A cooperative spirit lends a helping hand to the Amish community

It is not uncommon for credit unions that serve Amish members to have hitching posts. Photo credit: GPO FCU.

While credit unions are known for their cooperative spirit, it should come as no surprise that many of them serve another group known for their own cooperative nature — the Amish.

From the western reaches of New York state to its central core, and north to the banks of the St. Lawrence River and Canadian border, credit union leaders recently shared the challenges and opportunities they face serving a population that they have come to embrace, yet others may not completely understand.

There are some notable parallels between the credit union philosophy and the Amish community’s values, the leaders said. “Community,” said Eric McDowell, VP of member experience at UFirst FCU in Plattsburgh. “They want to help people in their community and see their community flourish. I think that is why we can have a nice relationship with them.”

“They share,” said Todd Mashaw, president/CEO of St. Lawrence FCU in Ogdensburg. “You can tell they help each other out, even if they compete with each other in the trade they get their livelihood from.”

Most Amish members generally don’t use credit cards or services such as online banking or bill pay, but it’s not uncommon for members of the Amish community to visit branches, take out loans, make payments and conduct other types of transactions. However, they may show up at the branch in a horse and buggy, get a ride from a neighbor, or even arrive in their own car — just driven by someone who is “English,” in other words, not Amish.

Amish communities around the state vary greatly as to their conservativeness and progressiveness and how or whether they adapt to modern technologies — generally determined their community’s church elders — making each credit union’s relationship with their Amish members unique ones.

Unique considerations, opportunities
New York state is home to a growing Amish population of about 17,000 — the fifth largest Amish population in the United States, according the website Amish America. This creates both unique considerations and opportunities for the credit unions that serve Amish communities. For example, for those credit unions with hitching posts, whose turn is it scoop the horse manure?

“Of course when you have a hitching post you have a bucket and a shovel,” said John Felton, CEO of Southern Chautauqua FCU, regarding the credit union’s Cherry Creek and Clymer locations. “We all pitch in, we all have done it — it’s actually kind of normal.”

Also unique, yet challenging, is the fact that many individuals in the Amish community don’t have Social Security numbers or photo IDs, due to their religious beliefs.

Amish individuals may receive an exemption from Social Security, signing away the right to receive Social Security benefits in the process, according to Amish America. The Amish were granted the exemption from participation in Social Security in recognition of the fact that Amish communities care for their old and infirm, in addition to the fact that the Amish also consider programs such as Social Security to be insurance programs, which contradict Amish beliefs against participating in commercial insurance.

“I tried really hard in 2015 and 2016 to get some kind of relationship with Amish community going and had some limited success,” said Ibrahim Kajtezovic, branch manager at GPO FCU, regarding the Barneveld and Dolgeville branches that sees the most Amish members. “We were able to open accounts without SSNs until June, 2018, and at that point we were told not to open those accounts for Amish members who don’t have SSNs anymore.”

Since the requirement took effect, Kajtezovic said he has had to turn away prospective Amish members, but wishes he could find a way that to work with them. “I believe that at one point we should re-visit Amish banking and lending,” he said.

“As a community chartered credit union we look for ways to assist diverse local needs, and we pride ourselves on our flexibility to financially support those around us. We try to make any accommodations we can to help build relationships within the communities we serve,” said Nicholas Mayhew, president/CEO of GPO FCU.

Mashaw said that he faces the same challenges, having done plenty of research, without much luck, to find possible ways around the SSN rule. When he arrived at St. Lawrence FCU in 2005, he said that Amish members were coming in “left and right” and staff used a notebook to track their identification information. Those Amish members without SSNs who were members prior to the SSN were grandfathered in, he said, but like Kajtezovic, he wishes there were a way around the rule so that he could assist more Amish.

McDowell said the biggest challenge his credit union faces is staff are not allowed to store any of their Amish members’ records electronically. “They don’t want anything imaged,” McDowell said, explaining any records they do maintain are kept in a fireproof safe. He also said it’s a challenge from the mortgage aspect as well, because the Amish in his community do not allow photos to be taken inside their homes. The Amish generally believe that photos promote individualism and vanity and take from the value of community.

As for the types of accounts the Amish utilize, Kajtezovic explained that most are personal, joint accounts with a spouse. He said there is a limited number of business accounts, with most business conducted through their personal accounts. There also is limited use of debit cards, with cash transactions and checks generally the most common way to conduct transactions.

“And surprisingly, a lot of banking is done by ladies — I guess one of misconceptions I had that it was ‘the man’ who is in charge of finances, but I was obviously wrong,” Kajtezovic quipped.

Rapport
All of the leaders said they have nothing but good rapport with their Amish members, with few, or any issues. “They are honest, no issues of delinquency and loans are always paid off early,” McDowell said. “We set strong expectations, but they know we will work with them.”

Felton did recall one issue with an Amish member’s loan, but said it was handled expeditiously. “They always communicate with us, and in one case a loan got behind,” he said. “The church leaders got together and offered a settlement, and the community did come together.”

It’s that communication that is key, Felton explained, saying that some of his credit union’s Amish members feel comfortable enough to call the credit union on a regular basis — and at any time of day. “We have kind of standing joke,” Felton said. “Teena, our COO, we kid her all the time because her number is on the wall (no, her number isn’t 867-5309) in one of our Amish member’s barn.”

Mashaw agreed, saying that he sometimes jokes or lightheartedly says something off the cuff, just to elicit a laugh, which he usually succeeds at.

The pandemic
The leaders agreed that it did not appear that the pandemic adversely affected their Amish members’ banking, but they did make temporary changes in an effort to continue to meet members’ needs. While not all branches officially closed, most drive-thrus remained open.

“They still came around, on their horses and buggies,” said Mashaw, while McDowell said he went out to the parking lot to assist Amish members on more than one occasion.

And to handle the foot traffic, GPO FCU temporarily allowed walk up to the drive thru, “so the Amish community really did not have any issues with their banking needs,” said Kajtezovic.

While credit unions are known for their people-helping people philosophy, serving Amish members’ needs, including during the pandemic, demonstrates their ability to pivot when needed. And it comes as no surprise that credit unions have their communities’ best interests at heart and provide members with a safe place to grow savings, conduct financial transactions and help them establish and maintain financial well-being — no matter who they are or whether they drive a Toyota or a horse and buggy to the branch.

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