Putting the “heart” in Lionheart Children’s Academy

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Executive Community Director Karin Laymance and Chief Spiritual Development Officer Ginny Fowler are pivotal in keeping the Lionheart Children’s Academy organization mission focused: to provide top-quality, compliant, church-based and Jesus-focused child care.


Nearly 10 years ago, Karin Laymance was working as a preschool pastor at the Lake Church in Arlington, Texas, when Lionheart Children’s Academy Founder Stan Dobbs shared the prospectus with the pastor and he shared with her and the children’s pastor. 

Dobbs had a big question: Would the church partner with him to launch the very first Lionheart Children’s Academy? 

Laymance couldn’t know it then, but the coming months would chart the course for the Lionheart organization as a whole — and for her own professional life.

She remembers the day vividly.

“Stan talked about the Academy, and I thought, this man is a visionary,” she recalls. “In it, I saw  great potential for our church to share Christ with children on a daily basis.” Excellent child care is what Lionheart provides to earn the right to plant seeds of the gospel and connect families with the church. 

But when he asked Laymance to be a part of it herself — from the ground up — the answer wasn’t so clear. 

At the time, she was in her early 60s. Having spent a career in children’s education — as a Kindergarten teacher, a preschool pastor and children’s pastor — Laymance knew how highly regulated and time-consuming it is to provide full-time child care. 

Download the eBook!

“I didn’t know if I was up to it,” she admits, “but when the job description for the Academy’s community director position came across his desk, my pastor asked me: ‘Karin, did you write this?’” 

She hadn’t — but the pastor persisted: “Well, it’s describing you.” 

They decided to both pray about it.

Laymance accepted the role of community director at the Lake Church Lionheart Children’s Academy, and she and Dobbs set off to get it off the ground.

The spiritual gatekeeper of the Academy

Serving as the academy’s Community Director meant “owning” the spiritual element of the launch. This was and is a non-negotiable expectation for every academy’s Community Director. After all, this is a child care model unlike any other available: top-quality, compliant, church-based and Jesus-focused. Without this intention at the forefront, the spiritual component might get lost in all the regulations involved. 

“The Community Director is the spiritual gatekeeper, the chaplain of the academy,” Laymance explains. “It was a smooth transition for me because I’d been a preschool pastor for more than 30 years; I just had a new ‘congregation.’”

From the beginning, she leveraged her strong connections with the staff at The Lake Church to make the Lionheart culture one of true ministry. On Wednesday mornings, the worship pastor — affectionately called “Mr. Brandon” by the Lionheart kids — brought his guitar and led preschool worship: “meow time” for babies and 1-year-olds, “roar time” for preschoolers and school-aged children.

She also involved several other The Lake Church pastors in Lionheart activities, weekly. 

“Making the connection with the church was natural because they’re my family; I’d been there for 23 years,” she says. “These children are coming here Monday through Friday, so we just say, ‘Come one more day — in fact, your children will probably be in the same classroom they’re in during the week. So, it’s a familiar place.”

Laymance also made it a point to get out into the community to spread the word about Lionheart. She visited local businesses — pediatric dentist’s offices, Babies “R” Us, Walmart and so on — to swap brochures and do reciprocal advertising. 

Then and now, one of Lionheart’s best marketing tools is their buses. Used to transport kids to before- and after-school care, these vehicles look (and sound) like lions, complete with a horn that “roars” and songs from “The Lion King” playing. 

“I’ve actually had children at the schools try to get on the Lionheart bus because it looks so cool,” Laymance laughs. “Those are Stan’s thing. He’s all about fun. And the children love them, too.”

Right person, right seat

In 2021, Laymance was invited to transition to Lionheart’s full-time executive community director. She again discussed the opportunity with the Lake Church pastor. Though he was wary of losing her, he supported the move. It was a selfless endorsement at the time: Laymance had been at the church for 30 years and was beloved by the kids and fellow staff alike. 

She agreed to find her own replacement at the Lake Church Lionheart Children’s Academy and (of course) still be part of the church, including volunteering with the preschool ministry on Sundays, if she transitioned to the Executive Community Director role and left the Lake Church Lionheart. That worked for the pastor.

It takes a Community Director, to know one

Now, in her role as Executive Community Director, Laymance has partnered with Chief Spiritual Development Officer Ginny Fowler to find, hire and train the right community director for all 17 Lionheart locations — and growing. 

To do it, they follow a three-page onboarding checklist to make sure the candidate can successfully fulfill this unique role. 

Every Academy’s Community Director must be a believer and a member of a partner church. The partner church helps us to identify a member whom God is calling to fulfill the role. Not only that, but his or her first job is to find a prayer team from the partner church and schedule monthly prayer walks. 

Additionally, every month, Community Directors must submit spiritual impact reports for their academies. “We want to know, What did you see God do this month?” Laymance explains. Invariably, at every location, she learns of the children and families getting saved.

“I just read one report after another and weep about what God is doing,” she says. “I’m just humbled that God would let me do this.”

In her own elevated Community Director role, Laymance might call or visit an academy on a given day. She might engage a Community Director on Teams for training and encouragement or develop the preschool curriculum lesson plans. Or maybe she’ll attend a staff meeting and do training there or help lead a Community Director retreat or training.

Then, every few weeks, she and Chief Spiritual Development Officer Ginny Fowler meet to determine what each academy and Community Director needs, and how Laymance can best meet those needs.  

“No day is the same for me, but one thing I’m always doing is making sure that we maintain our spiritual focus,” she says. To this end, she prioritizes prayer.

Each Tuesday, Laymance sends an email — “2 Minutes on Tuesday” — where she pours out what she has learned in her career about connecting with preschoolers. 

On Fridays, another email goes out with encouragement for Community Directors and scriptures for each day of the week. Each Community Director posts these for their academy’s parents to read daily. 

On Thursdays at 1 p.m., all of Lionheart stops what they’re doing and gathers for prayer. Laymance always participates in, and sometimes leads, these sessions. 

Each month, she and Fowler meet to plan trainings, pray for the Community Directors, and get updates on the academies and launches.

Laymance and the whole leadership team (the “HeartHub”) follow a calendar she creates monthly wherein they pray, every day, for a different partner church: for the pastor and staff, for the Lionheart team in place, and for the families who take advantage of its offerings. 

That’s no small task.

“I look back on our humble beginnings at Lake Church when we started with 21 children and a handful of teachers, and now we have over 2,000 children in our 17 academies, with two more opening up in early 2024 and others in the pipeline,” Laymance says. “I’ve seen so many children and parents put their faith in Christ. I’ve seen God do some amazing things and change the trajectory of people’s lives. It’s clearly His mission.” 

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says of her time with Lionheart. “And I’m so glad that I was obedient and have been able to experience an amazing work of God in my own life and the lives of so many through our Lionheart academies.” 


In 2007, Ginny Fowler became a part-time program director for Lionheart Children’s Academy’s sister ministry, Apartment Life. Back then, the organization was pretty young — but Fowler and her husband were familiar with it already, having served as apartment missionaries for two years before moving overseas.

“We came back, and I remember thinking that if there was ever a place where I wanted to work, it would be Apartment Life, because I’d had such a good experience being on the receiving end of their leadership,” she recalls. “And so, God just prompted my heart.”

She applied for and received the role of program director, leading Apartment Life’s on-site missionaries. After that, Fowler took on a variety of roles in the organization, including as the Dallas-Fort Worth regional director. In time, she — and Apartment Life and Lionheart Founder Stan Dobbs — recognized her gift for developing church partnerships, recruiting, and staff and spiritual leadership.

Soon, Fowler was offered the role of Vice President of People in the national office. 

Eight years later, when Dobbs launched Lionheart Children’s Academy, she was faithfully serving over the “people” side of HR for Apartment Life. One day, Dobbs gathered her and several colleagues and asked if they’d be willing to help launch a unique new “businesstry” model for church-based child care. She enthusiastically agreed, taking on the role of VP of Talent Management for Lionheart.

“I worked partly for Apartment Life and partly for Lionheart at the same time,” she recalls. “It was a lot of work, but it was beautiful work. We were taking all of our transferable skills to raise up this new ministry that was meeting this significant need.” 

Specifically, she says, Dobbs had a vision of the Church cornering the market on child care. “At the time, we only had a sliver,” Fowler explains. “We just thought, How do we make a bigger difference than that?”

Ginny Fowler with “Roary,” the Lionheart Children’s Academy mascot

Nurturing the whole child

For her part, Fowler was instrumental in putting Dobbs’ vision into motion. Her focus was on building up people, systems, culture, and some of the spiritual aspects of the Lionheart team. Fowler developed spiritual metrics — key indicators that would indicate if Lionheart was being effective in its mission — that are still in use today. Lionheart Children’s Academy has consistently seen significant year-over-year increases in these benchmarks. Because of these key indicators and metrics, Lionheart is able to track that in the year 2023, children heard the message “God made me, God loves me, and Jesus wants to be my friends forever” more than 50,000 times. 

From there, Fowler’s path to her current role as Chief Spiritual Development Officer wasn’t quite a straight line. She spent four years helping launch Lionheart at the leadership level, and then handed off those duties while continuing to work for Apartment Life for a year. Just before COVID hit, a family emergency forced a crossroads: Fowler needed to be at home to care for a loved one.

One year later, when the dust settled, she went to work for an international missions organization as its HR director. Over this time, she kept in close contact with her Lionheart leadership family, including CEO Pete Wayman. 

In November 2021, over coffee, she and Wayman were discussing Lionheart’s strategic plan, in depth. 

“I thought, Wow, that’s a lot of information!” Fowler recalls. And for good reason: while grateful for Lionheart’s growth, Wayman and Dobbs were concerned about preserving its mission direction. 

“Pete said, ‘We need somebody who wakes up every morning thinking about how we’re investing spiritually in children and families,’” Fowler remembers. “He said, ‘We’ve prayed about it, and we think it’s you.’”

Fowler was surprised. She prayed on it. During an Advent Bible study, God made her role clear through scripture. “The thing He has made me to do is to joyfully announce the presence of Jesus,” she explains. “He let me know that I was going to fulfill my calling with Lionheart.” 

Now, Fowler’s title and responsibilities uniquely reflect Lionheart’s mission to not only provide excellent child care, but to do it for the sake of sharing the gospel. “I’m someone who’s constantly thinking about how we’re spiritually developing children and our teachers,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that you can nurture the body and the soul of a child, but if you neglect the spirit, you’re not nurturing the whole child.”

“Ultimately, in my mind, we’re impacting lives, we’re impacting legacies, and we’re impacting our culture,” she adds. “So that’s what I get to spearhead.”

Lionheart Children’s Academy is regularly recognized as one of the best Christian workplaces in the nation.

And it all starts with prayer

Every morning, “before her feet hit the ground,” Fowler prays over the Lionheart organization. 

“I pray for wisdom,” she explains. “And I pray for our people, both the ones we have and the ones that are coming. I pray for protection because there’s a lot of spiritual work around what we do. Then, I pray for provision.”

After that, she has meetings with community directors to check in, equip and encourage, and also — importantly — to celebrate with them.  

In the afternoons, Fowler works with the operations team. “Again, there’s this beautiful concert between operations and the spiritual work that we do,” she says. “Child care is a highly regulated industry. In order for us to have families, we have to be safe and compliant. At the same time, if we stop there, we’re not meeting our spiritual mission.” 

When a new Academy nears its opening, Fowler’s focus shifts to working with the church’s children’s pastor. This is critical because, with the exception of just two Academies, Lionheart shares space with churches. With the Lionheart team onsite 60 hours a week or more, and the children’s pastors only around on Sundays, learning to share space presents a challenge. 

“I’m asking myself how we can keep the church excited about what’s going on, and also how we involve our children’s pastors in meeting and greeting our families so that when they come on Sunday morning and they see the children’s pastor, it’s somebody they’ve already met,” Fowler explains. 

Pre-launch, she also focuses on equipping children’s pastors to be connected to one another, as having a Lionheart Children’s Academy onsite is a unique culture. To this end, events are hosted throughout the year where children’s pastors can gather and collaborate.

The overarching goal, then, is to ensure everyone is on mission together and that the spiritual and regulatory elements of the Lionheart model work in tandem — and that’s a lot of work. As Fowler says, “It’s just a lot of ‘peopling.’”

To help make it happen, she relies on Karin Laymance, executive community director at Lionheart.

“Working with Karin, we’re laying a gospel foundation from infants through pre-K, and from Kindergarten to 5th grade,” she explains. “We’re teaching children that God made them, God loves them, and Jesus wants to be their friend forever.”

A Lionheart staff member and child pray together

This thing is going to work 

As new Lionheart Children’s Academies are launched, Fowler often recalls a pivotal moment in her early days with the organization. 

Early on, after a few Academies were up and running, she visited one. While walking past the infants-care room, it was nap time; the lights were turned down. 

“I watched this teacher hold this infant, and I’m listening to her praying scripture over this baby,” she says. “I thought back to when my little ones were small. I rocked them to sleep, and I prayed scripture over them while I did it.” 

“I thought about all the moms and dads out there working every day to provide for their families. With us, they get to know that somebody is doing what they get to do at night, during the day.” 

“It’s a sacred trust,” she adds. “When I saw that, I thought, This thing is going to work. This is it.” 

True to form, Lionheart Children’s Academy is consistently recognized as one of the best Christian workplaces in the country — which is great for its employees but also for the parents who leave their kids in Lionheart’s care. All Lionheart staff love the Lord wholehearted, love one another, and serve like Jesus. 

“When you think about our life in Christ showing up, parents see staff who are committed to each other, who are inspired by leaders, who are inspired by growth,” Fowler says. “If I just boil it down, I’m confident leaving my child at a place where people care about each other. If they’re doing that, they’re going to care about my kids.”

Herein lies one of the most compelling cases for the Lionheart Children’s Academy model: caring for the whole family. Doing so creates countless potential connections between Lionheart parents (50% of which are unchurched) and the church that houses the Academy. 

As Fowler explains, most child care providers start at 6 a.m. and shut down at 6:30 p.m. “What they can’t do is meet the needs of the families outside of those 12 hours,” she points out.  

Meanwhile, a church can offer divorce care, grief share, moms’ groups, Sunday services, brunches, retreats, parenting classes, debt-retirement classes — all the things a secular child care chain isn’t set up to provide

“For us, when the church opens its doors, it’s not just opening its doors to a Lionheart Children’s Academy; it’s opening its doors to all the things it provides for its church family,” Fowler points out. “By the nature of who we are as the body of Christ, we believe that you don’t have to do this alone.”


Leave a Reply

HTML Snippets Powered By : XYZScripts.com