The first 'Leaders' Meeting' seems to have been held in Bristol on June 6 1739, followed by one in London on September 5. With the inauguration of class meetings the function of the leaders of the classes in exercising pastoral care became crucial. These leaders (men and women) were appointed on the basis of their perceived spiritual gifts.
The duties of a leader were laid down in the 'General Rules of the United Societies' (1743) as being, first, to see each person in the class at least weekly to exercise spiritual oversight and to receive their financial contributions, and secondly to meet the itinerant and stewards once a week so as to inform them of any that 'are sick or walk disorderly', and to account for money received. The regulation that the itinerants should meet the leaders weekly remained in the Large Minutes until shortly after John Wesley's death.
The Leaders' Meeting originally possessed only advisory powers, but in 1797 was given the right of veto in the admission or expulsion of members. The appointment and removal of leaders and stewards (by the itinerant) was to be 'in conjunction with the meeting'.
Leaders' meetings were part of the polity of many other branches of Methodism, although having a different relationship to the exercise of ministerial authority. For instance the MNC provided from the outset for leaders in new places to be appointed by the mutual concurrence of the travelling preachers and the people, with replacements being subject to the veto of the class involved. In the Digest of Rules of the BC Conference (1838) the term 'Leaders' Meeting' was altered to 'Elders' Meeting'.
In WM its membership was formally defined in 1874, as consisting of the circuit ministers and probationers, the leaders, society and poor stewards, and any circuit stewards who were members of that society. Representatives of the local society, directly elected, were added in 1908.
The leaders' meeting was always a central part of local church organisation, exercising pastoral oversight and being the first court of discipline over members. But its place at the spiritual centre of the society was increasingly called into question, particularly in WM. After Methodist Union, it continued in existence and acquired an increasing number of functions. It met at least quarterly and included (other than for disciplinary cases) other local officers and leaders of fellowship groups.
In the 1974 restructuring, the 'dual control' exercised over the local church by leaders' and trustees' meetings was replaced by the Church Council, having oversight of the whole of the church's life. The council is now required to appoint a Pastoral Committee to exercise functions in relation to membership, discipline, fellowship and other pastoral matters.