For nearly a decade, Lionheart Children’s Academy has partnered with churches across the country for kids’ educational and spiritual growth
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor, child care prices across the county are untenable for families, even in lower-priced areas. But this isn’t really “news” for church leaders with young families or single parents in their congregation. They already know.
The good news is, there’s something they can do about it: provide full-time child care at their churches.
It sounds daunting, sure. It could be. But if it’s done right, it can be much more than a “grind” — it can be a mutual blessing for the church, the parents within the church body, and the community-at-large.
And you don’t have to do it alone.
“Businesstry.” It’s a term coined by Stan Dobbs, founder of North Texas-based Lionheart Children’s Academy with 17 locations across the country. And it’s fitting for what he and his team do.
They’ll celebrate 10 years in operation next year — in churches across Texas, Colorado, Indiana and Ohio, so far —Lionheart academies are 501c3 nonprofits that provide a much-welcomed additional revenue stream.
But it’s so much more than that … and that’s the point.
Case in point: every Lionheart location welcomes at least 50 percent unchurched families. In some locations, this figure grows to 80 percent.
The origins of Lionheart Children’s Academy harken back to the concept of the “Gospel Shot Clock.” It’s a term Dobbs came up with to convey the essence of the research presented in George Barna’s book, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions.
“From a purely analytic standpoint, it’s all about the importance of focusing on children,” Dobbs explains. “The line that really captured my heart was: If we haven’t reached a person for Christ by their 13th birthday, the chances are slim that we ever will.”
Thankfully, all is not lost even if that critical connection isn’t made in time. As Dobbs points out, research by Orange (a division of The reThink Group) shows there’s a second window of opportunity later in life.
“The Gospel Shot Clock is clearly the Super Bowl, if you will, in terms of reaching the world for Christ,” he says. “But [parenthood represents] a second spike.”
Essentially, studies show that when young adults have children of their own, they tend to reevaluate their worldview. “Everywhere I go and talk about this, I get strong affirmation that this is the case,” Dobbs says.
Need meets opportunity
So, there’s an indisputable need for quality child care. And we know — because data and our own experiences tell us so — that only a few windows of time exist when someone is likely to embrace Christianity. All these factors lead us to one place: the Church.
“You’ve got these churches that have invested millions of dollars in the Body of Christ, in these facilities, and most pastors understand that they’re heavily utilized on the weekends and maybe a few weeknights,” Dobbs begins. “But a lot of time, particularly on weekdays, the facilities are basically dormant.”
The basic idea of Lionheart Children’s Academy is for churches to be able to convert their facility assets to advance the vision and the mission of the church, with child care.
“I really believe it’s the most spiritually effective option for the best utilization of that space,” Dobbs adds. “But then the question becomes, OK … but how do we do that?”
Herein lies the magic of the Lionheart Children’s Academy model.
A much-needed ministry takes shape
Once a church decides that providing child care is the highest and best use of its God-given assets to advance its vision, the first question is simple: go it alone, or partner up?
“Obviously, we think it’s wiser to invest in a partner — like a Lionheart — to operate the academy and to maximize its spiritual impact,” Dobbs says.
True enough. Most churches aren’t equipped to undertake such a highly regulated endeavor just because they want to.
But what does it look like to strike up that partnership and get a child care center off the ground?
For Lionheart’s team, the first step is to perform a critical assessment: Is there a theological and vision fit?
“Certainly, our best partnerships are evangelical in their theology,” Dobbs says. “We want to partner with churches that have demonstrated a heart to reach their communities and are generally healthy and growing. We’re all about using Lionheart as a ‘front porch’ to attract secular, unreached families at a very tender season of their lives and draw them into the orbit of the church and the gospel via child care — something they desperately need.
“That requires two people to be dancing, not one,” he adds.
Additionally, an assessment is conducted of the facility — can the space realistically accommodate a credentialed, compliant child care operation?
“If all these elements line up, Lionheart basically takes over,” Dobbs explains. That means a specialized team of individuals comes into the church for about six months to prepare the facilities for the public launch of this service.
After that, the Lionheart team operates the child care on a day-to-day basis.
“We handle personnel and all the things that, frankly, the church probably doesn’t want to mess with,” Dobbs says. “But we do it in really tightly integrated spiritual partnerships to ensure we have clarity on what we’re trying to achieve, what the outcomes are, what we’re hoping for. We’re making sure that we don’t have a mission drift.”
And this is where some other key components of the model come into play — in particular, finding and appointing a community director for the center, and signing a seven-year covenant between Lionheart and the church.
Having established more than a dozen locations across the country so far, the Lionheart team knows that the community director position at each center is pivotal to its success. After all, as Dobbs puts it, this individual is “the pastor of the academy.”
“It flows directly out of what we were just talking about, this idea of a synergistic partnership — if two entities are left to their own devices, they’re going to drift apart. That’s mission drift,” he explains. “The community director is really the glue to maintain synergistic relationship at all levels between Lionheart and that local church.”
In every instance, the community director is on the Lionheart payroll but is a deeply imbedded member of the church. “The spirit of God is the ‘secret sauce,’” Dobbs says. “But in terms of making the Lionheart vision work, the community director is in second place.”
It’s important to note that the operational director of the academy and community director are two different people. “The way to think about them is, you’ve almost got two leaders in the academy,” Dobbs explains. “You’ve got the operational leader who’s running the nuts-and-bolts, and then you’ve got the community director who’s the spiritual leader of the academy.”
As mentioned, another essential element in preventing mission drift is a covenant signed by the church and the Lionheart team. “The idea with the covenant is to convey our desire to enter into very long-term relationships with these churches,” Dobbs explains. “That’s the nature of the partnership. We want partners for life.”
Clearly, Lionheart academies are already making a big impact in multiple churches across the United States. But what does the future look like for this innovative, much-needed child care model?
As Dobbs sees it, Lionheart is past Phase 1 of its lifecycle: proof of concept.
“Churches were asking, Will this work?” he explains. “I think we’ve demonstrated that it does.”
Today, he says, Lionheart is in Phase 2: preparation for scale.
“We’re really buttoning up our playbook, our processes,” he explains. “What we’re dealing with is a very complicated engine. I have great admiration for the people on our team who run these centers on a day-to-day basis. It’s just very hard. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the spiritual importance of it, you probably wouldn’t want to do this. It’s just very, very challenging.”
He concedes that it might take a few more years to fully determine what excellence in these centers looks like, both spiritually and operationally.
“After that, we’re prepared to really crank up the scale-and-replication engine,” he says. “I could easily envision us getting to where we’re adding 50 to 100 or more academies per year.”
Even then, of course, it won’t be a perfect fit every time.
“There will be some churches that aren’t right for one of our academies,” Dobbs adds. “But for the ones who are a fit with us, it’s not a complicated decision tree. It’s really a no-brainer.”
STAN SPEAKS ON…
The concept of “businesstry”
For Stan Dobbs, businesstry is taking a ministry strategy or goal and making it scalable, then financially sustainable, through some type of integrated revenue or integrated business model.
“That way, it can grow, replicate and reproduce much more efficiently than most nonprofits or ministry concepts,” he explains. “All three of our entities — Apartment Life, Skylark Camps and Lionheart Children’s Academy — embrace this concept and are, in my mind, really powerful implementations of it.”
The essential role of scholarships
Attendance at a Lionheart academy is available at a market rate to any family. This is important in terms of stabilizing the revenue flow. However, the guiding vision is to make excellent (Christ-infused) child care accessible to all families.
“Basically, we aim to provide as large of a scholarship pool as possible,” Dobbs says.
This is accomplished with a program between Lionheart and the church, wherein each contributes toward the scholarship pool, with Lionheart matching the first $25,000. Other times, a percentage of the academy’s revenue is devoted to providing scholarships.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about how we can — in a financially sound way, where these academies aren’t running underwater — maximize the number of families in need that we can reach.
“That’s a conversation that we are 100-percent aligned on,” he adds. “This isn’t financial for us; we’re the same legal designation as the church. So, it’s wholly about the vision.”
The need for church-based child care
There are a handful of reasons why most churches don’t offer full-time child care, despite the clear, pressing need for it in their communities. Sometimes, as Dobbs explains, it’s for theological reasons.
“Early in the more fundamentalist vein of the church body, there was a conviction that women shouldn’t be in the workforce and needed to stay at home,” he says. “Anything that reinforced the idea that women should work outside the home was frowned upon. So, in my mind, that was an early limiter. And I think there’s still some scar tissue related to that.”
Additionally, personnel and financial complications are common. As Dobbs points out, providing child care “just isn’t the core competency of the church. It’s not what God called them to do.”
Additionally, mission drift can be problematic.
“I’ve found this to be particularly true with programs like Mother’s Day Out or full-time child care,” he says. “Often, there’s no ongoing sense of how this particular strategy or program is driving the vision and mission of the church; it just becomes a grind, because this is difficult work.”
Lastly, lack of adequate space very often presents issues.
“Or the church isn’t in the right location, or it’s unwilling to invest in getting the facility to where it needs to be,” he says. “Which is unfortunate, because churches are inherently better operators because of our secret sauce: the spirit of God.”
“Think about a young secular mom with her first or second child. She’s looking for a full-time child care provider. She goes out in the community and finds, say, five options. She takes the tours. Then she tours a provider that’s housed in a church and the tenor, the tone, the feel — everything she experiences — is completely different.”
The bottom line, Dobbs asserts, is that that mom will choose the church-based child care provider if all other things are equal.
“Whether she’s a Christian or not, this is true nine times out of 10 because she’s going to feel, whether she knows it or not, the spirit of God there.”
The evangelical potential of church-based child care
“I think we all recognize that the conservative Christian Church is either in decline or treading water on a national basis,” Dobbs acknowledges. “Clearly, we have to find more creative ways to engage our culture, engage our communities, engage our neighbors.”
There are many ways to do that — but for Dobbs, providing child care is really compelling.
“The age is right, you’re delivering something families desperately need, and it provides a very intimate, very deep window into their lives,” he says. “That’s precious.
“To me, this is just one of many ways in which the Church needs to think differently about how we’re going to move forward with the gospel and the great commission in a culture that makes it more and more challenging,” he adds.