Being a practicing Pagan means that you have many options for learning and worship. Unlike other religions which frequently have a more standardized religious structure; Paganism is a religious faith (or rather, a collection of different religious faiths) in which one may practice alone, in a small informal group of friends, in a larger more organized open community, or in closed highly structured coven or circle. Even within these distinct options, there exist an even wider gamut of styles, orientations and traditions. With that said, it becomes incredibly important to understand the difference between these styles of practice and acknowledge that not every style or every group is right for everyone.
Before jumping into any group or practice, it’s incredibly important to do two things: (1) research and (2) reflection. Research the options in your area; every group whether an informal group of friends or a highly structured coven has group norms and a group ethos, it’s important to know what these are and it’s important to reflect upon whether they fit well with your beliefs.
Group Norms are the spoken or unspoken rules of the group that guide individual behavior within that group.
A Group Ethos is the groups guiding principles, beliefs, values that characterize the group as a whole.
For example, a group ethos could be: “do no harm” (a very common principle among Wiccans); however the literal interpretation of what this means and the expectations of the group members to live up to this principle can vary greatly. For some, “do no harm” simply means not using magical energy to maliciously control or manipulate others. Some however, offer a tangible interpretation of this principle, which leads them to become vegan out of not wanting to harm animals. If this is the case for you, then joining a coven of hunters and carnivores may not be appropriate for you.
This is where self-reflection comes in; knowing what your personal values and principles are, is a part of the journey you are on (in fact, I would say that self-reflection is the most important part of your journey). Every group regardless of its structure will have its own ethos and norms; not all of which are going to fit your needs perfectly, finding one that does fit you is extremely important.
Now let’s talk about group styles:
Most well know is the Coven; however what covens do, how they operate and what they offer is frequently misunderstood. Everyone seems to be looking for a coven, yet so few really understand what it is.
First, let me clear up the misconception that being a member of a Coven is somehow the only way to be a true, authentic, practicing Pagan/Wiccan/Witch. It is far from the only way to practice and furthermore, it is far from the ideal way to practice in many cases. Let’s further debunk the myth that it somehow imbues you with sacred wisdom passed down from the ages just because you step into their sacred circle. The high priestess is not descended from an ancient and unbroken line of witches going back to the “burning times” (if she says she is…RUN!).
So what is a Coven?
A Coven is the most structured form of Pagan worship, and that’s it, that’s all a coven is! Usually, (but not always) Coven structure is based on a hierarchy (having ranks, degrees or levels of attainment) with the High Priest or High Priestess or both at the top and the newest members on the bottom.
In this style, new members are usually carefully vetted and only occasionally taken on. There is a reason for that, and it’s not a mystical one. It’s because running a coven is HARD WORK! A lot of time and energy goes into a smooth running Coven, so adding new members is something not done lightly. Yes, you can learn a lot from being in a coven but most of the education that you will learn from being a member of a coven can be learned through other avenues. The difference in education, in my opinion, is that Covens are idealized, while other systems of learning are not.
What can you gain from being in a coven? Covens tend to be close knit, if you are someone who is selectively social, but also values learning from others, a coven structure might be a good fit. A coven might offer support and encouragement, but so might a less structured community setting, which may be easier to find and give you more room to experiment with new ideas if you are just starting out.
There are many benefits to Coven membership, but there are also many downsides; to fully understand if joining a Coven is right for you must weigh the risks and the benefits with you own personal needs and remember that not all covens are created equal, not all covens have proven and effective leadership, not all covens are ethically run, not all covens are right for everyone.
Risk-Benefit Analysis of Coven Membership:
Small, Close Knit Unit
Frequently (but not always) one-on-one education
Upward mobility (earning degrees) for those seeking it
Frequently focused on a specific traditional orientation
Cohesion & group think
Demanding of time, attention
Best for the serious students who have studied for a long while on their own and now want more in-depth practice
Good for team players
Adherence to authority
Individual experience will vary greatly
What to look for if you are interested in joining a Coven?
Humility: who or what is really being served here? The Gods or someone’s ego?
Grounded in reality: does their background story seem like something out of a fantasy novel? It very well could be.
Educated Leadership: does the person teaching you have the qualifications necessary to adequately train you? Both from an academic standpoint and from a Pagan standpoint. The best leaders have a solid education, book knowledge and experienced leadership.
Stability: psychologically and in everyday life; do the group leaders financially stable or are they struggling to meet their everyday basic needs?
Lack of gossip, strife, internal conflict (which is different from everyday disagreements and discussion)
Are the group leaders and member people you can truly look up to? Are they true mentors? People to be admired?
Circles: As already mentioned, not all covens are created equal; the description above is not a one-size-fits-all. Sometimes the word “Circle” will be used to denote subtle differences in structure from that of “Covens”. For all practical purposes the word Coven and Circle can be used interchangeably; but in my experiences there are some differences. Whereas, Covens tend toward strict adherence to a specific tradition, hierarchy and degree systems; Circles tend to be somewhat looser than Covens (although still more structured that the other forms of practice we will look at next), they tend to be less strict in keeping tradition and are more egalitarian in their organizational structure. Again this is not a hard-and-fast rule, so it’s important to use the above guidelines for assessing a Circle just as you would a Coven.
To add to the confusion, there are also “Inner Circles” and “Outer Circles” (also called a “Grove”). Inner Circles (or the closed network of people dedicated to working together AKA: the Coven), often but not always offer to the surrounding community open rituals which the public can attend. These open to the public rituals are what constitutes the Outer Circle of the Inner Circle/Coven. In the terms of organized religious practice: the Outer Circle would be the congregation of the Circle/Coven; while the Circle/Coven would be the minister(s) who organize and lead the service. Like the congregation, the service (or open ritual) does not have restrictions on who can attend; it is open to the community.
Community: (Outer Circle/Grove) Community worship is a wonderful option for those who want to find an open and inviting group of fellow Pagans for worship and learning but do not wish to commit themselves to the deeper involvement of Coven or Inner Circle. This is the Pagan version of laity or congregation.
It’s important to state that not all community Pagan events will be run by an organized Inner Circle or Coven; so not all community-centric groups will offer opportunity for greater involvement in planning, organizing and training (AKA: the Inner Circle). If this is something that interests you, ask you organizers whether there is opportunity for further Inner Circle involvement.
Again it’s important to investigate the Outer Circle/Grove/Community; do their values mesh well with yours? Are their rituals appealing, friendly, warm, easy to understand or do you find yourself baffled, confuse and feeling left out?
Being a Pagan on a wild hunt for a sense of community can leave you feeling as though you need to join any and all groups that come your way…you don’t! If it doesn’t feel right to you, chances are you are better off waiting until something else comes along or better yet…starting something yourself (hint, hint, hint: ask your community organizers for help starting your smaller group, chances are they know others in the community who are looking for the same thing!).
Small Informal Groups: This can be a small group of friends who all want to start doing ritual together, or it can be a book club you create with new people you’ve never met, or even an arts’n’crafts group that gets together to talk about tarot; either way this is an informal group with few restrictions, that casually gets together to talk about or do magical/spiritual work of some type.
These groups may or may not evolve into tighter knit circles, groves or covens and that’s OK! We need these groups as well! These are the places where people can get together to get their feet wet, to start gathering information about Paganism, what it means and what it involves. They tend to be easy to start (but hard to maintain), if you have ever thought about starting one…I say go for it! The worst thing that can happen is that you learn something from the experience.
Duo’s, Trio’s or Solitary: We have arrived at the opposite of the spectrum from Covens; though this form of practice is no less rewarding. Solitary practice or working with one or two other people gives you the most control over whatever magical/spiritual work you are doing, it also means that the responsibility for doing it rests solely on you; so solitary work is great for people who are self-motivated, self-learners and work best independently from others. Since you are the one in charge of your own solitary practice, your inner principles, ethics and moral codes are what you are relying on, which can be a good thing if you have a solid moral compass. Flip side is if you are someone who needs to bounce ideas off of others and values external motivation and/or validation, working alone may not be for you.
It’s also important to note that as you evolve in your Pagan practice you may find your personal needs for structure, group affiliation or solitude changing.
These are the types of religious structure frequently seen in Paganism; but they are not mutually exclusive from one another. Many who are a part of a Coven or Circle also have a solitary practice that they do as part of their daily spiritual “upkeep”; this is the best of all worlds.
As we grow and change, our needs grow and change along with us. I, myself have been involved on every level of Pagan worship structure, from solitary to Coven, at different points in my life. I have valued all of my experiences and gained from each type of practice; no one was better than the other, they are just different and occurred at different points in my life, based on what I needed most. As a devoted Priestess and Witch, who is active in Inner and Outer Circle work, my solitary practice is ongoing and necessary, it gives me space to breathe and open myself up to deep inner reflection and spiritual healing work. For me solitary work goes hand in hand with my other Pagan responsibilities; one enriches the other.
A self-reflection inventory to get you started:
Think about your lifestyle and personality and ask yourself the following questions:
Do I enjoy structure or am I happier when things are free-flowing and loose? Somewhere in the middle?
Am I social person or do I prefer the solitude of my own company? Somewhere in the middle?
What are my goals for my religious life?
Do I keep prefer to occasionally celebrate the major holiday or is my spiritual life an everyday priority in my life?
Do I feel a “calling” to the priesthood or priestesshood? Do I prefer to be actively involved, to be a leader, a mentor or an educator, or am I content to participate in a less direct way?
What are my key values, ethics, moral codes, needs, and desires for my life, both spiritual and mundane?
What amount of time am I able and willing to devote to my spiritual life and any group I belong to?
What was it about Paganism that drew me to it in the first place? Nature orientation? Magic? Goddess/Feminist Spirituality?
What are my fantasies about covens, witches, magic? Are they grounded in real world spiritual practice?