Happy departures: graduation and branching 

Branching-off: a happy mutual decision

Very few of us were born into Pagan families or grew up practising any of the Pagan religions. Most of us came to Paganism as adults, and so necessarily we came to it as students. If we persist, the time will come when we know as much as our teachers, and are perhaps developing some new ideas or approaches of our own. 

     Add to that our propensity to study and worship together in fairly small groups. Then think about our very rapid rate of growth. It’s hard to find a good place, proper training, for each new seeker. Yet, we well remember our own time of seeking and of homecoming, our search for a group where we could learn and grow in our new-found faith. We don’t ever want to turn a sincere seeker away. Because of all this, there is a strong incentive, in fact an expectation, that people who have completed their own training will leave their home groups and start new groups of their own.

     This departure is often known to Witches as ‘hiving off,’ as when a young queen bee flies off to start a new hive, but that implies a hierarchical structure that only some of us accept. It can also be described as ‘budding off’ as in yeast culture, but that suggests an amorphous cluster of cells, a blob. The model that fits most of us best is that of a family tree, a pattern of loving relationships. Most good teaching groups generate multiple offspring groups, which extend and ramify the lineage. Accordingly, we think the most descriptive term for departures of this type is ‘branching off.’


Whose idea is it to branch off? Sometimes the decision is truly mutual and joyous. It may start from one side, and be easily accepted by the other. The leaders of the old group may recognise that their group has reached an unwieldy size. There may be a waiting list of eager seekers. It’s time to make some room. Or it may be that one or more of the advanced students are chafing at the bit, more than ready to strut their stuff, but not yet fully aware, or even a bit intimidated by the responsibilities of leadership. It’s time for a gentle push.

     Sometimes the student feels ready and eager to graduate, to take on the next challenge, but the elder is a bit overprotective, a little reluctant to lose their most advanced student, who is often also their backup and their best assistant. Respectful assertiveness can help elders overcome their resistance to letting students go.

     Other departures are not quite so happy. We may cling too long. Elders may feel abandoned. Sometimes elders, enmired by their own control and codependency issues, are unwilling to let go. Some advanced students who were encouraged to move on may feel like they were unwillingly evicted from their cosy nest. In other cases, students who are hesitant to take on the responsibilities of leadership project their own reluctance onto their elders. 

     Or we may move too hastily to ill-considered and premature branchings, under the goad of ego. Sometimes a contentious member is urged to branch off just because the group leader cannot tolerate challenge. Sometimes people who leave have an inflated idea of their own skill and ability to lead a group well.

     We can only urge you to talk openly and honestly with each other and to seek your own inner wisdom and the leadings of the Old Gods through such practices as meditation, divination and dreamwork. Remember that everything that lives changes, including this cherished relationship.

     At best, the process is bittersweet. Those who love each other best will miss each other most. Starting a new group is daunting. Losing a cherished group member is sad. Both sides fear the loss of a cherished relationship. Proper preparation helps.

Preparing for branching-off: issues of readiness

In the best of all possible worlds, the timing of branching-off is perfect. People neither go before they have learned all that they should learn, nor is their departure unduly delayed to the point that they become burnt-out and frustrated where they are. In our world of reality, picking that correct point in time requires that we give serious and careful consideration to just what ‘readiness’ means for us.
Whoever truly understands the depth and complexity of a group leader's responsibilities will have serious qualms about assuming the role. When people ask you to teach them, ask yourself whether you honestly can. Have you the knowledge, the skill, the grounded wisdom?

     Think carefully about this decision. Dream and meditate upon it as well. It is not trivial. It will change your life as profoundly as having a baby. Don't do it for power, or prestige, or popularity. Do it for love, or not at all. Do it only when the ideal group of your imagining demands to be given form, when your inner voices sing to you of possibilities. Do it when you have to, not before.

Are you ready to branch off and start your own group? Here are some questions to consider:
  • Have you completed the training program of your group and Tradition? 
  • If not, why not? If there were extenuating circumstances, critical situations elsewhere in your life that you needed to attend to, have these now been resolved? 
  • If you simply didn't find the time or energy to do your homework, what has changed for you? Leading a group will require a good deal more time and energy than that homework ever did. Prove your readiness by completing whatever work is still outstanding. If some of the requirements are irritating, do them anyhow. Only this will ensure that those you bring in will be fully recognized. However, if any of the requirements actually go against your deep values, you should not do them for social or political advantage. What we do is, after all, religious: values-based and Spirit-led.
  •       In some groups, you will be expected to lead a training group under supervision before you are given formal permission to branch off. It makes perfect sense to ask you to demonstrate your ability before giving you the authority to lead an autonomous group. Think of it as an internship project. When you are feeling ready to take it on, have a long talk with your mentors.

    Clarifying your vision

    Do you have a clear idea of what your new group will be like, or will do? Describe your new group in a sentence or two, as though you were writing a classified ad for prospective students. This is a good exercise in self-definition, whether or not you have any intention of advertising. In general, whether you are planning a project, a ritual or a group, it's a good idea to start with the results you want and work backwards through the necessary antecedents. As one priestess recalls it:
    "When I started my first coven, I planned rituals in linear time order, start to finish. This very intuitive and common-sense approach inevitably led to time crunches, running out of materials, elegantly-crafted bits of ritual that were so incompatible that they had no hope of working together. Now, after many years of trial and error, I start my planning by asking why we want to do this ritual and what we want it to accomplish. Then I think about what the culmination of the ritual should be like, and work backwards from there, step by step, figuring out what the necessary precursors are.

    My rituals work better this way. Also, I get a good night's sleep before the rite, because things are ready. This method, by the way, works just as well for designing casseroles, workshops and gardens."

    Gathering the people

    Sometimes, when a group is getting too large for comfort, it splits. A cluster of friends leave together, forming the core of a new group, which will eventually accept and train students. If this is your plan, ask yourself whether members of your core group have among them the necessary "starter set" of skills or competencies? As you add new members, this list of desired skills can be a guide for your screening, just as though you were hiring workers for a new project. Following are a few questions to help figure out whether you have a full starter set:
    1. What knowledge and skills do you think every individual member should have? Which of these do you consider prerequisites and which are you able and willing to teach?
    2. What knowledge and skills do you think a leader should have? Do you feel properly prepared to lead a group? If not, how do you propose to fill any identified gaps?
    3. What skills are necessary to have isomewhere in every group, but not necessarily in the leader? (for example, Judy can't carry a tune, so other members lead the chants in Proteus) Does someone in your potential core group have whichever of these skills you lack?
    4. Are there any "extra" skills, or areas of knowledge, that are needed for your group's intended specialty, although they are not universally necessary? (for example, a group specialising in ritual arts may need stagecrafters and musicians) Again, which of these are prerequisites and which are you willing and able to teach?
    5. Conversely, are there any "extra" skills that exist by happenstance among your potential core group that you expect will enrich your group and influence its future direction?
         On the other hand, you may be starting an entry-level study group. You can’t count on your beginning students having any of the relevant knowledge or skills. Be very sure that you (and/or your partner) can teach every single thing you consider essential for your students to learn. Failing that, please be absolutely certain that other local elders are able and willing to act as “guest lecturers” in areas where they are strong and you are weak.

         Remember this: ‘beginner’ does not usually mean ‘ignoramus.’ Although new to your particular tradition, your students may have explored specific related interests in focused classes or programs elsewhere. They may have participated in other Pagan groups. Find out what gifts they bring to your group. The healthiest group is one where every member, from the newest beginner to the leader, has something to learn and something to teach.

         You can find a lot more information about finding, screening, orienting and dedicating new students in another of our workbooks, The Front Gate.

    Make sure you have lots of support. 

    Most importantly, please find yourself a working partner, another qualified elder, even if they are as newly-minted as yourself. In fact, some traditions require that any group be led by a couple rather than an individual. At a very minimum, your working partner will share the work load and contribute an all-important second opinion, observations of your group’s progress from another perspective. Another constant observer will help work out ideas and plans regarding the group. If, as is often customary, your working partner is also your lover or best friend, the synergy of that will greatly increase both of your effectiveness as leaders. 

         Co-leadership is of benefit to any group, no matter how long established. For a new group composed of raw beginners, just finding its way, shared leadership is nearly essential. We also advise you to maintain a close consulting relationship with your direct elders and create lateral support networks with other group leaders.


    If you are working in a tradition that holds the expectation that students will in due course evolve into teachers - or even if this is just your personal hope - you start preparations for this transformation as each new student arrives.

    Choose your students carefully

    Don’t start training anybody unless they appear to have leadership potential. Of course you’ll make mistakes. Of course their lives may change in unpredictable ways, possibly including the discovery of other interests or goals that supersede this one. But it’s stupid, and perhaps even cruel, to waste both their time and energy and your own unless you can see some possibility of their completing the program.

         Putting it that bluntly reveals a more basic question: what is the core purpose of the parent group? If your primary purpose is worship, then every sincere-hearted believer is surely entitled to a venue for worship. In contrast, if your purpose is training new leaders in a religious path, it’s still very appropriate for students and teachers to worship together. Even though you may often look exactly like a worship group, a training group needs to be highly selective about its members. Also, although some few members may stay on as ‘faculty’ or ‘staff’ when they complete their training, most will eventually graduate and go. If this is your clear expectation, it will hurt much less when they leave.

    Be very clear about your curriculum 

    If you have a degree system of advancement, let people know what they must do to earn each degree. For one possible example, see Proteus Coven's curriculum. You may want to wait until one degree is completed before informing the student of the requirements for the next. It can seem less daunting that way. Still, they're entitled to a general idea.

         Your students need to know from the very beginning that promotion and graduation are to be earned. If your requirements include intangibles such as maturity or wisdom or depth of connection with Deity, let your students know that as well. If you need to delay promotion after all the specific tasks are completed because of such inner developmental issues, there may well be resentment and accusations of unfairness, but these will be reduced if your students at least knew from the outset that such delays were a possibility.

    Identify and teach group leadership skills

    Some understandings and skills are required for intelligent participation in any religion. Other understandings and skills are specific to group leadership or teaching. Identify what those are and be sure to offer your advanced students many opportunities to learn and practice them.

    Encourage understudying

    Give advanced students lots of opportunity for backstage views of what you do. Delegate as much as you can – this both reduces your work load and gives them practice. Be available to help them reflect on what they perceive and experience as they perform delegated leadership functions. In some traditions, it’s standard practice for group leaders to have deputies, or for people who will probably branch off soon to conduct beginners’ study groups under supervision.

     If members know that yours is a training group, with the expectation of eventual graduation, and then see someone acting as deputy, it will not shock them when this person soon branches off. By delegating and watching them grow in confidence and skill, you will even give yourself some warning and some comfort about their leaving.

    Seek outside assessment

    You’ve been a mentor to some good people. You are emotionally invested in their success. You’re also by now well bonded with them, and some part of you hates the thought of their leaving your immediate circle. This is a stressful conflict, only made worse by the inherent role conflict between mentor and evaluator. You can make yourself much more comfortable by asking a respected elder from outside your group for an objective assessment of their readiness to branch off.

    Re-inventing the student/teacher relationship

    Starting a new group, even when it has branched-off from an established parent group that provided really good apprentice leadership training, is hard, and sometimes confusing, work. The leaders of the new group often feel as if they are alone in the world, as if they were unable to escape having to reinvent all the ways we do what we do.

         Often, this birthing struggle is quite visible to the new leader’s elders. They may feel tempted to come over and help out with the new group, without waiting for an invitation to do so. This is usually a bad move, since it imperils the development of autonomous identity on the part of the new group. They need space to learn from their mistakes.

         You may, hopefully rarely, also feel the need to confront the new leaders about actions that seem seriously unethical or dangerous. Sometimes you may be called upon to make a really difficult judgement call about when to keep silence and when to speak. Unless you perceive imminent and serious danger of harm being done to the leaders or their students, we’d suggest respectfully waiting till they seek your aid or advice.

         Like children now adult and in homes of their own and their empty-nester parents, both parties need to negotiate a new, more equal, adult relationship, to move from the reciprocal roles of student and teacher to the mutual role of colleagues. We recommend that both of you – teacher and student – think carefully about your expectations of one another, and work out any differences well in advance. Unexamined and unshared assumptions may cause serious problems in times to come. This is a task faced by new graduates and young workers in every profession, and one that always requires tact, assertiveness, patience and humor.


    Models become widely accepted when they encapsulate and reflect a lot of people's experience. Here is a widespread model of the stages of this transition that can help you understand what you are going through:
    Stage 1: Dependency: The elder teaches basic and intermediate topics, sets safe limits, and gives a great deal of guidance. This is roughly comparable to the old craft guild status of apprentice.

    Stage 2: Differentiation: The student pursues advanced topics and follows personal interests, learning from many elders. Students test their personal limits of talent and skill (and also sometimes test the limits of safety and ethics – this is adolescent rebellion). The elder facilitates differentiation by giving the student increasing responsibility, much less specific direction. However, the elder is still actively watching over the student, and still volunteers direction and correction when necessary. This is comparable to the old status of journeyman.

    Stage 3: Autonomy: The student is self-directed and under no one's protection. The elder gives advice only upon the former student's request. The elder's advice is not binding. The former guild student is now a master, and entitled to begin teaching others.


    It's a loss as well as a thrill every time a fledgling leaves the nest. Each of us will miss the other. Although you were often irritated with each other as you struggled through the differentiation phase, your deep bonds of love and trust are all you see as you approach separation. Allow yourself to feel your sense of loss, like parents and siblings of the newlyweds crying at a wedding. It's just as real as your pride and elation.

         For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In many of the lineage-based Wiccan traditions, an elder who has taken someone through the complete training process to the point where that person is now leading a new coven is acclaimed as Queen or Magus. The vocabulary is overblown – Grandparent would be both warmer and more accurate – but the underlying psychological principle is very sound. The personally-chosen charm for the charm-bracelet, or other token of recognition, is the elder's compensation for loss. The gift helps us to reframe our grief into the deep satisfaction of a job well done. In our religion, pride is not a sin.


    Branching-off is a major life transition. We strongly recommend that it be ritually marked with a group blessing. The templates we offer here, like all of our ritual templates, are just possibilites, models to start from. Please adapt them to your own customs and needs.
  • Blessing for a new group
  • Celebration of the Elders
  • Lessons learned

  • Healthy branching off requires years of preparation. This can be the entire goal of a teaching group’s curriculum.
  • Even though it is expected and joyously anticipated, it can still be a bittersweet transition. Make room for both feelings.
  • Branching-off is a major life passage for all people concerned, and should be ritually marked with sensitivity, skill and care.
  • These two statements, for us, sum up the reciprocal process of branching-off:
  • Graduates: as you branch off, remember, you came to them in trust, now leave them in love.
  • Elders: as they branch off, remember, you brought them in in love, now let them go in trust.

  • read the essay "Self Examination for Coven Leaders" on the Tangled Moon web site
    (and a lot of other really good resources there for group leaders)

    go on to early departures
    or back to:

  • Endings Contents
  • Proteus Library

  • The address of this page is http://www.proteuscoven.com/happy.htm
    last modified February 2, 2012