Participating in Community, Holding Our Leaders Accountable
Polytheism as a religious identity is growing. And communities to support these old, new and emerging religions are growing too. As communities grow, leaders step up to help shape, guide, inspire, organize, and support these growing communities and the individuals within them. As leaders arise to guide new and expanding communities, it is important that we who are being led maintain active engagement with the shaping and maintenance of leadership structures. We must both support and feed our leaders while being prepared to hold them accountable to the standards we are shaping within our communities, and stay in dialogue with our leaders and with one another around what standards we want shaping our communities.
I’ve been seeing a lot of really excellent conversation over the past few months about leadership in the pagan and polytheist communities – sharing power, making space for new leaders, and how to be more graceful with power across age and experience differences. And I am so glad to see these conversations happening. But many of us are not in positions of leadership. And even if we are, there are still others whose leadership roles stretch over us in some way or another simply by being a person who is identified as a leader in a community we participate in or are identified with in some way or another. Regardless of whether or not we choose to take on a position of leadership, what do we do when our leaders behave in ways we wish they hadn’t? How do we hold our leaders accountable for the things they say and do? What ethical standards and community accountability models will we choose for ourselves as new leaders emerge in our newly forming or already existing communities? For many of us in many of our overlapping communities, these are more applicable questions.
There are several different types of leaders we find in our religious communities. And there are different levels of leadership with different levels of influence. Some folks are leaders because they start or help start groups that others decide to join. Some are leaders because they are elected to a leadership position in a group with an election process. Some are leaders because they write books, or because they teach classes. Some are leaders because they help design or organize major events or rituals, or perform in major events or rituals. Some are leaders because they serve on councils or are chosen to (or volunteer to) represent paganism or polytheism outside of these communities. Some serve as clergy. Some are musicians. Some own pagan, new age, or metaphysical shops or other businesses. Others are leaders because they write popular blogs or columns with loyal readership who are influenced by their ideas. Many who are considered leaders do more than one of these things.
Each person who might be considered a leader carries some amount of power and influence. That’s what it means to be a leader – leaders are the ones (hopefully) who get things done or make things happen, but leaders also (intentionally or unintentionally) help to shape the beliefs, thoughts and practices of those who look to them for leadership. Historically, many parts of the broader pagan and polytheist communities had “anti-authoritarian” roots, and many pagans are (understandably) uncomfortable with the idea of hierarchical power. This discomfort often leads to a complete denial of the existence of power structures, or a knee jerk reaction to discussions of power. While we who are polytheist may or may not also participate in pagan communities, because so much of the roots of the early pagan communities originate from these and other related movements in the 70s and 80s, we may very well find ourselves influenced by these roots as well.
When we can’t comfortably talk about power, we lose the ability to be responsible with our own power, and we can’t accurately assess the power we are giving to our leaders. We also lose the ability to hold our leaders accountable. But the truth is, we who are led are the ones who give our leaders their power. We decide (or at least we *should* be deciding) to allow them to influence us and our communities. The relationship between a community and its leaders is a type of explicit or implicit contract – the community agrees to be led in exchange for giving that leader respect, power, and influence. The leader agrees to lead (and to work on behalf of that community, by performing the services and duties that their form of leadership requires) in exchange for the community giving them power, respect and influence. Imagine a horse and rider. The rider decides where the horse goes, but if the horse decided it did not want to be led, the little human on its back would not be able to do much other than hold on and hope they didn’t get thrown.
Of course, in order for a horse to accept a rider, it must be trained (sometimes referred to as “broken”). We have all been trained, to varying degrees, to accept some amount of leadership. But horses are still bigger than a single human rider; communities are still stronger than any one leader. When our leaders are leading us in directions that we know are wrong, it us up to us, the communities that give them their power and their legitimacy, to take the reins back.
In the past several months, I have witnessed several prominent Heathen leaders be outed as having racist ideology. Many of us who have been in the Heathen community for any amount of time all knew these leaders espoused varying levels of racist ideologies, but folks outside of Heathenry began to notice as these leaders became more public with their beliefs (posting publically visible racist memes on Facebook, specifically). So what as a Heathen community are we to do? If we claim that these individuals are not “really” Heathens (as I’ve seen some folks do), we run into dangerous territory. By forswearing them, we forfeit any ability to hold them accountable. We also open the door for anyone to declare any other person not really a Heathen (or insert your tradition of choice here) for differences in belief and action. At the same time, I certainly do not want anyone to mistake what I believe for what these public Heathen figures believe.
It is on us, the community being led, to hold our leaders accountable. To demand that our leaders serve as ethically and wisely as they are able. And to remove them from influence when they are creating influences that we don’t want shaping our communities.
What does holding leaders accountable look like? Some of this depends on the size of the community, the scope of influence of that leader, the nature of their leadership role, and the relationship we have to them. Sometimes accountability looks like pulling a leader aside privately and having a difficult conversation about their statements or actions. Sometimes it might mean making a public statement, organizing a petition, writing an open letter, leaving a group that you just can’t ethically continue to participate in. Sometimes it might mean electing a new leader, if there is an election process in place. Sometimes it means starting a new group, and stepping into your own leadership, while being transparent and public around your motivations and process. Though if you decide to go this last route, be sure not to fall into the same traps that caused you to leave the last group – consider getting additional training if needed, and consider working collaboratively with others.
It is also important to be clear about what we expect from our own leaders, and to assess whether or not these expectations are realistic, just as it is important for leaders to assess for themselves what their role is and whether or not they have the skills to execute that role effectively. Many smaller “subculture” type communities are notorious for “eating their leaders”, and I have certainly seen this happen at times over the years in the polytheist communities in which I have participated. Well-meaning folks step into positions of leadership because they love their tradition or spirituality, or because they have a vision of what kind of group they want to participate in. Sometimes folks start groups or assume other types of leadership roles because they feel a calling to do so. But even when there is a calling, leadership is a big responsibility. Others rely on the leader for direction, regardless of the type of leader. It is reasonable to expect a leader to fulfil whatever leadership role they have chosen to assume (clergy, writer, group leader, etc.). It is not reasonable to expect a leader to act outside of their proscribed leadership role, nor is it reasonable for a leader to assume that because they have taken on some kind of specific leadership role, that they have the needed skills to handle situations that would normally involve additional training that they do not possess (assume a journalist should also lead rituals; assume an administrative leader of a group should also write liturgy; assume that having attained some kind of tradition-specific spiritual elevation confers the ability to mediate disputes or provide psychological counseling without additional training in those disciplines; etc.).
Some of the leadership challenges in our communities arise from a lack of adequate training. Some of the challenges arise from the unwillingness of many leaders to recognize that they need additional training, or not knowing what kind of training would most benefit them, or not knowing where to go to get trained once they figure out their own missing competencies. There are groups that are beginning to offer more training opportunities for pagan and polytheist leaders, though many of those groups continue to mostly offer spiritual or religious training rather than training in group facilitation and mediation. And many of these training opportunities (though not all) are more appropriate for pagan or Wiccan leaders and may not be applicable for polytheist leaders. Furthermore, there is often a disdain for mainstream leadership training opportunities (like conflict resolution courses, sensitivity trainings, etc.), and sometimes it is as simple as folks not knowing what training opportunities would make the most sense for them to pursue.
It is on us, the community, to take care of our leaders – leadership done well is a precious resource to a community. Our leaders help us understand and shape our religious practices, create opportunities for us to gather as community for religious or social support, they take care of us, inspire us, challenge us, move us forward, organize us and support our growth as individuals and as communities. But if we want our communities to flourish, we need our leaders to be ethical, competent, well supported, and well trained. It is on each of us who are not leaders to help shape communities where leaders are held accountable, where our official groups are well organized with clear organizational structures (including clearly delineated leadership roles and responsibilities). It is on us to support our leaders so they can best serve us, and to be realistic and respectful about what we expect to get from our leaders.
It is also on us, the community, to take responsibility for our own leaders, being willing to speak up when our leaders behave in ways that we don’t deem acceptable by our community standards. If a leader makes racist statements, or tries to shape discriminatory policies for our groups, or sexually harasses or assaults community members, it is on us to step up as a community and say no, you don’t get to do that kind of thing and continue to have the privilege of leading us. We as the community are not at the mercy of our leaders. We are in a contracted relationship with them, and they lead because we let them.
As we continue to grow and shape our communities, we need to be thoughtful, clear and intentional in how we shape our community ethics and standards, in how we shape our contracts with our leaders, and in how we shape our accountability structures. There is too much at stake for us to do otherwise.