Book Review: The Pagan Leadership Anthology

When I first heard about this book, The Pagan Leadership Anthology: An Exploration of Leadership and Community in Paganism and Polytheism, edited by Shauna Aura Knight and Taylor Ellwood, I immediately dismissed it as “not relevant to my interests” because I do not lead or organize any groups, events, etc., have any other leadership type role, or have a strong desire to be in one of those roles. However, it came up again, and this time, I thought I would give it a chance. I was, admittedly, a bit curious about its contents. I’ve only been pagan myself for about 4 years, and have not been deeply involved in pagan/polytheist communities, so I don’t have much sense at all about what people in the broader community think “leadership” is, or ought to be. I also thought that even though I’m not in a leadership role, it might end up having some interesting and useful things to say about working with people in groups. Well before I finished reading it, I thought it was valuable enough that I wanted to try and talk other people into reading it, too.

The book contains 36 essays organized into 8 sections: Personal Work; General Advice; Leadership Models and Processes; Group Structure, Agreements, and Bylaws; Delegation and Volunteers; Building the Long Term Infrastructure of the Pagan Community; Conflict Resolution and Dealing with Crisis in Groups; and Recognizing and Dealing with Burnout.

My chief disappointment with the book is that a couple of the sections felt a little thin in comparison to others. The section on long term infrastructure had only two essays, and the last section on burnout only 3, while the others had 4 to 6. I would have appreciated more writing specifically on those topics, though some of the essays in other sections also contained advice that is applicable to those topics (burnout, for example, was mentioned in more than just the 3 “Burnout” section essays).

I’ve absorbed advice about leadership in several different circumstances, both formal and through life experience, and as a whole, I thought the book did well at describing effective, healthy ways of working with people. One of my favorites was the essay by Diana Rajchel, “Pagan Volunteers: How to get 100 Pagan Volunteers to Show Up on Time and Leave Happy.” She starts off by addressing the problem of assuming that people cannot be organized, which sets yourself, and the volunteers you need, up for a less than awesome time:

“Here’s the main problem with the herding cats metaphor for Pagans: it’s a blame shifter. By labeling a group ‘impossible,’ it divorces the person that makes such a claim from responsibility for the ensuing chaos. It also ignores the problem that usually underpins the disasters often blamed on Pagans being Pagan. … The truth is that Pagans, as a group, are no more or less difficult than any other group. Pagans in general respond well to clear communication, and most need to commit to causes that make them feel valued.”

She then describes how, by being well-organized, communicating well with volunteers, and taking care of them (food, thank you notes, and more), she had record success in having volunteers show up for a particular event and get stuff done – and had even more success recruiting and retaining volunteers for the same event in subsequent years. The remainder (and majority) of the essay describes a bunch of specific organizational and communication techniques and tools to improve communication and organization and help people feel good about engaging in community-building work.

Another memorable lesson came in Shauna Aura Knight’s essay, “Three Leadership Tools and a Mystery,” in the section in which she describes the importance of being aware of the filters through which we view the world, as these filters contribute to a lot of conflict. This section of her piece describes a tool called “Four Levels of Reality and Conflict Resolution.”

“Physical Reality is what actually happened in the physical world. Mythical Reality is the store our brain instantly writes where we assign motivations to people’s actions. That Mythic Reality instantly generates an Emotional Reality, which is how we feel about that story. Beneath it all is Essential Reality, which is how we perceive the world.”

She elaborates on these levels of reality, how they play out in causing conflict, and how working through the Four Levels in a fraught situation can prevent it from becoming a major problem. It’s a discernment tool, one I believe that many, many people would benefit from learning and employing.

My favorite overall section was the one on Group Structure, Agreements, and Bylaws, which covered ways in which a group can create formal agreements for itself, and the values of doing so. This is really valuable information to consider for anyone involved in the creation of a new group, whether you’re in a leadership role or not. I’ve been involved in one largely-volunteer organization that had bylaws, and while there were, shall we say, “challenges” writing them, they were not only legally necessary (the organization was seeking nonprofit status), they were also vital in delineating how an organization with both paid staff and a major volunteer component would balance power between the different groups of people keeping the organization going. Regardless of a group’s legal status, bylaws or other agreed-to rules provide groundwork to come back to if/when conflict arises.

If I could pick only one theme from the book as the central point, it is that treating people respectfully – including yourself – is vital to good leadership, building community, and avoiding burnout. I really appreciated the attitude of the authors’ towards the importance of working WITH people, and making sure the needs of others in the group are being attended to, rather than taking a top-down approach.

I highly recommend this to anyone interested in being involved in community, whether it is pagan or not, and whether you are or want to be in a leadership role. It has good advice for working with other people, understanding group dynamics, and many examples of challenges faced and how they might be solved while doing this kind of work.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I bought my copy from Syren Nagakyrie, who is a friend with an essay in the book and is also on the board of Gods&Radicals.)