The Amish Minister’s Burden

Being selected to the Amish ministry is both a blessing and a burden.  Due to the challenges involved, the responsibility is not one that many Amishmen dream of and you won’t find anyone campaigning for the office.

The position of bishop is probably the most demanding.  I was recently on the phone with an Amish friend in Ohio, already a minister.  His church had divided earlier in the year, and an ordination had taken place a couple weeks earlier.  Among other things, he expressed relief at being passed over for bishop.  He describes dealing with church issues as more taxing than anything else he has to handle, including running a business with a dozen employees.

Ministers and bishops must deal with discipline issues and weigh the consequences of progress and change, among other things.  Contrary to popular perceptions, bishops do not exactly have the final say, but they do decide if an issue will come under ‘official’ consideration, so in a sense can control the pace of change within the congregation by simply not allowing a matter to be brought up for evaluation.

In some cases, a bishop may feel compelled to go against the wishes of the majority of his church, say in the instance of a much-clamored-for new technology.  This can leave him in the difficult position of countering the will of most or all of his church-members, which may result in potentially harmful tensions.

Yet when the lot falls on a member of the church, it is typically accepted without protest.  After all, part of the baptismal promise involves agreeing to serve in the ministry should you ever be selected.  Besides, there is an honor in serving your fellow church members in a Christlike spirit of humility, as should be the case.  The ministry is a role that the Amish believe each individual is chosen for by God above.

In at least one curious instance, however, an Amish church member reacted quite the contrary to heavenly will.  In a historical piece in Family Life, David Luthy describes a now-defunct Amish settlement in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, which had already been experiencing church difficulties:

“The story has been related of one ordination where the lot fell on a young man with little ability.  When the truth of the situation seemed to dawn on him, he jumped up in a frenzy and started to run for the door with several men in pursuit.  One man grabbed him while he clung to the door kicking at his pursuers.  He would not submit to ordination.”

Typical reaction?  Not likely.  Although, even though it may seem comical, this man acted out what some Amishmen must feel when faced with the heavy burden of leading their congregation of souls.

A more detailed discussion of the Amish ministry.

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    5 Comments

    1. Nice blog entry, Erik, with very good insights. My grandfather really did not want to be a minister and moved to a church district that had two young ministers so he thought he would be safe. Within several years there were circumstances, the details of which I don’t recall, in which they had to ordain another minister. He was in the lot and was selected. When his name was announced, he was asked to stand up to signify his acceptance of the call. He just sat there. He was asked again and he just sat there. Finally, his father, who was sitting across the room said (in Pennsylvania Dutch) “Obie, stand up,” so he finally stood up. He served for more than 50 years, eventually becoming a bishop. And your point about bishops not having absolute power is very valid. My uncle, who was a bishop was “sat down” for a while by his congregation because he had become too high handed in dealing with certain people.

    2. That was very interesting. And I agree that it would be a big burden to carry.

    3. Discipline against Amish bishops

      Crockhead, that’s a fascinating story. And the bit about being ‘sat down’ is interesting as well, I recall reading of similar instances. But I do wonder if there is a particular protocol for doing that, ie a vote? Or mutiny on the Bounty? A couple of years ago I recall hearing of a young bishop that had perhaps let power go to his head a bit. Other bishops from the settlement were in the process of trying to ‘straighten him out’, though I don’t know exactly what was involved in that particular situation.

      Michelle, thanks much. I think it’s something that definitely weighs on the minds of Amish married men when an ordination nears. Another friend in Ohio had one coming up and I know he was dealing with it mentally. I haven’t talked to him since it happened so perhaps he’s a new minister now.

    4. Erik, when a bishop is “sat down” I’m sure it’s by a vote of the congregation. I don’t know who raises the issue. Typically, if a district is having “church trouble” one or more respected bishops from outside are called to come in and help. They try to mediate any disputes. I would guess the suggestion that the bishop be “sat down” for a while would come from them and then the congregation would vote on it, but I don’t know that for a fact.

    5. Crockhead, right that’s kind of what I was wondering about. Who would initiate it.