Reprinted with permission of Red Wheel/Weiser LLC. The Virtual Pagan by Lisa McSherry is available at better bookstores or directly from the publisher at 800-423-7087, by fax at 877-337-3309, or by email at orders@redwheelweiser.com.

A coven may also be called a temple, or grove, or circle. If a coven has the right blend of people, it is a marvelous entity. According to Starhawk, "The coven is a Witch's support group, consciousness-raising group, psychic study center, clergy-training program, College of Mysteries, surrogate clan, and religious congregation all rolled into one." Each coven has its own personality, woven from each individual's contributions. Ideally, a coven is the training ground in which each member develops his or her pagan potential, not just a group of people who get together to work magick.

Then again, while I sometimes found it difficult, practicing as a solitary provided a great opportunity to grow without externally imposed limitations. I needed to learn to rely on my own perceptions and abilities, instead of looking to somebody else to spoon-feed me enlightenment like a baby. When I was ready to find a coven, I had already spent a long time studying in a semi-structured learning environment.

A coven is a unique entity in that each member must understand that self-confidence, sincerity, ambition, and absolute honesty are critical characteristics of a dedicated witch. While even the most traditional coven allows for some differences in belief, personal agendas that do not serve the interests of the entire group have no place there. It may take many years to find the right coven. Some people may work with several covens of various traditions before finding one that feels right. You must trust the gods and goddesses to lead you to the right teacher when the time is right. And even then, there are no guarantees that the student-teacher relationship will last forever. Most people have many teachers over time and glean valuable information from all. Your job as a member or prospective member of a coven is to be honest with yourself and the coven leaders, and to trust the gods and goddesses to guide you along the right path.

There are several excellent reasons for joining a magickal group:

  • Increased strength. Teamwork can accomplish amazing things. In magick, a coven usually has a lot more strength than a solitary practitioner. In a close-knit group, all share responsibility for the outcome.
  • Companionship. In a good coven, your brothers and sisters are people you can trust with your personal issues; they can offer advice and support. When you have five or six people you can call on if your familiar is ill, you know where your emotional support is coming from, or whom to call to help you mourn, if things turn out that way.
  • Wider range of information. You can find more opportunities to learn in a coven. Everyone has a different learning and teaching style, and each witch leads differently. In a group of people where ideas are exchanged freely, a lot of learning occurs. Other groups exist online; but the intimacy of a coven seems to create a fertile environment for spiritual growth.

  • Questions to Ask

  • How long has the coven been in existence?
    Newly formed covens can be exciting, but they also face unique challenges and frequently fail. Covens that have been around for a while tend to be more stable, but if you feel changes are necessary, you might leave before change is made.
  • How big is the coven?
    Too big to give each member a chance to feel as if he or she is a vital part of the group? Or, too small to spread responsibilities evenly and thinly? There is no perfect number, because the coven's focus influences its size. For example, in a teaching coven, the ratio of teachers to students really should not be more than one to four. Even that is a stretch; one to three is much better. If the coven only meets to do ritual, however, then the size can be much larger.
  • Who are the coven members?
    Are they of mixed gender, ethnicity, socio-economic backgrounds? Online, a diverse mix of people is easy to achieve. If the coven has a tradition based on one pantheon, the members may tend to be more of one type than another; but a variety of people should participate. If not, then you might want to ask why.
  • How are rituals done?
    Who chooses when, where, and what rituals are performed? Is that a structure comfortable for you? If you want to join a coven to gain experience in writing and leading rituals, then being excluded from that process probably won't feel right.
  • How much time do you have, and how much are you willing to devote to being a part of the group?
    If you are already juggling too many demands on your time, then perhaps joining a coven is not a good idea right now. One of the benefits of cybercoven membership, however, is that you can gain companionship and knowledge at a pace that you choose. You still have to juggle your priorities and deal with conflicting demands, but cybercovens require no travel time.
  • Are they friendly in their dealings with you, but not over-enthusiastic about recruiting?
    Are they willing to talk with you about how they do things and what their expectations of you would be? Openness and good communication are essential characteristics of a healthy coven.
  • Do members seem to know what they are talking about and are they willing to share that knowledge?
    Are they emotionally and physically healthy? Do they feel like good people to be with? These questions are a little harder to answer when you are dealing with people online, but not impossible. Listen to your intuition.
  • Are there financial or political obligations?
    How are finances handled? Are there exceptions made? If so, how and to whom? Is the coven giving regular reports? Has anyone left the coven or been banished? If so, can you speak with the former member? Speaking with former coven people may reveal more about the internal structure of the coven and why it is not as perfect as it seems on the surface. Ask why the person was banished. The answer to such a sticky question tells you much about the politics of the group, including whether you might find yourself similarly banished some day.

    No matter how much you want to work with a group of people, it is a waste of your time to join a group with which you are not comfortable. Instead, wait, practice on your own, and continue to look. It will be well worth the wait.

  • <b>Do's and Don't's</b><br><br>

    <li>Be wary of any coven leader who claims to have grasped the one and only truth, making all other beliefs and practices wrong. If a coven leader's philosophy and beliefs are narrow and one-sided, then back away.</li>

    <li>Does the coven leader(s) exercise too much authority?  Do they try to control the personal lives of members? Does it seem as if there is a guru to whom everyone defers?</li>

    <li>Be wary of a group that keeps much of its doings secret. Never speak words in a ritual setting that you do not understand. Remember that you can always walk out of a ritual.</li>

    <li>Be wary of a coven leader who shows a lack of respect toward members. If there are constant flame wars and harsh words, followed quickly by apologies, beware. Occasional disagreements are okay and even healthy. But anger should not be a usual part of coven interaction.</li>

    <li>Are guilt trips a part of coven discussions?</li>

    <li>Leave a coven that has no clear belief system or one that accepts everything from Sculderianism (a system that worships a dual deity in the form of Mulder and Scully from the TV show "The X-Files") to the Illuminati (a hidden magickal organization that theoretically runs the world) as valid belief systems.</li>

    <li>Be wary of any group that tries to alienate you from your family and friends. This is a dangerous warning signal of cults, which are not healthy groups for you or anyone else.</li>

    <li>Never join a coven in which it is unacceptable to excuse yourself from practices that make you uncomfortable.</li>

    <li>Do not remain in a coven where you cannot ask questions about anything magickal. You should be able to ask questions such as, "Why did you use sandalwood incense and not pine?"</li>

    <li>Do not join a coven that does not tell you what you will be leaning or doing during rituals, nor one that provides no by-laws.</li>

    <li>Do not join a coven that uses drugs or alcohol in rituals.</li>

    <li>Do not join a coven that requires you to engage in sexual activities of any kind with any member. In a cybercoven, this is less likely to occur, but if sexually explicit flirtation is common in coven posts, use caution.</li>

    <li>Avoid covens that offer you a First Degree initiation after only a short time. (However, such an initiation might be in order if you have trained in other traditions or have been practicing as a solitary for more than a decade.)</li>

    <li>Be wary of joining a coven or group that guarantees that you will be given an Initiation after a predetermined period of time. Initiation is too sacred an act to be defined by time.</li>

    <li>Do join a coven that follows the <a href="/frameset_offsite.asp?pageLoc=http://www.wicca.com/celtic/wicca/rede.htm&query=boardID%3D41494%26pageLoc%3D%2Fstory%2F107%2Fstory%5F10758%5F4%2Ehtml&script=/frameset.asp" target="_parent">Wiccan Rede</a> verbally as well as in practice.</li>

    <li>Avoid covens that participate in bindings, hexes, or witch wars. Do they require a physical link from you before you join? Do you ever wonder whether their magick will be used against you? Have you ever been told that if you leave you will suffer reprisal?</li>

    <li>Does the coven have by-laws or other documents that you can examine before you join? If they won't show them to you until after you've been Dedicated or Initiated, be wary; these should be fairly public documents.</li>

    <li>Does the group ask you for more than a small amount of money to join, receive training, or be Initiated? Are gifts expected or required?</li>

    <li>Is the coven disorganized? Do meetings wander and typically end with a feeling of getting nowhere? Does participation and attendance at rituals not seem to matter?</li><br><br>

    You may have different reasons for being uncomfortable or wary of a group's true intentions. Listen to your intuition and follow your heart out the door, when necessary.<br>

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