Amish Church Leadership – How are Members Chosen?

By Clinton Martin

Amish church services are generally private events. This isn’t to say the Amish community is closed off to visits by non-members. But, by the nature of their worship services, you generally aren’t there as a visitor unless you are invited. First, the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County do not put up church buildings, so there are no meeting houses to come across while driving around in the countryside. Instead, the Amish meet in each other’s homes. There are no signs out saying “Sunday Worship 9:00 am” as everyone in the community simply knows whose turn it is to host church, and when. Sometimes Amish people will invite English friends to attend, so seeing non-Amish people at regular Sunday services isn’t unusual, but the Amish person would have to give instructions as to where and when to be for church. The Amish also are less “evangelical” than most mainstream American churches – they don’t proselytize. 

There is, however, one type of church service that non-Amish people basically never attend. I am only aware of one English person to ever have attended the Amish Communion Service. In fact, unbaptized (thus not technically members) of the Amish church don’t sit in on communion either. So, the room is full of only adults, and only adults that have been baptized into the Amish church. A service where a new Minister (Preacher) is chosen is also not normally open to visitors. 

Who is this mystery “Englisher?”  None other than Brad Igou, founder of Amish Country News magazine. In the 1970’s Igou lived with an Amish family for a number of months through his collegiate anthropological studies. The Amish family he lived with needed a farm hand, so it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. He earned his room, board, and community interaction through good, hard work. 

Having attended all the regular Sunday services for months, and thus being a common visitor in the congregation, when it came time to hold Communion (and select a new Preacher afterwards), he asked if he might attend. It was decided that Igou needed to get permission from the senior-most preacher in that congregation. So, he went and met with him and asked permission to attend, but not participate, in Communion Service. After some waffling, Igou was granted permission, but under the condition that if anyone in the congregation told him that he really ought not be there, that he would graciously depart. 

Igou wrote in his notes from the day that while a few people glanced his way with unsure looks, nobody approached him or said anything, so he quietly observed the service. We’re re-printing, with his permission, his description of the event as follows:

Fall Communion and the Ordination of a New Preacher The Communion Service

For those of the Amish faith, communion is an important religious service, held only twice a year — in the spring and fall. The actual communion service is not necessarily held on a Sunday. As is the Amish custom, religious services are held in the home, not in a church building. The geographic area where the Amish live is divided into church districts for this purpose. 

At a church service two weeks prior to communion, there is a “Council Meeting.” Only baptized members attend this meeting and the communion service. [Editor’s Note: Igou did not attend Council Meeting – only the Communion Service that followed two weeks later.]  The rules of the church and other matters are discussed. Scriptural passages from the Old and New Testaments as they relate to the Amish are explained.

On the day of the communion service itself, the congregation again gathers at a member’s home. Commonly, men sit in one room and women in another.

Hymn singing begins the service as the preachers and bishops leave to discuss who will be giving the sermons. The second hymn sung is always the same  (hymn #131 from the Amish hymn book, the Ausbund), “Das Loblied,” or “hymn of praise.” The hymns are sung in German, with no organ or musical accompaniment. Singing is in unison with no harmonizing. The singing may go on for more than 30 minutes.

There is a short opening sermon, followed by a longer second sermon, lasting about two hours. During this and continuing into the main sermon, a few people leave off and on to eat. Since this service lasts well past noon, this is the way that everyone eats without taking time for a break.

At some point in the main sermon, which takes about three hours, two deacons leave to get the wine and a large, round loaf of bread. The bread, wrapped in a white cloth, is uncovered, and cut before the congregation. While all stand, each member receives a piece of bread, starting with the bishops and preachers, the other men, and finally the women. Upon receiving the bread, each person puts it in his mouth, genuflects, and sits down to eat it. The congregation then rises again to receive the wine. The wine is poured into a cup, and each person takes a swallow, genuflects, and is again seated. 

Buckets for the foot washing are now brought in. Shoes and socks are removed. One-man stoops over, washes, and dries the feet of the other man sitting in the chair. The two then switch places. The men exchange these words, “The Lord be with us. Amen, in peace.” They give each other the “holy kiss” and then return to their seats. This continues until each man has had his feet washed at the chair. Women follow the same procedure in their room. More singing then concludes the service.

Afterwards, as the congregation leaves to go home, the men slip some money into the hands of the deacon. It is only at the two communion services that an “offering” is given. The deacon quickly slips the money into his pocket. This money is used for any emergency or special need that might arise among the members.

Thus, in many ways, the rituals and sharing that comprise the communion service confirm the bonds of faith and community that are so important in Amish society.   

The Selection of Ministers

As is the Amish custom, religious services are held in the home, not in a church building. The geographic area where the Amish live is divided into church districts for this purpose. Each district usually has two or three ministers, one deacon, and one bishop, who is usually shared between two districts. Since church is held every other Sunday, the bishop alternates between the districts.

The Amish do not believe in going to a college or seminary to become a minister in the church. No one is “brought in” or feels he has been “called” to serve as a preacher. Rather, ministers are chosen by lot from the men in the church district congregation.

Becoming a minister is not viewed as an honor, but rather as a serious and heavy responsibility. They normally serve for life and receive no salary. In most Amish settlements, a young man cannot be baptized into the faith unless he is willing to become a minister, should the lot fall on him some day.

The idea of choosing a minister by lot comes from Acts 1:23-26, in which lots were cast to decide who would replace Judas as one of the twelve of Christ’s apostles.

New ministers are needed when one dies, or when a district becomes too large and must divide. An announcement that a new minister will be chosen is usually made at least two weeks prior to the communion service, so everyone has time to pray and meditate. (Deacons are chosen by lot, as well, and bishops from among the ministers.)  It is normally taken for granted that the candidate will be a married man.

There are not to be discussions among the people as to who they plan to “nominate,” not even between man and wife. Nor does anyone indicate his desire to become a minister.

After the long communion service, the selection takes place. Chapter 3 of I Timothy is read to those gathered. This chapter in the New Testament describes in detail the qualifications and character a man should have to hold this position.

Then the bishop and other ordained men go to a private room in the house. Each member, beginning with the men and baptized boys, then women and girls, goes to the door of the room and whispers the name of the man in their congregation who they feel best suited to be the new minister.

When voting is completed, the ministers return and announce each man’s name who was selected to be in the lot. The men who have received three or more votes become the candidates, of whom there may be around six to eight.

As each man’s name is called, he rises and goes to sit at a table on which an equal number of hymnbooks have been placed. Each hymnal has a rubberband around it and hidden inside one book is a slip of paper. In the Lancaster settlement, the piece of paper has the following words in German, “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposal thereof is of the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). This is to remind everyone that the final choice of minister is made by God.

Each man then selects a book. Usually the oldest man chooses first, followed by the other men down through the youngest. There is usually great tension and suspense as the books are opened to see who has been “chosen.” Because of the solemn procedure and great responsibility involved, when the chosen man’s name is announced, he and many others in the congregation burst into tears. Everyone is encouraged to pray for him, for he has been selected from among them.

The Amish feel that the hand of God is involved in the selection process. Indeed, there are even some stories of men who tried to pick up a particular book, but felt they were being “held back.” The event is one of the most emotional and important to be experienced in the Amish church.