I’ve dropped a few hints here and there about my experience with toxic Pagans. I recently had a conversation with a good friend, and thought maybe I could share some traits and tactics for dealing with them.
For this post, I thought it would be helpful to talk about people who hijack Pagan groups. I drafted this post, then I found these excellent articles on Antagonists in Paganism. I highly recommend taking a moment to read these. This post is about my experience, what worked, and what didn’t work – and my hope is that it helps you avoid a catastrophe in your group. Or, that if you’re facing a catastrophe, that you can find a way through it.
In addition, I hope this will start a discussion around how to deal with people like this. But I’ll be honest, if your group gets a toxic person, it’s probably too late, and your only option may be damage control.
What is a hijacker?
First of all, this is my term for it. Sable Aradia (linked above) would call this person an “antagonist.” I think there’s value in that term. It’s literary (which I like), and identifies the toxic person as having opposite goals of the protagonist (regular members or leadership). It has most of the word “agony” in it, which brings to mind the pain these people can bring to a group.
But I like “hijacker” better. Because some Pagans are just manipulative, and they will jack things up if you’re not careful.
A hijacker is someone who comes into your group with an agenda. Usually that agenda involves taking members, trying to take over the leadership, or exploiting the group or its members for something.
If your goals match up with theirs, then everything tends to go smoothly. At first.
But if your group isn’t doing or providing what the hijacker wants – or if you oppose or question them – then they’ll use a variety of tactics to take control of the group (or its members).
The thing to note about a hijacker is that if they could start or lead a group, they would be. For some reason, they can’t. So instead, they go into other groups in order to get what they want. Typically, a hijacker isn’t concerned with the consequences of their actions for the group, for the leaders of the group, or for anyone outside their supporters. (And even in some cases, they don’t care about the consequences of exploiting their supporters.)
How to recognize a hijacker
Weirdly, hijackers will often tell you early in your relationship what it is that they want. Also, check out another great post by S. Aradia on recognizing them.
In the case of our local group, Tray (not his real name) told us he was looking for people to recruit into his coven. We should have taken him more seriously; when he couldn’t attract membership on his own merits, he used more antisocial methods to court support.
One way to recognize a hijacker is by their selective commitment to group events. In our case, Tray would always attend events that he was hosting. If he wasn’t hosting, he would either attend and barely participate (in order to collect information), or he would RSVP and cancel at the last minute. Logically, a hijacker can get an advantage by selectively committing time, money, and effort toward the projects that align with their interests. They can also strategically withhold those things from activities that don’t. And they will probably want to avoid activities or conversations that build a healthy group dynamic.
Simply judging a Pagan on how much they contribute or participate isn’t really fair though. There are a lot of Pagans who aren’t hijackers, but who are selective about events they attend. To clarify further…
A hijacker usually won’t usually directly confront leadership about suggesting a change. Instead, they will try to build sentiment either for a change or against the leadership in order to force a change. When a group leader tries to solicit a genuine discussion about the direction of the group or the group’s events, a hijacker will usually stay silent. Then, the hijacker will talk with other members (secretly, and excluding leadership) to criticize the leaders’ actions, or to suggest different directions or projects.
With a hijacker, you often get the sense that you’re not getting the full story. I’m not sure I can put this into better words. In the case of Tray, he would badmouth his ex-wife in a way that made me question whether she was really as bad as he made her out to be. Especially considering his own shortcomings (such as insecurity, need to be the center of attention, and a disturbing lack of boundaries around young vulnerable women). When I talked about my ex-wife marrying a child molester, he acted horrified, but it didn’t seem completely sincere. When we’d invite him to events, he’d act enthusiastic, then he would cancel at the last minute.
A hijacker might be inconsistent in their values. They may say they value openness and transparent communication, but then they dodge whenever you ask their opinion on activities they’d like to see. They may claim to welcome everyone, but they are especially welcoming to young women, and less so to older and more experienced Pagans. One minute they may be agreeing with you about the importance of healthy boundaries, and then a few minutes later they’re putting their hands on someone in a “too-friendly” way.
If you have a hijacker in your group, you’ll probably start to notice other smaller cliques are forming that don’t involve you. They’ll start laughing at inside jokes that you’re not part of. They’ll be continuing discussions about what the group is doing, which you were not aware of. Now, this could just be normal human social stuff where people become friends outside the group. And that’s a good thing! But if this is happening along with other things in this section, you should consider it a “red flag,” and investigate more deeply.
Tactics used by hijackers
First and foremost, the hijacker will attempt to consolidate a power base. They can’t just hold a gun to a member’s head and make them switch sides; instead a hijacker has to convince people that their position is better. That typically means talking privately with people in the group, finding out their grievances, then riling up the group over those grievances. A more nefarious hijacker will demonize the actions of the group leaders in order to make their own position more appealing. For example, when our group exploded, we were accused of “shunning” people, and “making them do homework.” (We called it “asking someone to leave the group” or “suggesting an article for discussion.”)
Another tactic hijackers use is twisting words or values. So if your group values inclusiveness (as many Pagan groups do), then anything that gives the appearance of being non-inclusive can be used as “evidence” that the leadership is bad. If you’ve ever had to ask someone to leave the group, this provides the perfect ammunition for a hijacker – how can you claim to be inclusive, if you kicked someone out?
Incidentally, there is – and should be – a limit to tolerance and inclusiveness. As you can see in this cool cartoon.
Another way hijackers twist values goes something like this: say for example the group values democracy, in the form of giving each member an equal voice to express themselves. A hijacker might twist the definition of “democracy” to mean a political democracy, in that each member should get a deciding vote on leadership or activities. Typically this comes with the suggestion that there should be a vote on who should be the group leader, and it just so happens the hijacker has collected enough support to win.
Hijackers can be two-faced. To your face, they will present a totally pro-social and group-oriented persona. Behind your back, they will show a different face. They may come across as concerned for the well-being of other members. They may directly criticize the leadership. They may attempt to portray themselves as wiser or more “in-the-know” than the group leaders. The way to determine if this is real critique or an attempt to hijack the group is by addressing it directly. If the potential hijacker is willing to sit down and discuss their problems, they probably aren’t a hijacker. If they get evasive, or if they pretend to not know what you’re talking about, then it’s fair to assume that they have a hidden agenda.
Along with this, hijackers tend to have an oversized sense of feeling threatened. If you question their behavior, or challenge their actions, or even call them out on inconsistencies, they sense that you won’t be letting them get what they want. In their eyes, you become an enemy, and they will treat you as hostile.
A Hijacker’s Agenda
So, what is the hijacker’s agenda?
Who the heck knows.
In our case, it seemed like Tray always needed to be the only one talking. He would talk over the top of people. He seemed to have difficulty letting other people speak or share opinions. He seemed to feel threatened by people who were better educated or more experienced than he was. I also noticed that he spent a lot of time texting privately with young women in the group, regardless of whether they were married. From this, I assume that Tray’s goals were to a) be the center of attention, b) be the “best” Pagan in the group, and c) get unlimited and unquestioned access to date young women.
But here’s the thing – the only reason I have any of this information, is that we noticed something was a little hinky and we started paying attention. I formed a hypothesis, and watched his behavior to see if it matched. My wife and I heard him talking with young women about texting the night before. He bragged about going on a date with a 21-year-old. (Tray is 40+.) When my wife and I brought up the XKCD Standard Creepiness Rule, Tray got real quiet. And after that is when the antagonism really started.
Ultimately, though, you may never know what your hijacker’s agenda is. Also ultimately, it doesn’t matter. If the hijacker wants something, and they are working behind you or against you to get it, that’s enough to consider them a problem.
How do hijackers impact Pagan groups?
In the first place, no one who spends a bunch of time, money, and effort building a Pagan group wants to see someone swoop in and poach members. That alone can cause hard feelings. Imagine that you built a business from the ground up over several years – then some slick lawyer came along and snatched it out from under you. Or imagine you just spent a lot of time and money training a good employee, and a competitor hired them out from under you.
Poaching members is a shitty thing. And the resulting hard feelings can irreparably harm the greater Pagan community. But wait! There’s more.
Another way hijackers damage community is by exploiting the group for resources without giving anything back. This makes more sense if you think in terms of starting a new group. If a hijacker could get what they wanted by starting a new group, they would do so. The only reason they want to hijack yours, is to get access to something your group has. That might mean followers, an ego boost, or a potential client list. In our case, Tray seemed like he wanted a captive audience to lavish him with attention, and several young women whom he could indiscriminately date. In other circumstances, I’ve heard that hijackers have attempted to exploit groups for money (getting people to buy their products or services).
I don’t think I have to tell you how icky it is to watch a Pagan leader hitting on people half his or her age. There’s a power dynamic there, much like that of guru/follower or teacher/student, or even boss/employee, which renders those situations automatically exploitive. How can the victim say no, without risking membership in the group? Or risking their reputation and social standing in the group? They can’t – and that creates a coercive pressure on the victim to go along.
And I don’t think I have to spell out the details of why exploiting a group for money or clients – without giving anything back – is harmful.
Sometimes, people just go to Pagan groups to meet other people. Maybe find a friend, or at least some people to hang out with. While I think this is a little exploitive, really I think that’s what Pagan groups are for. You might not find the group you really want, but you can at least get something from the group you have.
If I’m really being honest, when I was a baby-Pagan, I might’ve been a little guilty of this. I went to groups I wasn’t super interested in, in the hopes of finding other people that I might mesh with. I don’t remember ever trying to take over leadership of a group, but I definitely questioned a leader’s decisions. (To be fair, the group was polyamorous and the leader was flirting with my partner.) I like to think I learned my lesson, both allowing for people to use the group for their own needs (to a limited degree), and checking myself when my goals cross a line. And I think I’ve learned to distinguish forming a sub-group as being different from trying to hijack and take control of the group.
In addition to interpersonal conflict and exploitation, there is a very real damage that happens to a group simply as a result of removing a toxic Pagan. Asking someone to leave your group – which I advocate, if you have a toxic Pagan – can cause other members to feel like they’re walking on eggshells, and feel worried about being removed themselves. It’s as if removing someone creates a wound in the group, which can fester. It may also cause some people (like the ones that have anxiety) to not feel safe expressing their vulnerabilities anymore. Some of it may stem from guilt over seeming to agree with the hijacker. If your hijacker has co-conspirators, they may be worried about being asked to leave simply for being on the same side as the hijacker. All these things can damage your group just from having to deal with someone who tried to hijack it. Which is extra shitty. It’s like the hijacker is contagious, and your group suffers just by their presence.
Groups can also be wounded simply by the actions the hijacker takes to court followers. Bad-mouthing leadership creates distrust and splinters the group along ideological lines. Excluding leadership from executive decisions creates an “us v. them” mentality. Those are extremely difficult to undo.
Another thing. Healthy groups can become unhealthy with just the addition of one unhealthy person. But a healthy person cannot turn an unhealthy group into a healthy one. [Edit 9-12-17 – see Part 1 and Part 2 of Sia’s excellent Witchvox article, “It’s a Mystery” for more information about healthy and unhealthy group dynamics. This statement is derived from information in these articles.] As a group leader, you have to decide the direction that your group is going to take. If you’re a good leader, you’re probably looking at activities and rules that enhance the group, help people learn and grow, and emphasize healthy people and relationships. You may need to take swift and decisive action in order to prevent a hijacker from seducing your group into actions that might feel nice, but which ultimately lead to unhealthy behaviors and relationships. That might feel undemocratic and authoritarian, but unfortunately, that’s the price we have to pay for healthy groups.
Actions you can take
We brought this up in our local group recently – how do we handle it if someone is behaving in a way that we believe they are trying to hijack the group?
To their credit, everyone in the group suggested that the group sit down and talk things out like adults.
I was so proud of them!
But what do you do if the hijacker insists that they don’t have any grievances? Or if they agree to meet, then cancel? At some point, they are just buying more time to bring more people under their influence.
If that’s the case and you’ve got someone who is deliberately, actively working to undermine you and poach people from your group, I hate to say it – but it’s too late. You and your group aren’t getting out of this unscathed.
Publicly inviting the hijacker to discuss the issue is a good idea. If they refuse, you can tell them you’re aware that they’re spreading gossip and making plans behind your back, and that if they aren’t willing to discuss their grievances like an adult, they’ll need to find another group.
You can simply ask them to leave. I suggest giving them a reason you’re asking them to go. People will invent reasons if you don’t offer them, and their creativity won’t work in your favor. Be aware that even if you explain your reasoning, they will usually omit their own behavior when they’re talking with friends.
In our case, we had to close down the whole group because of Tray. Our Saturday Pagan coffees, which we had been doing for years, were cancelled. (I understand Tray took over the time and venue, and still meets there with his
We offered a sit-down-and-bitch-session, where anyone with skin in the game was enthusiastically invited to come and hash things out with us. One person showed. (We figured the rest knew they had crossed a line, and they were simply afraid to own up to their actions.)
In the end, though, a few people stayed loyal to us and the group. A few people went over to Tray’s group. I’m pretty sure several people just walked away from Paganism completely, simply because of all the drama.
In retrospect, I might have tried doing a group healing ritual after we asked people to leave. Or maybe a session where we say all the nice things about the person who had to go. It’s never easy asking someone to leave the group. I mean, I want the best for all the people in the group. I don’t wish anyone harm, unless they pose a direct threat to someone’s safety. If someone leaves, they may still be friends with people who are in the group, and that can be awkward.
Prevention can be a good tactic, but you have to screen potential members pretty closely. Before the blow-up, we tried to use a hybrid public/private group model. It was a compromise, to protect people’s privacy while also allowing for an open group. That was a mistake. It allowed membership (or not being a member) to be used as a wedge issue to stir up discontent and divide loyalty.
One tactic, if you can get it to work, is a clean break. One way that hijackers operate is by engaging in conflict and twisting people up with tit-for-tat. I find that paying a lot of attention and engaging in that conflict only aggravates things. You can ask someone to leave, and have that be the end. Or you can have a sit-down meeting, where you discuss the issue and then it’s done. Then if people keep putting energy into a “done” issue, you can remind them that healthy conflict resolution is a condition of membership.
I’m not sure I have a lot of other suggestions. I feel like I’m still learning as I go, though I take some comfort in knowing that other Pagan groups are struggling with the same issues. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments!
A few other thoughts about hijackers
I think that someone who hijacks a group may not be directly intending harm toward the leaders. Or they may not even be completely conscious of their motives or the consequences. To my mind, motives probably tend toward getting attention, sex, or money. I don’t begrudge people wanting to better their position. But when you’re riding on someone else’s work, or shitting on them to make yourself look better, that’s not a healthy way to build or operate a group. Kinda like in Nature, if you log a forest for timber, you need to give back by replanting more trees. If you just log them (or strip-mine, or frack, etc.) without giving back, eventually the area will wither and die.
I’m betting that for most folks, by the time you realize you’re being hijacked it’s probably too late to prevent damage to the group. This is a risk you take when managing an open group. In our case, the public/private hybrid model added to the problem by creating a prestige group. What I took from that was that we should either make the group completely public and open to anyone, and let it be what the participants want it to be; or make it secret and private, and screen potential members heavily before allowing them in. (At least, that’s how we’re manage our groups now, and so far it seems to be working.)
I’ve said it already, but it bears repeating that a hijacker needs your group for something they can’t get on their own. If they’re organizing events and discussing a change in leadership without including you, then it’s safe to assume that their agenda is hostile. (Not like assassination-hostile, just opposite-of-friendly hostile.) My experience is that hijackers will try to avoid being noticed by administrators. It’s a strange mix, in that they need the group for their agenda, but they have to operate below the notice of the group leaders. Like a parasite.
If you sense this stuff going on, it’s worth having a group discussion and bringing it out into the open. Hijackers seem to thrive in secrecy, and talking openly about their complaints and suggestions can de-fang their efforts to turn other members against the leadership.
Another thing to realize is that even though it seems personal, and may even involve personal attacks, the situation really isn’t about you. The hijacker is making it look like it’s about you by stirring up dissent or discontent or drama. But it’s really about them, and how their personal flaws are influencing their desires and behavior. It’s hard, but you can try to let things go. Remember, nature isn’t designed for perpetual growth; sometimes a tree has to die and decay to make room for new growth. In our case, having to start again from scratch has led to us being happier, and to having groups that are more fulfilling.
This article is mostly written for group leaders, but if you’re a member of a group, it’s worth your time to think about these things. It might feel confusing if you’re new to a group and you’re getting two different messages (one from the leaders, and another from a hijacker). You can always ask for a sit-down with everyone, to explain who’s in charge and what’s appropriate for the group.
It’s also a good idea to check yourself if you start thinking about forcing a change in leadership. If you think the group needs a new leader, an ethical way to do that is to start your own group and run it the way you want. Do not solicit members of the old group to join the new one; the old group may tolerate you advertising your new group once, but don’t push it.
One final note to touch on – I haven’t really mentioned anything about being in a bad group. There are bad Pagan groups out there. If you find yourself in a group where you don’t like what the leaders are doing, it’s still not OK to stage a coup and overthrow the leaders. The appropriate response is to a) sit down and talk about it like grown-ups, or b) leave the group and start your own. If the group is doing things that are illegal, like underage sex or illegal drug usage, you should report it to the police. If the group is doing things that are immoral, like brainwashing people, you can report it, but the brainwashees will probably fight against you. Use your best judgment, and remember that a clean break is always healthier and more effective than conflict.
There’s nothing fun about putting several years of time, work, and money into a group only to have someone come along and steal all the good stuff. Whether it’s members, or meeting space, or teaching materials, or even a shop or a custom ritual design, it’s simply not cool for someone to get their success standing on the back of your efforts.
So don’t do it. And don’t put up with it if you see someone doing it. An appropriate response is either “Let’s talk about this with the group leaders,” or “Why don’t you start your own group to do this.” (Well, I’m sure there are other appropriate responses. I’d love to hear them in the comments.)
I’ve been thinking about this since our group blew up a year ago, and I’m not sure how it could have been resolved any other way. At the time, we didn’t know just how bad it was. Things that long-term members had always been OK with, were suddenly treated as deal-breakers. We frequently solicited feedback and got no response, so we were especially surprised by how angry people were about how we were doing things.
Right now, I feel pretty OK about how the current groups are going. I’m still a little hurt by the whole thing, but I was frustrated with the way the old group was going. I think the only way we could grow was with destructive/disruptive change. It could’ve gone more smoothly, but sometimes I think wrathful and destructive change is a good way to clear out the junk before moving forward. I find it helpful, sometimes, to imagine that Tray was really our friend, and he did us the favor of collecting all the lousy Pagans away from us. (Lousy sounds a little judgmental, maybe disloyal? Unwilling to consider both sides? Unwilling to put time and effort into their Pagan practice? Attracted to drama or conflict?)
And maybe that’s part of the lesson. That sometimes, you have to take down the old dying tree. It’s painful and it sucks, but maybe you learn to plant it in a better location, and trim the branches more strategically. And sometimes, your enemy is really your friend in disguise.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever felt like you were in a group that needed a change in leadership? Have you ever been a group leader and have someone try to hijack your group? I’m interested to hear your thoughts, whether it’s strategies on how you dealt with it, or what happened as a result.