In 2014, when I first moved to the Bay Area, I attended two Samhain rituals: one in Palo Alto, and the ubiquitous Reclaiming Spiral Dance. I had little to no history with the Pagans of the Bay: a Pagan Newswire Collective contact here, the casually exchanged message there. My contacts likely qualified as Big Name Pagans – and they were best described as F-ing Busy. This is still true of them. Seeking community moreso than spirit, I showed up at random to these two Big Deal events in the Bay.
Something else relatively unkown about me: not only do I have a lot of experience organizing events, I am really very good at it. I am even effective when it involves Pagans. I acted as a volunteer coordinator for Twin Cities Pagan Pride long before it became Paganicon (which I freely admit I would have objected to at the time, but have come around on) and I ran a Doctor Who Meetup that grew to 900 members before I moved away from the Twin Cities. Even now I run a Pagan meetup, but it’s not like most Pagan meetups you’re used to.
I managed to consistently get volunteers to show up, handled sexual harassment issues to the best of my ability before we had the support of #MeToo and consent culture education, and to this day people that worked with me during my tenures tell me how much they appreciated my approach. My volunteers left well fed and thanked. It’s a good practice to maintain.
Then it came time to leave my good work behind and move to California.
Here’s something I should likely explain: I’m an introvert in the classic sense of the word. I’m not shy, but I’m wary about approaching strangers lest I be unwelcome. Get to know me and I may well talk your ear off (and it won’t be small talk.) While I will smile and be friendly and chat – and I was in my version of high-effort mode- I won’t do things like march up to the organizer and say “Hi, I’m the author of blah blah blah. DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM???” Because they won’t. Nobody’s read my books, or they’ve read books I’ve written that aren’t mine. It’s really not worth demanding recognition over. Besides, at that point I was already fielding some unbelievably condescending comments about my Midwestern roots from what seemed like every Lyft driver between San Jose and Concord. I didn’t want to hear the same nonsense about how I was “better off” in the Bay from my potential spiritual community. I kept my attendance and background at these events relatively anonymous because these people didn’t know me and had zero reason to care who I was.
My first experience was this: I entered the Unitarian church housing the event. Someone at the door took my donation/admission. I had to double back to ask where to put the dish I brought for the potluck. It took a minute to figure out when it was OK to go into the sanctuary for the event, and there were chairs…with no explanation or direction. Then the person leading the ritual came in and literally YELLED (not great for people like me with high trauma) for those that were able to please stand. Why could this not have been mentioned to people as they came in? There were plenty of people that seemed to be part of the hosting coven standing around. Surely someone could communicate this. He said a bunch of stuff about his partner. Was this an ego vehicle? It didn’t seem germane to the ritual at all.
The ritual itself did do several things right, including a procession that moved from outdoors to indoors again and having multiple priestesses ostensibly Drawing Down/channeling the Great Mother, reducing the nightmarish waiting time of placing the load on only one priestess. I don’t think that the priestess I approached was necessarily surrendered to the channel – I said something about a woman recently passed, and the response I received sounded far more human ego than Goddess wisdom. Then again, I’m not exactly god-fearing even when it’s in my interests to be so. I have yelled at deities more or less to their faces about their behavior more than once. It’s a wonder I haven’t been struck by lightning. (Have I told you my spirituality is complicated? It’s complicated.) The gods aren’t always wise so my response could be on me, rather than the poor priestess who got the brunt of my glare.
I did have a moving spiritual experience, more from internal than external circumstance.
By the time the evening ended I had made three new friends, none of whom were involved in putting on the event, and I have zero memory of what dish I brought or what happened to it. I vaguely remember having to stand up to eat, but I might not remember that correctly. I was tired, and grateful the UU had a car charger available for my Nissan Leaf. I thanked the host/point person (a basic manners thing that seemed to confuse him), bit my tongue on why I was thoroughly unimpressed by his behavior, and went home.
About a week later I attended Spiral Dance, which is something of a premiere October event in San Francisco Bay. People that don’t necessarily identify as Goddess worshippers often make a point of attending: in the Bay, Halloween IS Easter and Christmas on multiple levels.
At the time I had a contact that was a newbie to the Bay the same time I was. That tie has long since faded. The conversation we had as I texted him from my place in the very long line was good example of assumptions versus reality. He assumed it was “some feminist thing.” I texted: “There are men here. There are entire families.” “Lesbians with their sons?” “I don’t think it’s polite to ask, but I don’t get the sense that’s the only dynamic.”
The line was long. I had prepaid for my ticket via EventBrite but was still confused where to go. Aside from that particular bump, I more or less enjoyed the ceremony but found the necessity of sitting on the floor uncomfortable, and the forceful and rather rude way people asked us to move to create pathways unpleasant. There was some non-consensual touching where verbal communication and clear nonverbal communication would have been fine.
The memory is vague now, but I have a sense of bad planning, especially bad spatial planning/denial about the collective aging of the group, where sitting on the floor might not prove so beneficial these days.
I had an AMAZING spiritual experience, and talked to someone from Sacramento that had also been forced to leave the Twin Cities behind. It was some comfort I needed. I didn’t make any friends at this one.
Ultimately, four years later I haven’t really felt any urges to attend any local Pagan events. I know about them but for the most part I find them vague and confusing. I did email a local Pagan Alliance and never received a response. I volunteered at Gay Pride, and again found communication and organization highly problematic. (I did obtain a Facebook friend out of it, one who witnessed me tell an aggressive canvasser I hated babies.) I went to a fundraiser at the Cat Club, but again, felt vague and confused about the experience – no one really gave any guidance, you just sort of showed up and something about cake? I’m not sure I actually met any actual Pagans although one guy in the corner offered rune readings for cash I did not have because I’d had to surrender mine at the door.
Right now I’m happy running the Emperor Norton Group, and disappointing people who want me to turn it into yet another unnecessary ritual body in the Bay. Thanks, but I’m keeping my energy for myself so no. Besides, that requires me to invest in a specific Paganism and right now I just don’t want to.
I am picking on the Bay because it’s my most recent experience. I lived in Minnesota for 16 years, and Minnesota is hands down a really unfriendly place to anyone that didn’t grow up there. At my most recent Paganicon I was already seeing the return of the “are you going to steal my horses?” side eye. I also run into vagueness and inconvenience with these groups – there’s a lot of “well this is how we experience it!” inference that goes on Minnesota, while in the Bay it seems a bit less self-centered and a bit more dotty…but ends in the same result.
Based on my experiences with these communities and with organizing for a long time, I have a list of suggestions. Most are founded on “did you communicate? Communicate BETTER!”
GROUP EMAILS ARE NOT ENOUGH, NEW VOLUNTEERS NEED TO ACTUALLY SEE THE FACES OF WHO THEY ARE WORKING WITH!
While most conventions and festivals have an opening ceremony and orientation for attendees, there’s a second one that’s just as important: your volunteer orientation. Few Pagan organizations do this, and this is part of why so many have normalized confusion and burnout as part of a typical Pagan event. Taking time ahead of your event to tell your volunteers what to expect puts them in a proactive role. Throwing them in and telling them what to do in the moment is a reactive role, and you’re a lot more likely to end up facing harassment, burnout, and flake-out issues.
I picked up this method not in Pagan organizing but with my Doctor Who group. Assign someone to greet people and give them information about the event. It relieved stress on new attendees who didn’t know what was going on, saved several awkward moments (er, those chairs have mold on them, you might want to move!) and improved the likelihood of repeat attendance and financial support. At most Pagan events I often feel like I’m walking in on a clique, and one that’s demanding I prove myself to them when I have no idea whether they’re worthy of that proof. A greeter/informer at the event in Palo Alto would have vastly improved my experience. This way I would have known right away where to put my food, how long it would be until the ritual started (and what to do with myself until then) and there would have been no need to shout at people to relinquish their chairs because they would have already been informed. There were members of the presenting organization standing around – it could have been done, and easily.
3. If people have to sit on the floor, tell them well ahead of time.
It doesn’t matter how long your event has been running, there is never an event where every attendee automatically knows what to expect. A warning might have allowed people to prepare in some way.
4. Place your registration where people can find it
I don’t know why this is, but for some reason a half dozen Pagan events I go to put the registration booth/room in a back corner somewhere. It’s often dimly lit, and spatially awkward, forcing crowding when crowding isn’t necessary. What the hell is with that, anyway? Is it just so it’s close to con ops? Don’t we have wireless technology to resolve exactly this issue now? Also, if you’re going to be near a door, why not use a *well lit* door?
5. Put up signs showing people where registration is
This is another common issue, although it’s slowly improving. Again, if you want new attendees to become volunteers and long-term supporters of your events, you need to do things like help them find you. Even the big conventions use poor signage – is there some environmental objection to poster board I need to understand? You could even combine this with a greeter role and have people acting as guides or walking sandwich boards (so you need people with a sense of humor about themselves.)
6. Rotate organizer roles, and give people a year off (whether they want it or not)
People get locked into group think and old habits. Sometimes doing something better simply requires a new perspective. This also seriously reduces volunteer burnout.
7. Stop assigning virtue to poor self-care
One of the ugliest incidents of my early organizing career happened after three people on a Pagan Pride board approached me about a long-term volunteer who, over the course of five years, had managed to become seriously ill or hospitalize herself at every single event annually. I finally stepped in and gave her a team of volunteers and insisted on delegation because of this habit of hers. She went ballistic, even pulling me aside to scream at me during an orientation meeting. (She also DID NOT LIKE that I was running an orientation. Funny that.) In her mind, the hospitalizations were a sign of how dedicated she was and how hard she worked…nevermind the cost and scramble they always seemed to cause to the organization. I refused to invest in that particular ego malfunction and probably made an enemy for life.
8. Work on your communication methods constantly.
Pagans get weird and secretive about really stupid s — and this can really make events difficult. One of the first and most important things to evaluate constantly is “was this clear enough? Was this easy enough for people to find us/do what was expected/abide by the established rules of the event?”
An additional two questions:
A. How can we use technology to communicate better?
New social media and uses evolve all the time. It’s up to the so-called elders to step up and learn, if they really want that traditional continuity so many talk about.
B. How can we communicate better for people that DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY?
Posterboard, that’s one way.
9. Start planning for financial stability.
You’re not going to please everyone, especially when it comes to money. In a perfect system it wouldn’t be relevant, but we are still part of the culture so many of us chafe at. In that system, hotels, Internet access, campgrounds, and food all cost money. Each one has humans on the other end of it that need to pay rent and care for their families. The refusal to financially support Pagan events is often Christianized thinking – and even Christian churches have to have annual budget meetings, because they seek to help the poor, not just be free to everyone. They still have to pay their power bills, too. There are ways to do this – fundraisers, tip jars, and always having someone who actually knows how to manage money around.
10. Make succession planning a routine practice.
Over a decade ago I was volunteer advising a Pagan student organization that had most of its active student members graduating. They had become cliqueish, as Pagan organizations too often do, and this led to a drop off of new members necessary for the group to continue on campus. I posted to a listserv about the need to bring in new members if the group wanted to continue, and I swear someone ACTUALLY SAID THIS in response:
“You’re recruiting? That’s horrifying. I found this group by magick, when I happened to pick up a local newsletter and saw the listing. Everyone should find this group by magick.”
…there’s a lot of elbow grease that went into that magick. Along with the hours of layout time and editing and production costs that went into creating that newsletter, someone had to file the paperwork for university recognition of that group, reserve the rooms, plan the programming, and the people that presented had to “by magick” come up with the programs they presented.
By the magick of my broad ass. Notably this person never significantly contributed to the group.
No one in the student group considered that someday, they might graduate, and if they did, they had to let the group go into new hands or it would not continue. This is true of every organization, and it was a huge concern for me when I left the Doctor Who group I ran. Fortunately I had a strong board that was able to pick up where I left off, but I’m not clear on whether they’re finding new members who can carry on from them. This is often a missed opportunity for mentorship, improvement of event experiences, and a chance for practicing adequate self-care.
11. Thank people first, last, and always.
Thank people for coming. Thank people for volunteering. No one owes you or your event any of their energy, ever, so express gratitude for the energy given. You also don’t have any say in what someone else owes to the community or to Spirit. Make an effort to feed your volunteers, give them breaks, and yes,write thank you notes after. This is how you build goodwill and continuity.
12. Improve your follow ups.
Notice a heavy theme on communication here? If someone has a complaint or question, follow up. Yes, you will get repetitive questions because people don’t read the directions or to be blunt they’re lazy and want you to do their legwork for them. That’s one of the annoying aspects of running an event. If you have access to technology, there are several tools that allow you to do this while maintaining firm boundaries on your time. Text message and email schedulers, Gmail Canned Responses, Asana, and Slack forums are all available free and low cost. Don’t know them? You can web search “how to use ___” on any of them and get immediate help.
13. Offer people ice breakers if the context warrants it.
My favorite event at Paganicon is Pagan Speed friending for one very simple reason: it’s a much needed ice breaker to the event. I always end up knowing someone well worth knowing when I go to it.
14. Let go of any idea that Pagans are a monolithic religious body.
We aren’t. If you’re hosting a Pagan event that you bill as generally Pagan, please don’t have a Wiccan ritual at the heart of it while claiming “that’s Paganism.” To do so is ethnocentric and exclusionary. I come from the perspective of being someone neither Celtic nor particularly Heathen, and I see Wicca as mostly co-optive. This isn’t all bad – I’ve had good and bad experiences with Wicca, but I don’t think at this point in Pagan history we should be treating it like it’s interchangeable with other magickal religions.
I hate camping, and I love nature. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to repeat to other Pagans that I don’t want to go to their outdoor festivals because of significant health problems and a distaste for group showers. Some appear literally unable to process this information, and it’s hit the point of being deeply inconsiderate and ethnocentric. Being Pagan does not obligate me to like the same things as other Pagans. This is a running issue at most of the events I attend.
15. Work on your reflective listening skills, and on listening in general.
You learn a lot about the people around you when you practice reflective listening. You may find that the like-mindedness you assume isn’t quite the dead on match you hoped for – and maybe that’s not a bad thing. You will also have fewer issues going forward because you will be skilled at making people feel heard.
I often wait a few years before I comment on events I attend. New context may arise that can reframe an experience for me. Also, people aren’t receptive to even the most constructive of criticism until they get some distance from the event- con drop is not the time to talk about how to improve signage or why you shouldn’t stick the divination suite in a back room that no one walks by.
It’s easy to see these things when you’re a stranger – and yes, it’s very strange to be a stranger, especially in the Bay.