Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

The Academy for Innovative Ministry


Students and teachers play with sensory toys at the Early Foundations program launched at St. Paul's UMC in Shawnee in August. A discipleship component for the program was developed as a ministry project during the Academy for Innovative Ministry. Photo by Emily Fleming; submitted by Rev. Dr. Tiffany Nagel Monroe.

What could ministry look like if money was no object? Nineteen United Methodist pastors across Oklahoma spent nine months considering the possibilities.

From early childhood development to after school programming, Bibles and Brew gatherings to sober football parties, ukulele lessons to a worship festival and conference, no dream was too big or too lofty for the Academy for Innovative Ministry to explore.

There was just one catch: every pastor would have to create and present a plan that could bring their God-sized vision to life.

The Academy for Innovative Ministry

The Academy for Innovative Ministry invited select participants to imagine innovative ways of engaging in ministry in their local contexts. The academy was led by Derrek Belase, director of Connectional Ministry, and Chris Tiger, director of New Faith Communities.

Academy participants were nominated by their district superintendents to attend a series of learning sessions, including intercultural development, new expressions and models of church ministry, the process of discernment, adaptive leadership skills, and how to create an action plan. The academy formed triads, or groups of three, with each pastor developing an original plan of action. Each pastor formally presented their plan in September and received a $2,000 grant. A total of 17 pastors completed the academy.

Belase believes it can be hard for churches to take risks when it comes to developing innovative ministry, especially when it comes to the cost. He said that leaders want to try new things, but the possibility of failure keeps a lot of churches from investing in innovation. He sees the academy grants as an opportunity for pastors to pursue innovation in their ministry contexts.

“All organizations need some research and development money, but few churches can afford to budget that,” Belase said. “The academy grants give some pastors a chance to try something out and see what happens, but with a solid plan.”

Tiger said the goals of the academy were to invest in leadership and to create a culture of innovation in the conference.

“We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results,” Tiger said. “I think our time now calls for people to think in more innovative ways, to look at how we can do things differently and reach people for Jesus.”

To help spark the visioning process, Belase and Tiger brought in coaches and guest speakers to lead the learning sessions. Ministry coach and “Dream Like Jesus” author Rebekah Simon-Peter led the opening retreat for the academy and gave a keynote at the final session.

“It’s important to keep your dreams alive. The world needs your dream,” she told the academy in her final keynote. “I think our role as Christian leaders isn’t to be stewards of budgets, and it’s not to be stewards of buildings. We’re called to be stewards of the kingdom dream and then to fulfill the dream.”

Spark Tank

After the initial grant presentations in September, each triad was asked to nominate one of their members as a finalist for a second round of grant presentations. Academy participants chose six pastors to move on: Revs. Dane Lemmons, Lisa Miller, Dr. Tiffany Nagel Monroe, Shyloe O’Neal, Desi Sharp and Trey Witzel.

“When the triad nominated me, I was both honored and humbled. I know that sounds cheesy and trite, but it was true,” said Lemmons, a drug court counselor and associate pastor at Highland Park UMC in Stillwater. “To have at least two others say this was a great idea and doable, that it was not too much to ‘dream like Jesus,’ was absolutely awesome.”

Sharp, pastor at Goodrich Memorial UMC in Norman, said she felt a deep sense of gratitude to the people who encouraged her idea: a mobile sno-cone and coffee stand that could provide temporary employment to those struggling to find a job.

“I believe it has the potential to be something well beyond a source of tasty treats; I believe something this simple could in real and immediate ways begin transforming the world,” Sharp said. “To have this affirmed in this particular way is a humbling experience.”

Nagel Monroe, pastor at St. Paul’s UMC in Shawnee, said she looks forward to seeing what her fellow triad members do with their ideas.

“The colleagues in my triad are capable, creative and inspiring leaders,” said Nagel Monroe. “I’m thankful that they saw something in my project that had the potential to benefit from moving forward at this time. I have no doubt their projects will have mighty impacts in the future.”

Final presentations were made on Nov. 1 at First UMC in Edmond. Belase and Tiger invited four conference leaders to act as a Spark Tank panel: Rev. Jay Smith, associate pastor at New Covenant UMC in Edmond and chair of New Faith Communities; Rev. Susan Whitley, pastor at Skiatook UMC and chair of the conference Discipleship Ministry Team; Alan Herndon, director of gift planning for the Oklahoma Methodist Foundation; and Meagan Ewton, editor of publications for the Oklahoma Conference.

The panelists heard the proposals and asked questions related to each ministry idea. They also determined the final grant awards, which ranged from $3,000 to $8,000 and were awarded in addition to the finalists’ original $2,000 academy grants.

Smith was impressed by the time and energy the presenters put into their work despite the significant workloads clergy can have from day to day.

“The primary thing that excited me was the presenters’ willingness to dream big,” Smith said. “In the midst of an obvious season of tension within the UMC, you still have pastors and leaders in local churches who are dreaming God-sized dreams for what the future of their local context looks like.”

Whitley said it was exciting to see people dreaming big dreams and thinking outside the box regarding the possibilities for ministry.

“It was amazing to see the variety of their ideas and how they were reaching out to people in their community and in the conference,” Whitley said. “It was amazing to see the things they were doing to bring people to Jesus.”

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Rev. Dane Lemmons
Keepers of Faith, Hope and Recovery

"Keepers of Faith, Hope and Recovery is a ministry designed to reach out in the name of Christ to people affected by the disease of addiction."

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Rev. Desi Sharp
A Snowball's Chance: Mobile Sno-cone and Coffee Stand

"Goodrich Memorial UMC will be a community presence that is able to share the love of Jesus with one delicious sno-cone, or cup of coffee, at a time."

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Rev. Trey Witzel
Guthrie First UMC

"Reinvigorating Guthrie First UMC so that there will continue to be Methodists dreaming like Jesus in Guthrie, Oklahoma."

Giving Shape to Dreams

Witzel believes everyone dreams of something “new” at some point. He said the language and theories he learned in the academy helped him “give word and form to the often amorphous vocation that is pastoral leadership.”

“We all look around and know that what we see often isn’t what God intended, but we’ve been so conditioned to put a cap on our dreams, to settle for the floor over the ceiling for what can be done, that all of our dreams become pragmatic concessions,” Witzel said. “What’s been exciting through the academy is, one, knowing that others are dreaming and I’m not alone, and, two, our conference knows that it’s only through our dreams that we can make disciples for the transformation of the world.”

As with any new venture, those God-sized dreams took time to form and refine. One of the academy’s areas of focus was to help participants create a Ministry Action Plan, or MAP.

“Churches can launch into projects without solid MAPs,” Belase said. “Participants in the academy had the chance to work with coaches to create solid plans which can guide them and their churches into a new era of thinking and dreaming like Jesus.”

O’Neal’s vision of a three-day worship festival and conference took shape after questions she was led to ask during an April learning session on Fresh Expressions, or expressions of church designed for people uninterested in institutional church. She said the group synergy of the academy helped her generate and fine-tune ideas that she later translated into a MAP.

“I started to consider people and places who are not yet benefitting from the contextualized mission of making disciples,” O’Neal said of the brainstorming process. “I still didn’t have a single idea, but was beginning to notice what brought me hope and energy for ministry.”

Miller, a former dance and performing arts school owner, said she considered several projects before electing to teach children how to play the ukulele.

“The Lord used the joy of music and dance to heal my broken heart. He used the performing arts to make me feel that I had value,” Miller said in her presentation. “The talents we possess are from our Father. (They’re) gifts that, in some cases, can help raise us out of the ashes… You never know who will be the next worship leader, classical pianist, or that prodigy child who can pick up any instrument and play it.”

Tiger said most academy participants had not created a MAP before. Because some churches are smaller or less formal, he said ministry leaders sometimes feel no need for a formal plan, but he believes it helps leaders think of all the elements a proposed project will need.

“I think the MAP gives them greater buy-in when not only on a local level, but also if they need to go outside the church and present for a grant,” Tiger said. “With the presentations they were able to do, they could go outside the church and make a presentation to someone and possibly get grants or funding from other sources.”

Dreams Bigger than Dollars

Though ministry grants were always intended to be a part of the academy, Belase and Tiger kept the grant amounts undisclosed until the respective presentations had been given. Belase wanted to ensure that concerns about cost would not dampen the visioning process.

“I think a lot of times we get caught up in how much money a grant is worth, and then we dream to the size of the grant instead of the size of the dream God has for us,” Belase said. “We wanted these pastors to dream as big as they wanted and then create a MAP so they can see how their God-sized dream could be possible. There are resources out there; we don’t have to create them on our own.”

Witzel’s proposal centered not on building up his church in Edmond, but on helping revitalize First UMC in Guthrie. Though the project officially launched towards the end of the academy, Witzel said the ministry partnership between the two churches would have continued even without an academy grant.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the funding the academy has provided,” Witzel said. “It’s going to help ensure that Guthrie FUMC can take the next step towards local autonomy. The funding is going to help bolster our children and youth programs, and bring in local worship leadership.”

Nagel Monroe’s ministry project also included a strong element of partnership. St. Paul’s UMC partnered with Shawnee Public Schools, Sooner Start and Citizen Potawatomi Nation to bring Early Foundations, a program developed by the Oklahoma Autism Center in 2007, to Shawnee. The site at St. Paul’s opened in August. Nagel Monroe said the academy grants they received will help the church ramp up discipleship aspects of the partnership, including quarterly Parents Night Out events and an ASD-friendly Vacation Bible School in the summer.

“There are no other programs like this in Shawnee. As churches, we should be doing more to include ASD families and families of children with disabilities into the life of our communities,” Nagel Monroe said. “We need trained and compassionate leaders in children’s ministry programs that families can trust their children with while they worship and engage in discipleship opportunities. St. Paul’s wanted to build on our relationship with Early Foundations and make a concerted effort to provide such ministry to our community.”

Tiger said the projects didn’t need to be new churches or faith communities. Instead, the goal was for participants to try something bigger than they would have thought of without the academy process.

“Some of our proposals, and some that were forwarded to the Spark Tank, were ideas that needed a lot of funding and more than we could give them,” Tiger said. “We hope that the pastors in the academy can present their MAPs to others for possible funding as well.”

One of those projects was O’Neal’s three-day worship festival and conference. Though the grant total she received was a fraction of her proposed budget, she said she is grateful for it and wants to find a way to take the next step in bringing her God-sized vision to life.

“It is scary to dream big! There are people who will tell you to think smaller, more gradually, something attainable,” O’Neal said. “That doesn’t mean you take their advice. Instead you bring them along, accept their help in refining the idea. Jesus used a team approach; why don’t you try it too?”

Both Whitley and Smith expressed hope that the grant finalists would be able to find additional funding for their projects. Whitley suggested connecting with community partners and other grant agencies, while Smith recommended including tiered levels of financing in grant proposals.

“Don’t let an initial lack of funding keep you from dreaming big dreams,” Whitley said. “Don’t be limited to the resources in your church. Continue to reach out, and don’t be discouraged.”

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Shyloe O'Neal
Worship Festival and Conference

"The Worship Festival and Conference is for equipping OKUMC churches for excellent worship."

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Rev. Lisa Miller
Kingdom Music Makers

"Our ministry teaches children how to play basic musical instruments while teaching them that all of our gifts and talents come from our Creator and there are many ways to use those gifts and talents to worship and glorify Him."

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Rev. Dr. Tiffany Nagel Monroe
Early Foundations Collaborative

"Creating faith formation opportunities for children with ASD and intentionally developing an inclusive faith community for ASD families. ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder."

Dream On

The inaugural Academy for Innovative Ministry closed with a prayer of blessing. Tiger said there are plans for a second academy to be held in conjunction with conference year instead of the calendar year. He said this would help prevent pastors who might be reappointed at Annual Conference from having to drop out of the academy, something that happened for two participants this year.

“I was really pleased with how things turned out for this,” Tiger said. “You come up with an idea, and you don’t know how it’s going to really be until you did it, and I think what resulted was good for the participants. Derrek and I appreciated being a part of it just to guide the process.”

Lemmons believes the academy was worth the effort, a sentiment he shared with Tiger and Belase before he knew he would receive a grant. He especially appreciated learning how to take God-sized dreams and create a MAP to bring those dreams to life.

“If God is showing you a need, then God is more than likely calling you to do something; if God is calling you to do something, then God will equip you to get it done,” Lemmons said. “It may not be in the way you are expecting, but you will be equipped and you will be able to do something.”

The lesson that taught Miller the most was about getting buy-in as a part of ministry planning. She said it was wonderful to get to know her fellow pastors better and to see the innovative ministry being done across the state.

“It is okay and probably even a good idea to start small, even when the dream is big,” Miller said. “Saturate it in prayer. Pray over the concept, pray for inspiration from the Holy Spirit, pray for heavenly resources to open up and for the right people to come forward and be a part of it.”

Sharp enjoyed the academy and found the training sessions informative. She said she is excited and thankful to have money to put toward a vehicle for her mobile sno-cone and coffee stand. She encouraged pastors who don’t know where to start to just begin dreaming and praying.

“God knows what the world needs and what your gifts are,” Sharp said. “Start talking about it with the people around you who love Jesus, love the church, and know you well. Listen. Do some research. And keep praying.” §


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