THE METHODIST CLASS SYSTEM
AN INSTRUMENT OF SURVIVAL
By Reverend Dr Novelle Josiah and incorporating a presentation on “The Class Leader” by the Late Reverend Donald C Henry which he (Henry) made while stationed in the British Virgin Islands Circuit in the 1960’s.
The historical records bear out that the survival of Antiguan Methodism was due in large measure to the Methodist Class System. According to the historical accounts, from “1760 to 1774 Nathaniel Gilbert carried on the work of Methodism in Antigua, ably supported by two Class Leaders.” When in 1776, Francis Gilbert returned to England on account of ill health, he left the spiritual care of the Methodists in Antigua to Class Leaders – Mary and Sophia. We are told that these women maintained the Class Meeting structure and carried on meetings in their own cottage. Here they led the prayers of the group and gave simple exhortations. Because of this, the Methodist fellowship continued unbroken though reduced in numbers.
In referring to the work of the these slave women, Forever Beginning, notes that: “These devoted women kept the flock together …carrying on class meetings and prayer meetings at best they could… They were the forerunners and prototype of the great company of West Indian Class Leaders who have been the backbone of West Indian Methodism ever since.” Kindling of the Flame goes on to make the point that “Methodism very quickly became the Church of the people and to a large extent their spiritual growth and training were provided for in the Methodist Class Meeting.” Our strength and survival were vested in the Methodist Class System.
The Methodist Class System that encompasses the classes, Class Leaders, Class Meeting etc., was initially set up as an instrument to raise funds needed for the work of early Methodism in Britain. It later became a system for administering pastoral care of members.
Within the Methodist Church, the Class is the basis of our organization. Each “confirmed” member is put under the care of a Class Leader, and should attend the Class Meeting. One or more classes unite to form the Society now called the Congregation. A group of Congregations form a Circuit. The Circuit organizes the preaching and pastoral care of the Congregations through the work of the ministers. The Circuits come together to form District Conferences and the District Conferences come together to form the Connexional Conference. It is because of this connectedness that bounds each to the other why our method of working is called a Connexional System. It is a method of organization that distinguishes us from other Protestant Churches that has Congregations that are independent of each other.
The Late Donald C Henry, in a presentation entitled “The Class Leader,” makes the point that the whole of society is made up of a series of links (connecting relationships), with the most important of them being the link with God. This is strengthened by the links of each member with each other and with the Minister. The health of the society depends on the Minister being in close contact with the leaders and the leaders in close contact with the members. There should be a mutual caring for each other. The Class Meeting in Church is invaluable as a meeting for the group where experiences may be shared, new members introduced. This is most needed in the large church where it is easy for people to be lost, to feel uncared for, and fail to be made to feel at home in the church. In the Classes, they may share their burden and concerns; here they plan their activities.
The late Reverend Henry goes on to say that “Every member of the Church is a partner in the Church. We exist for fellowship and everything that builds up that fellowship is good, but everything that does not is bad. Some need the class to help them overcome their shyness, others to help them overcome their self-importance.” Reverend Henry points to ways in which Class Leaders can carry out their duties:
(1) Maintain contact with your members: Do you know the names of all your class, their addresses, their occupations, marital status, how many children they have? Visiting should be done regularly and more often when there is sickness or trouble. Members should be encouraged to visit each other. Leaders should be near each other and where possible, assistant leaders should be appointed to share the pastoral tasks. When the leader can no longer fulfill his/her duties they should be retired to an honorary post.
(2) Maintain contact with the minister. Ongoing conversation should be maintained with the minister who should see the class book periodically. Reverend Henry warns that leaders should not be careless with the class book as it is an important element in the link between minister and leader; leader and members.
(3) Meet with the class regularly. It is necessary to meet the class generally in church otherwise the Class Meeting may become too detached and guilty of small talk. Occasionally it is good to meet in homes especially the homes of the sick. The visits could be for work as well as prayer. He poses the question: “What is YOUR class doing in the church, in the society?
(4) Handling indifferent members. The Leader should counsel in all patience and with persistence but if these members refuse to change, it is the leaders duty to report them to the minister and leaders meeting (now Pastoral Council) as ceased to meet. It may be the duty of the Class Leader to recommend a member to be put under discipline. Some method of keeping them recorded should be adopted in the hope that one day they may return.
(5) Evangelism – The Class Leader and the Class may be MEANS OF EVANGELISM. Invite others to join you.
Regrettably our Class System in Antiguan Methodism seems to have lost its pride of place. It is in crisis mode, and for all intents and purpose the System can be considered defunct. Many of our Classes do not meet and Class Meetings are no longer held. Many of our Class Leaders are simply out of touch with their members, with some Class Leaders shamefully out of touch with the very Church. The Class System that was once an instrument of survival, no longer functions as an instrument for the spiritual and pastoral care of members.
The question that confronts us then, is whether the Class System is still relevant today. Is there a place in our Church for the Class System after 250 years? It would seem that as long as the Church remains an institution reaching out to people, that the Class System would remain relevant. The challenge is for us to go back to our roots and learn from our history as we take seriously and reactivate our Class System that has so many benefits and has kept us alive 250 years ago!
MY CLASS LEADER
A fitting tribute which appropriately describes the Pastoral Role of the Class Leader and Assistant Leader
When first I joinedZion’s band,
Who kindly took me by the hand,
And prayed that I might faithful stand? My Class Leader!
Who bade me flee from Satan’s wile,
And shun the world’s alluring smile,
Not let its charms my soul beguile? My Class Leader!
When peace and love my soul possess
And holy triumph filled my breast,
Who did rejoice to see me blest? My Class Leader!
In fierce temptation’s trying hour,
When clouds and darkness round me lour,
Who bids me trust God’s mighty power? My Class Leader!
When keen affliction’s pointed dart,
And grief and anguish wound my heart,
Who consolation doth impart? My Class Leader!
When worldly vanity and care
Have in my heart too great a share
Who warns me of the fatal snare? My Class Leader!
When’er my wandering footsteps stray
From wisdom’s sweet and pleasant way
Who over me doth weep and pray? My Class Leader!
How grateful, then, I ought to be,
And bless that mercy rich and free,
Which ever granted unto me – A Class Leader!
But faintly language doth express
The feelings which my soul possess;
O may a God of mercy bless – My Class Leader!
May thy sojourning days below
In quiet peace and pleasure flow, –
Free from all sorrow, pain, and woe, My Class Leader!
And in thy last, thy closing scene,
May Jesus’ glory round thee beam,
Without a cloud to intervene, My Class Leader!
And when with me life’s dream is o’er,
And I shall weep and sigh no more,
O may we meet on Canaan’s shore, My Class Leader!
Source: The Wesleyan Methodist Association Magazine, 4 (1841): 126-27