Pagan Paths

Witchcraft Philosophies, Action, Leadership, Humor, Outrage, Awkward Mishaps, Lovable Lessons, and a search for Grace with a clumsy Witch.

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The Role of the Coven: Is it your "Chosen Family?"

My Coven was tired.

We had been busy--for years, actually. Between leading public rituals and attending festivals, there was a mess of parties thrown by other Coveners. Several members were performers of different kinds and had shows. A couple of people started teaching locally. Then there was our standard working group time. Like "good" Coveners, we traveled to the festivals together, attended the parties, formed cheering sections at the shows and dutifully attended the classes our members led. We somehow still found the time to offer rituals and work as a group, but not a lot. I felt badly offering Coven homework when we were already such a busy group.

In time, people just stopped showing up.

The parties weren't so well attended--neither were the shows. Teaching Coveners often taught workshops at which no other Coveners would be there. Festivals were still fun, but the work of getting 14 people into rental or borrowed cars and out of state (most of us do not drive regularly, here in NYC!) was slowly leaking the fun out of the whole situation. People still attended our working groups but were often not as mentally present as one would ideally hope. Others skipped the working time, but still showed up for the parties and festivals. Some Coveners were bothered by this, feeling unsupported by other members in their endeavors. At the same time, I was hearing concerns that our work wasn't deep enough. As HPS, I wondered what to do. How could I create a more enriching Coven when personal time and investment was already wearing thin?

This year, as we approached our annual re-Unification, I consulted Tarot of the Sidhe and was alarmed by what I pulled:


Soul Loss
Somehow, we'd lost our way. We'd become more of a support group/social club with heavy obligations than a Magickal group honing effective Witches.

How did this happen?
It happened to us just as Hemingway described going bankrupt: "Gradually, then suddenly." When we started our Coven seven years ago, we didn't have a plan. We didn't even mean to start a Coven--we simply started Circling together and eventually embraced the label. I never gave thought to a mission code--why would we need one? We loved each other and we loved being together. What could be more Magickal than that?

But something without form will eventually take morph into whatever shape surrounds it. One of the plagues on our city's collective soul is being busy without purpose. Without definition of our Coven's purpose, it unwittingly morphed into the same random busy-ness. The Coveners often said they wanted the Coven to "be there" for them, but we never defined what "being there" meant. For some, it meant being physically present at each others' endeavors. For others, it simply meant liking Facebook posts. The lack of definition led to limitless expectation and therefore, disappointment.

Chosen Family?
Many Pagans who practice in groups often refer to these groups their "Chosen Family." It's a sweet term and a kind thought, but it leads to an amorphous identity and can hurt the overall health of the Coven. Usually, that problem includes someone who has not addressed their personal "gunk" trying to turn their Coven experience into the idealized family they wanted as a child.

Years ago, I struggled with this with a few Coveners (who are not longer with us)--Anne, Betty, and Cate. Anne suffered from neglect as a child and wanted the Coven to affirm for her that she mattered and was heard. Although we had practices in place to make sure all Coveners felt heard and appreciated, she wanted more: she wanted a special approval system of guests and new members so it wouldn't trigger her fears of "being replaced." Anne also wanted regular, public pronouncements of her importance within the Coven. No matter how many times I or other Coveners personally told her how important she was to us, without the coveted public announcement, she felt unappreciated and when she got into that state, would pick fights with other Coveners and then count how many people were on "her side" and therefore, appreciative and loving of her. Her "Chosen Family" was letting her down.

This would trigger Betty, who also came from love-malnourished home and wanted her Coven to be a place where everyone felt completely loved and supported all of the time. She addressed this by vehemently defending and coddling Anne whenever she started sinking into the "No one appreciates me!" hole. Until the day Anne picked one of her regular fights with Betty. Betty lashed out in return and when addressed about her harsh words, felt "judged and unsupported by the people who were supposed to be her Chosen Family."

Then there was Cate, who grew up with far too much responsibility for a child and not enough fun and wanted the Coven to be her playground. She wanted nothing to do with homework, ritual responsibilities, or respect of Coven boundaries. When Anne and Betty were upset by her periodically dismissive attitudes (and rightfully so in those cases), Cate would vehemently declare, "That's not my problem. I don't come to the Coven to be nice to people." Her "Chosen Family" should just love her as she was and "not expect her to be different." 

Chosen Family. Does it make sense why that phrase makes me nervous? Are we a chosen family because we come together under common goals or are we a chosen family because we're projecting our ideal family on a group of people who are also projecting their ideal families on us?

Our Coven made the unwitting mistake early on of "letting the Coven be what it wanted to be" and embracing the "Chosen Family" term without defining what that meant. That tactic is certainly more fun and exciting than jotting down rules and guidelines, but when the Shadows emerge and the Magick starts doing what Magick does--changing the Self--fun takes off running for the nearest exit.

How we fixed it
This past year, I spoke to several Coveners about wanting to change our approach to group work. To my delight, many were feeling the same way. The support-group dynamic was wearing on them, too. But how do we get out of it?

As HPS, the onus was on me to start with myself. I spoke to my Coven about the launch party for my first book and said, "If you come, I will welcome you with open arms and we'll celebrate that together. But you do not owe me attendance at my book party. If you do not come, that does not mean you don't support me. You have already supported me by bearing witness to my writing journey and listening when I needed to talk about the tough parts."

Maybe I'm projecting, but I sensed a wave of relief through my tired Coven. It was now okay to miss a party or a show without offering a verbose explanation. Simply being in the room whenever someone requested the presence was no longer the yardstick of being a "good Covener."

How does Magick work? It has to start with clear intention.
Groups need the same intention. If you are starting a group (or if you already have a group but haven't defined your code, yet), ask each other what is important to be together. Are you there to bear witness to the personal, spiritual, and Magickal journeys of one another? Are you there to teach and to learn from each other? Are you there to challenge and affirm one another as practitioners of this Path?

AND if the general answer to the "Why are we here?" question is, "Support," be sure to ask what support entails. Does support mean maintaining confidentiality in Circle? Does it mean shaping rituals to suit all bodies' abilities in the room? Is support about respecting individuals' needs for sobriety, sensitivity toward sexual or other trauma, or being aware of different abilities to pay for class materials or field trips? Or does support mean making sure everyone shows up at everyone's birthday parties?

So now, what does 'Chosen Family' mean for us?
I can't speak for all of my Coveners, but 'Chosen Family' for me means we embody the kind of hominess and comfort one would hope for in the family you grew up in--you can show up messy. You don't have to show up whole. You don't have to pretend to be okay when you're not. We may all have to project happy, positive, extroverted selves in jobs and other life, but your Coven has the beautiful potential to be the place where you say, "I need ten minutes to hide under this couch-blanket" and it's okay. When so many of us are considered weird or othered in our daily lives, this is the place where our "weirdness" doesn't have to be explained.

"Chosen Family" cannot mean the Coven will make up for the pain we may have suffered growing up. Our Coveners are not responsible for being the family members we missed or replace those who hurt us. We also cannot expect absolute absolution from our Coveners. Yes, we're all going to slip up, cross a boundary, be rude or unintentionally hurtful and we need to all make space to address, forgive, and move on within reason, but we cannot treat our Coveners like punching bags and demand to be "accepted as we are" without recourse or accuse others of not-supporting us when we are addressed about our behavior.

It's not going to happen on its own. 
My best advice--start early. Early and clear intentions will lead to less hurt later on. Anne, Betty, and Cate were frustrating examples and yes, their actions caused pain for me and others, but the lack of definition about the role of the Coven hurt them, too. Maybe their expectations seemed extreme, but the expectations wouldn't have had room to grow had our role been clearly defined in the first place. "Yes, we may be the group you choose to be around, but we will never be the family you wished you'd had growing up. Don't expect that of us and you'll not be disappointed."

If I've taken you this far....

That book I mentioned, Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess is available! The pre-sale price is only good for a few more weeks, so get on it! Yes, both paperback and e-book formats are available!!! Thank you for reading!!!

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Courtney Weber is a Priestess, writer, Tarot Advisor, performer and activist originally from Portland, OR living in New York City. Her writings on Witchcraft have been published in numerous publications, including Spiral Nature and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess" and "Tarot for One: The Art of Reading For Yourself", both through Weiser Books. She is the producer and designer of "Tarot of the Boroughs" a contemporary Tarot deck composed of original photography set in NYC. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and cats.


  • Philipp Kessler
    Philipp Kessler Thursday, 09 April 2015

    Two things. First, I just received a copy of your book from the publisher. Looking forward to reading it.

    Second, an earlier article of yours spawned this response from me over on Pagan Activist: It is in no way intended to pick apart your argument in either that posting or this one. Just thought it would be fair to share this with you. :)

  • Courtney Weber
    Courtney Weber Thursday, 09 April 2015

    Hi Phillipp! The earlier article you mentioned was not written by me, but by Hilary Parry. :) Thanks for stopping by!

  • Philipp Kessler
    Philipp Kessler Thursday, 09 April 2015

    Ah, my apologies. I had misremembered who wrote it. I do hope that you get a chance to read what I write anyway. :) And looking forward to reading your book!

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