Counsel Meeting (Inquiry Meeting or Examination Meeting), the name given in the Mennonite (MC) and Amish Mennonite churches of North America to the meeting of the congregation held prior to the communion service to determine whether the membership is ready to proceed with the service. In the Old Order Amish group the service is called Ordnungsgemeinde. It is to be distinguished from the Preparatory Service, which was held in some Mennonite (MC) congregations on a weekday afternoon (Saturday) or evening or on the preceding Sunday morning to help the participants to be spiritually prepared for the communion.
Although there is some variation in the details of the procedure, the intent of the counsel meeting is always the same. After an appropriate sermon the bishop either reads the entire conference discipline and current regulations or, in case of the Amish, reads the particular items of conduct which are subject to discipline (Abstellungen) or currently at issue, taking the liberty as he sees fit to admonish the congregation or discuss any particular weakness or shortcoming he has observed. He then, with the assistance of the other ministers, "takes the counsel" of the congregation to determine whether the members are "at peace with God, with fellow men, and with the church" and are willing to proceed with the appointed communion service. In the Old Order Amish and more conservative Amish Mennonite congregations the bishop, with the deacon, proceeds down the aisle from bench to bench, asking each individual member to indicate either by a nod of the head or an audible "yes" to confess peace and readiness. If any member wishes he may raise concerns and objections on the spot and discuss them with the bishop. Sometimes the bishop appoints two ministers to take the counsel. The Amish counsel meeting sermon is always based on Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, both chapters being read entire before the sermon.
Among the Mennonite (MC) congregations the procedure varied slightly. Historically in the Franconia Conference the bishop with the preachers and deacons took seats in the "amen corner" (alternately on the men's side and the women's side) or immediately in front of the pulpit at the center aisle where they remained seated while the members filed past one by one and shook hands with each of the ordained men in order of seniority, beginning with the bishop, but speaking no word. In the Lancaster Mennonite Conference the bishop with the preachers and deacons retired to the anteroom (or into two anterooms depending upon the size of the congregation), where they awaited seated the entrance of the members in groups of 20-25 (large enough to fill the anteroom), to whom they addressed the questions regarding peace and readiness, which are to be audibly answered, but added a further question, "Are you satisfied with the housekeeping of the congregation?" This question gave opportunity to the members to comment on or criticize the manner in which the bishop and ministers had been handling the discipline of the congregation or to criticize the state of the congregation in general. In the other Mennonite conferences it was formerly quite customary to invite the members to come to the anteroom singly or by families to "give counsel" and express peace. By the 1950s and 1960s the above lengthy and often tedious procedure (occasionally lengthened unduly by a critical member who occupied much time in the anteroom) was generally abandoned and instead a rising vote was taken of the congregation at the conclusion of the counsel meeting sermon. In some cases the meeting took on the character of a testimony meeting with members rising at their seats one after the other to express peace with God and men. By the end of the 20th century the "counsel meeting" had disappeared from almost all Mennonite Church (MC) congregations.
The practice of having members vote on "peace" and "readiness" was a very real part of democratic church government and participation of the laity. It was actually possible, though it seldom happened, that the members could block a communion service and compel the bishop to pay attention to their concerns and criticisms. They could also review the "housekeeping" of the bishop and the ministers, who in effect submit themselves to the critique of the laity. The shift to a more or less routine mass vote, with no privilege of discussion, in effect canceled out a part of the lay participation.
The entire counsel meeting concept and procedure has deep roots in tradition and undoubtedly goes back to the very beginning of the Anabaptist movement. Similar practices were formerly common among the Dutch, German, Swiss, Russian, and Hutterite groups and are still maintained in the more conservative bodies such as the Old Colony, Kleine Gemeinde, and Church of God in Christ. The third article of the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 clearly implies that unity in the congregation is a necessary prerequisite to participation in the communion. Only a close communion practice with strict discipline of course could logically require the above preliminary counsel meeting, but all Anabaptist and Mennonite groups officially practiced both close communion and strict group discipline.
In the Badischer Verband the counsel meeting (Umfrage) is still regularly held preceding each communion service, although the practice of questioning each member privately in the anteroom was discontinued in 1907.
There is a divergence in the exact name and significance of the counsel meeting. Some prefer to call it council meeting, meaning a meeting of the congregation in council. The Mennonite Church Polity (MC) used the term "council meeting."
In the other larger North American Mennonite branches both the counsel meeting and Preparatory Service are practically unknown. However, in the Eastern District, as well as the Swiss churches of the General Conference (GCM) counsel meeting was formerly held but died out in the first half of the 20th century, but in the 1950s a Preparatory Service was still held on the Sunday preceding communion. In the Mennonite Brethren Church' the announcement of the communion service, usually made several weeks in advance, was accompanied by an admonition to self-examination and reconciliation of any outstanding disputes among the brethren. A preparatory sermon was sometimes preached on the Sunday preceding communion.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 723-724. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "Counsel Meeting." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C686.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1953). Counsel Meeting. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C686.html.