Jehovah's Witnesses are well-known for proselytizing door-to-door and handing out their literature on city streets. Less known to the general public, their adherents have been required for the past century to make regular reports to their congregation's leaders on how many hours they put into such ministry.
Those hourly reports were a key metric for a congregation's spiritual vitality and a factor in deciding who rose to leadership. Former adherents tell of pressure to meet these quotas and guilt when they didn't.
But in a historic shift, that practice ended this month.
For the first time since 1920, leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses have removed the hours-reporting requirement for rank-and-file adherents.
"Our ministry involves much more than counting time," Samuel Herd, a member of the denomination's Governing Body, said in announcing the policy change to applause at the October annual meeting of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, a legal entity central to the Jehovah's Witnesses' work.
Herd said the Governing Body is "confident that you dear ones will continue to render whole-souled service," motivated not by obligation but devotion to God, whom they call Jehovah. But he acknowledged leaders would have to adapt.
"You will have to know the flock well," he said. "Evaluating a congregation's spiritual health or a brother's qualifications to serve (in leadership positions such) as an elder or ministerial servant will not simply be a matter of computing averages, time spent in the ministry, literature placements and so forth."
The video of the meeting, held in Newburgh, New York, was publicly posted by the organization in early November, though leaked recordings circulated for weeks earlier on unofficial websites.
"This is one of the biggest changes I ever remember" in the organization, said former elder Martin Haugh of York Haven, Pennsylvania.
Removal of the hours requirement applies to "publishers," or rank-and-file adherents involved in active ministry. They will now only need to file monthly reports saying whether they've conducted any evangelistic activity and Bible studies, without specifying hours.
Those who sign up for more extensive service, known as "pioneers" or "missionaries," will continue to record their hours.
Skeptical former adherents, however, are speculating different motives are at play -- that adherents' ministry hours have dropped so noticeably, particularly since the pandemic.
When numbers were growing, "it was always brought up at meetings or in their publications to show the growth of the organization," said Mitch Melin of Washington state, a former adherent now working to bring awareness to what he calls the "darker side" of the organization, such as its control of Witnesses and the practice of shunning certain members. He speculated that "if they're declining, it might be embarrassing to show" the numbers.
Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses based at their world headquarters in New York state, disputed this notion. He said ministry time had been increasing yearly until the pandemic, peaking above 2 billion hours worldwide. While the hours are below pre-pandemic levels, he said they began rising from 1.4 billion in 2021 to 1.5 billion hours in 2022 as Witnesses resumed door-to-door visits and other ministry.
Former elder Haugh, who left over what he saw as the denomination's mishandling of sexual abuse and other matters, said the hours requirement was once central in adherents' lives.
"It showed you how loyal you were to Jehovah by how much time was put in," he said.
Haugh recalled how a regional supervisor yelled at elders if their congregation's performance lagged. Haugh said marriages broke up over spouses' different levels of commitment, and people who were judged as failing at ministry would spiral into depression. "Now they don't have to have that stigmatization that they're not putting in the hours," he said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Jehovah's Witnesses were handing out literature to passers-by at various downtown locations in Pittsburgh -- the 19th century birthplace of the movement.
Those interviewed said they planned to do as much ministry as ever and hadn't focused on the hours. "It doesn't affect our day-to-day life," said Chuck Ghee, a local elder. "We give the best out of our heart."
The Governing Body also devoted part of the annual meeting to revising its interpretation of biblical prophecies about the end times -- a paramount focus of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Governing Body now accepts that even in the final countdown to Armageddon, nonbelievers might still accept the truth and be saved. That reverses a previous understanding that, once an apocalyptic Great Tribulation gets underway, it would be too late.
That announcement, not yet formally made public, has also been circulating online on the same unofficial sites that distributed authentic recordings of the announced policy change on tracking hours.
"Will all those living during the Great Tribulation have a full opportunity to decide either for the kingdom or against it?" Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson said at the annual meeting.
"We don't know, and we don't need to know because we're not the judges," Jackson said. "We know that Jehovah and Jesus are merciful, that they will always do the right thing."
Earlier leaders of the organization had raised expectations for apocalyptic events in specific years, such as 1975, which failed to materialize. Current teaching still puts a strong emphasis on the end times, but without predicting specific dates.
Governing Body member Jeffrey Winder said at the annual meeting that God reveals truth gradually and that the body is happy to have its understandings corrected.
"Knowing this, we are not embarrassed about adjustments that are made, nor is an apology needed for not getting it exactly right previously," he said.
Lopes declined to comment on the unreleased teaching videos before their scheduled release in January, following their translation into more than 200 languages spoken by adherents. While he neither confirmed nor disputed the videos' authenticity, he did say unofficial sites impinge on copyright when they distribute Watch Tower videos without authorization.
The changes come at a turbulent time for Jehovah's Witnesses. Worship gatherings in India and Germany suffered fatal attacks in the past year from former participants. Believers in Russia, where the denomination is banned, face persecution.
The Jehovah's Witnesses faces intense scrutiny worldwide over the handling of child sexual abuse. A Pennsylvania grand jury has charged 14 men since 2022 with sexual abuse within the organization.
The denomination counts 8.7 million adherents worldwide, with 1.2 million in the United States.
The changes in teaching and the practice of recording hours, taken together, can be seen as a "relaxation of the sectarian identity of the group," said Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
On the one hand, "it's hard to see the Witnesses becoming a mainstream church, because it would lose some of its appeal to being the possessors of biblical truth" to the exclusion of others, Schmalz said. On the other hand, the organization wants "to have the public take them seriously as a religious organization."
Former elder Haugh said the changes don't make up for failures in reforming the handling of abuse or for battling former adherents and critics in court and other venues. "They may be nicer to their own members, but they've become even more against their former members," he said.
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