Jim Cates: How Amish Solve Problems–Outside the Courtroom

Jim Cates returns today with a look at Amish lay leaders, the National Amish Steering Committee, and solving problems outside the courts. Part one of Jim’s discussion of Amish and politics can be found here.

Politics Is the Art of Looking for Trouble

The entire quote (by Groucho Marx, no less) actually goes “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”

Clearly, Groucho was more familiar with American than Amish politicians.

The Amish comprise an admixture of Christian sect and culture. As a Christian sect, their theology is pragmatically embedded in their lifestyle, a service to God that manifests in plain living, adherence to a strict moral code, and a scrupulous separation from the temptations of the world. The beliefs and customs that emerge from this dogma create the context that is viewed as culture, a more anthropological/sociological view.

Any group/sect that creates a culture also creates a need for limits and boundaries. The same process can be observed in the organization of the New Testament. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles offer a complex theology for those who wish to follow Christ. The description there of Christian life and principles is primarily followed by letters from Paul and other leaders that address issues in the early church, offering topical guidance and structure to practice Christianity in diverse settings.

Amish Buggy Covered Bridge

The Amish recognize the need for a complex culture such as theirs to develop a systematized structure (as many experts note, Plain ≠ simple.) For many the clergy (bishop, ministers, and deacon) are leaders in matters of the spirit.

However, the family, church, and settlement each require leadership in practical areas too. For these “political” issues, lay leaders are frequently chosen, a deliberate separation within the community itself of matters “of this world” from the spiritual.

This is not to say that the clergy do not carry weight in political decisions. However, the actual process of meeting, resolving, and if necessary acting as a liaison with the world falls to those who have not been appointed by God with responsibility for the spiritual guidance of community members.

The National Amish Steering Committee

A highly structured and nationally organized version of this approach grew from a group formed in 1966. Originally called the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, it was formed to address conscription. Serving initially as what we might consider a task force, charged with a specific focus and goal, the definition and purpose of the group expanded across time as the utility of a collective body, representing the disparate Amish settlements, became apparent.

Now renamed the National Amish Steering Committee, the group has addressed issues such as social security payments, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) policies for worksites that contradict Amish beliefs.

The National Steering Committee draws its members from State Steering Committees. Each state provides a liaison at the national level, both to carry concerns to that body, and to be informed about issues from other states and at a national level that may be pertinent to those in their settlements. Again, the clergy are normally not actively involved in this process. These are issues that pertain to the culture and not the sect – the beliefs and customs emerging from dogma.

Children Traversing Field

The presence of a national committee does not mean that all controversies funnel upward. As would be expected, members are lay persons who give generously of their time in a volunteer service, but have other pressing responsibilities. Topics to be settled at both state and national levels are selected from a far wider field waiting for a hearing. And what of those concerns that are not chosen to be reviewed? It is here that the true political savvy of the Amish comes to the fore.

Politics meets respect

The backlog in our court systems – family, criminal, and civil – testifies to the litigious nature of American culture today. The Amish, by contrast, avoid the courts whenever possible.

Both as a response to this decision to shun the courtroom, and as an invitation to do so, there are many more Amish than might be anticipated who demonstrate a keen ability as arbitrators and mediators. In point of fact, they function in the role of a politician that moves the term from one of derogation to respect. Many issues find resolution at the community level that could otherwise fester or be brought to the attention of the authorities.

And how do they achieve this? There are several aspects of their sect/culture that provide soil for this gift to take root and flourish.

They actively listen. The Amish enjoy communication and talking with others, but many also learn from an early age the importance of listening well. By not only hearing the words that others say, but the meaning and emotional context in which these words are embedded, they understand the full message being presented, and can respond with an answer that communicates that rich understanding.

They strive for consensus. Prior to semiannual communion, an Amish church attempts to resolve any misunderstandings, anger, or slights between members in order to move into the sacrament in a sense of wholeness. This powerful belief in the need for consensus generalizes to touch many of their decision-making processes.

They encourage humility. A corollary to the effort for consensus, the belief that one should remain humble in interacting with others dampens the temptation to allow ego to play too strong a role in decision-making and problem-solving. It is therefore easier to yield one’s own position and cooperate and compromise.

There is no system of governing that is perfect, for in any model we bring our own demands, foibles, and blind spots to the table. And yet the Amish manage to instill a respect in the words “politics” and “politicians” as these efforts play out in their culture. That same respect is sadly lacking as we view the efforts of our own elected officials.

Jim is author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals.

Image credits: Ed C.

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    1. Mark - Holmes Co.

      I thought this was very interesting & well done. Most of what I know about Steering Committee meetings comes from “reports” shared by our bishop after such meetings. He will tell us what was discussed & decided. Sometimes there are photocopies of minutes passed out or reports printed in “Die Botschaft” about the meetings.

      1. Tom Geist

        Hey Mark,

        You could email me the answer to what I am about to ask or reply here to everyone that is wondering like I am.

        You sound like you are active Amish and yet you use the computer. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think you give us English a lot to think about but I wonder what I am missing.

        Thanks…. Tom in Lincoln

        1. Mark - Holmes Co.

          Hi Tom,
          That’s a sensible question! I am a member in an Old Order Amish church. I work in a public place and since this business is not Amish owned, we do have electricity, phones, FAX, computers with internet, email, etc. (though our computers run with an accountability program so we can’t just go browsing around the internet.) I spend much of my day in an office and this is where the computer comes in. Since learning how to operate a computer and about Amish America, I like to keep my email tab open so notices of new posts show up there.
          I also make use of the computers at our local library like many other Amish people in our area.
          We do not have electricity or internet at home, but I do use a DeskMate word processor that also uses some of the same programs my computer at work uses (Microsoft Word & Excel.) I like that because I can carry work home and sometimes work at home in the cold months. I do a LOT of writing. 🙂 My WP at home runs off an inverter that is powered by a bank of 12 volt batteries that are recharged by solar or generator. Obviously our group is not as traditional as groups like the Swarztentrubers.
          In our area it is not unusual to find Amish people using computers for work. The bank in Berlin employs Amish tellers, the big Keim Lumber store has a large number of Amish employees and some of those spend their days on computers also. Then there is J&M Computer Services & Repair in Winesburg that might be the only computer business that has Amish employees.
          There’s no doubt about it, computers are having an impact on our community and way of life. It brings benefits, but also a lot of issues we would not have thought of ten years ago.

          1. Tom Geist

            Thanks for your answers Mark. If you do personal emails with people I would sure be gratiful to chat with you every once in awhile. I am on a personal mission to get to know Amish better, and need some new insight. I won’t bore others on here with my story.

            Tom Geist

            1. Mark - Holmes Co.

              Yes, Tom. I’ll send you an email.

          2. Al in Ky

            Mark in Holmes County — Do you know anything about the Amish Medical Ethics Steering Committee? (See my comments several comments down in this post.)

      2. George Moore

        Mark (Holmes County)

        I have a question for you that I would like to ask you privately if you could email me that would be greatly appreciated. My email is gmoore.gm94@gmail.com

    2. I was unaware of there being such a steering committee. This was interesting — thanks for sharing this.

      But it was a different little tidbit that really struck me as I read. In reading the comment that the Amish are “active listeners,” I find that you have put a label on an abstract feeling that I have felt while talking with many of the Amish. I know it is not fair to say either “all English are…” or “all Amish are…,” but I think it is fair to say that my discussions with various Amish leave me feeling a greater interest in me and what I have to say than I have found in similar situations with the English. The Amish seem less mentally distracted by their to-do list, or can’t give attention to what you are saying now because they are chomping at the bits to be able to say what they want to talk about next. For all the “work ethic” that seems to demand hard work from/by the Amish, even those high demands are momentarily trumped when it comes to giving genuine attention to others.

      1. Jim Cates

        Active Listeners


        The Amish ability to “attend” in a different way than we do is probably worthy of a post in itself (although I haven’t even thought of one yet!). I think in part they are simply more attuned to their environment than we are. Example – I took a photo of a buggy in downtown Shipshewana for a presentation. In an attempt to be respectful one sees the buggy from behind, can’t see the horse, and very little of the side. An Amish friend immediately identifed whose buggy it was based on a “ding” that wasn’t even noticeable to me! To some extent, that same emphasis on attention and focus seems to carry over into dialogue. Not always “conversation;” I find they can be as rowdy and step on each other’s words in an excited get-together as much as anyone else. But in a serious dialogue? There is an intensity – and interest – that I don’t find as often among the English (outside counseling sessions). Your observation may come back in a few months in a full-length post – who knows!

        1. Curiosity and friendship

          Similar to some commenters above, I am driven by curiosity and a desire for friendship with the many Amish I’ve met on my journeys on Amtrak. Even now, I’m composing this message on the Empire Builder, and I’m wanting to ask the kind folks across the aisle a million questions that are bubbling to the surface of my brain! I own a lovely dress that was hand-sewn for me by Katie-Ann Schlabach, and I am desperate to find her address in my papers, to ask how her life is going in the new community that she and her new husband were going to join when I met them. Not only the firm beliefs they hold, but also the fearless faith that seems to fill them as they build new communites in far-flung places… like small fertile soil near the Amazon! I don’t necessarily want to become Amish, but I long for an honest friendship that would perhaps allow me to visit with such a family and live as they do even for a short time, to get a better idea of the mindset that permeates their life, in contrast to all that is around them.

    3. Alice Mary

      I'm awake!

      I’ve seen the Steering Committee mentioned in this blog as well as by reading other non-fiction accounts of Amish life & history, but I never knew how important and “separate” (from the religious aspect of Amish life) it was, and what they took care of, and how. Thank you for awakening me to a side of Amish life I didn’t pay much attention to before! How interesting!

      Alice Mary

    4. Al in Ky

      Thanks for this post that included information about the National Steering Committee. I often read in local scribe’s letters in The Budget mentioning “so and so” went to the National Steering Committee meeting. This post helped me learn more about what the steering committee is and what it does.

    5. Kevin L.

      Its interesting that the past 2 issues of “The Connection” had a report from the Steering committee, which I found very interesting. I was ot familiar with it before then

    6. Al in Ky

      I read some interesting information in the Jan. 28 issue of The Budget. In The Editors Corner of the paper on p. 2 was an article entitled, “To the Amish Community Regarding Health Care.” It was
      written by The Amish Medical Ethics Steering Committee. I would like to learn more about this committee. The eight members who signed the article all have Ohio towns listed as their hometowns,
      such as Sugarcreek, Mt. Eaton, Charm, etc., but also two listed Homerville which I believe is a Swartzentruber settlement. This article has a lot of content focused on four main points: 1.Provide Open and Honest Communication 2. Get Second Opinions Respectfully. 3. Be Respectful When Things Go Wrong 4. Extended Family is Important. Erik, do you or any Amish America readers know
      anything about this committee?

      1. Amish Medical Ethics Steering Committee

        Al that is really interesting. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen reference to an Amish Medical Ethics Steering Committee. There is a largish Swartzentruber settlement at Homerville as you surmise.

        This committee may be operating with the fact in mind that in some places Amish negotiate payment terms with hospitals directly on behalf of all the members in a community, and with concern that “PR” and the reputation of Amish patients remains positive.

        Just a guess based on points 2 and 3 especially. If anyone else knows about this I too would be interested to know.

      2. Mark - Holmes Co.

        Yes, I know about this committee. Notices from them were included with the last Health Care Update package we received and in the last Gemeinde Register there were some guidelines printed that they put together. The idea is to keep the community informed of what is expected of us by both the hospitals and the Church Fund guidelines. Does that help?

        1. Al in Ky

          Yes, that is helpful. Thanks for your reply. I really appreciate all of your comments and insight you give on various topics on Amish America and hope you continue!