What does it mean to belong to a coven? What are the rights and duties of coven members and coven
leaders? How does it all work? These are questions every new Pagan has, or ought to have. In the beginning, we don't know what we don't know.
So you want to be in a coven. What does that entail? First off, be aware that every coven is different. We run the whole spectrum from British Traditional to Radical Faerie and everything in between. Some covens are quite structured and others are more loose. But the essential experience of a coven is inherently one of commitment and structure. Of hard work and dedication. Of unity and connection. Of study and practice. Of celebration and devotion.
What is a coven, then? A coven is a unified group of magical practitioners dedicated to working, celebrating, learning, and growing together in the Old Way, which is another way of saying that it's a group of followers of an Earth-based spiritual religion. But it's more than that. When one goes through the process of initiation, one is bound to the initiator. Our karma becomes entwined. It is a serious thing, and not to be undertaken lightly. So to join a coven, first of all, is to willingly connect yourself with your coven leader and with your fellow members. This bond is sacred - we must enter it in perfect love and perfect trust. A coven is a spiritual family.
Witchcraft, along with other types of magical traditions, has a structured application process. This is intentional, and quite necessary. Usually, one must first complete a formal written application. After that, there is normally an in-person meeting, either with the coven leader(s) alone or with the whole group. Some groups may have more steps, like attending "outer circle" events (aka open to the public).
Witches generally are asked to study for a year and a day before they are eligible to join a coven. This allows time for people totally new to the Craft to get a basic practitioner-level foundation that enables them to be a constructive participant in group rituals. It also allows time for the prospective member to learn about the specific tradition and ways of their prospective coven.
Most importantly, though, this year and a day of study is a trial period for both the Seeker and the coven leader(s). During that time, the coven leader(s) will be watching the Seeker to see how they conduct themselves at events, in training, and in relations with fellow coveners and the coven leader(s).
The prospective covener surely has many questions as well, some of which are bound to be: who are these people? Will they be kind to me? Is this a weirdo cult? Do they have something that I want in terms of knowledge and experience? What do they want from me? Do the beliefs of this group match my own? What does the training program involve? What happens at coven events? Do I belong here? What are the financial commitments involved? What are the time commitments involved? Do I like the other members of the group?
All these questions and many more are answered during this year of study. At the end of that time, if both parties are ready, the prospective covener may move forward into initiation and membership in the group. This does not mean that learning and growth stop. Much like in martial arts, the first level of initiation is only the beginning. Depending on the coven, there may be structured training for another two years or more. Generally, this first year of training and subsequent initiation entitles the covener to attend rituals and events.
Many witches choose to remain as individual practitioners forever, which is a perfectly valid choice. There is nothing lesser about this choice - group leadership is NOT for everyone, nor should it be. Focusing on one's own practice, one's own home, and one's own family is plenty of work for a lifetime, and is quite fulfilling. The majority of witches fit into this category.
Others are interested in leading rituals or in someday leading their own group. Depending on the structure of your prospective coven, all of these choices will be honored in different ways. Some covens do not allow coveners to lead rituals - the leadership is responsible for that task, though generally everyone in the group plays a role. Some covens have shared leadership, in which there is one overall coven leader, but individual rituals can be led by a rotating cast of qualified coveners. Other groups are quite communal - the Reclaiming tradition, for example, co-creates and co-leads rituals.
Prospective coveners have a responsibility to find out what their prospective coven's policies on leadership are, and to clearly communicate their interest or lack of interest in leadership to their prospective coven leader(s), or at least, their knowledge of such at the time. Coven leaders have a duty to clearly communicate the coven's policies on prospective leadership, including how this is handled in general, along with the timeline and the expectations of a prospective future leader.
The timeline for becoming a ritual leader is dependent on the particular coven's process, but it is safe to say that it takes a while. One does not walk in off the street and create a ritual. One does not take three classes at the local metaphysical shop and create a ritual. There is good reason for this - the powers that we raise in ritual (and here I'm mostly referring to the collective energy of the participants, along with the elementals and possibly the Divine - remember, this is real witchcraft and not TV - we do not raise demons) must be handled properly. The ritual leader is responsible for the experience of the participants. There is a structure and process inherent in ritual, and it requires thorough knowledge in order to plan and perform it safely and correctly. In order to do that, one must also be a totally solid magical practitioner, able to ground and center, raise energy, shape that energy to a goal, release the energy, then re-ground and center and release all the powers that help us create sacred space. This all takes a great deal of time to learn, practice and fully embody. There are no shortcuts in magic.
The timeline for becoming a coven leader is even longer - one must not only be a solid practitioner and be able to create and lead group rituals, but one must also be a mature human being. That means that one must be able to create and sustain healthy relationships, set and maintain healthy boundaries, have excellent self-care, live a healthy lifestyle, and have a relatively stable life. In addition to all that, one must have a deep knowledge of our faith (past and present), the processes and principles of magic, a deep and real relationship with the Earth and all the powers that live here, and an excellent understanding of the Universe and our place within it. For covens that are part of a tradition, a prospective coven leader must also have an in-depth knowledge of the history and practice of the tradition. They should be known to and approved of by all tradition leadership, in addition to their coven leader(s). Most important of all, a prospective coven leader must be called by the Divine. Truly, experience, training, and an initiation does not a coven leader make. Only the Divine can do that.
Coveners have a right to fair and ethical treatment by their coven leader(s). This includes things like: empowering and positive leadership, wise counsel, and good quality instruction. Coven leaders(s) should be dependable. Coven leader(s) should never exploit their coveners emotionally, financially, or sexually. A good coven leader will see the potential for your best self within you, and help you to bring it out. You'll know you've found a good coven leader when you feel that you can tell them anything, including your hurt feelings or issues with the leader him or herself. A good coven leader states and enforces their boundaries with compassion. A good coven leader is supportive and kind. A good coven leader sets goals for their coveners, and holds them to it for their own highest good!
In turn, coven leaders should be able to depend on their prospective coveners to show up on time, be prepared for events and classes, help with ritual set-up and clean-up, do the homework, sustain daily practices, contribute to the group financially, and generally behave in a respectful and grateful way to other coveners and the coven leader(s).
Remember - coven leaders put years and years (often a lifetime, or multiple lifetimes) of training, personal and professional development and investment in a great many tools, supplies and events into their vocation, all for minimal or no financial return. Coven leaders are a lot like martial arts masters - we fight on the spiritual plane rather than the physical, but the similarities are striking. Coven leaders master their skills deeply and pass them on to the community, for the good of all and largely for the love of it, in service to the Divine. Coven leaders put heart and soul into their work, and that incurs a debt that can never truly be repaid. In Japan, the debt of student to teacher is called 'on', and that burden is carried for life. Likewise, coven leaders are karmically bound to and responsible for their coveners for life. Everything that you do reflects upon us, for good or for ill. It is a sacred relationship, and like all relationships, it is a two-way street.
In my Clan of the Wildlings, seekers must email me with interest, fill out a written application, have an in-person meeting, then attend a year and a day of training, during which time they may or may not be invited to attend rituals. They will be invited to and expected to attend our public events, as well as public events in the community. Seekers are expected to have certain base skills like woodcraft and Yoga, or to begin gathering them, as well as a base level of physical fitness. Upon successful completion of the first year of training, seekers will be eligible to join the coven and attend rituals. In year two of training, coveners go more deeply into practice, learn shamanic techniques, and learn how to craft and facilitate rituals. In year three of training, coveners do a project of personal specialization (akin to a master's thesis), and only then are invited to lead group rituals, if they are ready and interested in doing so.
Our tradition is one in which a solid foundation of healthy living and daily spiritual practice are built before we go wild with shamanic practice. It is a discipline and a lifestyle. It is not for the faint of heart, or for the casually curious. We will challenge you to practice excellent self-care. We will challenge you to get serious about your spirituality and infuse it into your daily life. We will challenge you to do this for real, to go out there and get wet, get dirty, get cold, get hot, suffer just a little and revel in the bliss quite a lot!