/ Philosophy

Pagan Authority - Part 1

I've been trying to put some thoughts down for days. It feels like forever. I'm not sure that I'm going to get there tonight either, but I'm going to try.

I listened to a story a friend of mine told recently about how they felt betrayed by their mentor. The details aren't important, but the short version is that after years of knowing each other their mentor didn't like some of the decisions they made and instead of talking about their grievances, disavowed the student and undermined them for weeks before finally blowing up at them on the phone with a 20 minute tirade.

The thoughts I'm having aren't actually about my friends story. They aren't about the tradition I'm a part of. Although my thoughts are relevant to both of those and many other things.

I've been thinking about leadership, hierarchy, and authority. I've been thinking about the responsibility that comes with those things. And most importantly I've been thinking about how shitty we as pagans are about authority, responsibility, hierarchy, and leadership.

Seriously. We suck at it. We suck at being leaders. We suck at holding our leaders responsible.

As I am wont to do, I've been trying to find the root of this suckage. It's a tough nut to crack, and I don't think I've managed it yet. I'm not sure there is a root. I'm sure there is no single cause. I'm not sure that it isn't an infinitely recursing tangle that leads inevitably back to itself.

I want to get to a place where I am thinking about what makes good leadership, but I'm not there yet. Where I am now is looking at things that don't make for good leadership.

If you have authority, you have to keep yourself in check

One of the first and most important things about leadership that people don't seem to get, is that as a leader, it is your job to keep yourself in check. Leaders, be they priest or priestess, clergy, counselor, teacher, administrator, scrum-master, or any other title. Leaders have power. That power is dangerous, and the most important task of anyone with power is to keep it in check. Our community makes us leaders because they trust us. The power is entrusted to leadership, but it does not belong to leadership. It is the power of the community, and it should be used only in the service of that community.

This same problem is more obvious when we look at it on a bigger scale and think about American politics. Our politicians are almost universally corrupt. The institutional authority they have is given to them by the people. They misuse that authority constantly, and everybody knows it. The easiest measure to use is whether or not their authority is self-generating.

That is, when a person uses their authority to build or reinforce their authority, they are using it unethically. (There might be some exceptions to this measure, but they are few and far between). If a senator uses their authority to gerrymander a district to ensure their re-election, they are abusing that authority because they are not serving the community itself, but using it to retain the authority for themselves.

Thinking about this in a spiritual or religious context. When a leader shoots down ideas from the community they serve without giving them a chance to be heard, that's probably a bad sign. Their power comes from that community. It's even worse when it is shot down with "You're not one of the leaders so you don't get a voice." or similar words.

which brings me to...


Hierarchy is a thing. It's a thing in politics, business, and cultures all over the world. It is the underpinning of the type of authority discussed above. I know there are many people who think it needs to be thrown out of paganism entirely. I think I agree. But even if we accept that Hierarchy might be a good thing, there are times when it is really troubling.

Imagine you wanted advice on baking. You get advice from a professional baker and from someone who successfully bakes cookies from pre-made cookie dough. It's fair to say that the professional baker may have better advice. But if you are explicitly trying to make cookies from pre-made cookie dough, your other friend might provide you with more useful guidance.

Authority and Hierarchy may be valuable, but context is also incredibly important. When working on a project or task, using role differentiation or hierarchy to maintain control is a recipe for disaster. It breeds anger and contempt. I was recently in a situation where someone with extensive experience but no title brought up an idea and was ignored and told "this isn't your place." Someone with a title brought up the same idea less than a minute later and was listened to and the idea was implemented with no fuss.

I've seen this behavior in every aspect of my life. At work, in my religious community, in my family, and even in counseling scenarios. I consider it a form of classism and a way of enforcing hierarchy in an unhealthy way.

Hierarchy is useful when it gives us a path to personal growth. It is useful when it gives us an idea of who can support or help us. It is useful when we need rapid responses and clear leadership. But it is not useful in collaboration. This is one of the things that we've learned in technology. Projects are developed more quickly when you reduce the layers of management and flatten the workforce as much as possible. It's the same in a spiritual community.

Whether you are working to put on an event, be it a small new moon ritual for five people, or a week-long festival for a thousand. If you don't respect your team and give them respect and courtesy, your authority will vanish quickly.

A common response to discussing the reduction or abolition of hierarchy is "But if everybody has a say it will take too long to reach consensus." Sometimes that's true. Which is part of why we have leadership in the first place. But there is a difference between a leader or organizer calling quits to a conversation and making a decision with "We're not getting anywhere, lets move on" and a leader using their authority to ignore suggestions or ideas from others in the group, especially when that behavior is predicated on other peoples roles in the group.


This is something that annoys the hell out of me. I have often heard things that amount to "so and so is not being respectful so what they're saying isn't valuable."

This is a hot button to me, because it is indicative of privilege that comes from authority. My favorite quote about this is:

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

source: pale green things

If you are a leader, and you do something shitty, it is not disrespectful for someone who is not a leader to tell you that you are being shitty. The very idea that you feel the need to be respected by a person before you will acknowledge them is indicative of a problem to me. It initiates a power-imbalance indicated in the quote above.

I can't count the number of times I have seen people ignore the content of a communication because they felt it wasn't respectful. I've seen it in all areas of my life. It makes me very frustrated. Someone has just told you that they feel alienated and hurt by your actions, and your response is to ignore their hurt because they didn't tell you about it in what you deem to be a respectful manner?

My friends, this is the core of what it means to be corrupted by power. This is at the heart of what makes authority toxic.

Part 2 Coming Soon