Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

Academy cohort pursues unprecedented ministry in unprecedented times


The opening session for the second Academy for Innovative Ministry was held in September over Zoom. An in-person session with social distancing was held in October, and a mixed in-person and online session was held in November. Photo submitted by Rev. Derrek Belase.

Last year, the Academy for Innovative Ministry taught its 17 participants how to make a Ministry Action Plan, or MAP, to help make their ministry dreams a reality.

None of the MAPs included instructions for a pandemic.

Fast forward to September 2020, and adaptability is the name of the game. Rev. Derrek Belase, director of Connectional Ministry for the Oklahoma Conference, said the academy has had to adapt both its approach and its lessons for the 12 participants in this year’s cohort.

“What we’re seeing in the second academy is that adaptive thinkers can make changes in the midst of changes,” Belase said. “We saw this in the first academy participants in what they’re able to do, and we’re seeing it again in the second academy.”

The academy is intended to serve as a form of research and development for new ministry ideas. It teaches its participants how to examine their ministry contexts to see what needs are not being met by the church and how to make a plan to meet those needs.

“We’re wanting to invest in the new,” Belase said. “What do you want to take a risk on? If we were a corporation, what’s the research and development? What’s something we can fail at, and how do we take the next step?”

The academy’s first cohort received grants to help fund their ministry projects, but the pandemic has caused many of those plans to change. Rev. Trey Witzel, whose project was centered on reinvigorating Guthrie-First, was reappointed less than a year after the first academy ended. Combined with the reappointment of the church’s associate pastor and the start of the pandemic, Witzel was unable to continue to implement the project himself. He handed all of his documentation to Sara Martin, who now leads Guthrie-First and is a member of the academy’s second cohort.

“The goal had always been to help Guthrie-First return to being autonomous in leadership again,” Witzel said. “We thought this was a good time to transition to that.”

After receiving feedback from the academy’s first cohort, local church leader development has been emphasized in the academy’s curriculum. Belase said developing a lay leadership team expanded to a full two-month session to address pulling a leadership team together and dealing with resistance to change when the time comes.

“We did not have enough leadership development for local churches in the first academy,” Belase said. “Innovative ministry is not just about the pastors; its’ about having a strong lay leadership team in the churches.”

Having a leadership team in place helped Rev. Dane Lemmons adapt his ministry’s recovery work to the pandemic. The Keepers of Faith, Hope and Recovery ministry through Stillwater-Highland Park had two main areas: a weekly 12-step meeting and sober social gatherings. The pandemic forced the ministry to cancel all social gatherings and move recovery groups online, which caused participation to drop. They were also forced to delay a planned Keepers Worship Service geared toward those in addiction recovery.

Rather than focus on what they could no longer do, the leadership team – which Lemmons referred to as The Committee – examined what other needs the ministry could meet. They decided to develop tools and resources to help recovering addicts connect with sober work and housing options.

“Amid active addiction, the only connections a person makes is who has his or her drug of choice and who will use with them, so it’s important that people in recovery connect with other people and realize that there are people out there that want to help them,” Lemmons said. “We have put worship plans on the back burner, but we will still be doing this eventually. We would rather delay the start than start and not have it be successful.”

Despite significant budget changes at the conference level – including the elimination of New People New Places funding – Belase said there will be a third cohort after the current academy ends. Both Belase and Rev. Chris Tiger, director of New Faith Communities, work to raise outside funds to help ensure the academy can continue.

Rev. Chris Tiger, director of New Faith Communities, speaks during the Academy for Innovative Ministry’s November session. Photo by Rev. Derrek Belase.

“From a purely conference director standpoint, this is the kind of thing we can’t let go in the midst of a budget change. We need to find ways to fund the academy,” Belase said. “This pandemic will be gone, we hope and pray; that doesn’t mean that innovation and creativity in ministry won’t be needed. We’re going to continue to do this work because the church will continue to change.”

With the pandemic affecting every aspect of church life, Belase said it’s only natural that the academy would also adapt its approach and curriculum to meet the needs of its participants. He anticipates deep and reflective community engagement to be present in the projects the current cohort will develop in the spring.

“Our local churches and pastors are all adapting right now. By virtue of the situation we’re in, they’re all innovating, they’re all adapting,” Belase said. “We want to come alongside them as long as we can.”

Lemmons believes it’s an understatement to say 2020 has been a challenging year. He said finding new and safe ways to meet the needs of recovering addicts has motivated him to develop forms of communication that can continue after the pandemic ends.

“The thing we have tried to remember during the pandemic is not be afraid to try new things,” said Lemmons. “Since it is an unprecedented time, then let us do unprecedented ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.”


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