Tips for Ex-JW Support Group Leaders

by an anonymous San Francisco Bay Area Former Jehovah's Witness Support Group facilitator

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More and more support groups are forming for ex-Jehovah's Witnesses and thus more and more people are finding themselves in the position of facilitating these groups. The following are some tips for how to be a neutral but supportive ex-JW support group facilitator.

There are numerous formats for ex-JW support groups. Some are Christian focused, others are religion-free. Some focus on ex-JWs who are gay, alcoholic, women only, etc. There is room for each kind of group to exist and provide support to ex-JWs, as long as the boundaries and type of group is clearly defined. It could be a bad experience for a new person coming in to discover that the group is fundamentally unsuited to their needs, for example, an atheist ex-JW who stumbles into a Christian ex-JW group without being aware of the Christian focus. It is helpful to have a set of group guidelines that can be given to new people in advance that spells out the group purpose and the general expectations of what will happen in the group. Some of the things that can be included are how long the group meets, confidentiality, the need for tolerance of diversity, structure if any (our group starts out with going over the group guidelines, "old timers" briefly telling their story, "newcomers" having time to introduce themselves and tell their stories and then open discussion time), and philosophy and purpose of the group.

For example, we decided that our group (the San Francisco Former Jehovah's Witness Support Group) should be purely a non-religious 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 ex-JWs no matter what path they were on. We also felt strongly that ex-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 ex-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 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 (unlike the WTS!). We encourage group members to tolerate their differences, which does not have to mean approving of or even liking each other, but does mean that they refrain from judging or condemning those who have chosen a different path from their own.

It is important that group members understand the concept of confidentiality. Some attendees may not be fully "out" of the Watchtower organization, and others may suffer extreme consequences should it be known that they are attending a support group. It is important that people understand that who they see in the group and what is said in the group stays in the group and is not shared with anyone outside the group. We also do not publish the group's meeting place and time for the same reason, as it is not outside the realm of possibility that members of the local congregation would "stake out" the meeting place to see who is attending. Instead, we give out the location to people on an individual basis after we've had a chance to talk to them.

Although I am a therapist who works with ex-JWs, 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! Group members who are very angry or very hurt present a special challenge to the facilitator. 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. People are encouraged to express their hurt and angry feelings, while as facilitators, we are very careful to define these expressions as belonging to the individual, not being the group's as a whole. This is a very important point because if an individual's anger is allowed to take over the group, then the group is no longer focused on healing and self-growth but has now become a hate group. As a facilitator, when someone is very angry, I will often say something like, "It sounds like you are very hurt and angry and you have good reason to be. This is a good place to discharge these feelings and I'm glad you're able to do so. My hope is that by doing so you will be able to eventually move through your anger so that it no longer has to be so central to your life. Not everyone here is as angry or hurt as you, but we all understand it."

Occasionally, someone will attend the group who defines their personal purpose as getting people out of the WTS or destroying the WTS. This can be especially challenging as these individuals are often very angry and can be hard to contain. It is crucial to acknowledge their experience and validate their right to pursue their goals, but to make if crystal clear that their goals are not the group goals. It can become extremely harmful to the support group if an individual's negative purpose becomes the group's identity, especially if there are attendees who may not be fully committed to leaving the WTS or who are studying to become a JW and are there to "check out" the other side. Criticism of individuals who are still in the WTS is especially discouraged. The WTS expects ex-JW support groups to be hostile and oppositional and it is important to not live up to that expectation. We want people who are checking us out for the first time to find a loving, supportive, rational environment that disproves the WTS view of us as crazy and evil apostates.

If the group is non-doctrinal as ours is, another important thing for the facilitators to do is steer people away from getting into doctrinal debates, or trying to convert each other to their new point of view. This is old habit for JWs and they may do it without even being aware of it. (We want to be sure to acknowledge the Christian ex-JW groups as being a wonderful and valid option where the stated purpose is to help ex-JWs find a new religious path. This part of the discussion is meant to apply to non-doctrinal groups.) We define that our group is non-doctrinal and that if people want to discuss scripture that they might want to meet after the group for coffee with others who are interested. However, we make it clear that people are free to share in the group about whatever they have found that works for them, be it another church, attending AA, going to therapy, etc. as long as it is a sharing that avoids attempting to "convert" others to their point of view. This keeps the atmosphere neutral and allows ex-JWs of all views and lifestyles to feel welcome.

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 ex-JWs would not want to meet in a church. Some ex-JW groups meet in individual's homes which can work fine as well. However, there are some ex-JW groups meeting in homes that have become more like social clubs where alcohol is served and this can become very problematic, especially if there are ex-JWs who are struggling with alcoholism or drug abuse. Support groups need to be focused on getting healthy and finding adaptive ways to cope with life rather than encouraging mal-adaptive behaviors. It is important to keep social meetings of ex-JWs separate from support group meetings, otherwise this can be very confusing and discouraging for new members as well as older members. Having a neutral meeting place keeps the boundaries clearer about the purpose of the group for all concerned.

We advertised the group 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, two-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., although we stress that the group is free. We ask group members to join committees to take care of tasks such as sending out the newsletter, replying to emails, 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. These situations might include someone who is actively psychotic, having severe violence issues, etc. 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."

As group facilitators, we try to make sure everybody gets a chance to speak if they want to and we keep an eye on the time so that no individual dominates the group to the exclusion of others. We also work to keep the discussion from getting too doctrinal and preventing personality conflicts from getting out of hand and we try to provide an atmosphere that focuses on finding adaptive and healthy ways of coping. Otherwise, we generally just sit back and let it happen.

To find out more please email us at kaynorw@kaynor.net or call (541) 258-7769 for more information (long distance calls will be returned collect).


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