Preparing to Plant


Being bombarded with unexpected unknowns about the future can result in anxiety that leads to paralysis. It can also provide a time of pause for some intensive planning around how to move forward. 

The Missouri Conference Planting Academy started in 2018, with all participants sharing a desire to start something new. That drive didn’t stop when the pandemic forced changes. When Melanie Smollen started in her position with the Congregational Excellence team in 2019, she was able to look at the Planting Academy with fresh eyes and consider how things could be changed. But of course, she couldn’t foresee the big change that was coming. 
Melanie Smollen
“We started in February of 2020, and 30 days later everything went online,” Smollen said, explaining that the abruptness of the change didn’t just make them think outside of their box, it was more like getting the box pushed over a cliff. 

But the academy went on, in both 2020 and 2021, in a primarily online format. By offering the experience online rather than having mandatory in-person attendance in Columbia, and by moving it to Tuesday evening, they were able to connect with more laity who are interested in starting something new. 

“It’s important to have a pipeline in place of people who are stepping up to start something new,” Smollen said. “It’s also important for people who are dreaming to have a place to go where they can explore their ideas and grow.”

Referrals from District Superintendents are a common way for someone to end up in the Planting Academy. 

“The DS’s are in the trenches with our churches and leaders, and are a vital resource in making connections for us,” Smollen said. 

Last year was the first year the academy was designed so that every participant would be working toward a strategic plan to start something new. 

“They will leave with a plan, knowing what they will be doing, but that doesn’t mean they will be launching something immediately,” Smollen said. “Some of these plans could be looking one or two years into the future.” 

That plan includes building a budget, figuring out sources of income, and doing Shark-Tank style pitches before the Congregational Development team, both to clarify their ideas and to possibly receive grant support from Congregational Development. For many, what they thought they would be starting changed through the course of the academy.

Rev. Mike Randle had never heard of the Planting Academy when he got the call from Smollen asking him to pray about it. His District
Mike Randle
Superintendent, Jon Thompson, had suggested him as a potential participant. 

“When I joined I didn’t have a specific project in mind, but I’m always open to what God would have me to do,” he said. 

In the early stages of the academy, Director of Congregational Excellence Roger Ross had the group do a Dream Napkin exercise, in which they spent a silent 30 minutes drawing out their dreams. Randle’s was about how the church should function, the role it should have in the community, and how the gospel should be lived out. 

Initially, he was thinking about this as an approach to existing churches, but as he continued to work through the layers that day and throughout the academy it revealed a calling to plant a new church.

Randle found connecting with other planters to be a big benefit of participating in the academy. Sharing their dreams and calling was a personal, vulnerable experience, and also a supportive one. The coaching that was made available was also a good benefit. 

“My coach helped flesh out the dream that God put on my heart,” Randle said. 

Rev. Angel Garcia was in seminary and appointed to a two-point charge when the district superintendent approached him about participating in the Planting Academy. Although he was busy, he thought it was a great idea. 

“I was looking for ways to help the two churches I am serving with revitalization, and to create new places for new people,” Garcia said. 

Garcia is a big fan of learning from others, and he enjoyed the cohort format of the Planting Academy, where he had the opportunity to pick the brains of others who were looking to revitalize or start something new. 

“The beauty of the Planting Academy is that it is really a discernment process. You can go in with one idea, and realize through the process that you were meant to do something else,” Garcia said. 

People noticed that when he talked about side projects in NextGen ministry, he showed a lot of excitement and interest. His passion in this area was affirmed in a conversation with Planting Academy trainer Ken Nash, and Garcia started leaning into it, considering how he might help develop a NextGen learning cohort in the Missouri Conference. 
Angel Garcia
When he was working with high school youth in his position at Saint Paul UMC in Joplin, Garcia had very positive experiences with taking them to Christ In Youth summer retreats in places like Texas, Colorado and Michigan. He started considering how a CIY event held in Missouri could include more United Methodist youth here. 

Around that time the Missouri Conference Youth Specialist took a job in another ministry. Director of NextGen Ministries Jeff Baker approached Garcia about taking the job on a part-time basis while he continues serving his two-point charge and completing seminary. 

That’s what he is doing now, and he’s also in charge of a new CIY event that will take place on the Central Methodist University campus in Fayette. The Planting Academy work played in big things that now taking shape in the Missouri Conference. Garcia would recommend the experience, and not just for people who think they will soon be planting a new church. 

“Even for someone on the fence about what’s next, it is good to be in community with people with this mindset,” he said. “It serves you well to be in conversations with people who encourage you to stretch and expand your ministry.” 

Rev. Kayla Roe was contacted by Smollen about the Planting Academy in 2020, but since it was scheduled to be in person at the time, Roe didn’t think she could handle the time commitment with the drive-time figured in. Having it go online-only in 2021 worked well for her. 

When Roe started at Wesley and Plattin in 2018, she talked to leaders in the congregation about their dreams and vision for the church. She
Kayla Roe
didn’t accept growth as an easy answer, and pushed a little harder. Someone on the leadership team said they would like to see the church host a recovery program. 

Roe had attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in support of a loved one before, and recognized their effectiveness but found something to be missing. She was impressed with what she saw from Celebrate Recovery, which is structured similarly to AA, but names Jesus Christ as the higher power and builds its program more specifically around Christian scripture and principles. She checked, and there wasn’t a Celebrate Recovery program within 15 miles of the church. 

The church launched a Celebrate Recovery program after Easter in 2019, so it had been going for less than a year when it was shut down due to the pandemic. It wasn’t restarted until April 2021. Row participated in 2021 with the idea of working on the relaunch, and expanding the program into offering The Landing, the youth version of Celebrate Recovery. 

“The initial relaunch was slow going, which was frustrating,” Roe said. “The team now has renewed hope.”

The pandemic created a mindset that did not easily lend itself to progress. 

“It’s hard to start a new thing when you’re afraid of what’s coming next,” Roe said. “People don’t want to get excited about a new thing if they think it may soon get shut down, and those feelings are valid.” 

The church decided that if they were going to put their best foot forward, they needed to start a prayer team. The prayer team started meeting once a week, even when the rest of the church was shut down. People started seeing God moving through the Celebrate Recovery ministry, and the church’s vision was clarified. 

It’s hard for volunteers to continue to show up to host Celebrate Recovery meetings if no one is coming to recover. But Roe encouraged them to hang in there – to give the ministry some stability. 

As she continued to work on her final plan for launching The Landing, Roe was praying hard. She was asking God for a clear sign the church was heading in the right direction. She was then contacted by a father who was looking for help for his 13-year-old daughter He hadn’t been able to find any available supportive services. Roe offered to pray with her and offered faith-based tools but explained to the father that she wasn’t a counselor, and he should proceed with getting his daughter on a waitlist with him. He said she is currently on 14 waitlists. 

“That showed us our why. Kids in our community need support that just isn’t there,” Roe said. “I shared this call with my team, and some of them were moved to tears.” 

Soon after that Roe was contacted by the mother of a former member of the church who wanted to know what the church needed. When Roe offered several things that could be supported, the person made a significant contribution to help fund the launch of The Landing. 

“God was showing how he is providing. We started feeling that if we didn’t proceed with launching The Landing, we were being disobedient to God,” Roe said. 

The church has also initiated plans to try to work with the local school on making some after-school programs available. 
“The Planting Academy was a breath of fresh air,” Roe said. “The pandemic tested me, and left me asking if I have the guts to keep doing what I’m doing. The Planting Academy showed up when I needed it most.” 

Roe has taken some of the curricula she experienced in the Planting Academy, like the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Study, and used it with her leadership team. 

“We started getting back to the basics of faith, and why we do what we do,” Roe said. 

She said the Hero Maker study made her take a hard look at her own leadership style. She now feels that when the church was shut down during the pandemic, she missed the opportunity of having a more open schedule to invest in people in the congregation one-on-one through “I see in you…” conversations. 

“We have to learn how to bring new people alongside us. Otherwise, we just rely on the same people over and over again,” she said. 

The leadership team now meets monthly instead of quarterly and plans to do the Hero Maker study soon. 

“The Academy provided me with a framework for building a ministry action plan. Ministry had never been explained to me in that way before,” she said. 

“Having clear God moments awakens a greater level of commitment,” she said. 
In a recent week, four new people showed up to the Celebrate Recovery meeting. 

“Churches tend to be internally focused. The Planting Academy helps people to think of church differently. I would recommend it to anyone thinking of starting a new thing. I’m grateful to Roger and Melanie. This is making a real difference in ministry.” 

The surveys of participants at the end of 2020 and 2021 expressed a desire for more in-person experiences, so the 2022 academy will be a hybrid experience that includes four in-person events, including two that are field experiences, in which the group visits a church or ministry that has started something new. The next Planting Academy will start in August, going for eight months with December off and concluding in April.