The Amish arrange themselves into compact groupings known as church districts.
Each district has its own name, usually a geographically-based one–Lamoni South, Randolph, and Crab Orchard are examples of places providing names for districts, these being found in Iowa, Mississippi, and Kentucky Amish communities.
Since the Amish travel by horse-and-buggy to one another’s homes for Sunday service, most districts are grouped together in a logical, geographical manner. The district line often runs down the middle of the road, which means you might attend with a different group of families than your neighbor across the street.
photo: Bill Coleman
Districts in northern Indiana and Arthur, Illinois tend to be block-shaped, keeping with the grid-like road plans of the area. Holmes County, Ohio congregation lines meander along the winding lanes that are characteristic of the hilly country.
New Order Amish churches tend to be more spread out in Holmes County,Ohio–probably because New Order Amish constitute a minority of the 200+ congregations here and must bunch together however possible. In some districts, members’ homes may be ten or more miles apart from one another, about a 90-minute buggy ride. Contrast that with, say, a certain district in the heart of Lagrange County, Indiana, whose families all fit on a half-mile-by-mile postage stamp of land. Walk to church? No sweat.
A church typically has a set of two or three ministers, a deacon, and a bishop whom they might share with another district. Generally speaking, the ministers and the bishop do the preaching on Sundays, and the bishop acts as the head of the congregation and final level of authority.
The deacon usually does not preach, but helps with discipline issues and is a bit of a social go-between, for instance acting to facilitate pre-nuptial proceedings between families.
Regarding discipline, the deacon will probably be the first guy that stops by after work to talk to you about ‘putting away’ your jet-ski or whatever offending technology or behavior you may be engaged in. In this sense he may act as the bishop’s ‘right-hand’ before he himself would get involved.
When churches get too big, they split. Typical church size is 25-35 families; when a church nears 40 families, it’s usually thinking about dividing.
Some settlements have unusually large congregations, however–in Allen County, Indiana, nearly a third have 40 or more families. The largest I’ve come across is a district which as of 2006 had a whopping 59 families under one bishop. That is what you’d call a ripe one.
photo: Randall Persing
Once a district splits, it’s time to think about selecting a new ministry and eventually a bishop, a process that may take a few years. In the meantime, the original bishop ‘takes care’ of the new district.
Church is on one Sunday, off the next. Usually, if your district is off, you might pop in to the neighboring district’s service, or go visiting to family and friends. One thing is certain–no work gets done except for the most necessary chores–caring for animals, for example.
And no business deals whatsoever–milk companies have had to make arrangements with Amish dairies to pick up milk (usually a daily thing) late Saturday night and then again shortly after midnight Monday morning, in order to accomodate this most strict of Amish customs.