A lot of what goes on in our faith group seems at first glance to have little to do with religion or magic; it most often is a social activity. It’s not uncommon to call a meeting for no reason other than to get together with people we enjoy being around. In fact, this sort of thing is usually where newcomers get interested in Paganism. For those who have taken on the mantle of the priesthood, this may seem almost frivolous. Why waste time with coffee hours when there’s ‘real work’ to be done?
Well, let’s see…
- First off, these ‘coffee hours’ are where most of our growth comes from. They provide a safe and interesting place for people who are curious to explore, ask questions, and to judge what kind of people we are.
- Exactly how important is this ‘real work’ that’s going to keep us from spending time with newcomers? Remember how it was for us when we first became interested? Do you recall the dry mouth and nervous feelings when you first ‘dared’ to approach someone and ask questions about this weird group?
- Do you realize that a lot of these small gatherings also attract people who are more than willing to take advantage of the people who come to such things? This presents an opportunity to thwart those people before they and their ilk give all of us a really bad name. None of us are ‘authorities’ concerning our religion, but that’s no reason to stay home or remain silent while Sam Sleaze or Sally Slavedriver milk the wide-eyed for all their worth in the name of our spirituality!
Almost everybody who is now an ‘old hand’ in the Pagan world started out as a starry-eyed newbie. We didn’t know much of anything and our questions were really kind of ‘dumb,’ right? This is how it all began for 99% of us. Thank the gods, somebody was kind enough to give us some answers and suggest something, someone, or somewhere that proved even more interesting for us. And, as they say, one thing led to another…
Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more how I was drawn to Wicca (my particular version of Paganism). Call it fate or luck or the work of the gods, but I was fortunate enough to meet some very wonderful people who spent time with me and answered the really nutty questions I had. That was my path and I’m sure it isn’t exactly like anyone else’s path. But it hasn’t been long enough in the past that I don’t remember the trepidation I had or the thousands of questions I wanted answered. I see the same cautious actions and hear the same naïve questions from many who come to festivals for the first time or who enter into the coffee shop discussions each week.
I was surprised a couple of years ago when I was visiting some former coven members who had move to Texas. They took me to one of their local weekly meetings at a small sandwich shop that was open until late at night. The newcomers were almost carbon copies of the people I had met in similar situations in Seattle. The discussions were very familiar with the exception of the Texas drawls and I heard a variety of answers, some of which showed a surprising sophistication and learning from a few who had many more years in Paganism. Since then, I’ve been increasingly aware of some of the nuances and dynamics of these sorts of meetings. What follows are my unscientific observations and unsolicited advice concerning gatherings of this kind.
Although quite a few new people show curiosity, very few will remain interested for more than a couple of meetings. My guess would be about one out of ten will last much more than five or six meetings. Some might find something else that attracts them about our faith group and go there, but most will either go away because we’re either too ‘normal’ or too ‘weird’ for them. That’s okay… don’t push it. There’s a really good reason we don’t proselytize: we’d just wind up with people who don’t really share our interests. Of the one-in-ten, there will be an even smaller number who remain interested enough to stick around longer than a year. Don’t be surprised or disappointed by these low numbers; it isn’t a popularity contest… or at least it shouldn’t be.
There are no DUMB questions… except the ones that weren’t asked. Anyone new to our community will not have the information base to ask really sophisticated questions. I know that the questions – and the assumptions behind them – that I asked at first weren’t very good. But we should try to answer as best we can and then help the person understand what you believe might be a flaw in their understanding (based upon your interpretation of the question).
For a community to grow, you need to go beyond mere acceptance, you must learn to enjoy and value differences. Any group that accepts only a narrow range of opinions will destroy itself. Take a look at Nature: species that have no way for diversity to enter in will be ruined by the first strange factor it encounters. Also, methodology and results aren’t very important; values, goals, and heart are.
Don’t try too hard to control the meetings; a little bit of chaos isn’t a bad thing. It’s surprising what can be created by simply sitting back and letting the group reach its own level. If the meeting needs an agenda, fine. But don’t get your hopes up about it all going to plan. The best things usually happen by accident. Besides, this is a group of Pagans we’re talking about… herding cats and all that stuff, y’know.
Anywhere there is a gathering that attracts new people to us, you’ll probably also find folks who are out to find ‘followers.’ Let me make a clear distinction here. There is a great deal of difference between those who hope to find somebody who will fit well into their own group, someone who will help their group grow in spirit and understanding and those who simply wish to add another body to their group for the sake of making it bigger. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for new people to know the difference. Those who are interested in the number of people they can ‘command’ will often make themselves and their group look pretty appealing to those who aren’t experience. If you know that such a person or group is actually dangerous, you might be justified in trying to keep them away. But be very careful about making such a judgment. Will it ‘ruin’ a newcomer’s chances of finding a suitable association or group if they go off with this person? Yes, possibly. But it’s almost impossible to know. I wouldn’t presume to know the right or wrong path for another. In all probability, the ‘right’ people will show up at the ‘right’ time. Call it karma or fate or whatever you like, but being anxious about gathering ‘enough’ people is only going to give you problems. Try looking at each person as if they were the very best example of themselves! The gods have made each of us a little different from the rest because any other way would be a crashing bore.
Perhaps the only constant in the universe is change. Expect conditions to change and expect people to change. Whatever we do in the local Pagan community will make changes, good or ill, to the entire Pagan scene. Whether we like it or not, those of us who are less ‘green’ will be viewed as representatives of all of Paganism at any festival or meeting. Everything we say and do will be considered as ‘typical’ for Pagans by those most who are new to our faith community. Let us offer them the best of us.