Ministry (Switzerland, South Germany, France, North America)

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Very early in Swiss-South German Anabaptist history the congregations adopted a form of leadership which gave considerable responsibility to the bishop-elder in each congregation. The Schleitheim Confession of February 1527 called this office the "Hirtenamt" or pastoral office. How early the threefold ministry of bishop-elder, preacher, and deacon developed is not clear, but by the time of the Strasbourg Discipline of 1568 it was well established. It was maintained into the mid-20th century in all the Swiss, French, and South German congregations, as well as North American, except in the Palatinate, where the single pastor system with trained and salaried pastors was introduced soon after the beginning of the 19th century (first case, Ibersheim in 1813). The plural ministry was maintained in all those congregations in Europe which did not adopt the system of the trained single pastor. Here usually there was also a plural eldership, the larger congregations having as many as four or five elders; in Alsace the practice commonly was to have only one elder, with several preachers. In the Badisch-Wurttembergisch-Bayrischer Gemeindeverband, all the ordained men of all the congregations of the conference constituted a conjoint ministry, the elders being actually ordained for the entire conference, though with local congregational connections. In the Palatinate the office of deacon has virtually disappeared.

In North America the early Pennsylvania settlements of Swiss and Palatine immigrants continued the ministerial pattern of their homelands as did the Alsatian Arnish immigrants of the 19th century settling farther west. One notable change took place in the Mennonite congregations, however, namely, the development of a district or diocesan bishop with charge over a number of congregations. This pattern probably was a result of the establishment of daughter congregations from an original base congregation whose bishop retained pastoral charge at all the meeting places of the total congregation. The ministers also in such cases served in rotation in a circuit. Amish congregations retained more rigidly the pattern of one bishop for each congregation. Among the Old Order Amish to this day a congregation was not considered fully organized until it has its own bishop, who was usually chosen very promptly after the formation of a new "district." In all North American groups with a plural ministry, ministers were chosen exclusively out of the congregation and served for life unless "silenced" for heresy or misconduct. The lot was commonly used in the choice of candidates for ordination, and was still widely used in the 1950s.

The practice of a single pastor ministry, with training and full or part salary, has been slow in coming in the Mennonite Church (MC), but after World War II rapidly increased except in the four eastern conferences—Franconia, Lancaster, Franklin-Washington, and Virginia—and in the western conferences of Iowa-Nebraska, North Central, and Pacific Coast. A 1950s study showed that about 40 per cent of Mennonite Church ministers were ordained without the lot. Some 60 congregations, mostly in the Middle West, had single pastors with salary. This was almost wholly the case in Illinois and Ontario, and largely so in Ohio and Indiana. The office of deacon usually retreated in significance or was dropped in these cases. Ministers were still chosen or called by the congregations for life or an indefinite term, although gradually a three- or five-year term was specified. The practice of licensing ministers for a probationary period a year at a time increased rapidly in the mid-20th century.

A significant trend in the 1940s and 1950s was the reconsideration of the office of bishop. The bishop district system largely broke down west of the Allegheny Mountains because of the growing adoption of the practice of having a bishop in each congregation, the office of bishop lost much of its former prestige. Two conferences (the South Central and the Ohio and Eastern) suspended the ordination of bishops and were experimenting with a system of district superintendents. The Ohio and Eastern Conference adopted the practice of only one ordination, with assignments to various types of ministerial duty—deacon, pastor, and supervising bishop. Thus the ministerial system came into flux, with the outcome unclear. The district superintendent plan was in effect the reintroduction of the district or diocesan bishop concept with limited tenure and supervisory functions rather than pastoral.

The Hutterian Brethren developed a ministerial system in which each local Bruderhof (congregation) had at least one preacher (Diener der Worts) and one deacon (Diener der Notdurft), while the whole brotherhood had one bishop-superintendent (Vorsteher).

See also Bishop, Elder, Deacon


Bender, Harold S. "The Historical Background of Our Present Ministerial Offices." Gospel Herald 42 (25 October 1949): 1051 and 1061.

Mennonite Church Polity. A Statement of Practices in Church Government. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1944.

Peachey, Paul. "Anabaptism and Church Organization." Mennonite Quarterly Review 30 (1956): 213-228.

Report of the Study Conference on Church Organization and Administration. Scottdale, PA, 1955.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Ministry (Switzerland, South Germany, France, North America)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 24 Jul 2024.,_South_Germany,_France,_North_America)&oldid=177217.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1957). Ministry (Switzerland, South Germany, France, North America). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from,_South_Germany,_France,_North_America)&oldid=177217.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 703-704. All rights reserved.

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