Paganism: resists infallible leader syndrome, eats them when they fail

I’m always hesitant about stepping into leadership in my community. I feel called to share my gifts, and resist the glare of the spotlight. Scrutiny is a difficult thing, but my religious community prides itself on being fully human in all the places of our lives. We encourage and embrace each other as we flail and fall, dust off our knees, and rise to the task again and again. We neither coddle nor punish weakness. Sometimes we punish strength. We walk the edges – try not to fall into codependence, hold our boundaries, and push through our discomfort.

When I’m around other leaders, particularly the charismatic ones, I sidle up to them hoping for rub-off. Charisma rub-off, sure. Confidence by proximity? Please! What I really want, though, is a shield of protection. Not from failure, but from a community that claims to want fallible leaders while lambasting them if they are. We say don’t divorce body from Spirit then enact the same hypocrisies we rail against in mainstream religion. We say we live our religion embodied, Spirit in our living breathing flesh. We are human and divine both. We believe this to be true of our co-religionists and of all the peoples of the world. We celebrate this in our rituals. We cheer it when it’s spoken. And when a beloved leader shows fully how incredibly human they are and fails in a big way we rake them across the coals as if this wasn’t the very leadership role we built for them.

Whenever I get the wee bug that bites me with a desire to travel outside of my local community to teach I only need wait a month or so to have that wistful wish swept away by yet another exposé arrogantly showcasing the flaws of a (usually former) teacher or leader. It’s done with a vengeance and a wide vocabulary, including all the current buzzwords of horror, while forgetting the very humanness we begged for. Forgetting we chose this leader because they were authentic, and real, and relatable. *auto-disclaimer – I am not speaking of leaders who are wholly unethical, engage in illegal activity, and whose actions should be known and prosecuted. I’m talking about everyday human flaws, even large ones, including but not limited to unhealthy coping pattens and recognizable symptoms of un/disclosed illness, addictions, etc.*

In my Reclaiming community we strive to create spaces that are safe and open to folks with addictions and/or in recovery, to those with treated and resistant to treatment mental illnesses, to the disenfranchised. We do so with intention and with pride in our shared values. Until we see one or more of these things in a leader. Then we struggle for empathy, feel cheated, and want to lash out – how dare they be human?! We didn’t mean this when we asked for fallible leaders.

We engage with leaders who have skills we desire to learn. Sometimes we see their flaws large and naked, and feel some damage from those flaws running over people unattended and unmentioned. Sometimes we push back, usually not for long. We opt instead for putting our head down and plodding on because we still desire their skills. Maybe we stand against them at first, maybe we’re too new or in awe to fight much, and if we stay part of that staying is because they still have something we want, flaws or not. We push down guilt and we reattach to the teat of their knowledge well until we’ve drained it, sated that want. It’s what we came for, what we’ve worked or paid for, after all. It should be ours. And when we’re done we trot off with our shiny new tools.

We take these tools back to our communities, fine-tune them, make them our own and more useful to us, trim them for those we encounter in ritual and workshop spaces. We put just enough distance between our old leaders and ourselves to turn that eye of hindsight on them, without empathy, shrugging off our complicity without irony. We’ve written this story in the expanse of time between our thirsty need and the more skilled us we’ve become. “We’re so much better, smarter, more aware than they were,” we tell ourselves, conveniently forgetting they too have shifted in that space of time. We write and rewrite, removing the taint from us and applying it to them, and our final edit says that their very real failures are unforgivable, untenable, and impossible to understand because those failures dared to occur in a community leader. No mercy.

A beloved, fallible, this-is-what-we-claim-to-want in a leader person receives no sanctuary from their pagan community. Welcoming arms fold and eyes that shone with divinity now slit to disgust. We don’t check back with folks who knew them then and know them now. We rarely research to see if they’ve been held accountable by anyone, or offered amends to anyone. And frequently we don’t only take down our fallen leader, we take down everyone who was around them at the time – co-leaders, students, apprentices, and staff. We take down everyone except us, and confidently announce what must have been collusion on their part, while ignoring our own. We’ve written this story and in it we’re either hero or victim, denying our part in the unhealthy dynamic. We wear the same blinders we did back when we were too busy taking the final suck before releasing the teat, letting loose a quiet burp our future supporters would never hear.

Yeah, I think I’ll stick to leading locally. I may be raked over the coals for my real or perceived failings, but at least those folks usually have to look me in the eye to do it.


What a piece to launch my pagan blog here with, eh? I can’t wait to see what I write next!

27 Comments

      1. It’s interesting, having been in pagan leadership for some time now, I have noticed: there is no amount of care, no amount of preparation or professionalism, that makes a leader *safe*.

  1. Sadly. I’ve seen these same behaviors in local community too. Don’t let that stop you from sharing your gifts, skills, and talents with the larger world!!

    1. I know it’s a thing locally, too. I’ve seen it, felt it, but distance breeds a different type of contempt, if that makes sense.

  2. Thank you… Really well said and something I will share a long to others. Some people are ever the critique of the leaders, and for us leaders, it is important to be fully present in the work we do with integrity and Love. Can’t stop those that hold to their negativity and fear.

  3. This is all very true and spot on. I have seen it happen even in my local community. I also see it happening between members of the same coven/tribe and with those outside their covens/tribes. I think what it boils down to is judgment for being human. We try and hold ourselves to such a high standard, especially when in a leadership role, but we are no better than anyone else. The pesky ego in people causes them to want to deconstruct everyone else, while in the same turn ignoring themselves. I personally believe they could all use a little bit more shadow work, but they first have to see they need to do it.

    “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” – H.S. Thompson
    We have to jump without fear and if we are judged, well so be it; at the very least, we have made the jump!

  4. I had the honor of getting to eavesdrop on an anthropologist’s lecture where I work, that focused on (for lack of better word) mystics of many indigenous tribes where I live meeting and talking with one another about what they do.

    If I heard and noted correctly, there was a common majority thread in the positioning of a mystic in their respective communities…which is why I don’t say “spiritual leader”, because not only do they agree that abuse of (for lack of a better word) divine knowledge and possible prestige from that leads nowhere good even as it would seem to be a tempting benefit (I believe Discworld fans call that “cackling”)…so too is merely cultivating dependence of non-mystics, not usually something that turns out well. This role seems very much a part of the community then, but the community is emphatically, ermm, communal. That is this technically religious leadership being a part rather than a lead with some value judgment that could develop into dependence and people projecting personal issues or unkindly unrealistic expectations.

    So I wonder how helpful or even possible it would be to have either everyone be a leader of a sort—or no one is a leader? Maybe like, an organizer may be very skilled, and appreciated for that, but not so prestigious that a craftsperson is necessarily answerable to an organizer, or even (maybe dicey, but) those just learning to get a feel wouldn’t necessarily be put in a corner or put down but rather also have ideally equal prestige for having (say) a fresh perspective to bring in rather than imitating those who may have become overly familiar to the practice until the standard of insider or community member is ‘familiar with shared understanding’, or mediators wouldn’t be considered “just” a go-between but leading in that bailiwick. Everyone a leader in something—What would it take to make that true gregariousness work? Or how would/could violations, accountability, and amends be defined and conducted in this hypothetical?

    Because by the sound of it to me, if it’s not scapegoating as social currency without any true stake or thought or emotional investment or discernment—or with all that, but expressed less constructively, I…kind of lean towards a potential problem being when communal issues fall into a someone-else’s-problem bubble, and/or related dynamic perhaps, playing it safe by going along with not-quite-right-actually-even-sort-of-horribly-wrong. Maybe I’m hoping that “leadership” expected of all would encourage more people to step up to individual responsibility? Pardon me for the ramble or if this was too tangential. Thank you for posting this.

    1. Not tangential at all. In my traditions shared leadership is valued. Teams as leaders and teachers is the norm. And shared means more than teams, it means leaders step in and then they step out so others may lead. It promotes itself as non-hierarchal, but that isn’t quite accurate. It’s more of a shifting hierarchy, with the entire community taking lead roles at different times.

      When this ideal plays out it’s wonderful to experience. How often the ideal is achieved depends greatly on the individuals in the community. Unlearning traditional ideas of what leadership looks is daunting, but worthwhile.

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