Chapter 4: Step Three -- Preliminary screening

Two preliminary steps - asking for and checking references, and asking for a letter of self-introduction - will help you screen out the obviously-inappropriate contacts which you will receive.

Checking references

If the seeker has had any prior contact with the Pagan community, they may be able to supply you with references. While it's unfair to reject a new person for simply being new, and without prior contacts, when references are available, they can be very helpful. How much weight you should give to a reference will depend on your opinion of the person who provided it. Consider:
  • Is the reference honest? It pays to have some independent notion of whether or not the person providing a reference is trustworthy. Sometimes people will provide good references for a problem student, simply to shift the burden of dealing with that person on to some other teacher.
  • Is the reference insightful? Sometimes a person will be quite honest but not particularly insightful -- some people have an ingrained aversion to expressing any sort of criticism of a third party, thinking that it is somehow unfair or not socially acceptable. All of us have our blind spots, which can reduce the accuracy of our references as well as our own screening. Judy, for example, is a notorious sucker for musicians.
  • Does the reference have similar criteria for a good student as you do? They may have a different notion of good character or relevant talents than your own. No matter how well they know the seeker, they may not know you or your group well enough to judge how well you would fit together.
  • You can safeguard against this pitfall by asking specific questions. The answer to "would they be a good student" depends on what you mean by "a good student." Instead ask about what you think a good student should be. "Can they keep a confidence?" "What is their sense of humor like?" "Are they self-motivated learners or would they expect spoon-feeding?" If you're choosing new members for an existing group, it's good to get experienced members' suggestions for some of these questions.
Some teachers (such as Gwyneth with her Canadian study group) take the references one step further by asking the seeker to provide the name of a sponsor into the group; the sponsor can provide both an initial reference check as well as ongoing support for the student, in the event that the student is accepted into the group.

Remember, simply asking for references is not enough. You must always check references and verify that the person is actually aware that his or her name has been used.

4.2: Letters of self-introduction

You may want to ask seekers for a letter of self-introduction. This is a good idea because it allows a seeker time to be thoughtful about their responses. Also, it gives you a record of the seeker's early self-presentation and your own first impression. If you begin to notice inconsistencies later, you will be able to check whether or not this is just a trick of memory.

Here are some things you may want to ask the seeker to include in their letter:

  • Contact information: name of seeker, mailing address and telephone number, e-mail address (if available), along with any cautions about using this information. (e.g. do they share an answering machine or mailbox with people who should not know of their Pagan interests?)
  • References if they have previous contact with any reputable elders (and if you have not previously asked for, received, and checked the seeker's references.)
  • Practicalities: the seeker's age, any health concerns (e.g. allergies or mobility restrictions), distance from your meeting place, car or public transit access, work or school schedule, child care concerns. Very important: if the seeker is mated, how does the mate feel about this involvement? If you are interested in astrology, you may also ask for natal data, so that you can construct a birth chart.
  • Religious background: What is the seeker's religion of origin? How does she or he currently feel about it? What other religious paths (if any) have they explored? What attracts them to a Pagan path? What has been their Pagan exposure up to now? What do they consider to have been the strongest influences on their spiritual development up to this point? Encourage them to go into as much depth as they feel comfortable with in this response. Likes and dislikes, and the reasons for them, are particularly important. Also encourage them to discuss any part of their secular background that they feel is relevant to their spiritual quest.
  • Current desires and hopes: The most important question of all - what are they looking for now in a group or teacher. What would they like to learn or how would they like to develop during the next stretch of their path? What attracts them to you or your group?
You can put some of this into the form of a questionnaire. If you do so, be sure to ask open-ended questions, and to end each section with something like "is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?" You might also suggest that they use the questionnaire as a basis for a more free-flowing letter of self-introduction. Blank questionnaires can conveniently be posted on the Web or distributed at gatherings.

Letters of self-introduction are particularly important when you'll be making a referral. Sometimes referral is the only possibility, as when somebody far away gets in touch via the Internet. You can only learn just so much about a person through correspondence, without a face-to-face meeting, of course. Still, your correspondence may have given you a good enough impression that, if the person were local, you would have been willing to meet with them.

If you also know of a reasonable teacher or group in their area, you can forward the seeker's letter and any references to that local contact. The local group is free to follow up or not. They may not if, for example, your apparently pleasant correspondent has a dubious local reputation. If they decline, their privacy has not been compromised. Similarly, even with a local referral, sending along a letter of self-introduction from the seeker leaves the other teacher or group free to choose whether or not to respond.

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    Last revision: February 4, 2002