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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #79, Summer ’86. I think this is the only time the word Dream-with-a-capital-D appears in my work. When I first heard it, it seemed like a charming shorthand for everything the Society stands for, but it soon lost its appeal. The Society at its best is not dreamlike, but intensely real, and our visions of it are all intensely personal. All too often, someone who claims to be serving or defending “the Dream” is promoting a very individual view of what the Society ought to terms implying that disagreement is tantamount to betrayal of the Society. This does NOT promote orderly and civil discourse! I strongly recommend avoiding the word when you write to Society or kingdom officers—chances are, they’ve seen its coercive face so often that it will predispose them to resist your ideas. They may wind up agreeing with you anyway, but why make things hard for yourself? To close a letter with the forsoothly equivalent of “Yours truly” or the other modern business-letter tags, use “Yours in service” or “Your servant.”


My cousins, one of the first steps I took in the course of settling into the Stewardship was to read all the old files and moldering back copies of Tournaments Illuminat­ed. This study confirmed something I’d long suspected, which is that the SCA is by no means less kind or less true to the Dream now than it was in Times of Old.
     We were a bunch of sharks then, too.
     I will not recount the weary tales today. Suffice it to say that there is not now any problem in any group—no dictatorial Seneschal, no arbitrary Baron, no feud among the officers, no foolish Crown, no secessionist household, no rabid democrat—that has not a counterpart in the first years of the Society. Laments for the vanished courtesy of a gentler age first appear in T.I. in May III, and have cropped up regularly there and in the newsletters ever since, proving that people in the SCA have always suffered from the shortfall between their dreams and their reality.
     It is no disrespect to our predecessors to speak thus of their troubles. When the game blew up in their faces as it does in ours, their distress was as great as our own. Greater, even, for they had not behind them the bulwark and support that we can find in twenty long years of problems solved, lessons learned, and enmity healed or faded into dust. The clearest lesson is simply that the same things do go wrong over and over again, old trage­dies with new faces, because they’re built into the system. This is a liberating thought: it lets us work to prevent problems or to fix them, without wasting energy blaming the people involved. But the resources of history are little aid to those who never heard of them, and so from time to time—when nothing more urgent forces my hand—I will be using this column to describe some of the most com­mon danger signs and the strategies that work best for reducing damage and restoring harmony.
     To begin, here are the two problems that most often lie at the root of troubles plaguing branches of the Society:

1. Feuding Among the ‘Generations.’ People in many branches look back to a sort of Golden Age, a time when all their group’s members were excited about the Society and worked happily together toward the same goals. The current reality, fraught with interpersonal tensions and rivalries great and small, seems dismal by comparison. People just aren’t as nice as they used to be....
     It’s not the people, though, it’s the way human groups develop. The original core group of a branch usually includes several people who knew each other before they heard of the SCA, plus the first few who learned of the SCA from them. In the beginning there’s so much to do and so much territory to explore that people don’t have time to get on each others’ nerves. Newcomers are valuable and therefore welcome. After a while, however, the roles fill up; people identify with certain offices and ways of doing things, and because any newcomer may be a source of change, newcomers begin to feel like a threat to the group. The oldtimers close ranks, and some newcomers drift away, while others band together and set out to make the old fogies really uncomfortable.
     At this point, it feels like the end of the world. It’s not fun anymore. Chivalry is dead. If the group is lucky, the members will figure out they don’t have to feud with each other because there’s room for all sorts of interests, and things will settle down on a larger scale, with subsets of close friends working together when they need to and more or less ignoring each other much of the time.
     Some branches die at this point, from failing to find a way to take in new members, but most develop a new sense of identity...and, a few years later, still newer members (with no memory of the old troubles) will start to threaten that. For a while, it may seem as though every­one who was there for the last set of feuds must be natural allies against everyone who arrived afterward; things get nasty for a while, then—again with luck—they settle down and a new cycle of harmony begins.

     If you know that it’s normal for a group to move from peace to tension and back again, you can help to control the depth of the swings and the damage they do. Look at your own branch—if people seem happy, what problems are building for the future? What potential troublemaker could be channelled into office now, before he develops a sense of grievance against the power structure? If you’re in the middle of a cat fight, is it time to yell “HOLD!” and make people compare what they’re doing with what they really want to do? If you can help your branch enjoy the good times that come its way, and accept that the bad patches are a natural part of your group’s evolution, not necessarily fatal and not a sign of special malevolence from within your ranks or outside them, you have a chance to prolong the periods of harmony and keep the periods of tension from getting out of hand.

2. Burnout. Society offices provide intrinsic re­wards—satisf­action, interest, influence—that keep people happily working for the common good...for a while. Eventually, however, most officers find that life has other demands, inside or outside the Society, and the duties become an intolerable burden. If a weary officer simply finds a replacement, all is well, but the dread disease of burnout may intervene. One of the first signs of burnout is that the sufferer becomes certain that no one else can handle his job, and that all suggestions and offers of help are subtle attacks. While the role of officer becomes thus unreasonably dear, the tasks of office get harder and harder, and so they are ill done or not done at all. There are no good options after that happens: the group may have the officer thrown out (probably causing him to leave), the officer himself may quit without warning or hand the job on to someone without preparation (and then drop out at least for a while), or the group itself may die as people get fed up and wander off.
     The main armor against burnout is Recognition. If you start getting defensive about a job, it’s time to leave; if you notice a friend clinging to a job and not enjoying it, help him find a way out. Break up the process before either the officer or the group does anything unforgivable, let the officer rest and the group find a new victim to serve it, and everyone will be better off in the long run.
     Several of the kingdoms have restricted the terms of Great Officers in an effort to keep the incumbents from burning out, but most local groups are left to their own devices. I recommend that anyone who has been in one office more than two years stop and think, “Do I really need this?” Anyone pushing four years in office should consider very seriously trying something new, even if the job still seems like fun—burnout can creep up insidiously or strike almost overnight, and once the terminal stages set in the resulting injuries can take a long, long time to heal. After all, leaving a job is not like hatching out of an egg: it will still be there and will still need someone to do it in a few years, and you can go back to it—if you left it cheerfully and in good condition.

AND WHATEVER GOES WRONG, assume that you and your group are not the first to encounter the problem. Ask around; you’ll find that others have feuded, fallen subject to dictatorial or incompetent officers, and other­wise lost track of the way the SCA ought to work. The ones who survived are still here, and their advice may well help you past the troubles of the moment. If you sit and tell yourself and your friends that things are incurably awful and the world is ending, you’ll almost certainly be proved right...but you didn’t need to be right; you could have fixed things so you were happy instead.

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