Amish leadership

Randy McKee

Randy L. McKee photo

“A divine lottery,” is the way one author described the Amish ordination practices. And one who has been in the lot numerous times, said the procedure is “more stressful than the lottery!”

The selection of church leadership within the Amish church community is a defining practice that distinguishes Amish values and culture from those of mainstream American Christian churches. The ordination process epitomizes gelassenheit—the voluntary giving up of personal prerogatives for the good of the church community—the central value of Amish life. Unlike the practice of general Christian communities, leadership selection by the Amish does not focus on an individual’s vocational pursuits. Rather, it follows prescribed patterns whereby the Amish church district identifi es ones they believe are fit to lead. And then they let God select the new leader through a process they view as divine providence.

Amish ordination customs arise from a careful reading of the scriptures, which tell how the
early believers selected the successor to Judas. Acts 1 says that the remaining disciples identifi ed
two candidates. Then, through the use of the lot, Matthias was called by God to fill the ranks of the

When the need for a new leader is felt within an Amish church district, the leadership will ask
the counsel of the members. After establishing unanimous support for calling a new leader,
the bishop announces plans for ordination. The service is always held in conjunction with the
observance of communion.

On the Sunday of Gros Gma (literally, the “large church” or communion), the morning
service continues into an extended afternoon service of communion and ordination. The
church will be reminded of the qualifications for a minister: a spiritually devout man of faith; blameless;
filled with the Holy Spirit; gentle, agreeable, self-controlled; and a good manager of his own
household. (See I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 for a catalog of qualities.)

With these traits in mind, the congregation will be asked to nominate a brother in the
church. All the members, both men and women, will pass by a small room where the bishop and
minister and deacon are closeted to express their personal vote. The bishop tallies the votes; those
who receive two or more votes will be included in the lot, typically resulting in a group of six to 10 eligible men.

Once the number of men in the lot is determined, the bishop selects the same number of
Ausbund hymnbooks to use in the lot process. Into one of the books will be placed a slip of
paper on which the words from Acts 1:24 have been written: “And they prayed, and said, Thou,
Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen.” In place
of the word “two” the bishop will write in the number of men included in the lot.

The hymnbooks will be tied with string and the books rearranged. The bishop will ask other
ministers to also shuffle the books. Finally two ministers will take the separate stacks of books
out into the waiting congregation. The books will be placed on a small table in front of an empty bench.

The bishop will read the list of names of those who received the required number of votes. No prior notice is given to those selected. Personal excuses for not participating in the lot are not regarded, since at the time of baptism all young men agree to accept the lot to serve as a leader if called upon by the church. Then the whole congregation is asked to kneel in silent prayer.

After the prayer ends the bishop asks the group of men in the lot to come forward to
choose a book from the table. One by one, typically by the order of their ages, they retrieve a
book and take a seat on the bench. After all are seated the bishop will take each book and open
it in search of the fateful slip of paper. Once it’s found, the bishop will proceed no further.

For the candidate whose book contained the slip, his life will forever change in that instant.
It will be a sobering, anguished realization of a new reality with new responsibilities—for life. The
bishop will extend his hand and ask him to rise to receive the charge for his ministry. The bishop’s
remarks will conclude with words of assurance that God will strengthen him for his new work.
The bishop will greet him with the holy kiss and assurance of support. All others in the lot will
greet the new minister in a similar manner.

One by one the rest of the congregation will come forward to extend greetings and well
wishes (not congratulations, as though this was a personal achievement), both to the new minister
and to his wife. All will feel with the brother for the awesome responsibilities that have befallen him.
Expressions of sympathy and support will flow readily from all the members.

One young Amish minister expressed his feelings about his ordination experience to say,
“One would never seek the office, but after a few months you wouldn’t want it any other way. You
realize the blessings that go with it.”

The Amish view the procedure of ordination as well suited to their church culture. The
leadership qualities desired for their group value servanthood, not educational or professional
credentials. The use of the lot allows both the one selected and the congregation to accept that
it was God’s will that the role fell as it did. “This is the minister who God has given us, so this must
be who we should have,” said one member.