Lee Marsh

Lee Marsh: The Shunning Policy Hurts People Who Need Support


I was baptized in 1969 when I was 17 years old. Married at 18 and had a baby before I was 20 and another, 4 years later. My husband became an elder after about 7 years. He had one personality for the congregation, kind, helpful, and knowledgeable about the Bible, and another when he was at home, distant, demanding, and abusive.

My “job” was to perpetuate an image of the perfect little family. We were often used as examples to the congregation and at assemblies and conventions. My husband was often a “vacation” pioneer. Our children were frequently on the platform giving “talks” on the Ministry School. We all were regular in the preaching work.

I had experienced a lot of abuse before I connected with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I thought marrying a brother would put an end to that. However, the reality was very different from the image we projected. I would frequently have to intervene to separate my husband from one of our children when his “discipline” crossed the line of corporal punishment to abuse. He used his anger as a weapon to enforce acceptable behavior. He would regularly pinch our little daughter. When I would undress her for bed, I would find all these little half-moon marks under her arm where he would pinch her with his nails to make her sit still. Nothing I said would make him stop. At home, he would scream, hit, punch, and even kick our older daughter. He would sit us all down and lecture us at length about proper behavior.

While he never hit me, he was verbally, emotionally, and sexually abusive, demanding his “marital due” no matter how I was feeling or whether I was interested or not. Sex was always about him getting what he wanted. He had decided that I was incapable of enjoying sexual relations, so he didn’t even try. The childhood abuse issues were compounded by the abuse going on at home and I became very depressed and suicidal. I needed professional help but that was not permitted by the Witnesses. I needed out of this marriage but realized I didn’t want to be dead. 

The Witnesses do allow an end to marriage on 2 grounds, death, and adultery. I didn’t really want to die that left me with one option. I committed adultery, a one-time incident, confessed and was disfellowshipped. Meanwhile, his years of abuse to all of us was swept under the carpet. 

My family stopped talking to me: mother, aunts and uncles and cousins. My now ex-husband lied to our children, and they “chose” to live with him. My children were taught that I was a slave of Satan, and they should shun me. 

It was so difficult for me to understand that, even though my children had done nothing wrong; they were living with their father, going to meetings, and out preaching, Other parents in the congregation told their children not to talk to my two children. So, they did nothing wrong, but they got shunned.

My ex-husband continued emotional and physical abuse of the children resulted one night with them asking to come live with me. I tried to get the custody changed but my lawyer said they would have to request the custody change themselves. So, the older one called the lawyer’s office and asked for a lawyer to change the custody and they got what they wanted. They came to live with me.

I was an adult. I broke the rules, so I understood the disfellowshipping and shunning. But my children did nothing wrong. They didn’t deserve to be treated like they did something wrong, and they certainly didn’t deserve to be shunned at a time when they really needed the support of their friends and the congregation. Even their grandmother turned her back on them.

The shunning policy rips families apart, often at times when people need help and support the most. Over the years, a few members of my family were disfellowshipped. We were never told why the person was disfellowshipped. We just knew that we were told to avoid this person or risk being branded as an evil-doer and then be disfellowshipped and shunned. I did not follow my conscience but rather obediently followed the rules.

Only in one case, would I have shunned a person on my own and in good conscience, whether it was mandated or not. I knew what he did, and it was unconscionable in my eyes. That was a personal decision on my part. But when we were forced to shun people, without knowing why, although rumors were plentiful, that just felt wrong to me. It seemed that no one was reaching out to help these people, some who truly needed support, not condemnation.

Lee Marsh, Director of Support Services, Advocates for Awareness of Watchtower Abuses (aawa.co)

Board of Directors, President Stronger After (stronger-after.org)