There are four main ways that people leave the Watchtower organization. They are the “fade aways”, the “disfellowshipped”, those who leave because they are “burned out”, and those who leave because they have stumbled upon false doctrines that the Watchtower teaches.
Those who just fade away gradually stop attending meetings. They may just start off not attending field service and bring their hours down to one hour per month and then finally do not turn in time at all. Their meeting attendance will gradually wane and the fader will maybe attend a Sunday morning public talk only. They fade so gradually that people in the Kingdom Hall may not even notice at first, so no one says anything. Many times the “fader” will purposely change congregations to another Kingdom Hall and just tell everyone that they have moved. If one is planning an exit out of the Watchtower, this is probably one of the best ways to do it because it is least likely to cause an alert with many people. The downside to this is that if the person is still under mind control and still believes what the Watchtower teaches, the person can may still lead a fear filled life with depression. Sometimes depression leads to destructive tendencies because in the forefront of their minds, they believe that they could never measure up to the Watchtower’s requirements so they might as well live it up any which way. Sometimes this leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy that the Watchtower teaches: All those who leave will turn to drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. I believe that the only reason that comes true is because the former Watchtower follower is riddled with depression and phobias caused by the Watchtower’s mind control techniques.
Disfellowshipped members are literally kicked out of the Watchtower against their will. The disfellowshipped members are often kicked out for failing to live up to the Watchtower’s moral standards with no forgiveness. Sometimes an “errant” member is kicked out for questioning the Watchtower doctrine or questioning the elders’ authority. Elders meet with the errant member and whether or not the member is repentant, impose punishment. Disfellowshipping involves shunning the errant member and no other member, including family, is allowed to speak to the disfellowshipped. Many times the disfellowshipped member feels grief and guilt which again may lead to destructive behavior. Surprisingly, they are still loyal to the Watchtower’s beliefs and the other members even though they are rejected. Many times, when speaking to disfellowshipped members, they will still say that they believe that the Watchtower is the only religion that teaches “the truth.” Many times the disfellowshipped believe that they got what they deserved and suffer immensely.
People who are burned out from the Watchtower faith often feel very spiritually, emotionally, and mentally abused. They feel confused and often cannot trust anyone because of the abuse. Many women leaving the Watchtower faith have been physically abused by their husbands. Men in the Watchtower are told that since they are the “head of the house” that they have full authority over their wives. This mentality leads men to believe that abusing one’s wife is permissible. Having personally experienced that disaster, I can attest to the fact that Watchtower elders turn a blind eye to spousal abuse. When I approached the elders in 1975 to report that my then husband was physically abusing me, they told me that they could not interfere because this was my family problem and told me that I must be nagging too much. The following year the elders finally disfellowshipped him for smoking.
When those who leave are so burned out from this cult, many times they suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome. These people are in dire need of counseling and therapy to overcome their fears, confusion and traumas.
Those people who stumble upon the fact that what they have been taught all these years is not the truth may experience anger about the situation. But even though they are angry about having been lied to for so many years, finding out that the Watchtower is a lie is more conducive to healthy leaving. When a person realizes that the Watchtower system is nothing but lies and false prophecies designed to control the members, one bypasses the guilt, grief, and shame along the way. It may take several years to adjust to normal living and having a changed attitude toward life and the real world. Education, both secular and religious, making new friends, and finding a new environment to grow and establish new relationships are all very helpful. Healing does not come overnight and it takes perseverance to forge ahead with new and healthy relationships. A support group of former members is usually a help if one can find a group like this. If you cannot find an in person group, there are many online support groups available, including Facebook. Having the support of those who have “been there and done that” is an exceptional help. The more one learns, the faster one heals from the trauma of having lived through Watchtower propaganda.
Leaving: Stage One
Leaving a cult is a complicated process that sometimes take years to resolve. In stage one, the cult member realizes that something is wrong. It may be just a gut feeling and cannot be explained. In my own personal case, I felt that there was something wrong with this picture, but I could not tell what exactly was wrong. I believe that because in the cult situation, one’s conscience is bypassed because of fear; however, if you allow your conscience to function normally, a person will realize that something is wrong with this organization even if you are not able to verbalize why.
Leaving: Stage Two
Stage two is when the cult member truly begins to experience some real doubts, but tries to suppress those doubt. Sometimes with the doubt they feel real guilt because of the doubt. Of course the Watchtower keeps telling them that it is wrong to have any kind of doubt or question anything. It becomes an endless loop in the person’s mind. They may try to delve deeper into the cult by ignoring their feelings. But the feelings and their conscience continue to bother them. One problem is that at this state, they do not even know what questions to ask and have no clue that there is really something wrong with the group’s history or doctrines.
Leaving: Stage Three
Sometimes the person will give lip service to the group but behaves totally differently and often leads a double life leading to more guilt and the resolve to try to get it right. But the more guilt and resolve in the person, the more stress it causes to their emotional state.
Leaving: Stage Four
This is the stage when the person may finally notice some discrepancies between what the organization teaches and what scripture actually says. The Watchtower always references scripture to prove their points, but when you actually examine the scripture in context, the passage never means what the Watchtower says it means. During this time, one may also notice problems or even scandals that occur, but the same person may tell themselves that God will take care of the problem or the old “Wait on Jehovah” tired out saying. Well of course people are imperfect and God is perfect; however, scandals such as child molestation and sexual abuse should be a huge red flag in the eyes of the true believers.
Leaving: Stage Five
If the person finds out the history of the Watchtower organization and begins to wonder why he or she was lied to regarding the groups founding, he or she will finally begin an investigation. Because the person may already know that it is socially unacceptable to voice their doubts to the group, he or she will keep things very quiet. Having questions or doubts in front of others could cause one to become “marked” in the Watchtower organization. Not as bad as being disfellowshipped, but people will avoid associating with a “marked” person and not trust them.
Leaving: Stage Six
The person in this stage may experience feelings of denial and decide to ignore all warning signs. Persons in this stage may feel angry with anyone who has information that exposes the organizations lies and deceits. They may feel hostility toward any information concerning the false information the organization has taught. Again, fear keeps the person from actually learning more because all this information very much upsets the apple cart so to speak.
Leaving: Stage Seven
This is almost a dangerous place to stay too long. It is the stage where one do not know exactly what to think. One tries to figure out things on his or her own and distrusts friends, family, or anyone else. They do not trust traditional Christianity because, after all, they have had it drilled into their heads over and over again how all other churches are evil, part of Babylon the Great. They do not trust the information exposing the group. They may not even trust scripture and may look for reasons to believe that the Bible is not true. Much of the stress from this stage can lead to much anxiety, illnesses, nightmares and other emotional problems. At this point some believe that if they stay, they can help bring about change to the organization. They will try to “reason” with the elders and write letters to the Watchtower organization. At last, they become dumbfounded at the inability of their leaders to understand anything they are saying. Staying in the organization at this point where perhaps elders were able to smooth over the situation can lead to a very angry member.
Leaving: Stage Eight
In this stage, the actual decision to leave the group is made. Persons in this stage may feel very angry with God and decide to become agnostic or atheist. After all, their concept of God is tied up with the Watchtower version. They may try to go on their own spiritual search or leave that part of their lives on the back burner for the time being. Some people go back and forth to the organization. They will leave, then return, only to leave again.
If these people are honest with themselves and do a real investigation into the Watchtower organization without fear or hindrance, they can find out the truth about the Watchtower’s history and how much they have actually lied to them. With my own experience, I had already been disassociated for over two years when someone pointed out to me that the Watchtower taught that Jesus was the mediator only for the 144,000 “anointed” Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since I already knew what the scripture said about Jesus being our mediator, I knew at that point the Watchtower was truly wrong. Another point in my own research was when I found out about Beth Sarim. When I found out that the Watchtower built a home in San Diego to house Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other Old Testament heroes in 1929 truly was the icing on the cake for me. From then on, I really read the Bible in context and studied as much theology and church history as I could until I was satisfied with my research. When I told my father that I was never going back to the Watchtower and that I had found out what Jesus is really all about, he told my mother and that was the time my mother rejected me and told me I was no longer welcome at their home.
Leaving: Stage Nine
Time for extreme make-over in this stage! The former Watchtower follower may get rid of all their old Watchtower literature, their book bags and briefcases, and even the clothes they used to wear to the Kingdom Hall. They want to rid themselves of anything that was associated with their old self-concept, since their self-concept and identity was all tied up with the group’s identity. New interests and hobbies take over. Some people do charity work or join organizations to help animals. Sometimes adjusting to the new identity can be stressful because their minds still want to go to the same place of “comfort”, even though it truly was not comfortable. Almost like mending a broken bone with a cast, there is still a healing process going on. However, this is a happy state, where the world begins to look new and beautiful. At this time, a person may find a good church to fellowship with spiritually and find further happiness. This is the place of spiritual rebirth and renewal.
Leaving: Stage Ten
This is the stage where one feels sorry for the group members they left behind. When one can take pity on those whom they have left behind and rejoice in their new lives, they have truly experienced renewal and healing. In this stage many feel a need to talk about their experiences and spend time with ex members of the Watchtower just to solidify their journey and their feelings. Former cult members, whether they be ex members of the Watchtower, Mormonism, or other cults go through a similar process. Sometimes comparing notes together can help one another along in their spiritual healing. Even though I had come to know Christ as my savior by this point, I still had much healing to do. Sometimes anger against family members subsists within you and that was something I still work on. But as time goes on I have been able to get these things under control and channel my anger into constructive uses to help others to understand that they too can successfully leave the Watchtower and still have a relationship with God.
This essay is adapted from a previous articles written by the late Jan Groenveld: http://caic.org.au/zleaving.htm