Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When the elders come calling

Posted by Joel Gunz

Once a Jehovah's Witness stops attending meetings, it doesn't take long for the elders and other congregation members to notice.

I recently spoke with a friend who lives in dread that the next time she answers her doorbell, she'll find two elders standing on her porch ready to "encourage" her with a shepherding call. If you've never been a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, this situation can be hard to understand, but such encounters often provoke enormous waves of anxiety for those leaving the Organization. After all, we were programmed to give the elders "double honor" (twice that of even our parents?), deferring to them in even the most mundane matters.

Here, I believe, is where the anxiety kicks into high gear. We were groomed to always tell the elders the full truth, answering even their most prying questions; lying to them is like lying to Jehovah himself. But when you leave the Witnesses you may not want to tell them your full story. It would result in being disfellowshipped for apostasy, a stigma that incurs greater hostility from the Witnesses than mere disfellowshipping for the usual sins of the flesh.

What to do?

First off, when you see the elders in their Men's Wearhouse suits and polyester neckties (not that there's anything wrong with that) at your door, before you say hello, take a deep breath. Sort of like you once did before giving a talk, you might find it helpful to say a short prayer (or mantra or affirmation or knock-knock joke, whatever works) to help you gain the confidence you need. After that, take three steps that were taught to me by my friend Howard Moses: Stop. Tell the truth. Be still.

Stop.
The elders have a very carefully planned approach when making shepherding calls. Before the visit, they usually agree on who will take the lead in the discussion and will plan the scriptures and talking points they will cover. In other words, they have a routine and by dint of their authority it is seldom upset or questioned. This is why it's a good idea to stop and wait for a moment before replying. Just let a couple of beats go by. The break interrupts their flow and gives you chance to collect your thoughts and remain in control of the situation.

Tell the truth.
Tempting as it may be, it would be dishonest to make something up, like "I've been busy" or "I've been sick." That will only encourage them to keep talking or, worse, send there wives over with a casserole. It might also be dishonest to disclose your full reasons for leaving. That could be a betrayal of your self. The truth of the matter might be that you do not want them to know your full reason for avoiding the meetings. If that's the case, i t could be that your most honest exchange might look like this:

Brother Concerned (taking the lead): "We've noticed that you haven't been at the meetings for a while. Is there any way we can help?"

Sister Wantsout: "I'd prefer not to talk about this subject."

Brother Persistent (riding shotgun): "Well, we miss you at the meetings. And you know that it's only there that we can gain the spiritual nourishment we need to resist the spirit of the world. Would it be okay if I were to share a scriptural word of encouragement with you?"

Sister Wantsout: "Thank you for your concern, but, like I said, I will not talk about this matter."

Be still.
If you respond with that kind of declarative brevity, the elders won't know what to do. So then, be still. Let the clock tick. Let your truth have its full effect.

Three things will likely come out of handling their visit in this way: (1) it will throw them off their game, (2) your refusal to play on their terms will take their power away and put you in control, and (3) any anxiety you might have been feeling will get transferred to them. They won't know what to do after that, and will probably excuse themselves and leave. Their conversation in the car will be something like:

Brother Concerned: "What do you make of that, Joe?"

Brother Persistent: "Well, I'm not too sure."

Brother Concerned: "Did you see her husband, Brother Oncewasapioneer, in the background? I think he had a goatee."

Brother Persistent: "No, I missed that. I was too busy noticing her bare midriff."

Brother Concerned: "Yeah, sheesh, how worldly can you get? I think I even saw a tattoo peeking up from the waistline of her shockingly low cut and tight designer jeans. You can't get pants like that at Burlington Coat Factory, or on a housekeeper's salary. "

Brother Persistent: "Want to stop off for a cup of coffee? I feel like giving a food service worker an 8% tip and a tract."

Brother Concerned: "Thanks, but I'll pass. My wife went to bed early and I need to, uh, go online and, er, check my email."

The two elders drive on in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.

Remember this: as much as the very tissues in your body might tell you otherwise, you do not owe the elders any explanations for your absence from the Kingdom Hall. Your life is none of their business. In fact, just the opposite, it's presumptuous of the elders to call or visit expecting to hear you bear your soul to them.

When you made the decision to leave the Witnesses, you began taking your power back from them. In politics, business and personal matters alike, transfers of power create tension. When the elders come calling, someone is going to feel anxious. It doesn't have to be you.