justly expelled? Even this is not the end of your spiritual growth. In fact, it may be the beginning. Give yourself some time to sit with your new understanding. Be compassionate with yourself. When you are ready, apologise. Make any feasible amends. Accept that we cannot change the past. Some damage done cannot be repaired, but clean up your mess as best you can.
Then, having cleaned the slate, take even more time to rest and recover. Don’t rush to join another group. Wait till you feel some clear sense of what you want to learn or what kind of environment will best nurture the inner work you need to do next.
The Gods will judge you, yes. But they judge from infinite knowledge, which creates infinite mercy. While you live, and perhaps beyond, there is always another chance. Only, please, allow yourself to accept it.
The outside view: how can other elders help?Someday the survivor of a traumatic departure or group break-up may ask for your help. After all, we’ve been advising them, again and again throughout these notes, to seek the aid of a respected elder. What if that turns out to be you?
the address of this page is http://www.proteuscoven.com/endings/early.htm
last modified February 2, 2012