All JWs are assigned to a specific congregation. Usually this is determined by the location of your home; you will attend the congregation that covers that area. In special circumstances, some JWs will be assigned to a different congregation, and some will just get themselves into a huff over some perceived slight and make their own choice. The latter circumstances indicate spiritual weakness. The former indicate spiritual greatness.
Each congregation is overseen by a body of elders. Elders are “appointed by holy spirit,” which is a special process that begins with the local elders deciding which males in the congregation are “reaching out” for the privilege of increased responsibility. “Reaching out” is considered to include such actions as increased participation in the field ministry, increased commenting at meetings, showing up for all kingdom hall maintenance projects, and showing hospitality.
At its best, “reaching out” is a show of spiritual maturity. At its worst it’s a popularity contest involving a lot of sucking up to the existing body of elders.
If the male in question is a family man, his wife and children have to pass muster as well. The wife must be in subjection to her husband (read: immaculate home, smile on her face, toeing the party line), must be exemplary in her conduct, and must be very active in the field ministry. The children must be obedient to their parents (read: bright, shining faces happy to be at the kingdom hall – this requires careful training at home).
If the candidate meets with approval from the body of elders as a whole, he will be “recommended” to the circuit overseer at his next visit to the congregation (usually twice a year). If the circuit overseer approves, he will include the recommendation in his report to the Watchtower Society. From there, it’s pretty much a rubber-stamp process.
So where does the “appointed by holy spirit” aspect come in? It doesn’t. That’s a myth, although you’d be hard pressed to find an active JW who would agree with that statement. It would be disloyal to suggest that the Watchtower Society is making that part up.
Below the elders are “ministerial servants” who handle practical matters such as literature, accounts, territory, sound, and so forth. Depending on the number of ministerial servants in a congregation, some might have very vague duties amounting to “first assistant coat hanger.”
Ministerial servants are appointed in the same way as elders, but they can be much younger. Elders are usually over 30 years of age, but servants can be as young as 20. They have to meet the same requirements as elders in all respects except spiritual maturity.
Elders are shepherds charged with keeping the congregation (flock) safe and clean from bad influences. This means that they are on the lookout for any evidence of independent thinking so that they can quash it, usually by figuratively whacking the offender with their figurative shepherd’s crook (the Bible and the Watchtower Society’s publications). The “whacking” can occur either by hauling the offender into the kingdom hall library or on a personal “shepherding” call.
If the sheep does not respond well to the “whacking” (they continue to use their brain to think for themselves), the shepherds will convene a judicial committee, which in most instances is a kangaroo court where the verdict has already been decided and all testimony from the offending sheep is for naught. The sheep is expelled from the congregation (disfellowshipped) and once the announcement is read at a meeting, the other congregation members (including their own family members) will shun the offender. The shunning has the objective of making the offender feel the effects of his sin so that he will return to the congregation.
Other offenses that could merit disfellowshipping include:
- Fornication. This is a broad category that includes sex between unmarried persons (hetero- and homosexual), bestiality, child molesting (okay, I’m kidding – you can’t get kicked out of JWs for pedophilia), unnatural sexual acts between married people (including penetration of alternative orifices), and incest.
- Uncleanness. This is another broad category, open to interpretation by the elders, but could include viewing pornography, self-pleasuring, making out with your honey in the back seat of the car, oh, and so much more. Really depends on how prudish the elders are.
- Apostasy. Oooooo, scary! This would include questioning the teachings of the Watchtower Society, celebrating an unapproved holiday (in the U.S. that’s all of them), participating in interfaith, voting, joining a political party, etc. Those last two may come under a different category, but it’s all pretty much the same thing: Disloyalty.
- Lying, stealing, cheating, using foul language, etc.
- Eating blood (to be considered in another post).
You might wonder how on earth the elders would ever find out if you were, for example, employing unconventional techniques during marital intercourse. Often, a guilty conscience will drive one of the offending parties to the elders to confess. It is thoroughly drummed into the heads of the rank and file that God is watching them and knows even what is in their hearts, so there is no escape.
Much of the material presented at the meetings is designed to make congregation members feel like hopeless pieces of dirt that don’t deserve to be noticed by God, which means that joining JWs is perfect for people with low self-esteem – no other religion reinforces self-loathing better. Not even Catholicism.
Other times, the offender may get caught. Let’s say the wife is sick and the elders visit and happen to notice naughty literature or a sex toy carelessly left out in the open. Gotcha!
The congregation is supposedly a haven for the righteous, but watch your step! God and the elders are watching you.