Familial Ties, Location of Occupation, and Congregational Exit in Geographically-Based Congregations: A Case Study of the Amish

Abstract

Background

While many studies have examined the relationship between social ties and joining social movements and religious groups, few studies have investigated the relationship between social ties and the likelihood of exiting such groups. Additionally, research has not considered how geography affects the membership dynamics of geographically-based congregations, specifically whether factors associated with residential mobility may also affect congregational exit in geographically-based congregations.

Purpose

The purpose of this study is to examine how familial ties and place of employment affect congregational exit in geographically-based congregations. Drawing on social network and residential mobility research, this study hypothesizes that having parents and/or adult children in the same congregation and having minor children decreases the likelihood of congregational exit and working farther away from the congregation increases it.

Methods

This study draws on longitudinal archival data from one Amish congregation in the Holmes County Ohio Settlement. It tests the hypotheses using logistic regression models.

Results

The results show that having one’s parents/adult children in the congregation and working close to the congregation are associated with a reduced likelihood of congregational exit. Having minor children in one’s household is not associated with congregational exit.

Conclusions and Implications

This is one of the first studies to consider how geographical requirements for congregational membership has implications for congregational exit. Given the results, congregations may be able to increase member retention by creating multigenerational ministries that support extended families and by advertising in local places of employment. As occupations increasingly shift to being primarily outside the home, Amish congregations in particular may experience more member turnover and membership instability.

Introduction

Research on group membership, whether within congregations, social movements, or New Religious Movements (NRMs), generally focuses on recruitment and commitment processes. Why individuals and families leave religious groups receives less attention (Brinkerhoff and Mackie 1993). There is research on denominational or religious tradition switching as well as disaffiliation from religion altogether (Davidman 2015; Davidman and Greil 2007; Faulkner 2017, 2018; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Hadaway and Marler 1993; Loveland 2003; Packard and Ferguson 2019; Sherkat 1991, 2014; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Smith and Sikkink 2003; Vargas 2011), but next to none on what factors affect whether someone chooses to leave a congregation (Gallagher 2020; Scheitle and Dougherty 2010) even though “more than two-thirds of congregants have previously attended a different congregation” (Schwadel 2012: 543). Stark and Finke (2000: 115) identify that “denominations only grow on paper. What really grow are specific congregations belonging to the denomination” and of course the same can be said for decline. Individuals or families join and leave particular congregations, and, in the aggregate, this affects growth rates at the denominational or religious tradition level.Footnote 1

While there is some conceptual overlap between religious switching and congregational exit, they do not overlap perfectly. Studies of denominational or religious tradition switching only capture when an individual/household leaves a congregation for a congregation of a different denomination or tradition or leaves religion entirely. They are unable to capture what factors are associated with individuals leaving particular congregations for other congregations within the same denomination or tradition, which has the same effect on congregations, a loss of members and resources. Although membership growth and decline may be affected by denominational or religious tradition characteristics, it is a local phenomenon that should also be examined within congregations at the individual- or household-level.

Congregations refer “to the smallest, relatively autonomous membership unit within a religious organization” (Stark and Finke 2000: 282). They are voluntary associations that “depend on the time and monetary contributions of their members for survival” and thus, “examining why individuals leave is necessary for understanding congregational vitality and success” (Corcoran 2019: 3). As Gallagher (2020: 2) identifies, “changes in membership have significant effects on congregational programs, budgets and ministries; they shape every facet of congregational life, whether maintaining a building, using or renting out the education wing, hiring a slate of youth leaders, expanding programs for older adults, changing institutional connections, programs for outreach, and community building.” Of course, reasons for congregational exit may be religious or secular in nature. Someone may leave a congregation because they are dissatisfied with it, no longer accept the beliefs of the group, or because they have taken a job in another location and the congregation itself is not a sufficient reason to pass up such an opportunity. Regardless of the reason, the underlying consequence for congregations is the same—fewer members result in fewer resources. Identifying factors that reduce exit from congregations is thus important for understanding congregational vitality regardless of the nature of the underlying reasons.

We theorize congregational exit in the context of geographically-based congregations (Diamond 2000; Dougherty and Mulder 2020; McBride 2007; Nolt 2016; Stark and Finke 2000; Stein et al. 2020), such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Amish, Orthodox Jews, and, historically, Catholics and certain Protestant denominations. Geographically-based congregations impose geographical constraints on membership either directly, by requiring members to live in a certain geographical area, or indirectly, by holding beliefs that effectively limit where members can live (e.g., if one cannot drive or be driven on the Sabbath, one must live within walking distance of a synagogue). While there are numerous studies on these religious groups, there is little written on the geographical basis of their membership and how this might affect the entrance and exit dynamics of their members. When changing congregations necessarily involves moving and vice versa, factors that affect residential mobility may in turn affect congregational exit for geographically-based congregations. These congregations are similarly affected by the loss of members regardless of the underlying reason for exit (i.e., whether congregational or residential change is the most salient factor). While religious switching studies often control for geographic mobility, they also generally incorporate data from geographically-based traditions or denominations without considering how retention and switching might be affected by this (Hadaway and Marler 1993; Loveland 2003; Musick and Wilson 1995; Roof 1989; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Smith and Sikkink 2003; Suh and Russell 2015). Residential mobility studies highlight the importance of workplace and family location (e.g., where parents and adult children reside) as well as having young children on mobility decisions. We draw on this literature and combine it with research on social movements, NRMs, and religion to hypothesize that households will be less likely to exit geographically-based congregations when they have minor children and parents or adult children in the congregation and when their workplace is located close to their congregation.

We test these hypotheses in the context of the Amish, a geographically-based affiliation, using longitudinal, archival, household census data on one congregation in the Holmes County of Ohio settlement. We find that having parents and adult children in the same congregation is associated with a decrease in the likelihood of congregational exit and working away from the congregation is associated with an increase in the likelihood of exit. Next, we discuss how the results are likely generalizable to other geographically-based congregations, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and may be especially applicable to Orthodox Jews who, like the Amish, are an ethno-religious group requiring within-faith marriage. The results may also be more broadly applicable given a recent case study of three churches identifying moving as a typical reason for congregational exit (Gallagher 2020). Finally, exiting geographically-based congregations is costly as it requires moving or leaving one’s affiliation. If lacking family in one’s congregation and working away from the congregation increase the likelihood of exiting even when it is costly to do so, it may also affect exit from congregations in which it is less costly. For example, if one wants to be in a congregation with one’s parents, it is possible to do so, and there are few constraints on exit, exit should be even more likely than in the Amish or similarly strict, geographically-based congregations in which exit is costly. We conclude by indicating avenues for future research and discussing the limitations of the study.

Religious Exit

Research on exiting religious organizations is less prevalent than research on recruitment and commitment (Brinkerhoff and Mackie 1993). There is research on the factors affecting whether someone leaves a New Religious Movement (NRM) or strict church (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Boeri 2002; Davidman 2015; Davidman and Greil 2007; Faulkner 2018; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Jacobs 1984, 1987; Wright 1986; Wright and Piper 1986). Since some NRMs only involve one group as compared to multiple congregations within the same denomination, leaving these NRMs means not only leaving the congregation but also the religion, denomination, or sect (i.e., disaffiliation). This research typically creates typologies of characteristics that make certain types of people more inclined to exit than others and draws extensively on role theory and exit narrative to understand the exit process (Bromley 1998a, b; Davidman 2015; Davidman and Greil 2007; Ebaugh 1988a, b; Faulkner 2018; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Fazzino 2014; Hinderaker and O’Connor 2015; Johnson 1998; Mauss 1998). Role theory argues that the process of exit involves separating oneself from the beliefs and behaviors attached to one’s membership and developing an identity and perception of oneself as no longer a member (Bromley 1998a, b; Ebaugh 1988a, b). Factors that affect whether one views themselves as a member and how one views themselves as an ex-member therefore affect exit. This research focuses on the retrospective reasons someone provides for why they left and qualitatively analyzes them as narrative. These studies have been useful for identifying how individuals subjectively and retrospectively understand the process of exit. As congregations are impacted by exit regardless of the underlying motives or reasoning, it is also important to identify objective and temporally prior factors that might affect exit.

Some studies focus on denominational exit, disaffiliation, and mobility or religious switching (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Brinkerhoff and Mackie 1993; Packard and Ferguson 2019; Schwadel 2010; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Vargas 2011). Most people stay in the religious affiliation or denomination they were born into (Bibby 1999; Corcoran 2019; Mueller 1971; Sherkat 2014; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Stark and Glock 1968). If they do leave, they tend to be drawn to religious groups that are similar to the one they left (Hadaway and Marler 1993; Sherkat 2014). Several studies have found that recent generations of Christians are more likely to leave their denomination than prior generations (Kosmin and Keysar 2006; Mead 1991; Wuthnow 1988). Educational and occupational mobility and religious exogamy (e.g., same religion as one’s parents or spouse) are often cited predictors of religious switching (Glenn 1982; Greeley 1988; Montgomery 1996; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Stark and Glock 1968). Numerous studies identify a strong relationship between the religious affiliation of one’s spouse and parents and religious switching (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Corcoran 2019; Iannaccone 1990; Sherkat 1991; Sherkat and Wilson 1995). Congregational switching is captured by denominational and affiliation switching when an individual exits a congregation for a congregation of a different denomination or affiliation or stops attending any congregation (i.e. disaffiliation). Congregational switching within denominations or affiliations is not reflected in the broader religious switching literature. Since most people remain in the religious affiliation of their birth (Bibby 1999; Corcoran 2019; Mueller 1971; Sherkat 2014; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Stark and Glock 1968), religious switching for most people is likely to occur in the context of congregational switching for which there are few studies. Since congregations seek to retain members (Stark and Finke 2000), understanding the factors that affect congregational exit/retention is important for understanding congregational membership dynamics and success.

There are few studies of congregational exit. Gallagher’s (2020) qualitative study of three congregations found that relocating, death, and pastor/program change were the most common reasons for congregational exit. Loss of connecting relationships and doctrinal differences were also identified as reasons for exit in two of the congregations studied. Pastor/program change and loss of connecting relationships highlight how particular congregational characteristics, rather than only denominational or tradition factors can affect exit. Gallagher’s (2020) study, like much of the NRM exit literature, doesn’t seek to specify generalizable theoretical predictions of exit that might cut across religious groups (for exceptions see Abel 2005; Corcoran 2019; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Iannaccone 1990; Scheitle and Dougherty 2010; Stark and Finke 2000). There are two notable exceptions to this—Stein et al. (2020) and Scheitle and Doughtery (2010) The former finds that congregational network cohesion is associated with decreased congregational exit rates and congregational size is associated with increased exit rates. However, this study is on the congregational-level and does not examine individual- or household-level factors associated with congregational exit. Scheitle and Doughtery (2010) is one of the only studies to quantitatively examine congregational retention at the individual-level (see Gallagher 2020 for a notable qualitative study on individual-level congregational exit). They test general hypotheses drawn from organizational ecology theory and find that church members that are a numerical minority in their congregation stay at their congregation for a shorter period of time than church members in the numerical majority.

Given the scarcity of studies on congregational exit, it is not surprising that there are no studies examining congregational exit when it is tied to physical place, that is, religions or religious groups in which attendance at a particular congregation has a geographical proximity requirement, such as the Amish, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and historically Catholics and certain other Protestant denominations, in which leaving the congregation but not leaving the denomination/sect, typically requires physically moving one’s household to another location and is thus costly. We contribute to the scarce literature on congregational exit by drawing on the broader social networks, social movement, religion, and residential mobility literature to theoretically ground our hypotheses and by examining exit from geographically-based congregations.

Social Networks, Recruitment, and Exit

Although social networks have become prevalent in accounting for movement recruitment, the same cannot be said of exit studies, which tend to emphasize psychological and ideological aspects of exit (Kitts 2000). In essence, “actors join movement organizations because of whom they know, but remain active in movements because of ideological and emotional factors” (Kitts 2000: 243). Kitts (2000) proposes that exit studies need similar social network explanations as is found in recruitment research and that the network processes used to explain recruitment may also help explain exit. Social movement literature suggests that social networks are important for recruitment because they provide structures that enable or constrain involvement, encourage participation through a shared identity, or offer social benefits to individuals that participate in the group (Gould 2003; Kitts 2000; McAdam 2003; Passey 2003). This is consistent with sociology of religion studies finding that individuals consider their social ties when making religious choices (Bainbridge 1997; Iannaccone 1988; Sherkat 1997; Stark and Finke 2000). Applying this to exit, in-group ties should encourage one to remain in the congregation by supporting the group identity and/or by providing means for valuable social interactions within the group. This is consistent with research finding that individuals are more likely to remain in their religion/denomination if it is shared by their parents and spouse (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Corcoran 2019; Iannaccone 1990; Sherkat 1991; Sherkat and Wilson 1995) as well as research on NRMs and strict churches finding that family ties influence disaffiliation/exit decisions (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Boeri 2002; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Jacobs 1984; Wright 1986; Wright and Piper 1986).

While these network approaches “consider social influences […], they still frame and empirically analyze these decisions at the individual level” (Faulkner and Dinger 2014: 112). Yet, as Faulkner and Dinger (2014: 112) note, exit decisions are in many ways akin to migration decisions—they are “family-level strategies, which, though rarely democratic include negotiations with and considerations of family members.” This applies both to those who are single, who may consider the opinions of their parents, siblings, and extended family, as well as those who are married and may consider the perspectives of their spouses. As such, we contribute to the literature by examining how familial ties affect whether households exit their congregations.

Geographically-Based Congregations and Congregational Exit

Network studies of social movements and religious groups assume that individuals choose whether to participate in a movement or religion although their choice may be influenced or constrained by their social ties and identity. In the sociology of religion literature, the phrase “church shopping” is often used to describe how individuals in the U.S. will shop around for a church that best satisfies their interests, needs, social ties, and identities and leave and join congregations accordingly. Bruce (2010) found that “half of worshipers (56%) can reach their congregation within 10 min. Yet, one in ten travel for more than 20 min to attend worship.” Eight percent of evangelical Protestants, 9 percent of mainline Protestants, 18.5 percent of Black Protestants, and 5 percent of Catholics commute over 30 min to their congregation (Dougherty and Mulder 2020). Within each of these religious traditions, less than 25 percent commute between 1 and 5 min to their congregation (Dougherty and Mulder 2020). Doughtery and Mulder (2020) theorized that geographic proximity to one’s congregation likely matters less today than historically since adherents are able to commute to their chosen congregation. They find that American church-goers commute longer distances to their congregations now than they did in the past suggesting that congregations are interest-based rather than place-based (Dougherty and Mulder 2020). They note that “while congregations create social capital (Putnam 2001), this congregationally generated social capital is not geographically specific” (Dougherty and Mulder 2020: 40).

Of course, this literature tends not to focus on geographically-based congregations such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, and the Amish in which attendees live within a certain geographical area of the congregation (Diamond 2000; Dougherty and Mulder 2020; McBride 2007; Nolt 2016; Stark and Finke 2000; Stein et al. 2020). Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Amish, in an effort to keep their congregations small, all organize their congregations geographically (i.e., those who live in a certain area must attend the congregation allocated for that area, they cannot choose to commute to another congregation), thus placing limits on who can attend based on where they live (Dougherty and Mulder 2020; McBride 2007; Nolt 2016; Stark and Finke 2000; Stein et al. 2020). They also all split their congregations when they become too large. This is akin to most US public schools in which the school a child attends is determined by where she lives. This is distinct from other types of US congregations in which attendees may live near them but are not required by their denomination to attend a particular congregation. For example, if an individual is Baptist, she can choose to attend any Baptist congregation to which she is willing to commute and may have several local churches from which to choose. In this way, geographically-based congregations limit congregational competition within denominations as what congregation you attend is determined by where you live. This also occurred in the colonial US among Protestant congregations wherein “the established clergy maintained a system of territorial monopolies, dividing the land into geographical units-often called ‘parishes’ and granting each minister exclusive authority over the religious activity in his area” (Finke and Iannaccone 1993: 32; Finke and Stark 2005). Catholic parishes are also geographically defined and historically,Footnote 2 “Catholic parish membership was strictly determined by parish boundaries. If a Catholic wanted to join a parish, he or she had to reside within its boundaries. The reality for most Catholics, therefore, was that they found a place to live, and then became members of the Catholic parish that territorially embraced their place of residence” (Maines and McCallion 2004: 93). Mains and McCallion (2004) find that 57 percent of Catholics in their Detroit sample still attend their home parish. This is similar to Bruce’s (2010) finding that 61 percent of Catholics in the US Congregational Life Survey commute less than 10 min to their congregation and Doughtery and Mulder’s (2020) finding, from the Baylor Religion Survey, that 77 percent of Catholics commute 15 min or less to their congregation. This suggests that many US Catholics may still choose to attend their home parish. Congregations in Orthodox Judaism are also geographically-based in that Sabbath-observant Jews must live within walking distance of the synagogue in order to attend services as they cannot drive or ride in vehicles on the Sabbath (Diamond 2000). For attendees of geographically-based congregations, leaving to attend another congregation in the same denomination requires relocating.Footnote 3 At the same time, relocating also means exiting one’s congregation. Thus, additional factors connected to residential mobility, such as employment, minor children, and proximity to kin, may influence exit from geographically-based congregations.

Individuals and households often consider distance to work when considering where to live with longer distances increasing the likelihood of relocating or changing jobs (Dieleman 2001; Ommeren 2018). Attendees of geographically-based congregations should be more likely to exit their congregation if they commute longer to work as this would increase their likelihood of moving to reduce their commute. Additionally, consistent with the social network approaches, working in the community where one lives should increase the likelihood of developing social ties to co-workers and others in the community, which would serve as a constraint on exiting the community and thus one’s congregation. Being married and having minor children is associated with a decreased likelihood of moving (Fischer and Malmberg 2001; Long 1972; Michielin and Mulder 2008). Parents typically prefer to avoid uprooting their children and the social, emotional, and material costs associated with it. Moreover, local kinship ties reduce residential mobility (Dawkins 2006). Parents and young adult children and low income adult children are less likely to move if they live near each other (Spring et al. 2017). In geographically-based congregations, parents and children who attend the same congregation also necessarily live near each other, which should reduce the likelihood of exiting the congregation. This aligns with the social movement and NRM literature in that familial ties influence exit decisions (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Boeri 2002; Jacobs 1984; Wright 1986; Wright and Piper 1986). This leads to the following hypotheses:

  • Hypothesis 1 Having a parent(s) in one’s congregation will be negatively associated with exiting the congregation.

  • Hypothesis 2 Having adult children in one’s congregation will be negatively associated with exiting the congregation.

  • Hypothesis 3 Having minor children will be negatively associated with exiting the congregation.

  • Hypothesis 4 Working away from one’s congregation will be positively associated with exiting the congregation.

The Amish

The Amish are part of the Anabaptist Christian tradition that started in Europe in the sixteenth century. The Anabaptist group was formed, in part, to create distance between the church and worldly influences. Large groups of Amish relocated to North America in the 1700s in efforts to escape ongoing persecution. The Amish immigrants primarily settled in Berks and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. As the second wave of immigration followed in the early 1800s, Amish groups moved to other parts of Pennsylvania and also expanded their settlements to other parts of the Midwest, including Ohio and Indiana (Nolt 2016). Most of the Amish congregations in the Holmes County settlement are Old Order, which is considered the main body of the Amish church. Disagreements about practices of Sunday school and Bible study in the 1960s led to church divisions and the creation of New Order congregations (Hurst and McConnell 2010).

Amish communities are organized according to settlements. Each settlement is comprised of church districts. Church districts represent a congregation and are defined according to geographical boundaries. Size ranges from one to 200 + congregations within a single settlement. While Amish people primarily interact with others in their congregation, the community is not organized as a commune. Instead, Amish homes and farms are situated among non-Amish homes in rural areas. The size of the congregation is based on two primary factors, the number of families in the congregation and geographical size (Donnermeyer 2015; Hurst and McConnell 2010; Kraybill 2001). The Amish hold church services in the homes of church members. Each family is expected to host at least one service during the year. Because of this, congregation size must be limited as homes have limited capacity. Additionally, the Old Order Amish people are limited by horses and buggies transportation and thus geographical considerations—where houses are located—help determine congregational size. When the congregation grows larger than 30–40 families, it is divided into two congregations. The boundaries for the new congregations are largely based on geographical landmarks such as rivers, streams, roads, or railroads (Long and Moore 2014). Congregations are also intentionally kept small to build strong ties across members (Kraybill 2001).

Amish who leave the congregation tend to do so in one of three ways: moving geographic location, changing affiliation, and disaffiliation. Congregations are defined by geographic boundaries, those who live within the boundaries belong to that congregation. As such, when a family moves location beyond the boundaries of their current congregation, they must join a new congregation. It is generally considered disrespectful for an Amish family to live within the geographical boundaries of one congregation and belong to another congregation (Stein et al. 2020).

Amish people who change affiliations (e.g. from Old Order to New Order) can do so without physically moving locations. The geographical boundaries for congregations overlap by affiliation within settlements. Disaffiliation is uncommon amongst the Amish (Donnermeyer 2015). While some who leave exit the Anabaptist faith entirely, a more common pathway is to leave the Amish and join a Mennonite church, which upholds similar values as the Amish faith but is less strict. Of course, some may leave the Anabaptist faith for another Christian tradition or another religion entirely as well.

Family and Work: Impact on Congregational Exit

The family represents the cornerstone of the Amish community (Kraybill 2001). As such, many major life events happen at home amongst family members, including the birth of babies, marriages, and death. Traditionally, young married couples established homesteads close to their parents, as parents are an integral part of social support (Ericksen et al. 1980; Ericksen and Klein 1981). As the Amish population grows rapidly, with an estimated doubling of their number every 20 years (Donnermeyer 2015), land availability has become a challenge. While living close to family remains the ideal, young marrieds may not be able to find a home close to their parents. Even so, the bonds across family members remain strong and visiting practices often reinforce the family relationships (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al. 2013; Nolt 2016; Stevick 2014). When families attend the same congregation as their parents, we would expect strong bonds across family members to decrease the likelihood of congregational exit.

The importance of family bonds can be seen through the traditional occupation of farming in the Amish community. Farming is the ideal occupation, as it keeps the family together. The husband and wife are able to work the farm together with their children and the family is able to share meals together throughout the day (Hostetler 1993; Nolt 2016). As farming has become less profitable and land more scarce, Amish men are likely to seek employment outside of the home, often in manufacturing, construction, or the service sector (Greksa and Korbin 2002; Lowery and Noble 2000; Meyers 1991, 1994a). These “lunch pail” jobs take men out of the home, disrupting the traditional family structure (Kreps et al. 1994). Amish men who work outside of the home within their own community may work with other men in their congregation. As such, these men maintain congregational ties in the work setting. The daily interactions of these men would also include non-Amish people and Amish men from other church districts. For example, the local brickyard employs a host of Amish and non-Amish men from the community. Working outside of the community, in a neighboring town for example, would reduce the possibility of Amish men working with others from their congregation.

In addition, men who work outside of the home are exposed to non-Amish culture with greater frequency, which can impact traditional Amish values (Kraybill 2001; Kreps et al. 1994; Meyers 1991; Stevick 2014). For example, an Amish man who works outside the home may rely on a driver to take him to work every day. The convenience of travel by car becomes a part of everyday life to and from work, minimizing the inconveniences of horse and buggy travel. A family who regularly relies on a driver for work transportation may be less hesitant to call upon a driver for other sorts of travel (Meyers 1991).

The shift in occupation from farming to wage labor among Amish across settlements has not impacted disaffiliation (Greksa and Korbin 2002; Meyers 1991); however, empirical studies have not examined the impact of changing occupation on congregational exit. Disaffiliation and migration patterns across settlements is most often studied through the father’s occupation; the occupation of the individuals who leave the district is not considered. Furthermore, these studies do not consider how the location of the occupation—whether it is located within or outside the church district, impacts exit.

Data and Methods

Amish Directory Data

Since 1955, the Holmes County Amish settlement has published Amish Directories, like a yellow pages for the Amish community, which provide the name of the head of household (HOH). These directories are released roughly every 5 years in hard copy form. The most recent directory we use is from 2015. Starting in 1981, the directories began publishing more demographic information on the households including the male HOH and his spouse’s birth dates, marriage dates, names and birthdates of children, and parent’s names, and occupation for male HOHs as wives are not employed outside the home. HOHs are almost always male except when a never married woman lives apart from her family, in which case she is recorded as a HOH. Widows are listed in the directory under their late husband’s name. For our data, these widows become the HOH.

Our data come from the Sugarcreek South district in the Holmes County settlement, which was founded in 1808 by one of the first Amish pioneers in the area, making it one of the oldest Old Order Amish congregations in the settlement. The Sugarcreek South district is an ideal case because its demographic composition and growth patterns mirror those of the Holmes’ County Settlement (Colyer et al. 2017). For the 1981 to 2015 directories (i.e., 1981, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015), we entered all household data for the Sugarcreek South congregation into an Excel spreadsheet. There are 76 households that were a part of this congregation at some point in time from 1981 to 2015. Because congregational exit is uncommon in the Amish, we combine all available years of data. Values for our variables are taken from the most recent year of data available (i.e., if a household was in the 1981 through 1996 directories but exited the congregation before 2000, and thus was not recorded in the 2000 directory, we use their 1996 directory data for the independent variables). The 2015 directory is only used to determine if a HOH left the congregation between 2010 and 2015. We do not add new households from the 2015 directory as we do not have a subsequent directory to determine if the new households exited the congregation. There were four cases in which the male HOH died. In these cases, we use the widow’s data as the HOH and record her as unmarried.

Variables

Our dependent variable is whether a household left the congregation at some point between 1981 and 2015 not due to a congregational split (1 = voluntarily exited the congregation; 0 = remained in the congregation). This is measured by whether a household was listed in the South congregation in one of the directories and listed in another congregation in subsequent directories or was not listed in any subsequent directories for any congregation in the settlement. The latter occurred in four cases in which the household left the Holmes County settlement. There are no cases where a household left the congregation and then subsequently returned. In 1996 and 2015, the congregation became too large and approximately half of it split off to form another congregation. For those years, we identified the households that comprised the newly formed congregations and did not classify them as having exited. Thus, for example, if a household was in the 2010, but not the 2015 directory, they were only classified as having exited the congregation if they were not members of the newly formed congregation. This avoids conflating voluntary exit with involuntary exit due to congregational splits. Measuring exit at the household level is consistent with Faulkner and Dinger’s (2014: 112) argument that exit decisions are rarely decided alone; they typically take into consideration family.

All independent variables came from the last directory in which the HOH was listed. This means that the values for the independent variables are temporally prior to when the household exited the congregation. Parent(s) within the congregation was measured by whether the HOH or his spouse had one or more parents in the congregation (1 = has at least one parent in the congregation; 0 = otherwise). Adult children within the congregation was measured by how many adult children the HOH and/or his spouse had in the congregation (i.e., adult children who have their own household in the congregation). Minor children refers to how many minor children live in a HOH’s household. HOH’s occupation was measured by a binary indicator variable—working away from the congregation and one’s home (1 = yes; 0 = no, working at home or retired). The Amish directory only provides occupation data on the HOHs because their spouses do not work. Whether a HOH works away from the congregation was determined by looking at the place of employment or type of employment. Men who work away from the home include those who work at factories, construction, retail, or as a laborer. Men who work at home are farmers or manage cottage industries—small businesses located on the homestead property. We also have data on gender and marital status. HOHs are either married or unmarried. However, gender and marital status are highly correlated because a female can only be the HOH if she is unmarried (i.e., single or a widow). Additionally, there are only two unmarried males in the sample. Thus, there is not sufficient variation in gender and marital status to control for both in the same model. We opted to drop unmarried HOHs from the sample, which necessarily drops female HOHs, thereby restricting our sample to married households (n = 70). It is important to note that when married male HOHs exit the congregation, their families move with them. Thus, our dependent variable captures congregational exit by married households. Our parent(s) and children in the congregation variables capture the characteristics of the household (i.e., both the HOH and his wife), whereas age and occupation reflect the married male HOH. We control for age and the directory year from which the independent variables are derived. Age reflects the HOHs age in years.

Method

As our dependent variable is binary, we use logistic regression to predict congregational exit. Since the data we draw on is a census of all married households within the congregation between 1981 and 2010, all differences between categories of the variables reflect real differences and tests of statistical significanceFootnote 4 are inappropriate and unnecessary. Instead, we report and interpret unstandardized coefficients, odds ratios, and predicted probabilities with all other variables set to their means, which allow us to assess whether the differences are substantially meaningful.

Results

Table 1 provides descriptive statistics for all the variables and Table 2 provides their correlation coefficients. Looking at Table 1, we can see that about 21 percent of the households (n = 16) exited the congregation. The average age of the HOH is approximately 48 years old with the youngest HOH being 21 and the oldest 90 years old. Thirty-six percent of the households have a parent(s) in the congregation (n = 26). The average number of adult children a household has in the congregation is 0.4. This is because 74 percent of the households have zero children in the same congregation, 17 percent have 1 child, 8 percent have 2 children, and 1 percent have 3. The average number of minor children is 1.32 with a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 5.

Table 1 Descriptive statistics
Table 2 Correlations

Table 2 displays the correlation table for the variables. Age has the largest correlation with congregational exit having a moderate negative correlation (− 0.257). After age, number of adult children in the congregation and working away from the district have the next largest correlations, − 0.247 and 0.21 respectively. Having parents in the congregation is negatively correlated with congregational exit (− 0.171). These correlations are in the hypothesized directions. Number of minor children is negatively correlated with number of adult children in the congregation (− 0.370); as parents may tend to have children close together it makes sense that those with a greater number of minor children would have fewer adult children and vice versa. Number of minor children is positively correlated with having parents in the congregation at 0.416, which is consistent with the tendency among the Amish to move near family after the birth of children (Kraybill 2001).

Table 3 provides the logistic regression results for the independent and control variables predicting congregational exit. Model 1 is the base model with age and directory year, the two control variables. Looking at the odds ratios for age and directory year—a one year increase in age is associated with a decrease in the odds of exiting by 4 percent and a one unit increase in directory year, is associated with a decrease in the odds of exit by 3 percent. The base model explains approximately 8 percent of the variation in exit (pseudo r-squared of 0.08). Model 2 adds the predictor variables to the model except number of minor children, which we add separately due to its correlation with number of adult children and having parents in the congregation. Figure 1 presents the predicted probabilities from Model 2. Consistent with H1 and H2, number of adult children and having parent(s) in the congregation are associated with a decreased likelihood of exiting by approximately 76 and 91 percent respectively. The predicted probability of exit for households with a parent(s) in the congregation is 3 percent compared to 23 percent for households without a parent in the congregation. For households with no adult children in the congregation, the predicted probability of exit is 26 percent, which decreases with more adult children in the congregation, reducing to 1 percent for households with 3 or more adult children in the congregation. Households with HOHs who work away from the congregation/home are roughly 5 times more likely to exit the congregation than those who work at or near the congregation/home or who are retired. This is the largest association in the model and is consistent with H4. For HOHs who work away from home, the predicted probability of their household exiting is 26 percent compared to 7 percent for those who work near home or are retired. Model 3 adds number of minor children to the model, which is only weakly associated with exit and does not alter the relationships between the other variables and exit.Footnote 5 This fails to support Hypothesis 3.

Table 3 Logistic Regression Results Predicting Congregational Exit (SE)
Fig. 1
figure1

Predicted probabilities for congregational exit from Model 2

Discussion

There is almost no research on congregational retention/exit (Gallagher 2020; Scheitle and Dougherty 2010; Stein et al. 2020). We know a decent amount about why people join religious groups as well as factors that affect religious switching and (dis)affiliation, but little on what factors affect exiting a congregation. This study is one of the few to examine congregational exit. Drawing on social network studies of recruitment to groups and residential mobility research, this paper proposed and tested several hypotheses regarding the relationship between having minor children, congregational familial ties, and employment location on the likelihood of congregational exit in the context of an Amish congregation. We found support for all but one of our hypotheses. This provides evidence of the importance of social ties and employment location for membership retention in geographically-based congregations.

Religious switching and disaffiliation studies typically draw on cross-sectional or retrospective survey or interview data. As Snow and colleagues (Snow and Machalek 1984; Snow and Phillips 1980; Snow et al. 1980) identified, retrospective accounts of joining or converting to a religious movement often suffer from “biographical reconstruction” in which the convert reconstructs their past and the reasons why they joined based upon their socialization into the group. This not only happens with conversion accounts but exit ones as well (Wright 1984), which is why they are now referred to as ‘narratives.’ Recent research treats them as such, rather than as objective accounts of the factors affecting joining/exiting. The current study contributes to the literature by using longitudinal archival data that is not subject to retrospective accounts as all independent variables were taken from the directory immediately prior to the household exiting. In this way, we were able to identify objective factors that are associated with an increased likelihood of congregational exit that can be further tested with data from other religious groups.

Previous research on religious switching emphasizes that parental and spousal religious homogamy decreases switching and disaffiliation (Corcoran 2019; Glenn 1982; Greeley 1988; Sherkat 1991; Sherkat and Wilson 1995). Studies on NRMs and strict churches also indicate the influence of family on disaffiliation decisions (Boeri 2002; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Jacobs 1984; Wright 1986; Wright and Piper 1986), but whether they affect decisions regarding congregational exit has received less attention. We find that having parents and adult children in one’s congregation decreases the likelihood of congregational exit. On the other hand, number of minor children, net of the other variables, is only weakly associated with the likelihood of exit. This may be because some Amish congregations share schools, so moving to another congregation does not necessarily mean that the children would have to switch schools (McConnell and Hurst 2006), which is often a consideration when the non-Amish consider moving with children (Long 1972).

Prior research on employment and social movement participation specifically focuses on biographical availability, that is, if you work, you have less time to participate in the movement and thus are less likely to join (Kitts 1999; McAdam 1986). Research has not examined whether working near where a social movement organization or congregation is located affects the likelihood of joining or exiting. In this study, we suggest that working in or near where one’s congregation is located increases the likelihood of social interactions with others in the congregation, particularly for geographically-based congregations, and reduces the transaction costs of work (e.g., commute times), increasing the likelihood that one will remain in one’s occupation and thus one’s congregation. Future research would benefit from examining this in the context of other congregations with and without geographical restraints.

This study also contributes to the literature by examining exit from geographically-based congregations. The geographical restraints on attendance in these congregations has been overlooked in membership studies. We demonstrate the relevance of residential mobility research for theorizing exit from geographically-based congregations in that the same factors that affect relocation—children, kinship ties, and employment—likely also affect exit. Our results suggest support for this. These results may be applicable beyond geographically-based congregations as one study finds that relocating is a common reason for congregational exit (Gallagher 2020). Additionally, studies of geographically-based congregations may also benefit research on residential mobility. Mobility studies have found that the more embedded and settled families are the less likely they are to move (Dawkins 2006; Fischer and Malmberg 2001; Spring et al. 2017). Geographically-based congregations may serve to embed and settle families into their communities making them less likely to exit their congregation and thus less likely to relocate. Finally, geographically-based congregations reduce congregational competition within denominations by placing implicit or explicit geographical restrictions on attendance. As Maines and McCallion (2004: 93) note regarding Catholic parishes historically: “religion, parish, and neighborhood melded together into local parish identity and patterns of affiliation.” This description is applicable beyond historical Catholic parishes to geographically-based congregations more broadly. What implications does this have for membership rates, congregational foundings and foldings, congregational and denominational switching, member commitment, and congregational and neighborhood identity? More research is needed on geographically-based congregations particularly in comparison to congregations that are not geographically-based.

The results of this study also have important implications for research on the Amish. Studies on the Amish routinely report on the importance of family and promote the Amish as a highly cohesive group (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill 2001) which is responsible for retention and growth (Colyer et al. 2017; Donnermeyer 2015); however, none have looked at intra-congregational familial network ties and how they relate to retention, or conversely, exit. This study is the first to examine familial ties within an Amish congregation to show how they affect congregational exit rates. The results indicate having adult children and parents in the congregation decreases the likelihood of congregational exit, emphasizing the role of the family in the Amish community (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill 2001; Nolt 2016).

The relationship between occupation and exit varies across settlements; however, studies have focused on how the head of households’ occupation impacts disaffiliation and migration of the children across settlements (Greksa and Korbin 2002; Meyers 1991, 1994b). Movement out of the congregation within the same settlement is not considered. The results from our study contribute to this literature by tracking families as they exit congregations and considers how the location of the occupation of the head of household impacts exit. Amish married households who’s HOHs works in or near their congregation are less likely to leave. While this may be due, in part, to the increased opportunities for social interaction amongst members of the congregation, we must also consider the potential impact of transportation limitations on decisions to exit. Amish men who commute to work outside of the community are likely to pay a driver to take them to and from work every day due to religious restrictions on travel. Alternatively, they might ride a bike to work. The cost of commuting can be a strain on the family unit, which is mitigated if the family moves closer to the job site.

This study has some limitations. First, we only have data on one Amish congregation. Manually entering data from the hardcopy format of the directories to an electronic format, cleaning it, and analyzing it took several years. It is no different from small-scale studies of exit from NRMs except that those are drawn from convenience samples with retrospective data whereas our data represents a longitudinal census of married households in the congregation(Boeri 2002; Jacobs 1984, 1987; Wright 1984, 1991; Wright and Piper 1986). Case studies are important for advancing both theory and our knowledge of religious communities by allowing for the collection of more detailed and rich data. Focusing on one congregation, allowed us to use longitudinal archival data that does not suffer from the same limitations of past cross-sectional, retrospective exit studies. Moreover, the Sugarcreek South congregation was selected because its growth patterns and demography are consistent with those for the Holmes’ County Settlement (Colyer et al. 2017). As the Amish are an ethno-religious group requiring endogenous marriage and strong ties to the community, we would expect similar findings among Orthodox Jews who share these characteristics and are also geographically-based. However, we expect that the findings may also be applicable to other geographically-based congregations, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and historically, to members of Protestants denominations in the colonial US that restricted membership by geographical territory as well as Catholics prior to the 1980s. The findings could also be applicable to congregations more broadly. For example, Gallagher (2020) found that relocating was one of the most common reasons for congregational exit in a study of three Christian congregations (i.e., Baptist, Presbyterian, and Eastern Orthodox). This suggests that factors associated with moving may also affect exit in congregations that are not geographically-based. Moreover, the Amish are an example of a strict or higher tension church (Iannaccone 1994; Stark and Finke 2000) as such, exiting an Amish congregation is costly; one has to either leave one’s affiliation, physically move to another location, or disaffiliate from the religion. If the factors we have identified affect exit in the Amish, they may very well affect exit in congregations where it is less costly, where individuals and households are more freely able to exit based upon their preferences and circumstances. Second, we do not know the reasons why households or individuals exit. The reasons could be purely religious, secular,Footnote 6 or both yet the consequence to the congregation—losing members and their resources—remains the same. The advantage of our data is that it does not suffer from retrospective accounts; at the same time, the disadvantage is that we then cannot capture the narrative reasons regarding exit. However, our findings complement retrospective qualitative and quantitative studies finding that family affect disaffiliation decisions (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Boeri 2002; Faulkner and Dinger 2014; Sherkat 1991; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Wright 1986; Wright and Piper 1986). We can say that having parents/adult children in the congregation and location of occupation are associated with congregational retention/exit for married households in our data; future research is needed to determine if these factors are more or less related to certain types or reasons for exit. In this way, the results can inform future qualitative studies of motivations for exit by providing additional themes that can be explored. Third, we focus on familial ties as has much of the prior literature on religious switching and exiting NRMs (Bahr and Albrecht 1989; Boeri 2002; Sherkat 1991; Sherkat and Wilson 1995; Wright 1986; Wright and Piper 1986). As the Amish community revolves around and is founded on family ties, it is an appropriate social tie to examine in the context of our study. Future research would benefit from examining a variety of types of ties including friendship ties and comparing their relative influence on exit. Additionally, given the low prevalence of unmarried Amish households in our data and the strong correlation between gender and marital status (i.e., women can only be HOHs if they are unmarried), we had to drop all unmarried households from our analyses. Thus, we do not know if the factors that are associated with congregational exit for married households are generalizable to unmarried households and those headed by unmarried women. A young unmarried person who leaves the Amish before getting baptized is characterized as “leaving the Amish”, but those who are not baptized are not considered members of the Amish congregation. The consequences for leaving the Amish as a member can include shunning or excommunication, while leaving the Amish as a non-member carries no such consequences (Nolt 2016). We focus on members who leave in the current study. Finally, since motivations for disaffiliation may be gendered (Faulkner 2018; Faulkner and Dinger 2014), gender may also affect decisions to exit one’s congregation. This remains an area for future research.

Conclusions and Implications

This study is one of the first to use household-level data to quantitatively examine factors that affect congregational exit. We found support for our hypotheses that having parents/adult children in one’s congregation and location of employment are associated with congregational exit. Given this, congregations may be able to increase membership retention by creating multigenerational ministries that encourage families and extended families to attend the same congregation. Moreover, if the findings are generalizable, it would suggest that congregations should advertise themselves to employees at nearby businesses who might be especially likely to join and remain in the congregation. This study is also one of the first to consider how the geographical basis of membership within certain types of congregations has implications for membership retention. Geographically-based congregations, by creating overlapping membership between neighborhoods and congregations, may decrease residential mobility and congregational exit. Still, more research is needed on congregational exit and geographically-based congregations.

These findings also have implications for research on the Amish. While researchers note there has been a shift from traditional farming occupations to occupations outside of the home (Kreps et al. 1994), there is a lack of research on how this shift impacts the community. Our research indicates the location of outside employment is indeed an important consideration in terms of congregational exit. This may have long term consequences for the stability of Amish communities, as more occupations shift to outside the home and require travel away from the community.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Gallagher (2020: 2) notes this as a “methodological challenge”, since “denominations, to the extent that they keep records at all, generally aggregate membership at the level of net change, rather than track the movement of individuals”.

  2. 2.

    By historically, we mean prior to 1983 when the Code of Canon Law extended the definition of parish beyond that of territory (Maines and McCallion 2004: 93).

  3. 3.

    The exception to this would be if there were two Orthodox synagogues in close proximity to each other.

  4. 4.

    Tests of statistical significance are used for random samples in order to determine if the results for a sample can be generalized to the population from which the sample was derived at a certain level of confidence. Because a census includes every member of a population, it is not a sample and does not require tests of statistical significance. Instead, this congregation represents a case-study that we use to test our hypotheses.

  5. 5.

    We also estimated an interaction term between age and number of minor children to determine if being an older parent was associated with exit. The interaction term was not associated with the likelihood of exit (results not shown but available upon request).

  6. 6.

    Factors that seem like they would be due to purely secular reasons may be closely connected to religious ones. For example, the positive association between work location and exit is likely at least in part due to longer commute times. For the Amish, a longer commute is not just a secular consideration; commute times are longer because of their religious restrictions on travel. Traveling by horse and buggy increases commute times on its own. Additionally, it may not be possible to take a horse and buggy to one’s work location. This leaves them to either pay a driver or ride a bike down potentially dangerous roads regardless of the weather. Moreover, for the Amish, moving to live closer to family likely also means joining the same congregation as them and thus, what may seem like a purely secular reason (i.e., family ties) may also be intertwined with a religious reason.

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Corcoran, K.E., Stein, R.E., Colyer, C.J. et al. Familial Ties, Location of Occupation, and Congregational Exit in Geographically-Based Congregations: A Case Study of the Amish. Rev Relig Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-020-00438-7

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Keywords

  • Congregations
  • Exit
  • Amish
  • Social networks
  • Geography
  • Residential mobility