Why we need to recover the Class Meeting and Class Leaders

By Steve Manskar

A recent headline in the local paper caught my attention: “Clergy Sacrifice Health for Flock.” The article featured quotes from Nashville area pastors recounting their struggles balancing the demands of pastoral ministry, family, and self-care. The point of the article is all too often there is no balance. The demands on the time and energy of clergy leaves little time for proper exercise, a healthy diet, and Sabbath time. The end result is increasing rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes among Protestant clergy in North America. In other words, pastoral ministry in the North American church is destroying the physical and spiritual well-being of clergy.

There are certainly many complex reasons for this growing trend. It seems to me that it is also a symptom of a dysfunctional, enculturated church. David Lowes Watson describes this church in his book Forming Christian Disciples:

“Instead of places where people come to be formed as Christian disciples, congregations … become places where people are primarily concerned with being helped and blessed. Instead of finding how they can serve the risen Christ in the world, proclaiming and living out the coming reign of God, they … look for ways in which they themselves can be enriched by God’s love and peace and justice. And even when they do make a serious attempt to form their members into Christian disciples, they will tend to focus on the development of personal spiritual growth to the neglect of helping Jesus Christ with the unfinished task of preparing the world for God’s coming shalom.”

Such congregations have become providers of religious goods and services. They are places of sanctuaries where members go to escape the world. The pastor and paid church staff are the providers of these goods and services. They spend most of their time and energy working to provide the programs that people expect for themselves and their children. They are also expected to visit the sick and homebound members, and comfort the grieving. All of their time is consumed with serving and meeting the needs of the congregation. In these times of economic hardship and declining membership, church leaders are under increasing pressure to keep current members happy and do all they can to attract new members. Because they are paid staff, the responsibility for all this work falls on their shoulders. It is no wonder that the stress of unrealistic expectations and demands is resulting in increasing rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes among clergy.

It seems to me that this is a wake-up call to United Methodist congregations. We have within our DNA the means to address this growing problem: the class meeting and class leaders. The class meeting is a system of small groups designed to teach people about the basics of Christian discipleship and provide ongoing support for living in the world as a follower of Jesus Christ. The class meeting provided much of the pastoral ministry in early Methodism. They equipped lay members to provide pastoral care and support for their sisters and brothers in Christ. This liberated the preachers to focus on the work they were called to do: proclaim the gospel so that it is good news for those who hear and receive it, administer the sacraments, and order the life of the congregation.

Class leaders were (are) lay pastoral ministers who work in partnership with the preacher/pastors. They do the bulk of the pastoral care and nurture that is now required by the ordained/licensed appointed clergy. The work of the class leader is to help the members of his or her class to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ and to do the pastoral work of visiting them when they get sick and experience life crises and transitions. The key here is that class leaders are mature Christian women and men who are affirmed by the congregation and work in partnership with the ordained/licensed appointed clergy to see that the pastoral ministry of the church is faithfully performed.

Pastoral ministry is historically the responsibility of the congregation. It should not be the sole responsibility of the clergy. Unfortunately, the so-called “mainline” churches in North America has done an excellent job of training clergy and laity to believe that pastoral ministry is the work of the clergy. It is their work because they are the “experts” who have been trained. This, of course, is a lie. The consequence of this lie is a disempowered, passive laity who have been trained to believe that the job of the clergy is to care for their spiritual needs. And that the purpose of the church is to provide clergy who serve them and are equipped to meet their spiritual needs.

It’s no wonder that many clergy get caught in this lie and end up over-weight, suffer from heart disease and diabetes. Is this the church of Jesus Christ who came proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”?