Your ministry as a Steward in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. By Dr Dion A Forster

The Methodist Church has a rich history of lay lead ministry.  Whereas some churches and denominations are run by clergy, such as ministers, pastors and priests, the Methodist Church has always recognised the rich and valuable contribution of lay persons in its ministry.

In this chapter we will consider a couple of important elements of the theology that lies behind this very important lay ministry in our Church.  We will begin with a brief examination of the complimentary role of the three orders of ministry that exist in the Methodist Church or Southern Africa.  Then, we shall go on to consider some of the historical and theological background to the notion of ‘stewardship’, i.e., what it means to be a steward.  Finally we will consider character, gifts, and abilities, that a Christian steward should seek to cultivate in order to honour God and effectively perform this very important task within the Church.

A general introduction to the ministry of the laity in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

As a society steward, or circuit steward, you have an essential and critical role to play in the ministry of the Church.  Let’s start by asking the question, “What is the ministry and mission of the Church?”  If we can understand what the ministry of the Church is, we should be able to understand what role each of us plays within that overall ministry.  This question will no doubt raise many very valid and insightful answers.  However, I am sure that we will all agree that the ministry of the Christian Church is to carry on doing the things that Jesus himself did!  In other words, the Church must do the same ministry that Jesus does.  So, that leads to the next question, “what is Jesus’ ministry?”  The answer to this question can be found in such verses as Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:15, and most clearly in Jesus’ own words “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other towns also, because that is why I was sent”(Luke 4:43).  What does Jesus mean by this?  Well, we can catch a glimpse of what Jesus understands this to mean by reading Luke 4:18-19:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. So, Jesus ministry is to establish God’s kingdom here on earth.  God’s kingdom is a kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, wholeness, true and abundant life, and blessing.  Here’s an example of what God’s kingdom should look like from the Old Testament:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling [a] together; and a little child will lead them.  The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11:6-9 NIV)


Here is another glimpse of what God’s kingdom should be like from the New Testament: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:3-5a NIV). So, the ministry of the Church is the same as the ministry of Jesus, that is, to establish God’s kingdom here on earth, in recent years we have understood that to mean that we are called to “proclaim the Gospel of Christ for healing and transformation”, and to work towards a “Christ healed Africa for the healing of the nations”. 

This means that everything that the Church does should not only proclaim God’s good news, but also make that good news real for people (as Jesus said, it must be good news to the poor, freedom to those who are enslaved, sight to those who cannot see, liberation for those who are oppressed and make know the year of God’s favour for all the earth).

Thankfully, this important task is shared by all the members of the Church, both the laypersons, and those who are ordained to ministry. 
The Methodist Church of Southern Africa upholds a model for ministry that is based on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Christians believe in one God who is a community of three equal, yet distinct, persons.  In other words, each person of the Holy Trinity is equally God, yet is a distinct person with unique and special attributes, functions, and ministries (namely, the person of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).  In the Trinity none of the persons is more, or less, valuable than the others.  This same principle applies to the ministry of the Church. Together laity and clergy bear the responsibility for participating with God in God’s mission of working for a “Christ healed Africa for the healing of the nations”.  As a result the Church’s structures and models of ministry are to reflect this mutual responsibility and high calling as shaped through the 7 “continuing transformation calls” and “four mission imperatives”.

The Biblical background for the ministry of the laity.

The first place that we should turn to in order to understand the importance of lay ministries in general, is the Bible.   We shall look at how the ministry of lay persons is described, and explained in both the Old and New Testaments.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament makes a clear point of including all people in God’s covenant of mercy and grace (c.f. Genesis 9:12-17).  However, it is worth noting that in the Old Testament there are a special group of people, referred to as the “people of God”, who are called into being for a very special purpose.  “These are commonly referred to as ό λάος, the laos, from which the word ‘laity’ is derived.”  This special group of people were set aside to be a sign of God’s healing and liberation for all humanity (Isaiah 42:6-7), and they were called to communicate God’s grace and healing in a special and unique way (Zechariah 8:20-23).

The New Testament: The Gospels Of course God’s gracious saving activity in the world is carried as a dominant theme throughout the Bible.  However, it is most clearly seen in the ministry of Jesus.  As we have already mentioned, Jesus comes to proclaim, and enact, the reality of God’s kingdom reign on earth, he immediately calls disciples to share with him in the proclamation and expression, here and now, of the sings of God’s kingdom (c.f. Matthew 1:14-3:35).

As has already been mentioned Jesus identifies himself with God’s mission and work as expressed in the Old Testament (Luke 4:16-21).  However, he also identifies the work, mission, and calling, of those who follow him with his own ministry (Matthew 5:13-14). Attwell explains that: He commissions twelve (Luke 9) and then seventy (Luke 10) to be instruments of God’s healing, liberating and saving work. Jesus empowers them with the Spirit that empowers him and identifies their calling with his and Israel’s calling: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23).
This apostolate (“commission”) directs them towards the healing, liberating and salvation of all humanity (Matthew 28: 18-20).

The New Testament:  The Epistles In the Epistles (often called ‘The letters’) we read about the continuing history of this ministry and mission that began with God in the Old Testament, is brought to its height in Jesus, and then continues through the life and work of the early Church.  Of course the purpose of these writings in the Bible are to show us how we ought to do the work that God began and showed so clearly in Jesus’ ministry.  Attwell explains this most clearly when he writes that, On the basis of this calling and commission, the Church comes to understand itself as participating in Jesus Christ’s intercession and mediation with God for all humanity ( 2 Corinthians 5: 20; 1 Peter 2: 9-12). It is in this sense that the Church as a whole is understood as “priestly” and collectively exercises a priestly function, in partnership with Jesus Christ, in the relationship between God and the world. It is in this sense that “the priesthood of all believers” is best understood and should be distinguished from “the priesthood of each believer.”
The notion that the whole church, together, is God’s Priest is most clearly expressed in 1 Corinthians 12:27 “Now you are the body of Christ”.  Thus, both ordained persons and ό λάος, the layity, have equally important functions to perform in order to achieve the plan that God has for God’s Church, the plan of establishing God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, and grace, here on earth.
I certainly hope that you can see that your role as a ‘lay minister’ is just as important as any other ministry role in the Church!  Each of us is called to express God’s calling upon our lives in different ways, however, the goal is the same – the goal is obedient discipleship and service to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

As a steward you have a particular responsibility to ensure the overall welfare and mission of the society in which you have been called and set aside to service.  The following extract from the booklet “Your ministry as a Steward” shows how your ministry relates to the other ministries in your society or circuit: The role of Circuit Stewards involves matters relating to mission, maintenance and ministerial staff within the Circuit. In close consultation with the Circuit Executive they will help to set the mission agenda for the Circuit. They will arrange for the effective financial administration of the Circuit. They will invite the ministers to serve in the Circuit, and will take responsibility for caring for the needs of those ministers.
These responsibilities will be spelled out in more detail later. Society Stewards fulfil a similar role at Society level. They will normally work closely with the local minister in seeking to discern God’s will for the Society. They will help to ensure that the general management of the Society, including the financial aspect, is efficiently run. They will be a support group for the minister, but will also see themselves as part of a ministry team with the minister. What is a steward in the ministry of the MCSA?  Where does the term come from? You may have been wondering what the term ‘steward’ means, and where it comes from. 

The Methodist Church has some rather odd terms in its vocabulary; these include names such as ‘society’ to refer to a local church, ‘circuit’ to refer to a number of churches that are grouped together in a geographic area, and of course this term ‘steward’, that refers to a senior lay leader in the life of a local society or circuit. These strange terms all find their beginnings in the late 18th century in England.

The father of the Methodist movement, the Revd John Wesley, did not wish that this new movement should cause any division in the Church of which he was an ordained minister, namely the Church of England.  Rather, he had hoped that this movement would bring renewal within the church of his day.  Hence, he chose terms to describe the functions and offices of this new movement that would not create any confusion.  The terms he used were deliberately different from those used in the church so that no one could think he was trying to establish a new, or break away, church.  However, once a separation from the Church of England became inevitable the terminology had become so commonplace among Methodists that it was retained, and still remains with us today.  Whilst the term we use for lay ministers, ‘steward’, does not have any biblical equivalent it certainly models the New Testament pattern of lay ministry. From the very beginning Methodists recognised the central, and necessary, role of lay ministry in the mission of the Church.  When Methodism began to spread in England in the 18th century many people joined what John Wesley called ‘societies’, deliberately avoiding the use of the word ‘church’ or ‘congregation’, to grow and deepen their holiness and devotion to God within the existing Church.  Senior laypersons were appointed to oversee and maintain the work and life of these ‘societies’. 
A steward was thus the person who had the ministry of maintaining facilitating the practical functioning, and spiritual character, of the early Methodist societies.  In many of our Methodist churches today we have mistakenly believed that this is the sole mandate of the ordained minister or deacon.  Nothing can be further from the truth!  God calls believers to be intricately involved in achieving the purposes that God has set out for the Church to achieve.

The following wonderful definition describes the central thrust of Christian stewardship very succinctly and clearly: “Stewardship is everything you do after you say yes to Jesus Christ.”  — Clarence Stoughton This definition expresses the notion that true stewardship is a faithful and obedient response to Jesus.  It has to do with the way in which we live our lives and engage with the world around us.  The Presbyterian Church in the USA has this wonderful definition that explains the concept a little further: “Stewardship is about making choices, as individuals and in community…. Stewardship is about being faithful disciples, caring for and managing all that God has given us.  Stewardship is not just one part of Christian discipleship; it involves every aspect of life in all the stages of life.” It is this attitude that should characterize the ministry of a steward in the MCSA. Within the MCSA the ministry of a steward is expressed through the following functions: To work with all members of the society, including clergy and other laity, to promote its smooth operation and spiritual welfare. To attend, and actively participate in, the leaders meeting of the society of which you are a member. To ensure that all collections of money are taken at their proper time, to keep accurate and responsible accounts of such collections, and to ensure that you pay them across to the relevant Circuit, District, or Connexional offices. To maintain the life of the local society by scrutinising and signing all notices for the pulpit. To ensure that proper arrangements are made for Baptisms within the society. To welcome preachers and pray for them before the service. To make alternative arrangements for the service if the preacher who is appointed does not arrive to preach. In addition to this Circuit stewards exercise the ministry of care and oversight by performing the following critical tasks: To ensure that the circuit operates effectively to achieve the mission of God as directed and discerned by the Circuit Quarterly meeting. To oversee and manage all circuit funds in accordance with the Laws and Discipline of the MCSA.  Where appropriate other skilled persons, such as a treasurer or accountant, may be appointed to assist the Circuit steward. To facilitate the adequate staffing of the local circuit so that the mission of the Church may continue to develop and grow. To offer pastoral care, support, and practical assistance for all ministers who live and labour in the circuit, ensuring that they have adequate housing and furniture. To attend the annual SYNOD when appointed to do so. To oversee and participate in the mission of the Circuit and be available for appointment to the Circuit Sunday School council. So, in short, one can see that the ministry of a Steward is of crucial importance for the overall running and functioning of both the local society and the circuit.

  However, since this is a ministry it needs to be approached with a particular character of servant leadership, which was characteristic of the ministry of Christ himself (Philippians 2:1-11).  In the section that follows we will investigate some of the characteristics and values that you should hold and strive for as a steward in the Church. What characteristics and attributes should a steward have, or strive for, to adequately fulfil their ministry in the church? The days when Circuit and Society Stewards were automatically the most senior active lay persons or long serving leaders are past. Leadership within the Church must be exercised on the basis of whether the person concerned demonstrates the qualities of Christian leadership, together with appropriate gifts for the task. Scripture is clear that God gifts different people in different ways with the intention that those people will exercise their service and ministry according to their particular gifts. There is little to be gained by appointing someone to a task that requires some administrative skill if the person has no gifts in that area – even if the person is the most senior person available. Christian leadership and service is on the basis of giftedness, not seniority. Gender is not a criterion for eligibility either. The days when Stewards were only appointed from the ranks of the male gender are surely long since gone! Stewards, whether of the Circuit or Society variety, are leaders. As such, we would expect to find in them the general marks of Christian leadership: A clear commitment to Jesus and his Church. One would expect a Steward to have an evident relationship with Jesus, to be a person of prayer and devotion, and someone who faithfully joins with the congregation of God’s people in worship on Sunday. A teachable spirit.

A Steward should be someone who is continuing to grow as a Christian, someone with a teachable spirit. The position of Circuit or Society Steward may be a senior and responsible position, but this by no means infers that a Steward knows it all. It is important that Stewards are constantly growing in grace, knowledge and experience. Integrity and morality. It should be taken for granted that Stewards will be people of integrity and high moral standards. At work and play, they will be known as Christians and their behaviour will reflect this. They will be dependable and people of their word. Since Stewards will often be called on to deal with money, there should be no question whatsoever in relation to honesty and trustworthiness. Loyalty. Stewards need to demonstrate qualities of loyalty, both towards the Methodist Church and to the minister, or, in the case of a Circuit Steward, the various ministers who serve in the Circuit. This does not imply unquestioning acceptance of everything the Methodist Church, through its officers and decision-making bodies, decides and does. Nor does it imply that ministers cannot be challenged or criticised. But there are constructive ways of doing this. Publicly criticising the Church or ministers is not constructive and will erode confidence and create ill-will, discontent and division. Stewards should have no part of anything which undermines the Church as a whole, or a particular congregation or minister. Problem areas and disagreements need to be dealt with sensitively, creatively and directly with the person/people concerned. The ability to handle criticism.
Stewards need to be people who can handle criticism. Because of their key position within the Circuit or Society, it is inevitable that at times they will be the target of criticism. Even if the Stewards themselves are entirely innocent, sometimes they will be criticised by association should it be that the minister or superintendent minister is perceived as having erred in some way. There have been times when problems have been greatly multiplied by an inability to respond to criticism in a gracious way. Servanthood. Clearly all of the qualities mentioned so far are unlikely to be found in equal measure in every candidate. But one quality that is essential for all Stewards (indeed for anyone called to leadership within the Christian Church) is the quality of servanthood. Servant leadership is what we are looking for. Anyone who sees the position of Circuit or Society Steward as an opportunity to exercise power, as a reward for long service, as a “promotion” within the ranks of church leadership, or as a way of becoming a “somebody” within the Church, has misunderstood the nature of the task and rather than being a blessing to the Circuit or Society is likely to become a problem. Thus Circuit and Society Stewards need a clear understanding that they hold the office for the sake of the Circuit and Society and not for the sake of their own pride. Wise Stewards will listen a great deal and consult regularly with others, rather than simply being intent on pushing their own ideas. They will demonstrate qualities of humility, recognising that the Circuit or Society does not belong to them and that they exercise their role on behalf of the members within that Circuit or Society.
They will be conscious that it is an honour and a privilege to hold the office of Steward, but equally conscious that it is a serious responsibility conferred on them by people who hold them in high esteem. Spiritual maturity. A Circuit or Society Steward, then, will be someone with a large measure of spiritual maturity. It is important to note, however, that maturity is not dependent only on age or the length of time one has been a Christian or been involved in the Church. There are established pillars of the Church whose immaturity becomes an inhibiting factor in the life of a congregation or Circuit. There are also younger people whose openness to the Holy Spirit and willingness to learn has resulted in a level of maturity and experience which ideally suits them for the office of a Steward.        In addition to the general leadership qualities so far referred to, Stewards should, ideally, have certain gifts and abilities: To dream dreams. Being part of a leadership team which has an important input to developing the culture of mission within a Circuit or Society means that a Steward should be able to dream dreams and envision new possibilities. Stewards should not allow themselves to be trapped into a “It’s always been done this way” mode of thinking. Wisdom and discernment. These gifts will always be important for a Steward. An ability to dream dreams is all very well, but it needs to be allied to the ability to discern what is wise and within God’s will. Reckless and hasty decisions and actions are not helpful. An understanding of Grace. A consequence of the spiritual maturity referred to earlier is the ability to understand the importance of grace above law. Rules and regulations will always be necessary, but within the Christian Church, people and relationships should take precedence. This applies especially when it comes to The Laws and Discipline (L&D) of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, an essential volume for Stewards. This sets out clearly the guidelines governing Methodism in Southern Africa. But there have been occasions when Stewards (and others) have tended to view the L&D as a weapon with which to score points, win arguments and bludgeon into submission those who disagree with them. There is an unhelpful legalistic, inflexible mentality in some Stewards that can create or deepen conflict. L&D is intended to liberate, rather than be burdensome. For this to happen, it needs to be applied sensitively to specific situations. The ability to discern when it is necessary for Grace to be the watchword, rather than law, is vital in the context of a Circuit or Society where, because of the variety and number of people involved, there will always be different expectations and interpretations. Administration and finance. In the case of Circuit Stewards, since part of their role involves ensuring that the Circuit functions efficiently and that the things which should happen in the Circuit do in fact happen, some measure of administrative ability would be helpful. Furthermore, Circuit Stewards have oversight of the Circuit finances, and this remains true even if, as is the case in more and more Circuits, there is a Circuit Treasurer. Circuit Stewards will be party to drafting the annual Circuit budget, and even if the Steward is not actually keeping the books and handling the moneys, it is important, at the very least, to have a basic understanding of how church finances work. Some financial acumen would therefore be an asset for a Circuit Steward. Pastoral. Circuit Stewards are the channels through whom invitations are normally extended to ministers to serve in a particular Circuit. Their personal involvement with the Circuit ministers continues once the minister takes up the appointment. To some extent the Circuit Steward may become a pastor for the ministers (as well as their families and other Circuit staff). Ministers, like most people, need encouragement and affirmation. The Steward is in a good position to offer both. The Circuit Steward, having a knowledge of the Circuit, is able to engage in a caring discussion with the minister about ministering in that particular Circuit. In addition, the Steward needs to ensure that the material well-being of the minister is catered for. This also requires a pastoral spirit, as many ministers find it difficult to raise the issue of needing new linen or new furniture or whatever. A Steward who is pro-active and sensitive to the minister’s feelings in this regard will be greatly appreciated. The simple fact is that ministers who feel cared for will be far more motivated to give of their best. A minister who feels isolated, not appreciated or misunderstood will find it very difficult to serve any congregation with joy and enthusiasm. And since some Circuits have devolved responsibility for many of the more mundane matters of manse maintenance and equipment to the Societies, some of this pastoral concern will need to be exercised by Society Stewards as well – who, in any case, ought to be seeking to care for and support their minister. (This pastoral concern should also extend to other staff within the Circuit, such as deaconesses, deacons, biblewomen and evangelists.)          The list of qualities and gifts is daunting and clearly no one person will embody all in equal measure. But since every Circuit has more than one Circuit Steward, and Societies have more than one Society Steward, it is to be hoped that the inadequacies of one will be counterbalanced by the strengths of others. If Stewards are able to see themselves as part of a team, which in the case of Circuit Stewards includes the ministers and other members of the Circuit executive, and in the case of Society Stewards includes the Leaders’ Meeting, their own shortcomings will not be exposed to the extent that might otherwise be the case. Some people, of course, do not function very well as members of a team. In some cases they may be very gifted people, but have an abrasive personality which makes it difficult for others to work with them. However, in the very nature of things, being a Steward implies working with others. An inability to do so may well disqualify someone from being a Steward. Thus we could add a final quality for an effective Circuit or Society Steward: the ability to work as part of a team. Conclusion. In conclusion, this chapter has sought to give you some insight into the valuable ministry that you perform as a lay minister within the church of Christ.  There is little doubt that as you grow and develop in this ministry you will learn many new things, encounter some challenges and hardships, and at times even question why you do this.  Always remember that our ministry is to be agents of healing and transformation for the sake of establishing God’s glorious kingdom here on earth

Questions for discussion and consideration:
What is the ministry and mission of the Church (see point 1 above for some pointers)?
What does the Bible say about the ministry of lay people (see point 2 above for some pointers)?
Where does the term ‘steward’ come from? 
What does it mean in relation to the ministry of the MCSA?
What are some of the common functions and responsibilities that a steward performs in the MCSA?
What characteristics and attributes should a steward in the MCSA have, or strive for? 
What areas in your own life can you point to in which you will need to develop or grow?  What do you commit yourself to do in order to develop these areas?


One comment on “Your ministry as a Steward in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. By Dr Dion A Forster

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