Based on the countless stories I’ve heard from those who have exited the organization, the best way to leave the Watchtower/Jehovah Witnesses, and possibly keep your Jehovah Witness family unit and friendships intact, is s…l…o…w…l…y (and methodically—i.e., have a plan). Currently, there are three categories of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I have listed them from least severe to most impactful. They are as follows:
1) The Fader: Jehovah’s Witnesses are typically less hostile towards the ex-member who simply “faded away.” The reason? They consider that person the least threatening to their spirituality (i.e., indoctrination). What does it mean to “fade”? It means you simply stop associating with the congregation, forego meetings and do NOT express any opinion about the Watchtower organization’s teachings one way or the other. Once you “fade,” no matter how much you are encouraged to do so by other Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is imperative that you never share your thoughts with another Jehovah’s Witness (good or bad), unless you truly don’t care whether or not you are ultimately shunned. If you do share your thoughts or show any signs of independent thinking (i.e., too many questions or concerns), you will find yourself being involuntarily moved by Watchtower elders into category #2, below. In category #1, as a fader, your family typically will NOT be expected to shun you.
2) The Disassociated One: This is the person who innocently answers the elders’ inquiry: “Do you still want to be known as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?” The thing you must understand is, in asking this question, the elders are trying to determine if you are disassociating yourself so that they take action to instruct the congregation to shun you. Above all else, do NOT respond to any questions like this. If you answer “no,” that is all they need to adversely impact your life. In this category, your family is expected to shun you. Whether or not your family shuns you (or gets away with not shunning) depends upon how closely your family follows the nuances of the organization’s changing rules and how well the leaders within your home congregation monitor your family dynamics. Still, The Watchtower organization expects family members to shun loved ones whether that person ‘disassociates’ or gets kicked out for some perceived sin.
Here’s the thing most Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even realize: The whole shunning policy wasn’t that stringently enforced prior to 1981. Since then, however, and subsequent to the whole shakeup at headquarters involving the disfellowshipping of Governing Body member Ray Franz (author of “Crisis of Conscience”) Jehovah’s Witnesses have been taught that there is no difference between being disfellowshipped for “sin” and disassociating from the organization. The expectation is the same—shun your beloved family member. Confused? It simply means this:
DISASSOCIATED=DISFELLOWSHIPPED. CONSEQUENCE FOR EITHER=SHUN.
For any Jehovah’s Witness who challenges this policy, refer to the September 15, 1981 Watchtower magazine (p. 23-24): “Persons who make themselves not of our sort by deliberately rejecting the faith and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses should appropriately be viewed and treated as are those who have been disfellowshipped for wrongdoing.” This was the very magazine my family used to justify their shunning of me back in 1981.
Also refer to the more obvious and current April 15, 1988, Watchtower magazine which states: “By also avoiding persons who have deliberately disassociated themselves, Christians are protected from possible critical, unappreciative, or even apostate views.” “shunning would be appropriate… for anyone who rejects the congregation [of Jehovah’s Witnesses].”
3) The Disfellowshipped One: This is the person who is kicked out of the Watchtower organization (excommunicated), i.e., removed involuntarily. The justification for this usually involves some perceived ‘sin’ incurred by the now-defunct member (what constitutes a ‘sin’ is determined by the leaders and can include challenging their authority related to policies of sexual abuse, shunning, etc.). In this category, your family WILL be expected to shun you. If they do not, they too can be disfellowshipped from the organization and find themselves being shunned by other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the case of #2 and #3 above, congregation elders are instructed to “mark” you as trouble at the first sign of doubt or outright rebellion and disfellowship/shun you quicker than you can say, “OK, OK, I repent already.” Marking is a technique the organization uses to ensure other members begin avoiding you. You, essentially, are seen as a leper. You are always free to TRY to return to the Watchtower organization, but if you want to return, it involves you jump through some major emotionally abusive hurdles (that requirement alone is another topic for discussion).
One piece of advice I always give Jehovah’s Witnesses who are thinking of leaving is: Make sure you establish some outside friendships before you fade away. That way, you will have a lifeline when the waters get turbulent. In addition, read everything you can so you can educate yourself about this organization. Google words such as “spiritual abuse,” “thought reform,” “cult dynamics,” and “former Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It will help validate whether or not you’re making the right decision. Understand what a dysfunctional church looks like.
Your family may try to impose guilt, induce shame, and levy threats to get you to return to the Kingdom Hall (KH). Don’t fall for any of it. You have the right to question what you are being taught. Remember, all cult leaders say that they have The Truth, The Way, The Light, the Sole Channel to God.
Just to show you how ridiculous the criteria for excommunications have become, in 2005 Joel Jahn, Washington (USA), was disfellowshipped because he questioned the validity and morality of the organization’s policy that there must be two eye witnesses in order for the child to be believed if the child makes sexual abuse accusations against another member. His concern seems reasonable, doesn’t it? What child has two eye witnesses around when they are being sexually abused?
Consequently, Jahn’s family shunned him. His sister-in-law is reported to have said in the Oct. 17, 2005 Davenport Times: “I pretend he’s not there, like he’s someone I don’t know…We have beliefs that we know are in the Bible, but he caused you to doubt what you think. When we had get-togethers, I really didn’t want to be with him because of his attitude…I feel protected now.”
Joel described shunning as “religious abuse.” Joel’s wife, Linda, who wasn’t disfellowshipped is also feeling the effects of being shunned because her family sees her as a woman married to a man they consider a sinner. Linda remarked, “We’re supposed to be dead in their eyes. Why can’t we have the freedom to change our religion without losing our family?”
It is shocking, then, for former members (like me who has been shunned by my mother, sister, brother and nephews/niece for nearly 30 years) to read something so blatantly hypocritical from the Watchtower. I’m referring to the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society’s July 2009 Awake! magazine in which the Watchtower writes in an article titled, “Is it Wrong to Change Your Religion?”
Lee is a regular bullet columnist who has appeared as a regular on the TV documentary The Secret Lives of Women “Cults” segments. She has written several pieces in our starting rotation but her first essay for the bullet was on Mothers Day “An Author’s Reflection on Mothers Day…” She overcame her mother’s (mis)using religion like a scalpel in a power-mad effort to break her will, only to write a powerful book of revelation and triumph.