Non-Amish friendships? The allure of technology? Religious strife?

These and other factors may very well play into individual decisions to leave behind an Amish faith and background. Caroline Faulkner, a professor of sociology at Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College, is trying to shed some light on this and related questions in a new study.

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Dr. Caroline Faulkner

In today’s guest post, Caroline examines depictions of Amish people leaving their faith and communities, seen in prominent recent television programs and media stories.

You’ll find more info on Caroline’s study at the end of this post. If you don’t fit the profile but know someone who does, feel free to pass it along.

Your thoughts on this topic are as always invited.

Why do people leave their Amish communities? What happens to them after they leave? These questions have gained recent media attention in a number of different forms—from TLC’s “Breaking Amish” to PBS’s “The Amish: Shunned” to a recent NPR story on Amish flight from Lancaster County, PA. These stories have added to a national conversation about the Amish (some more fruitfully than others!), but none of them reveals the diversity and complexity of experiences of the former Amish.

I hope to help fill this gap in part and provide an alternative to some of these mainstream narratives with my research study, and I am looking for more former Amish people to take part in interviews to help me with this investigation. Research on the experiences of the former Amish will help us gain a better understanding of the lives of people who make this oftentimes significant religious, social, and cultural change.

Scripting Amish

What do “Breaking Amish,” “The Amish: Shunned,” and NPR’s “Greener, Less Touristy Pastures” story suggest about leaving the Amish? What are they missing? TLC’s “Breaking Amish” takes viewers into the lives of a group of young people from Amish and Mennonite traditions and puts them in forced or fake situations in a couple of large cities in the United States. The cast members’ portrayals don’t look much like the lived experiences of the former Amish I have interviewed so far. There is much to criticize about the show’s representation of the former Amish, but I will comment on only a couple of points here.

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The long road. Photo by David Arment, amishimages.com

First, the “Breaking Amish” cast members made rather sudden and distant moves to large American cities where they didn’t really know anyone. These kinds of moves are uncommon among the former Amish—and all migrants. Most of my respondents stayed close to their home communities when they decided not to join the Amish church or gave up their Amish religious commitment—some didn’t even leave their families’ homes. For other respondents, their connections to other people played a big part in where they relocated.

Second, TLC producers put the “Breaking Amish” cast members into scripted, oftentimes silly situations including a trip to New York City’s “Museum of Sex” and female cast members’ visit to the salon for bikini waxes. These set-ups contrast starkly with the choices that my respondents had to deal with. These forced situations do not reveal how the former Amish are faced with making their own ways when they leave—figuring out where to live, how to support themselves, and whether and how to pursue further education, in the face of educational, language, and other constraints.

Shunning and English Influences

The PBS documentary “The Amish: Shunned” provides a different take on the former Amish. The people featured in the documentary share their experiences after leaving their Amish communities without the scripting and selective editing (one imagines) of “Breaking Amish.” The documentary is focused almost entirely on shunning, but not all who leave the Amish are shunned (including at least one of the documentary participants).

People only become full members of the Amish church when they are baptized as adults. Those who leave before baptism do not face the official excommunication and shunning that comes with leaving after baptism. Moreover, preliminary results from my study show a lot more variation in the reactions from my respondents’ families and communities than the documentary portrayed—whether or not respondents were officially shunned.

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Outside an Amish church service. Photo by ShipshewanaIndiana

Finally, a recent NPR story explains that some Amish families are leaving Lancaster County, PA, for “Greener, Less Touristy Pastures” in which to build their Amish communities. This article suggests that these families are fleeing Lancaster to escape the influences that increased commercialization and non-farm work—and its accompanying technology, English language use, and interaction with the non-Amish—may have on their communities.

The article’s author focuses on the possible consequences for the Lancaster Amish community as a whole. While not explicit, the piece suggests that participation in non-farm work may play a more immediate role in individuals’ decisions to leave or not join the Amish church. Preliminary results from my study show that work experiences have a lot to do with the process of leaving. Close, personal relationships made with non-Amish co-workers seem to matter more than other interactions with non-Amish customers. These friendships exposed many of my respondents to different ways of thinking and have provided them with useful resources for getting by outside their Amish communities of origin.

Gender Differences and Other Questions

While my preliminary results reveal that the current narratives about leaving the Amish are far too simplistic, there is still much more to learn about the different reasons for and processes of leaving as well as the great diversity of experiences after people leave.

For example, research reveals that more men than women leave or do not join their Amish communities, but research hasn’t investigated why or how this plays out. We also know very little about former Amish individuals’ educational pursuits, work activities, and social identities. Perhaps this lack of information allows producers of shows like “Breaking Amish” to portray their own version of the “reality” of leaving the Amish.

While many voices have spoken out against these depictions, they have had to do so without the assistance of systematic research on the former Amish. This research study will help to provide a different narrative—one shaped and informed by a variety of different voices from the former Amish—to contrast with this TV depiction.

The Study

In order to provide greater understanding of the experiences of the former Amish, then, I invite all individuals aged 18 or older who were raised in Old Order Amish communities but are no longer members of an Amish community to participate in an interview as part of this research project. Interviews will be conducted in person (for those local to Lancaster County) or via Skype or telephone. They will be arranged at the participant’s convenience and last between 1 and 2 hours.

Participation is completely voluntary, and information about respondents will be kept confidential. Participants will receive $20 in compensation. Potential respondents can learn more about the study by contacting me at caroline.faulkner@fandm.edu. More information is available at www.fandm.edu/caroline-faulkner.