01: Introduction

Problem Formulation

There are currently over 8.4 million actively preaching Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide as reported by the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society (2017). The Pew Research Center reported that there are approximately 2.5 million individuals who affiliate themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States alone. The same study also determined that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the lowest retention rates compared to other religions and that over 66% of those raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses no longer affiliate themselves with the religion (Pew Research Center, 2015). While Jehovah’s Witnesses make up a small portion of the population in the United States, former members who intend to seek competent therapeutic services from mental health professions, may find that these are currently ill-informed to the specifics of the religion.

The religion practices extreme isolationism and preaches that members must dedicate their lives to Jehovah, their name for God. Jehovah’s Witnesses strongly prohibit members from associating with those who are not a part of the religion and go so far as to call them bad association (Watchtower and Bible Tract Society [Watchtower], 2015). For members to be saved during Armageddon, these individuals must follow a strict biblical code that involves abstaining from many of the normal pleasures of the world including a strict opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex (Hookway, 2015). Members are encouraged to become slaves to Jehovah and are dissuaded from pursuing higher education since it disables a true Christian from dedicating their life to preaching (Watchtower, 2013).

Individuals who leave the organization are labeled as disassociated and are disfellowshipped for any minor sin as determined by a body of elders. Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited from having contact with these disfellowshipped individuals and are required to shun and disown their own family members (Watchtower, 2008). The religion encourages current members to cut all contact with the disfellowshipped family members including avoiding normal contact by telephone, text, letters, emails, and social media (Watchtower, 2018). This type of emotional, behavioral, and social control can be argued as cult-like behaviors and any former Jehovah’s Witness who speaks out against these abuses is labeled as an apostate, and subsequently disfellowshipped as well (DeYoung, 2009).

Shunning in a religious group usually involves completely withdrawing from an individual in a social, spiritual, and economic sense (Miller, 1988). Also, this type of religious shunning helps keep members separate from the outside world and “seeks to quell dissent” (Miller, 1988, pp. 273). Exposure to ostracism can lead to consequences like depression, attempted suicide, helplessness, chronic low self-esteem, loss of purpose and questioning of existence (Williams & Zadro, 2001). Lack of research into how Jehovah’s Witnesses cope with ostracism due to disfellowshipping demonstrates a need to determine whether these effects are seen in disfellowshipped members. This creates ramifications for micro practice within social work because currently, the research into Jehovah’s Witnesses and their ostracism is inadequate and almost non-existent.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this research study is to determine significant themes surrounding those individuals who have endured a spiritual transition out of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. The research, literature, and evidence-based practice available on how to help those who have been shunned by their families due to leaving the Jehovah’s Witness religion is limited. A deeper understanding of how former Jehovah’s Witnesses overcome the many obstacles in leaving the religion is needed, not just in the mental health profession but specifically within social work as well (Friedson, 2015). Social work often looks at how an individual interacts within their environment and with different systems (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2016). An individual’s interactions with a system like a high-intensity religion may have implications to their health and psychological well-being that researchers are unaware of.

The participants in this study are a part of a unique subset of religions that consequent research on general Christianity or Fundamentalist groups is inadequate to provide competent interventions and therapeutic services to disfellowshipped and former Jehovah’s Witnesses. By looking into the challenges and coping strategies faced by disfellowshipped or disassociated individuals, this research project should provide more insight on a group with scarce information available. The research methods utilized for this research project will be qualitative methods involving semi-structured interviews from former disfellowshipped or disassociated members of the Jehovah’s Witness community. This study is exploratory in nature since there are few other studies specifically involving the practice of shunning by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The reason for this type of research study is the limited amount of studies looking into the disfellowshipping and shunning practices by Jehovah’s Witness members. Broadening understanding of this high-intensity religion will result in research that can be applied to other communities and individuals that are suffering from ostracism.

Significance of the Project for Social Work Practice

The findings of this study should aim to improve the resources available if a social worker were to encounter a former Jehovah’s Witness and to competently serve this population at the micro level. The potential findings should illustrate the specific challenges former Jehovah’s Witnesses encounter dealing with the loss of their entire social support network, including how these individuals have managed to cope. Ostracism is a common occurrence in families and individuals may be suffering more than the current research available demonstrates. This study should also provide resources that can be applied to any individual who is suffering from familial ostracism not limited to LGBT youth and other religions with similar practices like Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, and the Amish.

Social workers at the micro level are currently ill-equipped to provide services to those clients who are no longer Jehovah’s Witnesses and who have found themselves thrust into a world they were taught to avoid at all costs. To be competent and provide services to effectively help this population, social workers should have resources and literature available to be able to expand their knowledge base and accurately understand this religion and the challenges faced by former members. Since the religion has one of the lowest retention rates of all religions, more members will continue to leave and ultimately be ostracized by their families. The question this study will address is: What are the challenges and significant coping mechanisms that those who leave the Jehovah’s Witness religion utilize to combat ostracism?

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