The following essay was first published in Our Pagan Times: the Journal of New Moon New York, in 1997, and later in Six Roads: A Gardnerian Journal of the Art. It also seems to have bounced around the Web a bit, sometimes in exerpted or heavily-edited versions. Naturally, I'm very flattered when people want to reprint my stuff, but I think it's time I re-published it in full.

What a Coven is Not: Advice to the High Priestess

by Balachandra

This piece is from my personal Book of Shadows: part of some "common-sense" advice to the Traditional High Priestess I've compiled over the years. Since it's a personal statement, (and a rather bold one at that) the standard disclaimers apply: This is my own opinion, based on my own years of trying to "get it right" as High Priestess of a structured traditional Coven. I offer it for what it may be worth to the reader - clearly without the presumption that anyone will agree with all of it! Enjoy. - Sally Eaton

1. A Coven is not a Democracy. Although many fine NeoPagan groups choose to operate using "non-hierarchical consensus", Traditional Wica does not. In the United States egalitarian assumptions are often at odds with the urge for individual distinction. But when Wicca began the need for hierarchy was self-evident: you worked until your achievement was obvious, and then you received recognition. So a traditional Coven is a Hierarchy; and as High Priestess you're in charge. That means you're responsible for whatever goes on, and to blame for whatever goes wrong. Welcome to the Club -- and may you wield it skillfully!

If you would lead people, you must offer them something valuable. If you want their loyalty, you must cultivate it. If you want their respect you must be honest, and that means first being honest with yourself. Do not let your words and deeds be known to contradict one another. Keep the "wit" in Witchcraft -- by always laughing louder and longer at your own follies than those of others. And remember that true wisdom consists far less in what you know than in how you communicate it.

Some Basics: Be clear about what you expect from the beginning. Put the Coven By-Laws in writing; make sure everybody has a copy - and reads it! If you teach, plan the lessons carefully: don't make them too hard or too easy. Be concise and to the point; then allow time for discussion and feedback. And never expect your students to do any work you haven't done -- or wouldn't do -- yourself.

As for technique, I offer Lao Tzu's cryptic maxim: "Govern a great empire as you would fry a small fish". In other words: Keep an eye on the flame, watch it with the grease, know when each side is done. And never let anything stick to the wok or you'll have a mess on your hands!

2. A Coven is not a Dictatorship. We have all heard horror stories of how Lady so-and-so bullied her students while keeping them beglamoured and ignorant. Likewise we encounter examples of the High Priestess as Ultimate Arrogant Twit. But the true Priestess' Prerogative is leadership. Yes, the High Priestess rules the Coven. Anyone who does so successfully soon understands that To Rule is To Serve.

The Power of Traditional Wicca lies in the balance of opposites, and the Mystery of their union. They are equally potent and when joined become something far greater than each would be alone. So if you are fortunate enough to have a devoted Working Partner, cherish their values and opinions as you do your own.

Consult your Working Partner and Coven Elders on all major policy decisions. Let them overrule you occasionally; keep your clout in reserve for things that really matter to you. Never argue with anyone in front of the whole Coven. Instead, quietly use Magick in a positive way to facilitate accord. Learn to keep your own counsel. And above all, learn to preserve your dignity.

3. A Coven is not an Ego Trip. Although most of us actually have egos, we try very hard not to come off that way, at least not in public. But if you find yourself succumbing to High Priestess Disease, remember:

Authority is a garment to be worn lightly. The High Priestess is the "first among equals" and functions as the living representative of the Goddess. In plain English, she must practice what she preaches. No Coven can long survive under a leader who mistreats her people, for all are equal in the Circle and each must be accorded the respect they deserve. If a High Priestess manipulates her Coven, makes arbitrary rulings, withholds approval from those who merit it, obsesses over "enemies", or otherwise behaves irresponsibly, she will soon lose their love and respect. 'Those who cannot bear your rule will leave you' -- and they have every right to do so!

4. A Coven is not a Psychotherapy Group. Magick and psychotherapy are not the same thing: in fact they're rather inimical to each other. (Just try telling a conventional shrink stuff happens as a result of your "projecting energy" at it!) In the hands of an experienced professional, psychotherapy can be a great healing tool; mixing it with Wicca can be a great temptation for the High Priestess.

As High Priestess you may counsel anyone who asks for your help, as long as you do so in private. But under no circumstances may you betray their confidential disclosures, nor attempt a clinical diagnosis unless you are professionally qualified to do so. And ever avoid ye Shrynke-Lyke clichés, such as "And how do you feel about that, Louise?" If you can't figure out how they feel about something, maybe it's none of your business!

Those whom you initiate must be capable of handling their own emotional lives. Most of us are damaged or dysfunctional in some way, yet still manage to cope without the constant need to lean on others. Likewise, Wicca is not a 12-Step Program: if someone has a problem with compulsive behavior, they should work it out in therapy, not in your Coven. Yes, crises arise now and then, but repeatedly wasting group time on an individual's "personal issues" is boring and unfair. Discreetly refer such a person to a competent professional.

As for your own mental health -- you'll need it! So do whatever you must to maintain your equilibrium. But never allow your Coven meetings to become group-therapy sessions, especially for your own benefit. It's one of the surest ways to lose their respect.

5. A Coven is not a Nuclear Family. One of the hallmarks of a good Coven is that everyone feels like "family". But a High Priestess is her Coven's mentor and inspiration, not their parent. Your Coveners are Brothers and Sisters of the Craft: responsible adults who must be treated as such. Many a High Priestess has chosen to project the image of Big Mommy, and so forced her students to remain in childlike roles indefinitely. I urge you to think carefully about why you would need this type of authority over others.

Goddess-Worship often appeals to people recovering from childhood emotional and sexual abuse. This form of psychic damage is far more common than was once thought -- and far easier to act out than to resolve. When you and your partner style yourselves Mom and Dad, you assume a loaded kind of authority which can easily become incestuous. So if you truly desire parental responsibility, have or adopt children of your own and raise them to maturity. You'll find it's quite different from bossing around a bunch of adult co-dependents! Meanwhile avoid using your Coven as a surrogate for the "perfect" nuclear family you never had.

6. A Coven is not a Harem. In my experience, teachers who get sexually involved with their students are asking for trouble. This may sound harsh, but in the long run it's the best policy. Someone who sees you as an authority figure needs to maintain his/her sexual distance as a balancing factor. Most women recognize that sleeping with the boss is a sleazy thing to do. So why act out a reversed-role form of this simply because you can? Crudely put, this is "shitting where you eat", and nobody will respect you for it.

Some NeoPagans advocate polyamorous lifestyles, and that is certainly their right. Yet in my experience a Coven that both prays and lays together doesn't stay together too long. Life might be different if the female of our species were not genetically designed to pair-bond through intercourse; but I can only assume the Goddess made most of us this way for good and sufficient reasons. At any rate, the longterm soap opera quotient in every multiple and overlapping relationship I've observed has convinced me that the game is unworthy of the candle. Speaking strictly for myself, I cheerfully refer individuals with polygamous leanings to faiths such as Islam, Mormonism, or the Church of All Worlds. I do not initiate them.

7. A Coven is not a Partying Crew. "Mirth and Reverence" both belong in the Circle, but the balance between them is very important. If you wish to imbibe or indulge on ritual occasions, by all means do so. But keep it down to a very dull roar: the last thing you need is to suddenly realize you're too zonked to remember your lines! Likewise, random interruptions or pure silliness when casting the Circle should be avoided at all costs. You may get a bit rowdier after the ritual solemnity is accomplished. But unless you live several miles from your nearest neighbors, I suggest you discourage the Coven from baying at the Moon!

8. A Coven is not a Social Club. I asked a Witch I greatly admire what she thought attracts people to the Craft. Her reply? "It's an excellent Shopping Opportunity." True! A subculture brimming with fellowship, drama, and creative self-expression offers something for everyone. Thus many people take up Witchcraft because they're lonely, horny, and bored: they feel the urge to Get a Life. Wicca is sexy, fun, and glamourous; it's also instant Identity, Power, and Community. The World Between the Worlds becomes a social Holodeck from which many are reluctant to emerge.

But as High Priestess you had best have a life outside your Craft and Coven. Why?? Sooner or later you may find it worthwhile to relate to others without revealing your religion or proclaiming yourself "Pagan Clergy". Sooner or later your Coven will graduate and move on, leaving you to wonder why they never call you... at least Once in the Month When the Moon is Full! And sooner or later you may come to realize that your activities in the (ugh) 'Real World' are just as vital to your health and emotional well-being as any you may pursue in the Pagan Community.

9. A Coven is not a Career Path. Wouldn't it be swell if you could just start your own little Pagan Church and get paid for doing what you love? Many people have, but doing this requires the sort of chutzpah which commands far more envy than respect. Maybe Uncle Gerald made up that rule against taking money for the 'usage of the Arts' -- and maybe he didn't! Where you draw the line at commercializing your psychic talents is a matter of personal taste. Just remember, you'll be judged by your peers, and many of them are quick to take offense at any perceived "sellout" of the Craft.

This goes double for publicly billing yourself as Thrice-Consecrated Lady Kallipygeia, High Priestess of Ancient Lemurian Wicca. The rubes may buy this, but insiders will collapse in hysterics at such pretensions, especially if you're under forty and haven't published anything in hardcover! Witchcraft has always been far more of a Knack than an Anointing. Even if Wisdom could be conferred by fiat, the fact is that no accessible lineage of Wicca per se goes back more than a generation or two. Finally, I would strongly caution you to forego public statements regarding what all "ethical, responsible Witches" believe. Practically speaking, you are never in a position to determine this for anyone but yourself.

10. A Coven is not an Empire. Wicca is meant to be a self-perpetuating entity. If newcomers cannot join, rise through the ranks, and eventually found their own groups, the Craft cannot survive. 'Tis rumored that Gerald Gardner wasn't terribly picky about whom he initiated, and this alone may have caused Wicca to spread as rapidly as it did. So if buckles on your garter and/or a large political constituency are what really motivate you, you may well be tempted to do likewise.

The problem with this is that one matriarch, no matter how dedicated or charismatic, can rarely administer anything bigger than three generations of extended family. (Ask your Italian, Chinese, or Jewish grandmother about this if you don't believe me.) Traditional Wicca provides quite adequately for the delegation of authority. But when the Line becomes a Tribe it starts getting unwieldy -- by the time it's a Horde you're really in trouble! Inevitable misunderstandings will in turn generate factions, and very few of us possess the time, energy, or Solomonic wisdom to deal with the results.

So keep your group small. It may sound elitist to say it, but Quality Control is far more important to a "Craft of Wisdom" than rapid proliferation. If someone is worth training at all, she is worth training well. To rush your Maiden through the Degrees just so you can be her Queen is stupid and shortsighted. You'll have only yourself to blame if she becomes your rival in a Wiccan Turf War; or worse, runs off with your High Priest!

© 1997-2002 by Sally Eaton. All rights reserved.