The Baha'i faith has no ministers, priests, imams, rabbis, or any other form of clergy. So, let me explain how Baha'is organize themselves administratively.

Each Baha'í community conducts its own religious services, and an elected council carries out key functions of the clergy. First among these is the teaching of religious doctrine. From childhood, both girls and boys in every Baha'i community all around the world must learn to read and write. Each person studies the holy texts for personal education, communal learning, and to pass on the religious themes and messages to others. The operating principle for acquiring knowledge, including religious truth, is “the independent investigation of reality.”

This learning is now possible in an age of nearly ubiquitous reading — and is a logical step in the development of humanity. Previously, the other world religions appeared before widespread literacy: Hinduism, 2500 BCE (before the common era); Judaism, 1000 BCE; Buddhism, 644 BCE; Christianity, at the dawn of the common era (CE), 2016 years ago; and Islam in 610 CE. These religions addressed largely illiterate populations through oral traditions and teachings that were only written down much later.

By the 1500s, when the printing press catalyzed the written word to spread across Europe, mass communication emerged. Literacy democratized society. Literacy eroded hierarchies and led to the rise of the middle class. Society and religion were forever changed. Baha'is must read and interpret religious truth for themselves.

How, then, do Baha'is attend to their spiritual life — a second function of clergy— and organize and administer a religious community? First is the establishment of a spiritual assembly. This group of nine women and men is elected annually by each adult member of the faith community either directly, in the case of local elections, or by a staggered set of representatives, organized from specific to general: from the local town (in which every adult Baha'i votes), to the region (local councils elect), nation (population-based representatives are the electors of each national assembly), and globe (national Baha'i assembly members are the electors of the Universal House of Justice). Whether in Corvallis, Nairobi, Hanoi, Medford, Kampala, or Lausanne, Switzerland, Baha'is choose their leaders. (Swiss Baha'i women had participated in Baha'i elections long before their country granted women suffrage in 1971.)

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In the U.S., every 21-year-old Baha'i is eligible to vote. In case of a tie between a majority ethnic group member — in the U.S., a Euro-American — and a minority group member, the minority person is automatically declared the winner.

Following their election, assembly members elect officers — the standard group of elected officials: chair, vice-chair, secretary, and treasurer. The treasurer disburses funds from the annual membership contribution. Any monies donated by non-Baha'is are given to charities.

Governing is similar whether in the larger international assembly or the local community assembly. Decisions are made through a process of consultation: gathering facts and defining and discussing the issues. What differentiates the Baha'i process at all levels is that members must determine the applicable spiritual principle, pray, and only then discuss options and decide on a course of action. The Baha'i Writings state that “the shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.” Once a decision is made and a course of action determined, it is incumbent on every member to support it.

Thus, through the structure and processes of their community life, every Baha'i assumes the role of the clergy.

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Sandra J. Bean has been active in local, national, and international Baha’i community activities most of her life and is fervent about social justice and racial equality. She served at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, from 1988 to 1991.