Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth

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Energy in Ritual: Different Flavors

What impacts the amount of energy in a ritual and the type of energy? And what's the difference between the energy in a private ritual and a group ritual? I recently saw a Facebook post about the topic and my response was long enough that it seemed more appropriate as a blog post. 

The conversation centered around this quote from the book Dedicant by Thuri Calafia:

“Personally, what I have noticed most often about the level of energy in the many rituals I have experienced has far more to do with *my mood and personal energy level* in solitary rites, and the *personalities and personal connections of the people* involved in the group rites I’ve experienced than with any external factor, from clothing or lack thereof, to male-female alternation around the circle, to tradition or jewelry or hairstyle, or whatever. Are the people happy to be there? Do they genuinely like each other? Do they believe in the work they’re doing? These are the things I’ve noticing affecting magic’s potency for me.”

This is a good starting point when talking about what impacts the energy in a ritual, but in my experience there are a lot of other factors. 

First, a disclaimer. Whenever I write about ritual facilitation, I'm trying to not write about theology. Meaning, I'm trying to write about technique rather than the correct way to worship the gods. I come at this as a pantheist, barely as a theist. I also come at this as a social justice activist. Thus, you're not going to see me upholding any dogmatic Pagan traditions such as rituals must have an equal number of men and women, or traditions that are inherently anti any gender, or that are inherently not inclusive of GLBTQ community members. So I don't believe that things like alternating men and women is at all necessary to raise energy in groups, much less that those men and women be heterosexual, or that there are only two genders for that matter. 

Also, I've written about energy in ritual before. Here's a link to one of my articles available on my blog; it's also included in my book Ritual Facilitation. But, it's a big topic, and there are lots of facets and factors to building and raising energy in groups.

Factors in Group Energy

When I'm leading group rituals, there are a number of factors that seem to impact the group energy. People and their personal connections to one another is definitely a big one, though that tends to have more impact in smaller to medium rituals. The exception would be if the person (or team) leading the ritual is well known to everyone in the ritual, even if the ritual attendees don't know each other well.

In a ritual of 5-35 people, the personalities of the attendees and connections between the group will have more impact. In fact, numbers have a pretty important impact. It's really difficult to get a group of 20-40 people moving/singing/dancing, unless they all know each other and are used to doing that together.

If not, then the group is small enough that people who are shy feel like they will be judged/laughed at for singing and dancing, etc. If there aren't enough charismatic people ready to lead the way and dance/sing first, it's like stirring a pot of glue.

On the other hand, once you get to 50-60 people, it's far easier to raise energy with a group of people that is strangers. There's enough people that they feel more anonymous.

So the energy there has a different flavor to it, it's less about personal connections with each other (though, that does build as the ritual goes along if I've done my job as a facilitator) and more about the external energy raising of movement, singing, drumming, etc, as well as more about each individual's emotional experience.

Meaning, in a crowd of 50+ people who don't know each other well, the ritual energy is going to have a lot less to do with those personal connections. I should stress that personal connections can still be built during the ritual. If I set things up right, I will be able to build some community connection and intimacy by the end of the ritual, but that takes a particular ritual design to accomplish, and doesn't substitute for existing long-term connections. Raising energy with a regular, committed group with personal connections has a vastly different flavor to it.

More Logistics

Other factors in energy raising are pure logistics and psychology. Are we doing the ritual out in an open field with no sound containment, or in a closed room? Lack of sound containment makes it difficult to project your voice, or to get cohesion with a chant.

Are we at a Pagan Pride and there are outside observers just watching? Or do we have a door that closes for true privacy? Is it daytime or nighttime? Lack of privacy makes it difficult for people to relax enough to connect and participate.

Is there mood lighting and candles and fire, or is everyone in jeans and a t-shirt and we're out in the bright sunlight or in a room with fluorescent lighting and corporate architecture? This is the one area where I am pretty big on props and setting. Fire, decorated altars and shrines, ritual wear; these things all signal to our brain to get out of mundane headspace and into a spiritual, magical mindset. Again, it's harder to participate--to give our energy and risk connection, risk vulnerability, risk our own energy--if we are in thinky-thinky brain.

Are we doing a ritual out in 95 degree weather at noon and the circle is so big nobody can hear the facilitators, and the chant is so complicated that nobody can catch it? The weather has a big impact on an outdoor ritual. It's really tough to raise energy when people are being asked to sing and dance and they are lightheaded from the heat. It's equally difficult to get people's participation if they are uncomfortable because it's cold, or raining. Other logistics, such as a complicated chant, or asking people to do something excessively complex during a ritual, can get people frustrated. This fractures the energy rather than unifying it. The only energy you're raising there is discomfort and frustration.

The Energy We Bring

Then there's the energy each individual brings to a group ritual, and the energy the facilitators bring. If the facilitator's having a bad day, or not skilled at group ritual, that's going to impact the energy. Unskilled facilitators may speak too quietly to be heard. Or their voice may be tentative. "What I'd like for everyone, uh, to do, let's all hold hands, I guess..."  Or, they may lean on being big and brassy and bossy, which can cause the group to recoil. "Now, everyone take hands! Now, you guys drum! Now, stop the chant!" Inexperienced ritual leaders are also often surprised when complicated logistics go awry. Worse, when something complicated fails, like a complex chant or trying to do cakes and ale with a group of 100 or leading a spiral dance...when that fails, and the facilitator gets visibly frustrated, any energy you were raising is going to just tank right there. However, even a skilled ritual leader can cause themselves problems if they are having a really bad day and bring that into the ritual with them. 

Humans read emotions. Whether you believe in telepathy and empathy, or just pheromones and body language, we telegraph to one another what we're thinking and feeling. If I'm asking a group of people to relax, and I'm stressed out, my voice is tight, and my shoulders are hunched...I'm going to have difficulty getting the group to the energetic space I'm trying to build.

Mood and Perception

If an attendee has a crappy day and attends a ritual, their perception of the energy is going to be different too. I've led rituals where I had people tell me, "Oh wow, the energy was great!" and others at that same ritual say, "Wow, that energy really blew chunks tonight." Mood really impacts how we see something; it's a filter.

Yet, it also impacts our own participation and that has a ripple effect on the rest of the group. If I lead a ritual in a smaller group, and one or two people had a crappy day and they are standing off to the side instead of participating, that makes it harder for others to participate because the simple fact that a couple folks are standing to the side with arms folded makes them feel observed, judged.

You can see this play out more obviously when you have a group ritual and people start chatting to the side and having a conversation during the ritual. It's an energetic distraction to the rest of the people. We don't even need to talk woo-woo energy here; this is just a plain old sound/noise distraction. 

I've often found myself at rituals when I wasn't really in the mood to be there. This could be a factor of the weather, but often it's because I'm at Pagan festivals and events as a teacher and vendor, so I may have been driving for 8 hours to get there, then spend a couple of hours setting up my's very frenetic and stressful.

However, even if I don't have all that, I often attend events where there are rituals that are offered in a different tradition than I follow. I've attended a lot of rituals like that out of a desire to be supportive, and what I found instead was that I felt completely out of place. And, even that alone can make it difficult for me to be present, to fully give of my energy to the ritual. I've definitely become aware that my own personal mood greatly impacts how I feel about a ritual I'm attending.

And, it's not as easy as, "Just shift your mood." Sometimes the best solution as an attendee is, if I'm not going to be able to shift my mood, it's probably best to politely excuse myself. I can say that I personally find it easier to shift my mood when I'm facilitating a ritual rather than participating, but that's an entirely different topic.

Connection and Authenticity

I think that the core of the quote at the beginning of this post is actually about authenticity. I talk a lot about authenticity in ritual, and how that authenticity dovetails in with facilitation and public speaking skills. You can come out with all the oration skills, all the performance skills, the big loud voice, the dramatic voice...and still fail to lead an effective ritual. You can come out with the poetically-written ritual, the costumes and the pageantry and the decorations...and still have the energy flop.


Because authenticity is energy. Your own connection to the ritual/topic/focus/deities/elements/spirits/whatever is energy. Your connection to the theme, to the work, is energy. Your emotions are energy. Your belief in the work, your connection to the group, is energy. Intimacy is energy. Tears and blood and sweat are energy. Singing is energy, drumming and dancing is is energy. Anger is energy. Fear is energy. Release is energy. When you're feeling that connection to your deep self, to the divine, to the group, to the universe around you, that's energy.

Thus, in group rituals, the personalities and people's connection to one another can be a factor, but our own personal moods and connection to the work is also important. And so many other things--like the size of group--can have a tremendous impact. Most of those logistics are things a skilled facilitator can adapt to with the right ritual design, and if they are coming from a place of deep authenticity. 

The most difficult rituals I facilitate are at Pagan Pride events for many of the reasons I've posted above. And it doesn't matter how authentic I am, how great a facilitator I am, or even how well the attendees know each other. In the blazing sun on a 95 degree day in an open field where there are maybe 30 attendees in the circle, and another fifteen or so hovering around watching, unless every participant there is ready to authentically participate 100%, I'm going to have trouble getting any energy going. 

Rituals and Leadership

Leading rituals is an important component of leadership, and it's not easy work. Not all Pagan leaders need to lead rituals, but for those who do, there are so many factors to take into account that go beyond theology and the practices of a particular tradition. 

If you have any questions about ritual facilitation, please do feel free to comment, and maybe I can write a future blog post on the topic. I also run a Facebook group called Ritual Facilitation Skills where we discuss nuances of leading rituals. Sometimes our discussions there turn into blog posts too!


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An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for Circle Magazine, and her writing also appears in several anthologies. She’s also the author of several fantasy and paranormal romance novels. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  


  • Rick
    Rick Monday, 14 December 2015

    I have been to rituals that were barely on life support to me, whereas other people felt a lot of energy as well. I've also led some where I felt the enrgy didn't flow right but others were blown away.I think it comes down to two variables:

    1. Expectations - you often get what you expect to get.
    2. Experience - often people are used to sensing ritual energy, so even a little is a new experience for them. So I might be disappointed, yet people who haven't experienced a lot of energy work before can be blown away.

  • Shauna Aura Knight
    Shauna Aura Knight Monday, 14 December 2015

    Absolutely. I've been to a lot of rituals and I thought the energy was tanking, but others thought it was a great ritual. Expectations and context are important. In my case, having been to the amazing, life shaping, intensive ecstatic rituals at Diana's Grove, and at some Reclaiming witch camps, there's no way a public ritual can come close to that. But, if someone hasn't experienced rituals of that depth and intimacy, they have no way of knowing that there's more, thus, they aren't disappointed.

  • Rick
    Rick Wednesday, 16 December 2015

    Thuri's first two books are reasonably good, I thought. Haven't noticed if the third one is published yet.

  • Molly
    Molly Thursday, 17 December 2015

    You're awesome, Shauna!

    I ended up buying Thuri's second book recently. :)

  • Shauna Aura Knight
    Shauna Aura Knight Friday, 18 December 2015

    Thanks for turning me on to Thuri Calafia's work, Molly!

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