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Developing Group Aims

The establishment of a common aim is an early priority within the formation of a group. In recent years, there has been much talk of ‘mission statements’ and ‘empowering visions’. In this article I will explore the dynamics influencing the formulation of group aims.

Some magical groups have quite grandiose stated aims - phrases such as "The establishment of the Law of Thelema" or "the psycho-historic battle for the aeon" spring to mind. How far such prosaic statements are useful in the actual day-to-day existence of the group concerned is difficult to say.

An aim can be defined as a direction or purpose.

The benefits of having aims are:

They provide a focus for purposeful activity

Aims allow group members to ‘get down to business’ as it were - although ‘business’ might not necessarily mean executing particular tasks - it depends on the focus of the group. A very task-oriented group might view too much discussion or socialising as ‘wasting time’ when the group ‘should’ be performing planned ritual work. A less task-oriented group might however view general discussion and socialising to be as equally important to carrying out formal magical activities.

Allow creation of goals

Aims tend to be broad generalisations, whilst goals are more precise statements of intended result. An effective goal states:

  • what is to be achieved

  • how it is to be achieved

  • the criteria for assessing its achievement

For example, in a magical training group, a goal might be for each member to lead the group in a ritual of their own design. This might require some discussion of the practicalities and theoretical aspects of group ritual. The group might evaluate the success of this goal in terms of each participant’s ritual performance and how effective the ritual was, in terms of both execution and effect.

They provide motivation & direction

If group members know what they are aiming for they are more likely to be motivated to strive to achieve those aims. Participants need to know what is expected of them (by the group) and what they can expect from themselves.

Enable the structuring of sessions & resources

Knowing what the group wants to achieve allows the structuring of activities accordingly. This is an important consideration if there is a time-limitation on group meetings. If, for example, discussion of the group’s activities is felt to be an important aspect of the group’s work, then time needs to be allowed for that discussion and in some cases, a suitable space allocated. In some magical groups, the focus of the group is more task-oriented, so spending time in discussion is not seen as being particularly important and hence relegated to a space ‘outside’ the group’s venue for formal work, such as a public house.

They provide criteria for the evaluation of the group

The process of evaluating a group relates to referring back to stated aims and goals and reviewing how well these have been achieved. For example, where a group’s aims include allowing all participants to take on the mantle of ‘group leader’, the criteria for evaluation would relate to (a) did everyone take a turn at being ‘leader’, (b) how effective was their performance, (c) what opportunities were there for the transfer of leadership skills, etc. This may also be a factor when the effectiveness of the group is being evaluated by some outside individual or parent organisation.

They provide criteria for assessment of individual performance

This point is relevant to training groups (where the leader is taking all participants through a set programme) or groups where there is some degree of ‘teaching’ involved (for example, in a Wiccan coven). If a person is working towards specific aims and goals, then the leader can assess their performance both individually and in a group setting.

They provide criteria for self-observation

One of the strengths of magical groups is that they provide an unparalleled opportunity for individual ‘reality-testing’ of beliefs & behaviour.

Furthermore, if a group member has made explicit particular personal aims & goals as part of their participation in the group, then they may evaluate their progress in terms of achieving those aims.

Approaches for Formulating Group Aims

Group aims are broad generalisations - it helps if one thinks of them in terms of being similar to a magical statement of intent in that they need to be clear and concise, but not overly precise. For example: "The aim of this group is to explore magic together." From such a broad generalisation, participants could move on to consider more precisely what this entails, and generate specific goals accordingly.

The Leader Presents Aims

In some types of group, the leader will present the aims of the group. For example, in a workshop session or training group where the group activities have been pre-planned by the leader in advance. This approach works well in some situations, but not others. It is not unusual, for example, for people attempting to found long-term magical groups and organisations to write lengthy ‘charters’ and ‘guidelines’ which constitute the long-term aims and goals of the group - before they actually have any members. These efforts often collapse as by the time the ‘founder’ goes looking for members, they have left little accommodation for other participant’s own aims & expectations.

Group Consensus

Here group aims arise from a general discussion of participant’s aims and expectations. For example, in a small magical group, the group convener might ask each participant what they would like to achieve personally in the group and formulate a general aim which encompasses each participant’s aims & expectations. Obviously, this approach demands more time than the above, but has the value that each participant may feel that they have contributed to the development of the group’s overall direction. Discovering group aims & general expectations can be a useful discussion theme for the initial meeting of a group.

Pre-Group Interviews

This can take the form of an informal discussion or interview between the leader and a single participant. This has several advantages:

  1. It serves to introduce the leader and prospective member to each other - or at least to re-establish a prior relationship. This has the added value that, following the interviews, all participants will have at least met the leader of the group, which might help in reducing the anxiety which tinges initial meetings.

  2. It allows the leader to give general information about the group.

  3. It allows the negotiation of aims & goals - the leader can state what he or she wants the group to be about and discuss the individual’s own aims for the group.

  4. It allows the clarification of expectations and anxieties - some individuals may have fears or unrealistic expectations about what they might have to do in the group - for examples, issues of working skyclad (naked) or around sexuality which they might be reluctant to discuss in a group setting.

  5. It allows the discussion of general ground rules - such as time-keeping, mutual respect of other members, etc.

The value of the consensual approach to formulating group aims is that it fosters, at an early stage, an atmosphere of mutual respect & trust within the group - sending out the message that the group is a collaborative venture, rather than the imposition of the leader’s aims and expectations onto a passive membership.

However group aims are formulated, it is useful to have some kind of written record of them in order to effectively evaluate the group’s progress.

Factors involved in the development of a group’s aims:

  • aims & expectations of group members

  • aims of group leaders/facilitators

  • aims of any larger organisation within which the group operates.

Group leaders may well have different aims & expectations of the group than members, and when the group is itself a sub-group of a larger organisation, that parent body’s aims may well also impinge upon the group. Moreover, individuals outside of the immediate group may have expectations about how they expect that group to perform. An example of this is the situation where a leader wants to use the group she is leading as a ‘showcase’ to other group leaders in the parent body of how her ideas and methods are superior to theirs. This will influence her expectations of member’s performance in the group and, given that other participants are unaware of her aim in this regard, may contrast widely with what they expect from the group.

When considering aims, we must be aware that they are likely to be more complex than a simple statement of consensus. Individual group members are likely to have:

  • personal aims - which relate to their own needs and expectations

  • group aims - things they would like the group to achieve as a whole

  • aims related to other individuals - directed towards specific members of the group or even individuals outside of the immediate group

Hidden Agendas

However the common aims of the group are arrived at, it is likely that participants will have other aims - which are often left unstated (or even acknowledged), and that these aims will continue to influence their behaviour in the group. Such aims are often referred to as ‘hidden agendas’. This term is often used with the implication that the individual who holds a ‘hidden agenda’ is somehow dubious. However, it is entirely normal for group members (including the leader) to want to achieve particular outcomes for themselves, the group as a whole, specific individuals or even individuals beyond the immediate group. Indeed, it is entirely possible that participant’s level of commitment to the formalised group aims will depend on how far a member feels that the group’s common aims will further his or her own personal aims. There is often an assumption made by group members that all other participants share their personal aims - "We’re all here for the same reasons, aren’t we?" - which sometimes is an appeal to the group’s sense of conformity or collusion. Directly challenging such an assertion can be uncomfortable.

When hidden agendas are revealed, then they can be accommodated by the group. However, this is only possible (or desirable) up to a point. For example, in a magical group, a member may have a personal aim to find a suitable ‘magical partner’ or sexual encounters with other members of the group. Voicing this aim openly however, is quite likely to be detrimental to their credibility as a group member - giving rise to a perception that they are ‘here for the wrong reasons’.

Focusing on Personal Aims

One approach to uncovering personal aims is to have participants make a list of their own aims and expectations about the group. The results of this exercise can be kept private, but can lead into a general discussion of what participants expect from the group, in terms of both concrete aims such as "I want to learn more about ritual magic" to the more abstract (though no less important) "I want to feel supported by the group". If members keep their lists, it can provide a baseline for assessing the success of the group in achieving these criteria. It is also worth noting that member’s aims & expectations will change over time, as the group develops and as individuals re-assess their relationship to other members.

The value of recognising the diversity of member’s aims within in a group at an early stage in the group’s life enables the group to become more tolerant of member’s opinions and desires within it. A group’s sense of ‘we-ness’ does not require conformity of belief & aims. When it is recognised that common aims can be shared by members who otherwise have very different ideas & approaches to the common aim of the group, the group is more likely to accept differences of opinion and perspectives as healthy for the group’s existence. In groups where apparent conformity to aims† is valued more than individual differences, divergence from the norms of the group is more likely to lead to conflict. This is not to suggest that conflict is less likely to happen in a group where a diversity of perspectives is recognised - but that there is more of an atmosphere of ‘tolerance’. The difference is that of a situation where members feel that they can voice their differences of opinion and at least be listened to, to one where they feel that their voices are unimportant and speaking up will lead to censure. It is easier to foster such an atmosphere in a group during the early stages of its development rather than later.

† I use the term ‘apparent conformity to aims’ as of course what people say in this kind of setting is often quite different to what they actually feel.