That it may the more easily be discerned whether they are indeed working out their own salvation, each society is divided into smaller companies, called classes, … There are about twelve persons in a class, one of whom is styled the leader. It is his/her duty:
- To see each person in his class once a week at least, in order: (1) to inquire how their souls prosper; (2) to advise, reprove, comfort or exhort, as occasion may require; (3) to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preachers, church, and poor.
- To meet the ministers and the stewards of the society once a week, in order: (1) to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved; (2) to pay the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding.
(The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016, ¶ 104, page 78)
I suspect you have not come across the title “class leader” before. If you are a pastor you may recall it from the Methodist history class you took in seminary. I first learned about class leaders when I took “Methodist History and Doctrine” in my last year at Wesley Theological Seminary. I learned much more when I read David Lowes Watson’s The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance and Class Leaders: Recovering a Tradition while working on my D.Min. some years later.
The title is unfamiliar to most United Methodists because they’ve had no exposure to or experience of the Wesleyan class meeting. They don’t know the class meeting and class leaders were critical elements of the “method” that shaped the missional identity and vitality of the Methodist movement and the church it birthed in America and Britain.
John Wesley believed Methodists were “a people who professed to pursue holiness of heart and life … or universal love filling the heart and governing the life.” He knew the pursuit of holiness is a relational process. That’s what he meant when he wrote in Sermon 92: On Zeal, “that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the Church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the Church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.” Wesley knew from Scripture and experience that God encounters us and opens us to grace through relationships in the church, our family, and in the world. Which is why Wesley place every Methodist in a small group and required them to meet every week to give an account of their discipleship as they answered the question: “How is it with your soul?” These small groups were known as class meetings.
Class leaders were lay women and men who served as role models, mentors, and discipleship coaches for the people called “Methodists” in their pursuit of holiness of heart and life. Class leaders were mature followers of Jesus who could be trusted with leading and training others in the way of Jesus. They were the ones in the class meeting who “provoked one another to love, holy tempers, and good works” (see Hebrews 10:24-25). The weekly process of encouraging, prodding, teaching, and leading people to grow in loving God and loving who God loves the Jesus way encouraged the people called “Methodists” in their pursuit of holiness of heart and life. As they grew in holiness they were equipped to participate with Christ in God’s mission in the world.
Covenant Discipleship groups are designed to form class leaders for today. They are the first step in the process of re-traditioning class leaders and classes the church needs to faithfully pursue its mission.
Class leaders are the lay women and men God has placed in every congregation to serve as partners with the pastor in the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ who are equipped to participate with Christ and God’s mission in the world.
To learn more, please read my book, Disciples Making Disciples: Guide for Covenant Discipleship Groups and Class Leaders.