Chapter 8: Getting started as a group

Secular students of group process have identified some developmental stages that seem to manifest in many different kinds of groups. Very briefly, these are
  1. Forming - the initial process of members getting acquainted, checking each other out, and establishing basic trust and rapport. This is the stage that concerns us here.
  2. Storming - establishment of "pecking orders" and internal power relationships
  3. Norming - establishment of group style, procedures, customs
  4. Performing - doing whatever the group came together to do
  5. Mourning - completion, detachment and closure (also called "morning")
This is an oversimplification, as such schemes always are. First, real life never happens in such a neat, sequential manner. Groups sometimes regress and sometimes revisit old issues on the basis of new experiences and understandings. And even if the process were as lineal as it looks on paper, any attempt to define discrete stages is really an attempt to impose discontinuities on a seamless process. Consider the rainbow: just where does green stop and blue start?

This is further complicated in our groups, many of which function like old-fashioned one-room schoolhouses where different people enter, work through the program, and leave at different times, while the group -- with constantly changing membership -- goes on and on.

Still, it makes sense for us to look a bit more closely at the commonly understood "forming stage," which is closest to the experience of a newly-accepted seeker making the transition to student or Dedicant.

The first challenging threshold for a new group member is entering a room full of strangers. Will you like them? Will they like and accept you? Can you trust them? Can you gain their trust and respect? Will you bond well enough to accomplish the purpose that draws you together? The basic goals and operating procedures -- "the bargain" -- of each group may be very different, but in all cases members need to trust one another to "hold up their end" of that bargain.

New group members typically use social small-talk to size each other up. People stick to unimportant or even irrelevant topics -- the weather, sports, fashion, the latest television series -- until they have begun to build as much of a relationship is necessary for this group to address the task before it. Early group theorists described such topics as the "goblet issues." This is not a reference to a Witch's ritual goblet -- symbol of integration and transformation -- but to a cocktail party, where people will look around over the tops of their glasses to see who they might want to approach.

The members of a class or a task force may only need to trust one another to do their share of the work. Pagan training groups, however, nurture their members' deep magical and spiritual development. This entails a whole lot more risk, and requires a lot more trust. There will almost certainly be moments when our tender old wounds or fragile new hopes are exposed and vulnerable to our coven-mates. So a much deeper level of rapport and trust -- we call it "perfect trust" -- is necessary, and that can't be forced or faked. It takes the time it takes. This may frustrate inexperienced group leaders, who have a carefully thought out plan and are eager to get going with it.

So, in Judy's coven, Proteus, when a new preparatory group is starting, we typically take a few meetings to allow new members to get acquainted with each other and with older members and to understand the commitments our students make, before we formally accept them as Wiccan students through our ritual of Dedication.

Group exercises

Here are a couple of getting-acquainted exercises that have worked well for us:

Mask-making:

You will need paper plates, ribbon or string, a stapler, crayons and/or markers, scissors, paste and any other art supplies you like. Ask each participant to make a mask representing something they want to add to their lives, or something they already have but want to increase. They can staple ribbon or string onto the paper plates, so they can wear the masks. When the masks are completed, ask each participant in turn to explain their mask and then put it on. Have the group acknowledge each mask appropriately as it is donned.

Lifelines

You will need a sheet of legal-size (or other long) paper for each student, plus a bunch of crayons, markers or coloured pencils. Ask each participant to hold the paper horizontally (in "landscape" orientation) and to draw a plain horizontal line about halfway up the paper. Then, starting with their earliest memories, ask them to draw a lifeline, showing the highs and lows, and drawing symbols or pictures indicating what was going on at those points. These lifelines should emphasise, but not necessarily be limited to, their spiritual quest. When the drawings are completed, go around the group and ask each person to display and explain what they drew. Depending on the size of the group, this may take two meetings.

Explaining the ground rules

Another important function of these preliminary meetings is to let seekers understand clearly what will be expected of them as students before they make any of the relevant commitments. In Proteus Coven, we take at least two sessions before Dedication to discuss the ethics and etiquette we share.

Eventually, the time comes to make a choice and get on with it or not. Entering formal training for the priesthood, in our opinion, is a very significant life passage, well worthy of being ritually marked and celebrated, particularly if Dedicatory pledges are to be taken at that point. We urge you to do a ritual for the seekers as they transition into committed students in preparation for their Initiation.

You can create a Dedication ritual that expresses your own ideas about the mutual obligations of student and teacher, the role of other group members, and so on. for us, the main point of Dedication is that it marks entry into a period of exploration. So it's important to make explicit that the result of this exploration might be a decision not to proceed with Initiation. It's also important to us, before teaching any magical skills, to obtain a student's commitment to our group's ethical standards. But, despite all that heavy stuff, the general atmosphere of a Dedication rite should be welcoming and celebratory.

After all, we do not accept a seeker as a student unless we believe that they have the potential to become an Initiate, and eventually an elder and teacher. Each one who comes to learn increases the probability that our cherished ways will survive and thrive. Each Dedication, each Initiation is reason to rejoice!


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    Last revision: February 2, 2012