A Cup of Hemlock: Dealing with Conflict in Coven and Congregation
There have always been those folks who point out our foibles, and make us take an uncomfortable look at our world, as well as those who simply had the misfortune to point out the obvious when it was unwelcome. Then there are troublemakers, folks who go out of their way to antagonize others. And throughout time there have been ways to deal with such folks. Socrates was given a cup of hemlock to drink. Galileo was imprisoned and threatened with death if he ever again asserted that the earth goes around the sun. Not all troublemakers create their havoc in the name of truth, and a cup of hemlock is no longer in style. So how do we deal with conflict in Paganism today?
The worldview of the Pagan philosophy is, of necessity, accepting of a variety of beliefs. It stems from a basic belief that all forms of positive spirituality are valid and valuable. Underlying our religion and our way of being religious are some assumptions about our world and our people which provide us with a religious philosophy that values all its members and celebrates them!
We can agree in the broadest terms, that some originating energy or force created all that we see around us. That great force is divine, expressing the mystery that is life with sufficient power to bring all that we know – dirt, stars, human, animal, mineral, rock, protozoa – into being. As creations of that great force, we are equal participants and partakers of that divine energy.
Thus, we are divine in nature. Each and every facet of our reality participates in a grand interactive tapestry, woven from a myriad of directions and effects. Each part of our world represents an aspect of the incredibly complex expression of our will and existence in this life. One of the greatest challenges for the newcomer to Earth-centered philosophy is to encompass a broader understanding of the potentials expressed through this physical world. And our physical world includes the intellectual, and the spiritual. For these are not separate strands, but supporting threads within the fabric of our existence.
Content or Concept?
Pagans find themselves extremely careful when defining their religion to those who ask. There is no way to rapidly share all the underpinning ideas, and the material is so vast that any attempt to explain what we are doing is only a brief overview with little of the foundation visible to the casual inquirer.
And they are almost more uncomfortable defining it within their Pagan community than to outsiders. They intuitively comprehend that which has never been spoken. Paganism, Wicca and other Earth-Centered Spirituality paths are religions of principle and concept, they are not spiritual traditions of content.
What is content? Content is that which the other religions with formal, organized bureaucracies have so much of. History. Written traditions. Theology. Liturgy. All of these together comprise a totality of belief, which allow folks to make minute distinctions between one faith and another. Why is someone Baptist, and someone else Southern Baptist? Or Methodist in preference to Lutheran? These traditions all have detailed, codified systems of belief. And someone, somewhere, believed that these variations were so powerful that they must split from their former communities and congregations and form separate groups within the new variation.
Pagans, and witches, and ECS comprehend instinctually that to make any of these definitions would invalidate the overall beliefs of the pagan world. And they are correct. For Paganism is not a philosophical path of content. It is a path based on the powerful concept that each of us is inherently an honorable individual and will make our own decisions concerning the practical details of our spiritual expression.
Yet, what happens when we have serious disagreements? We need some way to create a consensus, which will allow us to resolve differences that arise within our spiritual families, without denigrating our members or their various beliefs.
Throughout time churches have been split over doctrinal differences. They then divide into the new concept community, and the original group, which retains the base belief system. Over and over again, this process continues: One group supports outreach to Gays and Lesbians; Another focuses on the issue of women in the clergy; One group reaches to live their lives exactly as the Bible decrees. Another declares that the Bible is the translated word of God, and they seek to live the central concepts behind the word in the book. How does this work in Paganism and Earth-centered Spirituality?
We also have many people who seek to define what Paganism, Neo-Paganism, Wicca, Witchcraft, etc. etc. might be. The very proliferation of phrases and names that are currently in use reflect this urge to make definitions that suit each group or individual. And as the movement grows rapidly, we will see more and more of this attempt to make the Pagan religions assume the same continuity, consistency, and predictability as the religions we were brought up to believe were the ‘real’ religions.
And not only that, but as each new group comes to Paganism, Wicca, Earth-centered spirituality or Witchcraft, they each devise their own definitions, and are passionate about those choices.
And with that passion, comes conflict. Within coven and congregation, grove and temple, it becomes more and more important to define how to honorably consider and resolve conflict and disagreements.
Define Kinds of Conflict
Problems to Solve – this is the easiest level. This may include something as slight as finding parking, getting folks not to park on your neighbor’s lawn, or asking for solutions to provide funding for the next event. There is an opportunity for emotional reactions within these questions, but the chance is slight and the emotions raised would not be intrinsic to the worldview of folks, so generally it can be easily remedied. The conflict is not considered as person-oriented. Full use of rational opportunities and communication is quite open. There are rarely hidden agendas.
Disagreements – This is a little deeper. There are actually opposing points of view in question. And disagreements might hold deeper threats to a person’s preferences or beliefs. Disagreements may have sufficient power to alienate members, unless compromise or resolution is mutually agreed to. At this level individuals move away from dealing with specifics and tend toward generalizations. Compromise may be one of the most acceptable strategies.
Contests – Now the resolution of the issues is seen as a lose/win situation. Even the original focus of the conflict has faded into the background as the focus turns to the ultimate outcome – who will ‘win.’ At this level healthy resolution of the conflict becomes extremely difficult.
Fight or Flight – At this stage, the individuals have moved away from regarding each other as honorable equals, and turned to the concept of hurting their opponents in some way. There is a tendency to lose track of the original details of the issue, which generated the original engagement, and to appeal to generalized and personalized principles. Of necessity, use of personalized standards, exclude honoring other points of view. The choices now are limited: fighting or fleeing.
Intractable Situations – This has the most powerful emotional projection of all. At this level, individuals are no longer engaged in any rational process at all. They are focused, entirely, on personal satisfaction through damage. It is not a concern where the damage might spread. It is almost certainly impossible to repair conflict at this level. One must be able to move to a lower level of perceived damage and threat before rational resolution becomes a possibility.
Speed Leas did much work in defining how these levels of conflict work within a large group, congregational environment. I have applied them as best I can to our Coven or other organizational groups, and the levels of progression seem to hold true. In his book, Moving Your church Through Conflict, (Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1985) Lea comments: “The first two levels are easy to work with; the third is tough; the fourth and fifth are very difficult to impossible.”
In short, conflict at the Problems to Solve, or the Disagreement level can often be handled by normal conflict resolution techniques and can end up being healthy. Most conflict at the Contest level or higher levels cannot. It is also important to note that individuals engaged in conflict may not engage in the situation at the same level.
There is one other group of folks that must be mentioned here. While most people come to the table as honorable members of your Coven, Church or congregation, there are those few that thrive on the excitement of being in conflict.
Antagonism should not be confused with mere criticism or healthy conflict within an organization or group. It is always dishonorable. There is a growing understanding that some people initiate and thrive on unhealthy conflict, persons who have no desire to see conflict resolved.
"Antagonists are individuals who, on the basis of nonsubstantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather that building up, and are frequently directed those in a leadership capacity." (Antagonists in the Church, p25)
Covens and congregations, as caring organizations who wish to further the opportunity and success of their members, may unknowingly provide a haven. And, as religion is an emotionally charged subject, it is very powerful areas for eliciting a response.
Resolving day-to-day conflict
In general, however, genuinely caring individuals who know each other well, and who seek to reach agreement and long-term resolution have certain steps they can take.
First and foremost – deal with it directly. Limit the amount of partisan supporters that can be dredged up. This causes more than one problem, but first and foremost, you now have a circus and a lot of pride at stake. Limiting the conversation to those directly involved takes a lot of pressure off the outcome.
Encourage folks to act immediately on items as they come up. Waiting generally means that you have talked to a lot of others, deepened and strengthened the emotions behind the irritation, and cannot easily consider an alternative since you have been rehearsing and reviewing your position for an extended length of time. Treating the episode as it develops stops the trend toward cementing the situation emotionally as intractable and you as a victim, or worse a victim of the organization.
Have in place – I know this seems unnaturally formal – a process for conflict resolution. Steps to be followed. Again and again, we have heard of groups that finally dissolved as they tried to help one individual, often new to that group, to understand and be happy. As we look back, we can see this person bounced from group to group, destruction in their path. The only way to miss this pitfall is to have a process which can be used for appeal, but one which will never allow one person to demand all the time of the organization, and to create such an emotional atmosphere that it destroys the community, coven or congregation which has successfully thrived for years.
Within a coven or small group, these negotiations can easily be mediated by the leadership of the organization. When the conflict arises within a committee, or working group or other subdivision of a larger organization, it is always advisable to get input from the congregation leadership as to how to proceed. If this is a genuinely antagonistic situation, it may not be advisable to offer the person more press. If the complaint has to do with congregation, church or coven standards and tenants, then a simple referral to the appropriate documents, which outline the organizational standards may be sufficient to provide an answer or solution.
In that same vein, know when to quit and tell an unhappy person to move on. If you have given this person all the information, which would reasonably answer their questions, or solve their problem, and they do not want to accept it, then the next step becomes obvious. Not everyone is a good match with every group. Be prepared to ask this person to leave.
This is the hardest thing for spiritual groups to do. We want so much to offer every person a spiritual home, and a sacred experience. You must keep in mind honor, fairness and sheer numbers. If one person is destroying the harmony of 10, 20 or even five people, it is not fair to sacrifice the energy and time of an entire group to resolve that person’s needs. And, to be honest, such attempts to resolve intractable situations are hopeless and only serve to destroy the energy, hope and joy of those who so earnestly give away their happiness.
It is common to believe that any conflict or confrontation is harmful to an organization. However, not facing such brewing situations often will only compound what may be later dangerously destructive. Again and again small groups, and larger ones, watch one person who displays their ongoing frustration go through the stages of mild annoyance, to real anger, to true disillusioned and departure. It is important that conflicts be confronted early in the process, while rational resolution and compromise are still available as tools.
Care-fronting: The Creative Way Through Conflict
In his book Caring Enough to Confront, David Augsburger describes an approach to conflict management called "care-fronting." He first points out that we have some misconceptions about these terms, and then provides a new way of looking at helping our members through conflict. Below is a synopsis of that strategy.
Incorrect thinking about care:
There is a time for caring, and a person should care when care is called for. These are members of our spiritual community, and we want the best solution for the entire group. But caring dare not be compromised by any hint of confrontation. To care genuinely, honestly is its own goal and confrontation must be left behind, at least for now. When you care deeply about another, you cannot confront, because hurting that person is the very last thing you want to do.
Incorrect thinking about confronting:
There is a time for confronting, and a person should confront when confrontation is required. But confronting must not be compromised by any taint of caring. To confront powerfully, care must be set aside. When someone is angry, they should confront. To talk of caring at a moment like this would be false. And when you are angry, this issue has obviously become a deeply personal impact.
Correct thinking about caring and confronting: "Care-fronting"
Together, the words care and confronting provide the balance of love and power that lead to effective human relationships. Unfortunately, the more common practice is to keep these two distinct and separate as strategies. The earlier two examples offer only a warrior’s pure view of winning a situation. They do not provide room for the kind of love and support we want to offer members of our community, our family, our covens, temples and church.
Care-fronting offers genuine caring that bids another grow. To care is to welcome, invite, and support growth in another. It offers real confrontation that calls out new insight and understanding. To confront effectively is to offer the maximum amount of useful information while minimizing any threat.
To diffuse the situation needing correction, present it as but one of the steps on a road to a valued member of our community – and welcome change as a sign of strength and power on the part of the individual making such changes. It is very important never to imply a win-lose mentality. These are not enemies or criminals; they are our fellow travelers of a spiritual path we all value deeply.
Care-fronting unites love and power and unified concern for relationship with concern for goals. This way, one can have something to stand for (goals, vision) as well as some to stand with (relationship, community) without sacrificing one for the other – and powerfully love. These are not contradictory; they are complementary
Most important, Know Yourself
Every group has a vision and a mission statement for their group, even it if has never been written down. Take time within your group to define what exactly it is that you are gathering for. Are you focusing on children? Education? Community? Perhaps, seasonal celebration?
By knowing what you are working for, and making it clear, much discomfort may be alleviated up front. If you have a new member, who wishes to join, but whose focus is formal worship and celebration, but your group has a lot of youngsters and works primarily in providing celebration and youth religious education, then it is obvious from the start that this is not a good match.
Now, with our coven, we originally did a lot of spiritual exploration, formal magick and experiential magick. Over the years, however, our members married and had children. Without realizing it, we became much more focused on providing a magickal community for our children, while offsetting some of the holidays as ‘deep magick’ for the parents and adults only. A single person probably would not find us nearly as interesting or as vital as a group of young persons who are out being politically active, tree sitting, chaining themselves up to save old-growth forests. It is simply a matter of what suits our needs.
And, by providing that information up front, we miss a lot of the confusion that arises as the newcomer insists, “But I thought you guys did magick!” For us magick, even deep magick, may now include diapers, and watching over our baby pagans.
While there are no simple answers when dealing with the complex issue that is our community, having a plan and standards by which we honorably deal with our those we value, as well as those we have doubts about, will always offer an objective base from which we can hope to offer an honest opinion.
There will generally be day-to-day decisions that offer only opportunity for growth and new ideas. And, occasionally, those deeper more painful issues we must handle for our members.
Keep fully in mind, that each of us are divine, sacred representations of the Gods we call ours, and that no one creates controversy for its own sake. Each of us stands in a different spot, and has a very different view of the world we inhabit.
By using strategies as laid out above, coupled with a clear idea of who and what we are, and what we stand for, we are able to offer solutions, creative ideas and understanding of those concerns that arise.
Conflict and confrontation are never simple or easy. Yet, they can be paths to growth and stronger ties within our family, friends and spiritual community. As we work through each issue that arises, we genuinely come to know one another.
As Socrates drank that final cup, and his life was ended, he displayed the ultimate failure of community. Through thorough planning and an awareness of tools available, we hope never to lose a valued member of any of our communities, personal, family or spiritual.
May hemlock be only a final friend in our lives, never a solution to a friendship gone wrong.
Haugk, Kenneth C.: Antagonists in the Church, Augsberg Publishing House, 1988.
Lea, Speed; Moving Your church Through Conflict, Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1985
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