How To Start an Ex-Jehovah's Witness Support Group
In July 1994, I, along with Kimberly Sherry (both of us ex-Jehovah's Witnesses), founded a support group for ex-Jehovah's Witnesses in Marin County, California. The group has been a tremendous success, with an average attendance of around 15 people each month, with over many more people on the mailing list. It has provided a place for x-JWs to connect with other x-JWs, share their experiences and feelings about what has happened in their lives since leaving, and to make new (and sometimes even renew old) friendships. Out of this experience have emerged some ideas and suggestions about how others could start similar groups.
First, we sat down and conceptualized what we thought the group should and should not be. We decided that it should be purely a support group, where people could share their feelings and help each other adjust to "life in the world," regardless of how long they had been out of the Watchtower Society (WTS). We decided that we did not want the group to have a religious context, as we realized that people who leave the WTS take a variety of different paths in the world. Some become born-again Christians, others become atheists. Other's explore Buddhism and others just aren't sure where they are at spiritually. We wanted the group to appeal to x-JWs no matter what path they were on. We also felt strongly that x-JWs have probably had enough of being "preached at," and would appreciate having a place to go to where all spiritual and lifestyle paths are respected (unlike the WTS!). We recognize that some folks may benefit from being able to have doctrinal discussions with other x-JWs, and we refer them to some of the existing organizations such as Biblical Research Commentary International, Inc. (Milwaukee, WI) so that they have a place to pursue this. We've also discovered that group members have taken many different paths as far as morality and sexuality, and we feel that there is room for everyone, married or single, gay or straight, in the group. This can be occasionally be difficult for some, as the WTS is very judgmental about sexual issues, but we feel it is very important to provide a group atmosphere of tolerance, We recognize that some individuals may not approve of certain lifestyles, and we acknowledge their right to their own opinion on these matters, at the same time stressing that each individual has the right and responsibility to decide what is right for themselves and that no one has the right to tell others what they should do with their own lives (again, unlike the WTS!).
We also make it clear that the group is not a therapy group, and that people can share as much or as little as they want about their lives. And most of all, we stress that this is not a hate group! While we recognize that many people have feelings of anger and may need a safe place to express it, that is not the sole purpose of this group. Criticism of individuals who are still in the WTS is especially discouraged.
We found a neutral place for the group which was not easy, as most free meeting spaces in the community are provided by churches. We realized that some x-JWs would not want to meet in a church. We then proceeded to advertise by creating flyers, contacting newspapers and other publications to get articles written about the group, and getting on the community cable calendar. We send out a simple, one page newsletter every other month to remind people of upcoming group dates and other items of interest. Group members are invited to make whatever donations they can afford to cover the cost of sending out the newsletter, paying for the room, etc. We ask group members to join committees to take care of tasks such as sending out the newsletter, planning parties, etc. We also ask that potential attendees contact one of the group leaders first for a simple telephone screening, just to make sure that the group is right for them. On very rare occasions, we have not invited an individual to the group, because after speaking with them it becomes apparent that their presence could be disruptive or dangerous to the group. The group is open to people who have never been a JW as well, but who have had their lives or relationships affected by the WTS. We've even had people who are studying come to the group just to "hear the other side."
The group meets once a month for two hours on a Sunday afternoon, and we structure it very simply. We always define the group guidelines at the beginning of the group, such as respecting each other's differing paths, respecting confidentiality, etc., and then proceed to invite first time members to share their story if they want to. After that, the group is wide open for discussion. As group leaders, we try to make sure everybody gets a chance to speak if they want to, and we try to keep the discussion from getting too doctrinal and preventing personality conflicts from getting out of hand. Otherwise, we generally just sit back and let it happen.
Every few months, at the request of group members, we try to stage a purely "social" get together (such as a potluck picnic) for group members and their friends and families. People really seem to enjoy being able to do this, and we hope that this continues to occur.
I can't describe the "high" that sometimes occurs in that room, as people, perhaps for the very first time, get to share their feelings about their experience in the WTS, and feel understood and supported instead of condemned! It truly is a wonderful experience to watch people who have felt isolated and "condemned" by the WTS create friendships with others and begin to feel good about themselves again. We would hope others will want to follow our example, and create similar groups for x-JWs throughout the world.
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