Monday, December 30, 2013

Time and Space, or Rather, Place

In our previous posts we discussed the importance of the teacher, teachings, and community of practitioners and what binds them together—trust. Some have asked me if I was referring to faith, but I am not. Faith is a word that has distinct spiritual connotations to it, as St. Paul writes, “Faith is belief in things unseen,” and here he is referring specifically to spiritual powers and potentialities.  No, by trust I mean very real, down and dirty, human trust—as in, do I need to lock my door with this person?  Do they have my best interests at heart?  Will they carry their share of the load?  Now, there are some very real connections between the terms “faith” and “trust,” and even the word “confidence.” In the beginning we have faith; as we acquire experience, we build confidence.  The same holds with trust. We start out taking someone's word for it, and then, as we have more experience, we begin to understand the difference between talk and action.  It is this difference, the breadth and depth of the gap between talk and action,  that determines our level of trust in a person, group, or organization.  Big gap, little trust; small gap, lots of trust, for when things fall through the cracks, so to speak, we do not want to be one of them.

Trust is one of those rare qualities that is very difficult to obtain, and very easy to destroy; not so oddly, we live in a time and place wherein trust is the very thing that the demonic forces of counter-initiation—oops, I mean The Powers That Be or TPTB—seek to destroy.  Now I say this half-jokingly but also very seriously, as I have pointed out numerous times how media headlines, the very anti-social “social networking sites” (of which Facebook is the prime example), and a host of media messages both mainstream and alternative, in particular, engage in the active destruction of our trust in God, man, and beast.

This fracturing of human relations is tenuous in good times and wholly destructive in bad, as one need only look at history to see that civil wars are among the most brutal, be it the more recent events in Africa, the Balkans, or the 'border states' between the Union and Confederacy during the US Civil War of 1861-1865. 

To engage in any meaningful activity requires that family, friends, neighbors, and strangers be able to trust one another in their most basic of day-to-day activities.  

Trust, however, is the most wanting of virtues in modern spirituality, and in Neo-Paganism, magickal groups, and so-called initiatic circles.  It is absent elsewhere, but these are the ones I am most familiar with, and the measure of trust is simple:  the size, scope, and duration of their organized activities. In fact, this is a simple measure you can use for any movement.  Ask the question, “How committed are they to the cause?”  Simple:  by their fruits ye shall know them.  

If the group has a meaningful size, large enough scope of activities to involve everyone in a 'fruit bearing' project, and has the ability to maintain itself over time, then it has demonstrated trust between its members. It has also demonstrated sustainability.

It's All About The Numbers

Anyone who has ever run anything larger than a lemonade stand knows that size counts.  To get things done requires a mix of people and talents appropriate to the task.  The more people you have, the greater possibility of more talent that can be brought to the table.  People also bring with them physical resources—both cash and material—that can be brought to support the completion of the project. The question often is, what is the ideal size for a group?  That all depends on your stated mission. Why are you together, and what is it that you want to accomplish?  Once these two questions are answered, the “right number of members” is more easily identified.  However, keep in mind that geography and its attendant demographics plays a large part in available numbers.  It may be harder to get twelve people together in the middle of Nevada than in New York City. 

From personal experience, I have found that groups of four people or less need to put serious time into increasing their numbers to at least seven.  This seems to be a magic number where things can start to move.  If possible, getting to a dozen-to-fourteen members should also happen as quickly as possible, as it is at this point when larger projects can be undertaken, regular events scheduled, and responsibilities can be rotated so as not to burn out the members by having too few people carry too much of the responsibility. So it must be clear, as we are talking numbers here, it is quality that matters. Membership is voluntary, so each prospective member must know clearly what is expected from them as part of their membership—this includes financial obligations, attendance at meetings, educational commitments, and possible ritualistic and leadership functions.   

Once a group grows beyond a dozen members it is important to have written by-laws in place. These allow everyone to know in writing what each person's commitments, relationships, and responsibilities towards one another are and the consequences for any infractions.  This is critical and cannot be left until the group is too large, or the risk of its imploding under even a minor crisis dramatically increases.  Like a good ritual, the rules and regulations for the organization should be written out for everyone to study and understand.  

Any esoteric organization fortunate enough to grow to between 25 and 50 members is exceptional.  This is usually the critical growth stage for the group as it is too large to meet in any one member's home, and too small to purchase its own property, so renting will often be required. Think ahead for when this time comes. You should want your group to have to face this problem, as how you solve it will point in the direction of your future growth or stagnation.

On the top end it is also important to know what the largest size your organization or group should also become as well.  Here it gets more theoretical, as few organizations reach this problem;  however, it is not out of the question.  Research by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point has demonstrated that the largest a single, stand-alone entity or organization should be is 144 members.  Strangely, as the group begins to exceed this number—even by as few as three or five additional members—the group starts to fragment. In some of the older esoteric by-laws and constitutions it is stated that the largest a lodge should be is 144 members, and if it exceeds this it should splinter into two groups.  The reason Gladwell gives is that at 144 members everyone in the group can still be known to each other and thereby feel the weight of their responsibilities to the group as a whole.  Once that key number is breached, a tipping point is reached where individuals can shirk their duties, form cliques, and feel as though they are not really that important to the group.  It is interesting that when a small group reaches 12 or 13 members this is often the tipping point towards growth, whereas when they fall below 12 members it often signals stagnation or decline.  The notion of “twelve squared” as an ideal group size is fascinating.  To be clear, this does not mean an order, society, or church should not exceed 144 members total, only that it becomes very tricky once that number is breached in any one chapter, lodge, or affiliated body.  

On a practical level, between thirty-six and seventy-two members, as well as in excess of seventy-two, work very well at the low and high ends of the mid-range for membership.  It allows for the absorbing of new members, loss of existing ones, and transmission of group culture without serious impact on the financial, educational, and practical work of the groups, if they have planned even modestly well.  

It should come as no surprise that small Masonic, Rosicrucian, Martinist, and other initiation groups in the past and present seem to work best when they are within this mid-range for membership.  When larger lodge or chapter membership levels are reached, such as 200 or more, the group may do well financially from dues, but, surprisingly, participation levels are often very low.  Thus, we may have 150 to 200 members on the rolls, but only 15 to 20 turn out for any one meeting.  This again is part of a larger issue—not just of quantity, but also of the quality of the experience members have once they are a part of the group.  

While the mission of your spiritual group may appear, (and let me use this word again), “self-evident,” by all means it is not.  HOW the mission is to be carried out will define your groups' successes and failures, and, ultimately, sustainability.  For example, the average Masonic lodge in North America is defined as a fraternal and charitable institution, yet they spend a great deal of their time acting as a revolving door for candidates who enter and leave, never to return again.  The question is “why do they not stay active in their lodges?”  The answer: the social make-up of long-term members is often too hostile to changes that will accommodate the needs and membership ambitions of the new, younger, and often much busier members.  When new members join they often look for educational programs, instruction on the esoteric symbolism and its meaning, and an avenue to meet others of a similar mind.   When this does not happen, their professional and personal lives require that they cut their losses and look elsewhere.  Thus, a declining older membership is often all that is left, and instead of asking the younger members what they would like in order to stay active, they are criticized for even thinking that there could be anything of depth in the 'ancient rituals.'  In short, the average Masonic lodge is ill-equipped to meet the needs of the bulk of its members, engage and maintain new members, and, as such, it gets an average of five to ten percent of its total membership attending any given meeting.  The secondary effect is that this pushes more demands on the existing members, who then spend all of their time undertaking fund-raising operations in the form of breakfasts, dinners, and holiday events to simply keep the lights on—events that drive new, younger members even further away.  The cycle is a guaranteed spiral of doom, yet few lodges are willing to recognize their self-imposed trap.
A successful model would have classes and means for new members to explore these avenues of Masonry rather than banish them to the dark corner of the lodge. In short, each member must be engaged in something important to the lodge, as well as something important to themselves.  Every member must be important to the group on some level, and find fulfillment in that involvement, for them to remain committed and active.  

Now, this is where it can get tricky, as organizations, no matter how large or small, must be very careful of “mission creep.”  Mission creep is where one incrementally moves further and further away from their stated mission.  When it is looked back upon it is very easy to see how this happens, as each step on the way is very easily connected to the one before and after it, BUT, at some point, they have very little relationship to the original purpose of the group. Here is where people leave saying, “I did not sign on for this.”  

A very good, as well as common, example of mission creep can be seen in many Neo-Pagan activities.  This form of mission creep is particularly damaging for several reasons.  This is where a small group holds a local or regional event and decides to donate the proceeds to an animal shelter, environmental cause, or social service agency.  I am reminded of one local group that held several very nice events, and despite suggestions of moving the event to a site where there was easier access, they still managed to have two successful years in a row.  There was no third year.  The group's leadership fell apart. One of the main reasons was funding: they ran out of money.  Now, this is critical, because I specifically warned them against making a significant donation to a local wildlife sanctuary and, rather,  to bank that money for the next event. This advice was ignored.  Now, there are several points in this example: one, an out-of-the-way location; two, leadership that had no experience in what they were doing and ignored advice from a seasoned professional; and three, raising money for someone other than their own fledgling, start-up group.

The first two points are obvious in their contributions to the eventual collapse and failure of the movement. The third needs more examination.  Just as young men entering Freemasonry say, “I don't need to do all this just to give to charity. Why, I can just write a check, or join Rotary, Kiwanis, or the Lions, and at least there I will make some business connections that can help me professionally as well as personally, while still raising money for charity. Here I sit through boring meetings, am asked to do fundraising just to keep the lights on, and there is nothing in it for me personally.”  How can one argue with that?  It should also be noted that as the mainstream churches became more socially active in the 1960s through 2000, their memberships declined rather than grew. As each church became little more than a social service agency with a Sunday Service filled with pabulum for a sermon, the standard doctrinal political correctness for Sunday School teachings (if they even had enough children to hold classes), they all became indistinguishable from one another.  They were essentially interchangeable—they were no different from the day-to-day world around them.  They lost their mission, direction, purpose, and, with those, financial and spiritual support.

If you are a spiritual organization you need to stand apart from the world, to be a place of rest, instruction, and reprieve from the day-to-day, not just another version of it.  You need to be special, you need to be vital to the life of your members; otherwise, they will simply leave.   

This is why it is important to have a large enough group so that activities such as membership education, training, worship schedule, initiations if they are performed, along with mundane tasks of mailings, email communications, dues collection, bill paying, and banking can all be done and accounted for.  Somewhere between eighteen and two dozen members is where this must acquire a distinct and formal form—have it in place before then and you can easily grow with it.  

However, there is something more insidious about mission creep.  It is almost inherent in modern religious movements.  It is, in short, a failure to recognize and respect one's limits as an individual and as a group.  Achieving anything of importance demands that we reflect upon our strengths and weaknesses and play to our strengths. It also means that we are honest with ourselves.   People come to magical and initiatic groups to overcome their actual and perceived limitations—they seek power to become and do more.  This is natural. However, it requires that we also respect what some of those limits are and that, while we may be able to work around them, we cannot as such actually eliminate them altogether.  More will be said on this later, but for now, remember that limits are a good thing. Recognize, respect, and build on them, and you will achieve more than you would have by pretending they don't exist or are unimportant.

Any group needs rules, and these rules need to be formally known by every member, imparted to them, and written down.  Rules, By-Laws, or a formal organizational Constitution tie it all together. Roles, responsibilities, and relationships—mundane as well as spiritual—are defined clearly for everyone involved.  It is staggering how many hours will be spent organizing a ritual for a group, and then, once in, the new member gets contradictory information on roles and responsibilities.  This ultimately leads to a lack of confidence as well as conflict, even if minor, between members, and damages the group's essential activities.  If it is worth organizing a group around, it is worth having written rules and guidelines for. Do it right and keep things moving smoothly from the beginning.

Duration also has an effect on how one views the importance of their meeting space.  If regular rituals and initiations are to be performed, such as in several Masonic, Rosicrucian, Martinist, or Templar organizations, then meeting space is of prime importance.  Even if one wants to hold rituals outside, the ability to obtain large enough, and private enough, space is increasingly difficult, particularly if one lives in an urban area.  For this, relationships are going to be essential.

The most important paragraph you may read in this blog: small groups must band together to form community focal points wherein they can share common resources.  The cost of a regular lodge or meeting space is about the same as the average monthly home or apartment cost in your given area.  So, if you need to cover a monthly bill of $1,000 a month on 20 members, then your dues are $50 a month, or $600 a year.  Of course, that does not provide any cushion or allow for a decline in membership.  Clearly it would be easier to coordinate a space with another group for half that cost and allow for a cushion for future changes.  

Organizations, like people, have a crisis around the 7, 14, 21, 28 (25-30), and 50-56 year mark. The influence of Venus and Saturn on organizations in terms of personal relationships, finances, and stability, in contrast to rigidity, cannot be overstated.  These points should be particularly important to the readers of this blog who are primarily interested in esotericism and its attendant subjects. Simply look around at what was stated in our first post: the average life span of a movement in America is about 30 years, or one Saturn cycle.  This is true for both large, as well as regional, and smaller local groups.  This does not mean that everyone is doomed to a 30 year life span, only that special attention needs to be paid to these cycles so as to be able to survive their more strenuous elements.  Very few esoteric movements or groups make it to the century mark, but I am aware of several that are very close.  This happens, more often than not, in spite of themselves rather than because of good planning, insight, and an application of occult principles.  However, it has been done, it is being done, and you can do it as well.  

In our future posts we will examine each of the above points in greater detail and give examples of where they have been successfully applied.

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