Sincerity, Competence, Integrity: Readers Respond

My last post has generated some fantastic conversation both in the Meadowsweet Commons and elsewhere online. I’m still sweltering at my parents’ house and will be traveling home again this weekend, so although I’m in the middle of composing a response exploring some of the ideas readers and commenters have shared, that post probably won’t be up for another few days at least.

In the meantime, I wanted to highlight some of the many insightful comments my last post has inspired.

First, both Pheadra and Freeman have stopped by to clarify their thoughts and take me (kindly) to task for approaching a light-hearted Twitter conversation far too seriously. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve turned a more serious, contemplative eye on a bit of harmless fun (and, despite the groans of readers everywhere, it probably won’t be the last!), but I hope they’ll forgive the mutual misunderstanding if only for the fact that it’s helped to provoke some really interesting conversations.*

Phaedra writes:

I never said (nor did Isaac) that competence without sincerity was a goal. Other commentors have shared stories of how when their competence was infused with sincerity, their achievements soared. It is a marvelous goal. But as someone said, sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you got asked to do something at the last minute. Sometimes what you’re doing is just not your thing. But if you have skill, whether it is in dance, theater, ritual, whatever, you have a much better chance to soar above the circumstances. Sincere people might get lucky, rise above their skill level, and soar, too. But the competent have the edge.

And Freeman points out that:

I have a lot more experience of public ritual that suffered from lack of planning and practice than I do of performances by polished ritualists who lacked commitment. It really seems to me that leadership in Pagan circles is generally not so externally rewarding that people remain in those roles after a loss of faith.

You can read the full text of their comments here and here.

Other readers also shared their thoughts about how they approach spiritual work and the experiences they’ve had of rituals in a variety of contexts.

Salena shares her own story as a dancer and a Pagan:

This article kept me thinking about my history with dance. I’ve always been a competent dancer, but for many years I lacked the sincerity. But after I converted to paganism and was able to find joy in my body in ways I hadn’t before, I became a much better dancer. For all the years I lacked sincerity, teachers and everyone kept telling me how I was competent, but that my lack of sincerity made me uninteresting to watch. Which I think is true. I tried for a long time to fake sincerity: I tried to lengthen my fingers to make it look like I wanted to dance to the ends of my extremities, but people could always tell, because people can read your mind through your body language. I could never give a convincing emotional performance, no matter my level of competence, because I was insincere.

On the other hand, I was in school with a lot of really sincere dancers with very little training and technical competence, and they were always very moving to watch.

Midnyte Hierax points to the necessary relationship between sincerity and competence (what I’ve been calling, in this context, integrity):

Group ritual takes equal parts competence and sincerity to be beneficial to the greatest number of participants. The leader should know how to manage energy flow and group dynamics; speakers should know how to manage vocabulary, eye contact, volume, and inflection even if they’re reading from a script; non-speaking members should know how to focus their own will and intent on the purpose of the working and how to stay out of the way of the active participants. All of these things working in concert increases the strength of the ritual, whatever its goal. All of these things take practice, hard work, experience, and determination to master. When a working group reaches a high level of competency, it is generally plain to see their sincerity in every ritual they do because they would not have gotten to the level of competency they’re at without sincere devotion to their faith and practices.

David M. shares his insights into how the purpose of ritual determines where we place our priorities:

The purpose of ritual is key here. Ritual can be all about community cohesion and that is a lovely thing. Or, it can be about performance and that can be fine too. If ritual is about making change there is a different dynamic. Competence and sincerity are necessary but not sufficient. To be successful, the leader and helpers must be able to invoke Spirit directly into the work. The elders or newbies who can accomplish this deserve respect and usually receive it because people can tell the difference.

In a similar vein, Cat Chapin-Bishop draws on her experience of silent worship in a Quaker context to explore the difference between pleasing performance and transformative power:

To my mind, the key understanding here is that ritual is not entirely a performance. In fact, what my time among Quakers is teaching me is that ritual is best when it is not a performance at all, at least for me, and that treating my interactions with the gods as a craft rather than a relationship is harmful to the power and Truth of what I experience when I approach them. [...] To script an encounter with the gods is to risk writing Them out of the script; if there can be no surprises, then we cannot be surprised by the sacred. And while that might yield a pleasant evening, it won’t deepen me in my spiritual journey.

Again, I don’t say that ritual power is incompatible with performance or competence… but an undue emphasis on those elements of leadership can lead us to over-focus on the outward elements of a ritual encounter. In the end, it is what is happening inside the celebrants, not how lovely a ritual is for the eyes and the ears, that matters most.

Cat’s comment is well worth reading in full, as there’s just too much good stuff to quote here. You can find it here in the Meadowsweet Commons.

Elsewhere online, Thorn Coyle shares some very similar reflections, particularly on the need for leaders to take risks and push themselves beyond their comfort zones even if that means disappointing others:

We should all be working toward both sincerity and competence. Sometimes we also need to take the big risks outside our comfort zones to make a different level of magic happen. With all our skill and training, that may end up looking like incompetence. It might disappoint or piss people off, people who have grown used to a certain level of work from us.

Leaders need to risk failure in order to keep sincere. Otherwise, we end up polishing veneer. Taking big risks when you are in a leadership role – whether leading a grove or coven or even a tradition – can feel very hard because we tend to not want our leaders to fail in any way (or worse, we are waiting for them to fail, so we can feel superior). No one likes to fail, most of us have some level of risk aversion, and I think this can become heightened when someone has been in leadership for awhile. It is how people and movements become brittle.

The really effective leaders continue to self-examine, to practice their craft, to study, to pray, to connect, and to take risks.

There is so much more to say on this topic, and it’s one that I think lies at the very heart of not just Pagan leadership, but also Pagan spirituality in general.

What do we emphasize in our rituals and spiritual work, and why? How do different forms of ritual shape our approach to these questions? How do we choose our leaders, and just as importantly, how do we support them in ways that allow them to continue to grow, explore and take risks?

What are your thoughts on the relationship between sincerity, competence, and integrity?


*I’ll also add quickly that, since I was upfront about the context of the Twitter conversation and reproduced it in its entirety in my original post, I think that while there may have been some misunderstanding and bungled communication on the part of both Phaedra and myself, the accusation that I misrepresented anyone is somewhat unfair. (I trust readers to decide for themselves, and a few of them did chime in that they thought I’d misunderstood Phaedra’s point.) Anyone familiar with Twitter knows the format and the context, or lack of it, in which 140-character-long tweets get traded. The brief exchange I had with Phaedra sparked some further thoughts for me that, after a few days, I decided to explore in more detail in a blog post. What happens on Twitter, unlike Vegas, does not necessarily have to stay on Twitter. I’m glad that Phaedra and Freeman both took the opportunity to expand on their thoughts beyond 140 characters in the Meadowsweet Commons, and it turns out that, as is so often the case, we actually agree on more than we disagree. Still, there is some intriguing subtlety to those points where we disagree, and that’s what I’ll be exploring further in later posts.


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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