Why do Amish people leave their communities?

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.

Caroline Faulkner Franklin Marshall College
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.

David Arment Amish Buggy
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.

Chuch Community Allen County
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.

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    29 Comments

    1. Alice Mary

      Dr. Faulkner, I’m happy to hear you’re conducting this study. It will help to shed light on the difficult decision to leave the Amish community and all it entails. I’m looking forward to the results and hoping it helps the English understand and have more respect for the Amish and all the “modern” temptations they must contend with as they struggle to make this life-changing decision. Hopefully, participants will also find they’re not as isolated in their decision as they may think.

      I wish you success…and stamina!

      Alice Mary

    2. Dr. Faulkner, you mention how real-life experiences do not seem to match what has been depicted in the two named TV series (which is not surprising in the least), but I’m curious to know how well the Amish: Out of Order with Mose Gingerich is representative of what you have seen. For myself (with no personal knowledge in this area), the show did look to be quite believable — but even if what we saw was true it doesn’t mean that it reliably represents the norm.

      On an ironic side note: I indirectly know of a man who left the Amish…, and now owns/operates a used car lot. (ha)

      1. The irony of the irony...

        Oh, do I feel stupid! After mentioning Mose I give a comment on the irony of a (different) ex-Amish man selling used cars — and didn’t even stop to think that the man I’d just mentioned (Mose) had done the same thing. Still a bit ironic — but not so noteworthy after all.

      2. TV Amish

        Hi Don, unfortunately many TV viewers who don’t have first-hand experience/knowledge with Amish or ex-Amish think these scripted programs are true. My son-in-love is ex-Amish and he resents these entertainment formats because they’re misleading.
        If anyone wants to watch for fun, go ahead, but to watch for cultural education or the struggle of ex-Amish to adapt to English life is leaving viewers false information.
        Mose Gingerich lives in Missouri and “jumped the fence” many years ago. Like our Ohio family, Mose helps others struggling to adapt to the “forbidden” outside world.
        With many relationships and personal experience with Swartzentruber Amish (stricter than Old Order), I blog on topics that teach about these Amish. I blogged on Shunning and how complex it really it. As suggested by Carey (Dr. Faulkner) there are variances in shunning.
        Sometimes one who leaves the fold is not formally shunned because he didn’t join the Amish Church but, his family will shun him. Much depends on the order – more than 15 identified orders. Ohio has the largest number of settlements nationwide, which is where I live.

    3. Richard Stevick

      Online sites for Ex-Amish

      Dear Caroline Faulkner, I assume that you are aware of the above sites on FB and other venues. If you need more information, email me, rstevick@messiah.edu. Best regards. Your research will fill an important spot in the Amish studies arena. Rich Stevick

    4. Don, thanks for your comment! I would definitely agree that “Amish: Out of Order” did not include a lot of the kinds of sensationalized set-ups of “Breaking Amish.” It’s tone overall was also not as somber as “The Amish: Shunned.” Besides the story of Mose, “Amish: Out of Order” tended to focus on young men in the early months and years after leaving the Amish, and, of course, some (or at least one) of those young men ultimately returned to his Amish community. In my interviews so far, I have spoken with a couple of young men whose experiences are somewhat similar to the depictions on that program. The program seems to represent reasonably well the experiences of some young, single men who are deciding whether or not to join the church, yet other young, single men make this choice and experience leaving quite differently (staying closer to home, pursuing higher education, etc.). This program doesn’t do as well portraying other kinds of people (like families that leave together, people who leave after joining the church, ans young women who leave before joining the church). Of course, any television program would have a hard time representing the diversity and complexity of experiences!

      And thank you, Alice Mary! I appreciate the well wishes!

    5. Thanks to you also, Dr. Stevick! (Our posts must have crossed one another.) I will definitely be in touch.

    6. Levi in PBS Amish Shunned

      If you watched this year’s sequel to PBS’ The Amish (in which I appeared), you saw Levi sharing about his life and pain of being shunned.
      Levi is Swartzentruber Amish. He grew up in upstate NY and is a cousin to our “son” Mosie. I tease Levi that he’s our “nephew.”

      Levi recently moved from Ohio to Iowa, where he’s with his brother– also ex-Amish. Levi & we were together this past weekend at Mosie’s wedding. I’ll post about this with pictures on July 8 on my blog.

      Levi was confused (as are many) why Englishers are fascinated with the Amish. His appearance in both The Amish and in Amish Shunned gave him a type of fame he didn’t welcome. Some female viewers tracked him down (I call it stalked) and sent him Fb messages, etc. I kinda wonder if this is why he moved away.

      Levi is a pensive, quiet, sensitive young man who was a stranger to parental affection. When I first met the lad, I gave him a “mom” hug. He stood stiff. No reaction other than a slight smile. He’s spent many a Christmas and other holidays in our home. Each time I hug him. After 4 yrs., he now initiates a hug with me.

      The former-Amish I know are like emotional dry sponges. They soak us verbal affirmation and need parent role models to love and applaud them.

    7. karen easter

      opposite

      instead of why do amish people leave. i would like to know how to join the amish community in lancaster, pa. i am interested in residing with an old order amish family. i can afford some rent and am anxious to take part in all aspects including the work of the family. i am 68 and a widow.

      1. Karen there are some other threads which cover that subject, you’ll find them organized at the link below, or by searching in the sidebar search box:

        https://amishamerica.com/tag/joining-the-amish/

    8. Al in Ky

      I have read many times that in the U.S. the number of adults who have left the religious affiliation of their upbringing is very, very high. Many have joined another religious affiliation, many do not consider themselves members of any formal religious affiliation. I would think the reasons people give for this are varied. Is this factor going to be taken into consideration in this study? I understand the retention rate of people staying Amish, after being raised Amish, is much, much higher than for most other Christian denominations in the U. S. I am very interested in reading the results of your study and hope that we will be notified through Amish America about where we can read it, if published. Glad you are doing this work to help those who want to understand, to understand more. As an aside, I sometimes ask the question, “Why do so many stay?” as well as “Why do so many leave?” I wish there was more written by Amish people about “Why I stay Amish”.

      1. Dirk

        I agree, a study into what the Amish do differently that results in their high retention rates would be easier and more beneficial to other churches. Also an investigation into why the New Order retain less and the Old Order retain more youth would be very informative.

        Sorry Dr. Faulkner, but I think your study into why Amish youth leave will ultimately result in the same conclusions as the study into why children become gay.

        In that study the researches postulated that one of the causes is a domineering and overbearing mother coupled with a weak or absentee father. This was held as valid until it was shown that thousands of other families with identical characteristics or markers, do not produce gay children.

        The failure of the behaviorist nurture study to produce definitive results, lead to the understanding that perhaps gayness was due to nature i.e. genetics. The genetic study has also failed to produce definitive results.

        A study into why Amish youth or adults leave the faith will produce similarities, patterns and indicators, but if will also reveal that thousands of other youth who experience and are exposed to the same similarities, patterns and indicators, do not leave the faith.

        It will be most interesting to see if the study does produce definitive results to explain what essentially is the result of an unpredictable random event. Where a random event is that moment in time when something that was said, something that was experienced, some that was witnessed by the youth, became the catalyst for them leaving the faith.

        A random event that may have been experienced simultaneously by many other youth, but does not cause them to leave the faith. However, due to the leavers unique individual perception of the event, it became their personal catalyst for leaving.

        Irrespective of any overlying factors of dissatisfaction, rebelliousness, or questioning of the faith that this youth or other youth may have had prior to the event, it was the unique personalized negative experience of the event, the straw that broke the proverbial camels back, that caused this youth and not other youth to leave. A random eye-opening event, a defining moment in time, which if that specific youth had not personally experienced it, they no doubt would still be in the faith, just as their peers are.

        Well that is my take on the matter. Who will leave and who will stay cannot be predicted based on nature or nurture, as the cause is an unpredictable random, perception altering, event.
        Let see what the Dr’s research turns up. Definitive results means that outcomes can be manipulated to either increase or decrease youth defection rates. To be used positively or negatively by the church and by youth stealing missionaries.

        1. Thanks for your thoughts, Dirk. I will not be able to come up with any definitive explanation for why some leave and others stay in their Amish communities. I do not have plans to speak with those who remain Amish, so I’ll be unable to uncover differences between “leavers” and “stayers.” But this research will allow me to learn more about how those who leave understand and experience leaving — as well as taking part in the mainstream culture to a greater extent and (for some) “becoming English.” The results will help provide a broader and deeper understanding than what we have from the current media representations and will help expand on the scholarly literature out there on the subject.

        2. Susan Minasian

          Why do Amish people leave their communities?

          I think this research is going to help us all understand a community we don’t really know. We may see Amish folks and even purchase their goods and services. BUT we do not really know them.
          I also think the comment that the comment about finding a similarity of why Amish leave is the same reason people become gay is so incorrect. That is a loaded post that is problematic on so many levels. I’m not going to “preach” here because I don’t want to change the direction of this thread but I did want to say that it is not only incorrect it is offensive.

        3. Dii

          Gay

          Children don’t “become” gay. Either they are or they aren’t.

          1. Ambiguity of terms...

            Dii, I hate to pursue a tangent that distracts from the purpose of a thread on this site, so I plan to just make this one post and leave it at that. Anyone wishing to discuss this further with me is more than welcome to email me directly.

            Is a person gay (as you point out), or do they become that way? I have found in discussing this general subject at great lengths for a long time that the term “gay” is used in a whole spectrum of nuances. I’ve even had a woman tell me that her son was born gay because he played “girl games” (house and dolls, I suppose) from the time that he was very small. (I’m still scratching my head as to who has the official task of designating which games are girl games and which are boy games — or what qualifies them to make that call.)

            If a person understands “gay” as being a boy that leans more toward the effeminate side or a girl that tends more to the (so-called) masculine, then I suppose to a great extent they either are or they are not. (Although, to be honest, I’ve seen far too many that that exhibited such characteristics but without any effect on their sexual orientation. Furthermore, I’ve known those with such tendencies that have over time changed them. So for myself, I’m not buying this one.)

            Or, if by “gay” one is talking about a person’s sexual desires, then obviously that is a matter of “becoming,” for what typical pre-puberty child has sexual desires in the first place? Furthermore, one’s sexual desires are shaped by a host of things — and “shaped” thus implies a change (AKA “becoming”).

            Or, if by “gay” one is talking about a person’s actual sexual *activity*, well, again, this is obviously a matter of “becoming,” for no child is born doing that. Furthermore, this is a choice, for the engaging in an action is a matter of one’s choosing to pursue it — and thus this is obviously not an “are” thing.

            But point is, with the ambiguity of the term, one must specify the particular meaning of “gay” before adequately labeling it as “become” or “is.”

    9. Brenda, I guess my comment got crossed with yours as well and somehow I didn’t see your earlier one until after I posted my reply to other commenters. Sorry about that! The points you make in your comments further reveal the diversity of leaving experiences. Certainly some folks who leave before joining the church experience very strained ties with their families–to say the least–even though they are not officially shunned. I’ve also met people who have left after baptism who somehow avoided excommunication and shunning and others who are in fact officially shunned but still have close relationships with their families and Amish friends. There is much diversity across the different Amish affiliations and districts as well as across families within affiliations and districts.

      I also think your point about Levi is an interesting one. The attention that folks receive from taking part in these different television programs places them in situations that seem to have broader consequences for their lives. The “reality” of their lives that viewers get access to is then changed by us watching them — very literally, it seems, in the case of Levi’s FB “admirers”/stalkers.

      Al in KY, you are correct that the Amish tend to have higher retention rates than other religious traditions (though, again, there is variety by affiliation). Rates of religion leaving/switching in the U.S. are very high. Don Kraybill and other scholars of the Amish have written some about how community structures and traditions (including Amish education) play a part in these retention rates. You could check out his recent book with Karen Johnson-Weiner and Steven Nolt for a discussion of this issue. I most certainly am interested in learning more about what religious traditions people enter (when they do so) after leaving the Amish. Also, when publications come out, I’m happy to share that information with Erik and the Amish America readers!

      1. Where they land

        “I most certainly am interested in learning more about what religious traditions people enter (when they do so) after leaving the Amish.”

        Those I’m deeply acquainted with – and my son-in-love – have a variety of spiritual responses. Since most are from the uber strict Swartzentruber Order where rules reign, I’ll speak about them. They have a hard time wrapping their brain around the fact that God is good and He wants relationship with people. I make mention of this in my upcoming book.

        Some, overwhelmed with new freedom to choose, have made unhealthy decisions and vehemently reject any religious traditions or behavior. Some are living a faith-based life and regularly attend church, mostly protestant, specifically Baptist.

        1. Mark - Holmes Co.

          Brenda,
          I have noticed what you wrote about. We don’t have a lot of Swartzentrubers living right in our part of Holmes Co., but we know some who left and they seem to fall into two main parts — those who want nothing at all to do with any religious life or even with God and those that join more evangelical churches. I don’t personally know of many who took the “middle road” and joined Beachy or Mennonite churches, which is what those who leave the Old Order usually do.
          There are a few who left the Swartzentrubers and joined our Old Order Amish church and they were shunned from the Swartzentrubers for that. Even though I’m Old Order Amish, I can’t imagine living like that or living under that kind of rules they have and the teaching they get and the emotional coldness.

    10. Mark - Holmes Co.

      I saw the “Shunned” documentary where I work and would like to make a few points. Most of those cases are from really low Amish groups. Knowing a few of the people’s situation personally, I was disgusted the “whole” picture was not given. In one case the person shunned had committed some serious moral offenses, in another the person who left came from a family where serious mental illness in the parent made home life a nightmare. When you know the facts, the stories take on a new meaning.
      Don’t overlook the fact that not everyone who leaves the Amish is “shunned” and except in cases of groups like Swartzentrubers or Abe Troyers, “shunning” does not always mean cutting of family ties. I have a relative shunned who after his wife left him moved back home with his parents along with his children. He said there was no other place to go. So he lives at home and is cared for by his family. They don’t take rent or eat at the table with him but that’s the only issue. I look at situations like this and then the story-book movie version and know which version the public believes — the more dramatic one.

    11. Thanks, Mark and Brenda, for sharing more of your insights. I have talked to people with similar experiences. As you both pointed out, there is a great range of experiences out there is not being represented on these different television programs. The portrayals do tend to focus on the most dramatic, as Mark wrote.

    12. Carrie

      Why is there a need to do this “study”? Why not simply live and let live? I don’t see how doing a “study” will help anyone.

      1. Mark - Holmes Co.

        Amen, Carrie! Just what I’ve been thinking.

      2. Former Amish Study

        I don’t want to speak for Caroline, but it seems a primary reason she gives for the study in her piece above, is to have some reality-backed information which might be used to counter some of the representations given by popular media in shows like Breaking Amish and the like.

        In an ideal situation the Amish way may be simply to ignore these products of the world. But I know that they bother or at the least mildly irritate some Amish folks. I also know quite a few people on this site and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Amish people, have expressed displeasure about those shows.

        It may be obvious to people who have bothered to learn a little bit about the Amish that many popular depictions are sensationalized and not representative. However there are a lot of people who don’t realize that.

        It probably won’t have the wide reach of a popular program on a cable network, but if Caroline’s study at least provides data or a counterpoint to misinformation or misrepresenation via the popular media, that might not be a bad thing.

    13. Carrie and Mark, I think Erik stated my intentions very well. And I thank you, Erik, for weighing in on my behalf. I would like to give voice to the people who have gone through these experiences. As Erik said, it may prove to be a useful way of pushing back against the misrepresentations found in the media. At least it will provide another place for people to gain some understanding of the lives of those who leave the Amish.

      1. Mark - Holmes Co.

        Caroline, I wrote too quickly without thinking how it sounds. I apologize for that and hope you can forgive me if I caused offense.
        You are right that these TV shows are offensive. (As well as unrealistic.) To be really frank a lot of these Amish studies can seem offensive to many Amish people, too. Kind of like “So why is this necessary to make this public?” At one time that’s how I felt but since I started a job working much more in public I am amazed at just how much misinformation is out there. So on one hand I do sincerely appreciate those who try to put accurate info out there and the chance through this to add my “two cents” but on the other I do feel some of the studies get into areas that really are not necessary. And I am not slamming when I say that, I hope you follow me. It’s like there are college teachers out there who know more about us then we know ourselves but that doesn’t matter because it’s a life we live whether we know all the research or not. Does this make any sense?

    14. Mark, first, I want you to know that I sincerely appreciate your apology. I also think you make a great point here. People who do research on communities that they don’t belong to (and all researchers, really) need to be careful about how they approach their work. We cannot know what it’s like to really live any of the things we don’t live ourselves. We can read about it, watch it, and talk to people about it, and learn a lot about people’s lives. But there will still be something missing or different from the understandings that we gain in those ways compared with the understandings gained from lived experience.

      Also, lots of religious and cultural groups in the United States have members who are doing the work of telling their own group’s story to the American public, but the Amish don’t as much (and, of course, according to scholars, they don’t want to be involved in the mainstream in this way). Because of that, there is space for others to step in and do that work with relatively few checks and balances. For example, it seems that the “Amish Mafia” folks took advantage of this space when creating their “reality” show. I think, then, that those of us who take part in writing about, talking about, and portraying the Amish need to be really mindful of this situation and careful of the claims we make.

    15. Mark - Holmes Co.

      I’m glad you understand where I was coming from, Caroline.

    16. Mary Valentine

      Dear Caroline. My interest in this is that my grandfather was born into the Amish faith, in Sugar Creek, Ohio, in 1868. His family left the Amish when he was 8 years old. I have always been curious about how his family decided to leave and what it was like for them. Do you have any insights about these issues in the last half of the 19th century? Thanks for doing this work so we can understand this community.