05 Discussion

Introduction

This final chapter will discuss the results of chapter four and expand upon the significance of the themes presented which included ostracism, challenges, coping skills and overcoming, and spirituality. Also presented in this chapter will be the strengths and limitations of the study. Finally, the implications for social work practice, policy and future research will be discussed.

Ostracism

All of the participants experienced some form of ostracism, whether from their families or practicing members of the religion. Previous literature describes ostracism experiences as individuals being intentionally ignored, non-verbal cues intended to make that individual feel invisible, and physically disregarding the person when in their presence (Wesselmann & Williams, 2017). The participants in this study experienced these types of non-verbal cues from practicing members of the religion like averting eye contact, being shunned and ignored at the workplace, in grocery stores, malls, and at local bars.

All of the participants in this study were practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses for a long amount of time, anywhere from 20 to 40 years. Only one participant shared not struggling with ostracism from his congregation due to already having withdrawn from religious services and building his social circle. The remaining 10 participants were heavily embedded into the religious system of being a Jehovah’s Witness. The systems theory postulates that social workers must understand how individuals live and interact within their larger and complex systems (Bowen & Bowen, 2017). The participants in this study shared experiences of complete social loss of their systems and the challenges that came with disfellowshipping.

Even in the cases of participants attempting to return to the religion and going through the process of reinstatement, they were faced with ostracism from their congregations. The majority of participants had extensive networks and lives within their congregations before their disfellowshipping. Due to these extensive networks, when these participants were disfellowshipped or formerly disassociated, they felt a complete loss of their social network. This was devastating to many participants because they had to choose between religious freedom and their entire families and friends because of the shunning practices of the church.

Challenges

One of the challenges faced by the participants was that of making new friends and developing new social lives. This finding is in line with previous literature which discussed the difficulties individuals experienced in forming new social relationships and the strain in social lives after ostracism (Poulsen & Carmon, 2015). Participants also shared difficulties with their identities and their sense of self, their self-confidence, guilt, shame, and a sense of purpose which aligns with previous literature (Williams & Nida, 2011). A significant finding from the results of the data presented was the effect of ostracism on individual’s mental health.

Participants in this study expressed having challenges with their mental and physical health. Previous literature on the effects of ostracism indicates that physical symptoms and health issues are common (Poulsen & Carmon, 2015). One of the participants shared struggling with syncopal episodes after her disfellowshipping due to the stress. Other participants described difficulties with anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms that previous literature also states is a common effect of ostracism (Williams & Zadro, 2001). One of the participants even shared that he attempted to commit suicide after his disfellowshipping which Williams and Zadro (2001) also shared was an effect of ostracism in extreme cases.

Coping Skills and Overcoming

The majority of participants in this study shared different ways in which they coped after their disfellowshipping. The Seminal Transactional Model of coping theorizes that within an individual’s transactions with people and their environments, the process of coping occurs (Berger, 2015). This theory works well with systems theory which has the general framework that individuals work within their own environments and larger systems (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2016). Within the Seminal Transactional Model of coping there are three forms of coping that individuals utilize including problem-focused, emotion-focused, and appraisal-focused coping (Berger, 2015).

Participants in this study shared different ways they utilized emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. For example, eight of the participants sought therapy and treatment for their mental health. Participants shared ways they focused on coping with the problems and challenges they faced as a result of the disfellowshipping. Some participants utilized cutting emotional ties with those shunning them and moving forward as a problem-focused way of coping. Other participants used writing, reading, and educating themselves as a way to cope.

The majority of participants focused on rebuilding their social connections and networks. The participants spoke about the support they received from new friends and family they reconnected with. Even while participant’s entire support and social systems were completely removed in some cases, the majority of them managed to make new connections and develop support within new circles. None of the participants mentioned utilizing appraisal-focused methods of coping.

Spirituality

The individuals in this study spent a significant amount of time as practicing and believing Jehovah’s Witnesses. Participants shared that the challenges faced, and the ostracism suffered from family and friends, ultimately lead them to reject the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. This discovery is different than a previous study on the process of disaffiliation from the Jehovah’s Witness faith which found that respondents retained some Jehovah’s Witness beliefs but rejected the religion due to an inability to follow the strict moral code (Hookway & Habibis, 2015). None of the participants cited an inability to follow the strict moral code as a reason for leaving the faith, but that their own spirituality had developed outside of the bounds of the organized religion. Additionally, participants shared strong distrust from organized religions but a continued belief in spirituality or a higher power.

Another significant finding from the study was that the majority of participants did not reject spirituality. The Jehovah’s Witness faith involves a powerful and all-inclusive personal commitment to God and requires that members follow an extremely strict moral code (Hookway & Habibis, 2015). One of the ways that Jehovah’s Witnesses deter members from leaving the faith is by telling stories of God having forsaken those that have left and abandoned this strict moral code. Not only did participants share how they overcame challenges from the ostracism they experienced but they also shared their journeys of finding spirituality, the opposite of what the religion preaches happens to those who leave. Only one of the participants in this study expressed atheist beliefs and the remaining participants expressed some form of belief in a higher power or a form of spirituality.

Strengths and Limitations

As with any research, this study presented with strengths as well as limitations. One of the strengths of this study is that the participants were diverse in age and ranged from their twenties to fifties. An additional strength from this study was that the participants had a range in their experiences as Jehovah’s Witnesses from the time they were baptized to disfellowshipped. Finally, another strength of this study is that sampling from online platforms allowed for diversity in geographical location as participants were gathered from all over the United States and even Austria and New Zealand.

Originally the sample size was 15 participants but was limited to 11 due to not meeting the participant criteria. One of the limitations of this study was the small sampling size as it may not represent the larger population of all former Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grinnell, & Unrau, 2018). Participants were gathered by purposive and snowball sampling from ex-Jehovah’s Witness social media forums and the sampling was non-random. Therefore, another challenge from this study is the sampling strength as only participants who were disfellowshipped or disassociated and no current, practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses were interviewed (Grinnell, & Unrau, 2018). Also, since participants were gathered from social media, the population is unknown and unknowable. An additional limitation of this study was the lack of diversity in the population which gives a limited ethnic perspective (Grinnell, & Unrau, 2018). Finally, another limitation of this research is due to the qualitative interviews. There is a possibility of desirability bias from the participants in their responses as well as researcher bias during interpretation of the data (Grinnell, & Unrau, 2018).

Recommendation for Social Work Practice, Policy, and Research

The participants in this study shared their vulnerable experiences of leaving the Jehovah’s Witness faith and the difficulties that followed. An important recommendation for the field of social work practice is simply the need for more education on ostracism and its effects. While it would be difficult for social workers to fully understand all the challenges with leaving a religion like Jehovah’s Witnesses, an open dialogue of these experiences is important. The difficulties in finding mental health therapists who understand these types of religions and the damage that occurs from ostracism is something that social work educators can work to improve for this vulnerable population. Understanding the effects of ostracism as well as the coping skills can help social workers develop therapeutic services for a number of clients who may be experiencing shunning.

A recommendation for policy changes for the field of social work would be to consider implementing support groups or mental health groups that would discuss experiences like ostracism. The Jehovah’s Witness religion is not the only faith that practices shunning, and there are many individuals who experience forms of ostracism. While it may not be feasible to have a support group for just Jehovah’s Witnesses, a support group for individuals from different religious groups or situations in which they are experiencing ostracism could be a possibility to improve resources for this population. Another recommendation for social work policy would be to include questions on ostracism or religious experiences on assessment forms. Not only would this allow the therapist or mental health worker to know the unique position the individual is in, but it could also allow the practitioner time to research and educate themselves on ostracism before the first therapeutic session.

A fundamental recommendation from the findings of this study is the need for more research on religious ostracism. This research project was conducted due to the lack of research on the subject of ostracism and high control religious groups including Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are many different religions that practice forms of shunning and ostracism within their communities. While this study only looked at the experiences of 11 individuals, the need for more research into this subject is evident. A recommendation for social work is future research that would expand upon the ideas presented here including larger sample sizes. A future study attempting to determine the number of current religious groups that practice shunning could also provide more insight into the number of individuals currently suffering from ostracism. Many of the participants in this study expressed challenges with their mental health therefore, another recommendation for research could be a qualitative study on a grander scale that could examine and expand on those mental health challenges further.

Conclusion

This final chapter presented a discussion of the results of this research study on the challenges of disfellowshipping and coping with ostracism. The results of the constant comparative analysis revealed themes of ostracism, challenges, coping and overcoming and spirituality. The eleven participants experienced social losses of their entire support networks, ostracism from their families and their former religious communities, mental health challenges and more. These participants shared their ways of coping and overcoming these challenges as well as the spiritual journey that leaving the Jehovah’s Witness faith led them on.

In conclusion, the results of this study are important to social work practice and policy in that current research on these forms of religious ostracism is limited. This study can help improve social work services because it provides an exploratory insight into disfellowshipping practices and the challenges individuals face through the process that was previously unknown. Finally, the results of this study have future implications for social work research due to the need for larger, diverse, and more specific studies on the issue of religious ostracism and its effects on individuals and their mental health.

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