Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA6

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Extension in Religious Communities

In working with any religious community, Extension educators can be more successful if they understand the doctrines of those they wish to teach. The more we know about the doctrine and its effects on lifestyle, the more effectively we can interact with clientele. In an effort to provide access to education to all citizens, Extension educators must be able to adapt to diverse audiences, including those from religious communities.

Barbara H. Drake
Home Economics Agent
Cooperative Extension Service,
Ohio State University, Geauga County, Burton, Ohio

Randall E. James
Agriculture & CNRD Agent
Cooperative Extension Service
Ohio State University, Geauga County, Burton, Ohio

Extension usually teaches clientele to use the latest technology in solving problems. Yet, throughout the country, agents work with groups whose religious doctrines don't allow them to use Extension's information as presented to a general audience.

Understanding sociocultural systems helps adult educators be effective.1 This is especially true in communities where much of the lifestyle is governed by religious doctrine and rules. In such communities, the agent may have easier access to sociocultural understanding than is ordinarily available. The educator can sometimes read the doctrine or ask specific questions about the church's rules and the resulting lifestyle.

Once the educator has some understanding of the religious influences, the next challenge is to structure the educational information to be compatible with the doctrine and community.2 Programs tailored to recognize established religious doctrines allow these groups to apply information within the context of their lives.

Geauga County, Ohio, has several religious communities. This article provides case studies of how Extension information was adapted to the religious doctrine and culture of two very different groups of clientele: an order of Catholic nuns and Amish farmers.

A Change of Habit

The Sisters of Notre Dame is a large international Catholic religious community whose provincial education center, or Mother House, is located in Geauga County, Ohio. The sisters frequently participate in Extension educational programs. Their large gardens and orchard bring them in contact with Extension horticultural and food preservation programs. They also have participated enthusiastically in classes on nutrition and personal communication. It wasn't a surprise when they asked Extension to help them in making an important transition.

The sisters were soon to have the option of wearing secular clothing in their ministry and their personal lives. Regulations about change of dress, along with other doctrinal changes of the order are made by the General Council of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Rome. While awaiting the final decision from this council on dress code changes, the sisters asked Extension to teach them about clothing selection and care.

The Catholic Church has traditionally used vestments to promote organizational and spiritual goals. Symbolism related to holiness, cleanliness, simplicity, and purity are reflected in the traditional habit of nuns.3 Though lay clothing was going to be permitted by the order, it still needed to reflect the values of the religious community. No prints would be allowed and colors were restricted to black, white, and gray. Though the sisters could wear fashion accessories and a variety of styles in their casual wear, in their ministry they would wear simple, modest suits, dresses, and skirts and blouses and a cross on a silver chain.

Extension's challenge was to structure the teaching to respect and adhere to the doctrine of the order, while presenting material based on research about color and style selection for adult women. Many of the sisters were in their mid-fifties and had never shopped for clothing as adults. The community laundry had always cared for their habits. Now, they'd be individually shopping and caring for their secular wardrobes.

Four, two-hour educational meetings were conducted. Because of the dress restrictions, some slide sets and videos normally used weren't appropriate. Instead, live models were used to demonstrate clothing selection principles. Eighteen sisters, ranging in age from early twenties to mid-eighties, modeled garments from the wardrobes of others, thrift stores, and those borrowed from a local department store. Clothing care, fit, proportions, consumer skills, and the social-psychological aspects of clothing were discussed while the garments were being modeled.

A nun's habit represents her religious dedication and influences how laypeople respond to her.4 In making the transition from habit to secular clothing, religious identity became an issue. A two-hour segment of the training was dedicated to discussing image and dressing, which helped each sister work through her feelings about the choice to change, deciding if she wished to adopt secular clothing, and helping her make decisions about clothes she was comfortable wearing.

Content was also adapted to the audience in teaching clothing color and style. It became very detailed: Which "shade" of white was most flattering around the face? Which jacket length was most flattering to individual figures? Which style was flattering to younger sisters, yet fit within their acceptable dress rules?

After educational meetings and seminars were completed, Extension wanted to determine if, despite the restrictions on the information presented, the sisters' attitudes toward dress changed and if any learning had taken place. A pre- and post- evaluation were conducted. There was a positive change in attitude among the sisters in comfort with the change in dress and confidence in shopping. Ninety-five percent of those attending all four classes said they'd use the information, learned new information, were motivated to work on their wardrobes, would improve their wardrobes using skills learned, and would share information with others. All of those who attended all four classes improved their knowledge on the post- test. The pre-test mean was 66%, the post-test mean was 94%.

The Amish Way

Geauga County also has a large, old-order Amish community. The Amish faith traces its origins back to the 1690s when a group of Swiss Anabaptists followed the teachings of a religious leader named Jacob Ammann.5 The Amish avoid many modern conveniences and have a strong desire to keep their community separate and distinct from the outside world. Farming is encouraged and considered the most desirable occupation. Amish don't own cars, but drive a horse and buggy. They don't use electricity in the home or farm, and rarely have telephones. Modesty of appearance is expected. Men wear black or blue outer coats and pants, solid colored or white shirts, and broad brimmed felt or straw hats. Women wear simple shirtwaist style dresses, which are pinned rather than buttoned, and pleated white organdy caps.

Geauga County works closely with the Amish community. To provide effective Extension programming, agents must be aware and respectful of the religious rules of the community. Most old- order Amish observe about 15 major doctrinal points, with some variation between areas and church districts.6

This county has about 40 Amish church districts of about 30 to 50 families each. Each church district operates not only under church doctrine, but also under its own "ordnung." The ordnung is a group of rules that covers everyday customs, such as whether a farm is allowed to use a hay baling machine, a milking machine for the dairy, or a battery-powered fence charger. An effective Extension program for Amish farmers must be sensitive to both the written doctrine common to the entire community and also to the more subtle ordnung.

In 1991, many Amish dairy farmers were interested in improving pasture management. Current technology for improved pasture management uses movable electric or barbed wire fences. The non-electric barbed wire method is somewhat less effective. None of the farms that were to receive information would have electricity available from the street. The ordnung of some church districts allows battery-powered electric fence chargers, while the ordnung of other districts prohibits them.

The solution was to plan a field day on a farm operating under the more restrictive ordnung, one that doesn't allow electric fences. Pasture management was demonstrated using barbed wire. Without making specific reference to the differences in the ordnung, examples were shown on how a pasture might also be divided with electric fence. By using this educational method, all of the participants could apply management techniques with or without electric fence chargers.

In another example, about 80 people (mainly Amish) participated in an Extension home pork processing school. Extension wasn't promoting home pork slaughtering and processing, but was recognizing that home butchering was part of the Amish lifestyle. Therefore, Extension provided instruction on how to safely process pork using demonstrations on humane killing, meat cutting, sausage and scrapple making, and meat canning. The demonstrations took place using simple non-electric kitchen and barn equipment. Results of the school were documented by surveying participants six months after the event. In addition to favorable comments on the educational value, more than 75 hogs had been slaughtered and processed using techniques learned at the school.


In working with any religious community, Extension educators can be more successful if they understand the doctrines of those they wish to teach. The more we know about the doctrine and its effects on lifestyle, the more effectively we can interact with clientele.

In an effort to provide access to education to all citizens, Extension educators must be able to adapt to diverse audiences, including those from religious communities.


1. E. J. Boone, Developing Programs in Adult Education (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985).

2. E. M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: The Free Press, 1983).

3. S. B. Kaiser, The Social Psychology of Clothing (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990).

4. T. J. Long, "Influences of Uniform and Religious Status of the Interviewees," Journal of Counseling Psychology, XXV (September 1978), 405-409.

5. J. A. Hostetler, Amish Society (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980).

6. T. L. Newcomb, "Perspectives on Amish and Conservative Mennonite Culture and Education" (Master's thesis, Lesley College Graduate School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983).