A time for honest conversation
By Lindsay Peyton
“How is it with your soul?” These words were carefully selected by John Wesley to begin his “Class Meetings,” the original small groups of the early Methodist church. The question means so much more than “how are you doing?” It opens a conversation about grace and paves the way to a deeper examination of life. It’s a practice that Rev. Roger Clayton has adopted at Needville UMC.
The church’s small group, inspired by Wesley’s Class Meetings, begins with members going around the room asking, “How is your soul?”
“They talk openly and honestly about what’s going on in their lives,” Clayton said. “There’s nothing the class doesn’t touch. There’s nothing they don’t all talk about. And it all stays in that room.”
It’s a concept that works, the pastor said. “And the better it works, the stronger they become as disciples,” he added.
Clayton explained that the idea needed time to take hold. After all, a Class Meeting is not a Bible study, or a book study for that matter. It does not center on a hobby or a ministry.
Instead, it’s simply about being together in the group, supporting one another as they bolster their relationships with God.
It’s also about developing the types of relationships where discussion can flourish in an environment of mutual respect – and where tough love is applied when necessary. “Sometimes, your coach pushes you to help you progress,” Clayton said.
But the love has to already be there with the coach, or it will feel like judgment or punishment, he explained. “You have to know that I care about you, that I love you, that I want to help you become the best version of yourself – and that I am also doing the work myself,” he said. “Only then, can we grow together.”
To get Needville’s Class Meeting off the ground, Clayton sent a church-wide invitation. He scheduled two meetings to explain the concept.
He pointed to Christ’s own small group, the 12 disciples He chose. In John 13:35, Jesus tells them, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
“We have to have community,” Clayton said. “We have to have people walking besides us. There will be valleys we will walk through, and we don’t always have the strength. God gives us strength – most often, through others.”
About 20 people signed on for the new group – and the number settled at around eight. Initially, to help everyone become comfortable with opening up, Clayton focused on prayer requests.
“It just came out organically, and it worked,” he said. “Then we made the prayer requests more detailed.”
After a couple of weeks, Clayton asked members to “add something we could pray about for you.” Then, he pushed them to open up even further to each other.
Members became more and more comfortable talking. Now, it’s become second nature – and members have learned to trust and journey beside one another.
“It’s been a huge success,” Clayton said. “In the church, we all have the same goal. We all want to be the best disciples we can be. We don’t want to go back to what we were. We want to get better every day.”
From his own experience, he knew that small groups were foundational to faith. He learned that firsthand, attending Bear Creek UMC in Houston in his youth, at a time when it was its largest.
Clayton remembers hundreds of other youth in the church. “It was nice to get everyone together, but you can get lost so easily,” he said. “That’s why having small groups was important.”
When Clayton became a pastor himself, he focused on building up small groups. “The small group is a place to make sure the church is still a church,” he said.
He began to dive deeper into researching the phenomenon – and the research would become the focus of his doctoral thesis at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. His dissertation is titled “The Modern Wesley Class Meeting: Bringing Accountability, Practical Faith and Personal Connection into Established Local Congregations.”
“I started reading books to find a way that small groups would actually help people grow in their faith and discipleship,” Clayton said. “I love history. I went back to something that John Wesley did that is the reason we are all still Methodist today. And that is the Class Meeting.”
He explained that through those early small groups, Methodists were able to strengthen their own faith and practices and become better disciples.
Ministries sprung from small groups as well. “When we want to be the best we can be, we start to do things we never dreamed possible,” Clayton said.
In the original Class Meetings, members gathered together to seek God’s purpose. They asked, “What has God placed on our hearts? And how do we follow through with it?”
Clayton began to wonder what this would look like in the modern church. His dissertation not only would include his research but also studying the experience at Needville.
Through the process, Clayton uncovered certain keys to a successful group – accountability and honesty. “It’s about being able to be truly open,” he said.
Having the right lay leader is also critical. Clayton said that having a pastor serve as the group leader can quash people’s inclination to confide in each other. “A class leader should be someone on the same level, someone who can start the conversation,” he said. “Then, you have a ripple effect.”
Developing small groups or Class Meetings at church could very well be the antidote to a world that seems to be increasingly distancing, Clayton said. “I see neighbors who don’t know each other, and communities inside of large churches who don’t know 50 percent or more of their congregations,” he said.
“But I believe we can rebuild the community, and it starts with small groups,” he continued.
Clayton explained that members of Class Meetings have to be engaged with each other – and dedicated to personal growth.
“That’s what the Class Meeting is,” he said. “It’s transformative. The purpose is to change into disciples.”