For many current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses who find themselves victimized by Watchtower’s cruel cult-like practices, the prospect of witnessing the end of the organization seems too good to be true.
Especially when you have spent many years being sold false promises of extraordinary future events, it’s understandable that you would be wary of getting your hopes up over something as significant as the downfall of the organization that misled you.
I obviously won’t make you any promises, because I have learned to be extremely cautious of wishful thinking in all its forms. But when I look at what is going on with Watchtower, I see an organization falling from grace at a rate faster than I could have ever reasonably envisaged.
The latest evidence of the organization’s free-fall comes in the shape of a letter to all elders in the United States branch territory, dated July 8, 2015. You can read about Watchtower’s new “master plan” yourself, but essentially it adds a further caveat to their smash-and-grab, stealth-tithing maneuvers from last year. (Thanks go to JWleaks.org for first making this letter available.)*
The new letter essentially says to publishers (or doesn’t say to publishers, because it’s an elders-only letter): “Not only are we going to make you promise to send us money every month for maintaining a kingdom hall that isn’t owned by you in any meaningful sense, we are also warning you that we might sell your kingdom hall, pocket the proceeds, and send you to go share someone else’s kingdom hall while STILL taking your money for the kingdom hall we’ve just sold.”
Rather than write an exhaustive summary of the letter, and re-hash points I have already made on this matter from previous articles, I thought I would take a different approach by adding this latest development to my list of 10 reasons why I believe Watchtower COULD be about to implode. Here goes…
1. Jehovah’s Witnesses are becoming a toxic brand
The internet is more hostile than ever regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the world becomes more aware of the cult phenomenon (thanks in part to the success of documentaries like HBO’s “Going Clear” film about Scientology) journalists are becoming less squeamish when it comes to highlighting the cult-attributes of the organization in newspaper articles and news broadcasts.
Ex-Witnesses have already turned YouTube into a no-go zone for believing Witnesses, and continue to explore ingenious strategies for reaching out to those under Watchtower’s spell. Even non-Witness blogs like Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist are now rallying to the ex-JW cause and becoming increasingly vocal about the organization’s harmful practices. All this means it is harder than ever for Witnesses to find new converts, and easier than ever for Witnesses to wake up.
2. Less “spiritual food” is being printed
The wafer-thin magazines on the literature carts testify to a huge drop in printed output of 39% for monthly magazine printing since 2005. If God’s one true organization is flourishing, why has it so drastically scaled down on its “spiritual food?” The simple truth is, printing is expensive. VERY expensive. A good gauge of prosperity for any printing organization is its printed output. If a printing company has a problem, it will print less stuff. That is exactly what we have already been seeing for some time with Watchtower.
3. Globally, the organization is in retreat
Watchtower has been shutting down branches at a rate never before seen, with branch numbers plummeting from 118 in 2009 to just 90 as of last year. The organization used to pride itself on its global footprint, and would herald the dedication of new branches as evidence of God’s backing for the global preaching work. Now Watchtower is in open retreat, using single branches to run the affairs of multiple countries. RTOs, or “Remote Translation Offices” (think of an RTO as a Bethel-lite), are seen as a way of keeping some kind of presence in far-flung territories, but the glory days of Watchtower’s relentless global expansion are fast disappearing in the rear view mirror.
4. The begging has started
For the first time in the organization’s history, the Governing Body openly admitted to a shortfall in needed funds in the May 2015 JW Broadcasting episode. This unprecedented move was made despite Watchtower making 1 Billion from selling off its Brooklyn portfolio ($375 million in one transaction alone), which could indicate the Brooklyn proceeds have already been spent. After all, when there is zero accounting transparency, we have no way of knowing how indebted the organization is. No amount of revenue from property sales will be much use to Watchtower if it is all getting sucked into a bottomless pit of accumulated debt.
5. The stealth tithing has started
Expect an organization in financial peril to desperately claw around for ways of bringing in more cash from available assets. In Watchtower’s case, they are prevented from demanding money from individual members, because this would be classed as “tithing” – a practice associated with false religion that the organization has condemned since its inception. What Watchtower CAN do is tithe, not individuals, but congregations. This is precisely what the new “Local Design/Construction” arrangement has achieved.
Last year elders were forced to promise a fixed amount to be donated to Watchtower every month from their congregation account, based on (1) what the congregation was already sending for paying off a building/renovation loan, or (2) anonymous slips of paper passed around so that publishers could indicate what they could afford to pledge. Congregations were even told to send any surplus funds squirreled away for a rainy day to Watchtower, leaving just $5,000 plus three months’ worth of regular operating expenses.
Amazingly, the majority of Witnesses continue to be oblivious to what amounts to a smash-and-grab, and are instead under the assumption that Watchtower has mercifully forgiven all kingdom hall building loans.
6. Kingdom hall ‘mergers’ are in store
As already mentioned, Watchtower has instructed all United States elders as of July 8, 2015 to be ready for their congregation to be re-assigned to a different kingdom hall if the organization’s new “master plan” deems this necessary. The letter marks the green light for the downsizing we are already seeing at branch level to be soon rolled out at congregation level, and is again clear evidence that Watchtower is desperate to claw in money wherever it can and become a smaller, more financially nimble organization.
The end game would be kingdom hall multiplexes in city-center locations shared by five or more congregations – a far cry from the parochial feel older Witnesses will be accustomed to.
As delightful as it is to think of such a huge regression in the local presence of the organization, you can’t help but feel bad for all those long-standing Witnesses who have donated thousands over the years under the false assumption that they were responsible for their local kingdom hall’s upkeep. Soon, for all their kindness and generosity, such ones may face lengthy and costly car journeys to intimidating, soulless, inconvenient city-center locations allocated to them by Watchtower.
7. Personnel are being jettisoned
Last year district overseers received the unwelcome news that their positions no longer existed, and they were surplus to requirements. Though some will have been demoted down to circuit overseer rank, the majority will have been jettisoned by the organization to fend for themselves – an entire strata of the organization’s hierarchy dissolved, and deemed no longer serviceable or cost-effective.
In a similarly unceremonious manner, workers at branch offices subject to closure by Watchtower have been cast adrift, with years or even decades of loyal service apparently counting for very little in the organization’s quest to make ends meet. The recently-emerged story of a Wallkill bethelite who was virtually thrown out on the street due to “cutbacks” suggests that the organization’s top brass have no qualms when it comes to wielding the axe. Bethelites in Watchtower’s heartland would do well to watch their backs and plan for the worst as the organization looks to slash spending wherever it can.
8. The secret weapons have failed
Despite all the fanfare and hype, JW.org has been unable to attract internet-savvy non-Witnesses – its main target audience. It is, quite literally, preaching to the converted. The 2015 Yearbook boasted that JW.org received 850,000,000+ total visits in the first two years from Aug 27, 2012 to Aug 31, 2014. This figure sounds impressive until you factor in the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses – 8 million. Assuming every active Witness visits their own website at least once per week, you arrive at only a slightly lower figure of 832,000,000 visits over the two years (8,000,000 x 52 x 2).
And despite succeeding in making the organization more visible, there has been no notable increase in baptisms in the two years since the literature carts (or “metropolitan witnessing”) program was launched. After all, getting literature into someone’s hands won’t stop them going on the internet and fact-checking when they get home. And that’s assuming anyone is interested in approaching the carts to begin with. In this Guardian article, the reporter watched some carts in a busy part of London for an hour, and the only person who approached the Witnesses did so because they needed directions.
9. The child abuse floodgates have opened
As was predicted at the time, there has been a relentless stream of child abuse lawsuits filed against Watchtower since the 2012 Candace Conti verdict. In 2013, a year on from the Conti judgment, lawyer Irwin Zalkin told me he had no less than 11 lawsuits on his books. Though many such lawsuits end up being settled, the success of the Jose Lopez case and the recent victory in London’s High Court have shown that if child abuse victims are willing to dig their heels in and stay the course they can have, not only compensation, but justice served.
All of this doesn’t bode well for an organization already under fire for its cult-like shunning practices and death-dealing prohibitions on blood transfusions. And apart from the atrocious reputation, with well-informed journalists like Trey Bundy spelling out the problems of organizational mishandling in the media, the money for paying off multi-million judgments and out-of-court settlements has to come from somewhere.
Even if the Governing Body sent a long-overdue letter out tomorrow FINALLY telling elders to report all child abuse accusations straight to the police, Watchtower would still have to answer to the backlog of lawsuits from victims who suffered while the two-witness rule was (is) still in place. Such victims may well have only a finite window of opportunity to get ANY money out of Watchtower at all.
10. Watchtower doesn’t have a PR strategy
You’re an international, faith-based non-profit organization with a toxic brand both on the internet and in the media. Fewer people from wealthy, developed countries with internet are joining you, and thus donations are dwindling. For all the evangelizing and promotional work of your members, a few clicks on Google can completely dismantle your organization’s message. To make matters worse, you have mounting legal costs and settlements to pay for out of an ever-diminishing revenue stream. What you urgently need is a good PR strategy to make it easier to bring in fresh converts (and their donations) – but even here Watchtower is almost comically inept.
The organization’s PR strategy is essentially two-fold: (1) bury your head in the sand and hope your opposers eventually get bored and go away, or (2) refute the claims made by your opposers using outright lies (*cough* Rick Fenton). Both of these methods may help the likes of Tony Morris get to sleep at night in the short-term, but ultimately they are self-defeating. To neutral observers, silence is incriminating when damning allegations are on the table – especially related to harming children. And when you flat out lie about your damaging policies and teachings, you only give critics like me more rope to hang you with.
The only workable strategy Watchtower can pursue at this stage is one of reform, but past experience shows that any form of “compromise” is seen by the Governing Body as capitulation to Satan’s hordes. In short, Watchtower is sinking because its deluded leaders are their own worst enemies.
What does the future hold?
I do not for one moment suggest that we will see an end to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion in our lifetimes. The fact that there continues to be such a thing as the bible students, who still cling to Charles Taze Russell and his discredited, outlandish teachings, tells us that religions have amazing survival abilities even when members are deprived of their leadership. Faith, after all, is a product of people’s minds. When enough people believe the same unsubstantiated thing you have a religion, regardless of whether there is a person or organization to lead it.
But while religions are virtually indestructible, corporations are not. Non-profit organizations like Watchtower are just as capable of getting into debt as any other business. And when your bank manager starts bankruptcy proceedings against you because you can no longer service your debts, it’s game over.
Those who suggest Watchtower is too big and successful to go down need only look at the fact that it has already been shrinking since it reached its zenith (in terms of branches and printing operations) some time between 2005 and 2010. Add to that the desperate clawing for cash over the five years since then, and you have the omens of an organizational collapse.
The winds of change have completely overtaken Watchtower in the internet age, and the Governing Body find themselves in a whole different ball game to their predecessors. If things are really as bad as I suspect, Watchtower needs to drastically downscale its operations to, say, a handful of branches and zero printing. In other words, it needs to become like its noisy neighbor Scientology, which despite having only 50,000-or-so members (and an even worse reputation) still has an impressive portfolio of valuable property scattered across the globe and minimal overheads compared to Watchtower.
But any downsizing of that magnitude would send Watchtower into an even more vicious spiral, in which it would start hemorrhaging even the most diehard members. After all, when you have spent decades pointing to your success as evidence of divine backing, how do you explain any sudden, sharp decline?
If Watchtower were to go bankrupt, it could always try claiming that the Great Tribulation has begun and Satan’s minions (their creditors) have started overtly attacking God’s people, but this simply will not wash with more intelligent Witnesses. Whatever is left of the organization (perhaps re-branded to ditch the Watchtower name entirely while retaining the Governing Body at the helm) would have a huge exodus on its hands.
It is precisely because of all the pride at stake that, in my mind, a sudden implosion seems increasingly plausible. Unlike ordinary commercial organizations who have the flexibility to change their size and scope according to the prevailing conditions, “God’s organization” can only be seen by its members to be going in an upwards trajectory for its grandiose claims of divine direction to have any credence. Any noticeable regression would rightly be interpreted as evidence of God’s favor being absent. Thus any problems would be allowed to accumulate behind closed doors until they reach a critical mass.
Of course I could be wrong, but if that is so then Watchtower is doing an awful lot of begging and downsizing for no particular reason, and with far too much to lose by doing so. It could well be that some incredible developments are ahead as Watchtower’s predicament further deteriorates, and the Governing Body slowly discovers that Jehovah isn’t coming to the rescue after all. I had better get on with writing my book while there is still an organization to write about.