Social Work Practice with Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans: Guidelines for Practice with Children and Youths

Article excerpt

Social workers have become increasingly aware of the importance of spirituality and religion in clients lives (Canda & Furman, 1999; Walsh, 1999). Most exploration of the role of spirituality in social work has focused on the major American religious denominations (Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism), with some attention paid to smaller groups such as Muslims and Native Americans (for example, Hodge, 2005; Hurdle, 2002).

This article explores social work practice with children and youths who belong to a small but growing spiritual community: those who identify themselves as Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans. To provide sensitive, appropriate services for members of this population, it is important for social workers to be familiar with the characteristics of Pagan spirituality. This article outlines the major beliefs, practices, and characteristics of this community and offers some general considerations for social work practice with a Pagan population. It then addresses factors relating to work with children, youths, and families.

Although some literature examines the role of spirituality in social work, there is almost no professional literature on the topic of Paganism within the fields of social work and counseling psychology. McQuaide's (1999) case study involves a Wiccan client; Kennedy (2003) provided a brief overview of Neo-Paganism for counselors; and Wicca is briefly described in Canda and Furman (1999).Therefore, I incorporated data from studies of Neo-Pagans in other social science disciplines (such as anthropology and sociology), as well as literature on Paganism and Witchcraft written by practitioners.

BELIEFS AND PRACTICES

For the purposes of this article, Paganism (also called Neo-Paganism) is used as an umbrella term that includes a variety of nature-based spiritual paths, which typically are nonmonotheistic and honor the divine in both male and female form. (The material presented in this section is widely available in books on Paganism and Wicca, see for example, Adler, 1986; Cunningham, 1988; Starhawk, 1999.) The terms "Pagan," "Wiccan," and "Witch" overlap but are not interchangeable, and practitioners themselves disagree about the meanings of the terms. A common distinction, as described by Carpenter (1996), is that Paganism typically refers to spiritual paths characterized by nature worship and polytheism or pantheism, whereas Witchcraft focuses on the practice of magic and healing and implies a feminist political inclination. Because the term "witchcraft" in American culture may refer to any use of magic, social workers should not assume that a client's use of the term indicates a Neo-Pagan identity as described in this article. Within the Pagan community, Witchcraft (often capitalized to differentiate the term from general usage) refers to a Pagan religion inspired by pre-Christian European spiritual traditions.

Some Pagans do not identify as Witches; they may identify as Goddess Worshippers, Druids, Neo-Shamans, or members of other groups seeking to recreate ancient religions (for example, Greek, Norse, or Egyptian). Wicca, which emerged in the 1940s in England, is the original form of modern Pagan Witchcraft. Carpenter (1996) pointed out that the term Wicca is preferred by many Witches because it does not have a history of negative connotations.

Pagans typically practice their religion alone (as "solitaries") or in small spiritual support groups (called circles or covens). A coven is a committed, long-term group with a high degree of intimacy and cohesion within the group, and relatively stable, fixed membership. A circle usually refers to a group characterized by a more fluid membership and a lower degree of group intimacy. Covens and circles are generally decentralized and autonomous; there are several national organizations dedicated to Pagan activism, education, and networking, but there is no single group to which all Pagans and Witches belong. …