The fruits of scholarship often grow in exciting and unexpected ways. For Dr. Leon Blanchette, professor of Christian ministry, it was to the tune of a $1.3 million Lilly Endowment grant in 2023 to establish the new Center for Faith and Family at Olivet’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry (STCM).
Arising from Dr. Blanchette’s published research on methods and issues in children’s ministry, this new endeavor aims to equip parents and caregivers for the faith education of their children. A year into this work, we caught up with Dr. Blanchette to learn more about the Center and its initiatives.
Give us some background on this significant grant.
Dr. Blanchette: The grant from the Lilly Endowment to establish the Center for Faith and Family officially launched in January of 2023, so the project has been up and running for almost a year now. After a $50,000 award for the initial research and planning stage, the major grant of $1 million plus an additional $250,000 was awarded to support the study and resourcing of parents educating their children in the Christian faith. Over the five-year life of the grant, the goal is developing research-based tools and curriculum to equip Christian parents in passing on their faith within their families. The Center will develop resources and training in partnership with the University’s denominational partners — in particular, the 11 districts on Olivet’s region and the 1,007 Nazarene churches they represent.
What are you most excited about so far?
Dr. Blanchette: The work of the Center started with the launch of a survey to help us understand the needs of Nazarene parents in our churches. Based on the results of that survey, we’ve begun a weekly podcast, Faith Together, in partnership with Shine.FM. The podcast is co-hosted by me and Lindsey Bush, the children’s pastor at Gathering Point Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais, and can be found on the Center’s website as well as airing on Shine.FM each Sunday evening. The podcast explores topics related to parenting and faith — from the history of teaching in the early Christian Church to Advent traditions to share at home to aspects of self-care for healthy parenting. I’m excited about these first steps and the way they’re putting resources and knowledge in the hands of Christian parents.
How has your background in scholarship, ministry and education equipped you for this work?
Dr. Blanchette: When children’s ministry is done well, it’s family ministry. My career has, for the most part, been as a children’s minister and teacher, and my research on Christian children’s education has been published in journals including Review of Religion Research and Christian Education Journal. I never thought I’d be administering a project on this scale, but it was on the basis of my published research that I was invited to apply for the grant. One of the Lilly Endowment’s initiatives is to support Christian education, and my work had positioned me to be a leading voice on this topic. Everything involved in the grant is stretching me in new and excited ways: building curriculum, overseeing a team of writers, working with budgets, producing a podcast. At times I wonder how I got here, but as my colleague Dr. Jeff Stark in the STCM has reminded me, this is God allowing my work to bear fruit in new ways.
How does the Center draw on Olivet’s academic resources?
Dr. Blanchette: The campus community of scholarship has been central to this work. In the next phase of the project, we are developing curriculum and training sessions, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have academic experts in a host of relevant fields to work alongside. Dr. Mark Frisius, another colleague in the STCM, is drawing on his expertise in early church history to write about how the first Christians passed along their faith and its relevance for us today. Dr. Lance Kilpatrick, chair of the education department, functions as our pedagogical expert and analyst. Experts like Dr. Lisa Gassin and Dr. Kristian Veit, in the Department of Behavioral Sciences, are contributing units on attachment theory, mental health and healthy parenting, while faculty like Dr. Lisa Vander Veer, dean of student persistence and licensed clinical psychologist, and professor Brandon Arbuckle, associate professor and licensed family therapist, have appeared on the podcast. In fact, early in the process, Dr. Gassin’s expertise helped shape our first steps, as we realized that the foundation of healthy parenting was having healthy parents. So the first few podcast episodes were related to self-care. It’s been rewarding to see the campus’ scholarly community helping to equip today’s Christian parents.
What are the next steps for the Center?
Dr. Blanchette: There is still so much to be done. In the coming year, our goal is to continue to cultivate relationships with our local Nazarene churches. We plan to work with representatives from each district so that the resources of the Center are truly for equipping our churches. Part of this is continuing to get the message out, but another important part is to continue to listen to what parents need today: How can the Center equip parents for guiding and educating their children amidst today’s challenges and opportunities? We also would like to integrate research opportunities into the Center; I’d love to be able to conduct a longitudinal study of families who participate in our training and small-group sessions, for example. But a project like this continues to evolve. Right now, I’m thrilled to be working with such a great team of collaborators and excited for what God has in store for the Center.