Over the past 20+ years, I have spent an inordinate amount of time searching for pagan groups that I could be part of. Because of that experience and the large number of covens, groups, and organizations that I have looked into, I have a pretty solid idea about what makes a group good, and what makes it absolutely terrible.
First, let's dive into the absolutely terrible, to help you avoid THAT pain.
Things to beware:
I’m not generally a fan of groups that are hierarchical. I am no more or less able to communicate with deity than anyone else. But some people truly thrive in that sort of scenario, and that’s AOK. It only becomes a problem when the leaders (sometimes called the High Priest or High Priestess) try to manipulate you into doing things that you normally wouldn’t. Here are some major red flags, and if you don’t read anything else in this post, read this.
They tell you that your beliefs are wrong or that the way you like to do things is ineffective
They belittle you
You can’t move up in an organization or group unless you pay a lot of money, perform sexual favors, or are asked to do anything illegal or that makes you uncomfortable
They try to isolate you from your loved ones (e.g. saying that your family could never understand you because they’re not enlightened)
They force you to try to get more people in the group
There’s a lot of infighting.
Nothing ruins a good ritual like pre or post ceremony squabbles. This is especially critical when you’re looking at a small group, like a coven, where you usually don’t have a whole lot of members. If members talk shit about each other, I can guarantee they are also talking shit about you. Sometimes you can’t avoid one or two people who bring that negative energy in. But if there’s a lot of that going on, you could have someone break into the coven home base, steal the maypole, leave a bunch of trash in the sanctuary and disappear forever. What? No. That never happened in my coven. Never.
They’re into things you’re not excited about
A lot of people who are spiritually woo are also open to a lot of other less-than-mainstream stuff. And while we don’t yuck anyone’s yum around here, we also don’t encourage you to participate in activities that you don’t want to do. That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. Some traditions sacrifice animals as part of their spiritual practices (and before you get all judgey, if you’re not a vegetarian, you don’t have a leg to stand on). Some groups do everything naked together. Some will perform the great rite with the whole coven watching as part of a ritual. (For those of you not in the know, the great rite is when someone with a penis and someone with a vagina - usually - take on the roles of the God and Goddess and have sex while the rest of the group looks on.) Sometimes groups do Ordeal Rituals together, which may involve physical pain, such as hanging from hooks that are piercing your skin, or ritual whipping. Some may do orgies. Some have complicated initiation rituals that require pledging yourself to the group and the group’s members and may include bloodletting (ask me how I know!). And that’s just brushing the surface of things that I’ve either experienced first or second hand. So check in with any group and make sure that you’re comfortable with what they do, or at the very least that they’re cool with you not participating in everything.
They are exclusive
This one isn’t always a problem. In many cases, groups need to be exclusive in order to keep their membership small and manageable, or to create a safe space for the members. I belonged to a women-only coven, and it was great! I really didn’t want to deal with masculine energy at that time in my life. But I would run the other way if a coven excluded trans-folks, BIPOC, disabled people, or any other marginalized group.
OK. So I’ve gone on and on about things to beware of, but what makes a group or coven good? Let's get on to the good juice and why you would want to find a coven for yourself!
Things to keep your eye out for:
The covens and groups I’ve found to be the most successful were ones where there were times set aside for socializing. It wasn’t just rituals and business. A great time for socializing is after rituals. When members of the coven want to hang out outside of coven time, it’s even better. No matter how serious you are about your magical practice, being able to have fun and laugh the rest of the time is how you really bond.
It’s more egalitarian (i.e. not a dictatorship) If there’s a hierarchy, everyone still has a say in what happens. I don’t think things work well if you have a dictator at the top.
People contribute what they are able
There are often expenses that are associated with having a group. This includes food, ritual tools, a space to meet, field trip money, etc. If someone doesn’t have money to spare, they are encouraged to contribute in a meaningful way that doesn’t put them in a difficult position. Maybe they do the legwork to get a permit at the local park, they offer to drive while others pay for gas, or they write the first draft of a ritual. When I was in my 20s I was broke AF, but I often had time to organize things. At this point in my life, however, I have funds that I can contribute but very little free time.
Everyone is mostly on the same page with regard to their spiritual beliefs
Groups that have very strict or regimented rituals may not like to have anyone whose opinions vary too much. Others might have a specific format they like to follow while caring little about belief systems. If you’re not into trees, don’t join a Druid circle. If you worship a European pantheon, don’t join a group that works with Orisha.
And of course the most important thing to keep in mind when seeking out other woo peeps is to follow your gut and do your woo.