Blackwell blazes uncharted trail leading BCH into bold future

Baptist Children’s Homes’ (BCH) long-time leader has a gift for making things look easy.

The resonant voice of Michael C. Blackwell, honed in his early years as broadcaster and pastor, instantly captures audience’s attention. His ability to deliver his message for any church speaking engagement, executive meeting or keynote address appears effortless.

His leadership decisions, such as altering the child care organization’s focus of service to include entire families or undertaking a sweeping new ministry for aging adults, are not made without risk. Blackwell’s bold choices to broaden the scope of an organization historically devoted to children could have backfired, but instead the shifts were broadly embraced.

Because of this history, it would be reasonable to believe that arriving at his 35th anniversary as president/CEO on July 1, 2018 is simply another step forward in the journey of BCH’s longest-tenured executive leader. Of course, none of what has been accomplished in Blackwell’s tenure has been without tremendous effort, sleepless nights and sacrifice.

“There’s no doubt that my 35th anniversary was one of the most arduous milestones to reach,” Blackwell admits.

The commemorative date of July 1, 2018 cannot be fully appreciated without looking back almost one year earlier. On the afternoon of August 5, 2017, Dr. Blackwell was walking to the podium at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and deliver the message for the university’s summer commencement.

“Every step was physically excruciating,” he confesses. “I almost could not make the walk to the podium.”

Blackwell, now 76 years old, had been diagnosed with lumbar spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. The issue not only caused chronic discomfort in his back, but the pain also radiated into his legs and feet.

Blackwell had noticed his physical condition growing steadily worse. For a leader who regularly travels, speaks and is as active as ever in his role as president, his condition made carrying out his responsibilities, even a simple walk to a podium, a challenge unlike any he had faced.

Despite his circumstances, he delivered the address to Gardner-Webb graduates as if nothing was amiss. Later, university president Dr. Frank Bonner stated that Blackwell’s commencement message was the “best” he had ever heard.

“His comment — it was something special,” Blackwell says. “I only made it through my message by the grace of God.”

A testament to his toughness and tenacity, Blackwell spent most of 2017 going through his normal routine while dealing with incredible pain. He absolutely refused to let it derail his BCH commitments. On October 12, 2017, he underwent an invasive surgery to correct his condition. No one was surprised to see him back in the office as the calendar flipped forward to 2018. “I’ve learned throughout the years to remain resolute, no matter what.”

That resolve has served him well at the helm of BCH. Blackwell has been undeterred in making historic decisions and facing challenges, physical or otherwise. When he arrived in 1983, the ministry was two years shy of celebrating its 100th birthday. Coming into an organization with such rich history and longevity was not lost on Blackwell. He was savvy enough to recognize that his role called for more than someone solely focused on overseeing BCH’s daily operations.

“From day one, I’ve seen myself as a caretaker of BCH’s history,” Blackwell explains. “It’s been vital to glean wisdom from the remarkable efforts of founder John Haymes Mills and the BCH leaders and staff members whose shoulders we stand upon today. However, if my efforts stopped there I would not be fully honoring my calling to this ministry.”

For Blackwell, this meant laying out stepping stones that would lead BCH into a bold future that included uncharted territory.

“Finding the pathway to substantiality is a never-ending journey; it’s one that began the first day I took office and continues today,” Blackwell says.

“Safeguarding the future is the surest means of honoring BCH’s past,” he continues. “It’s about securing the future for everyone we have the privilege of serving.”

The definition of “everyone” has expanded beyond the boys and girls BCH has served since 11-year-old Mary Presson became the first child in care on November 11, 1885.

In 2000, after being approached by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC), BCH began caring for special needs adults through its Developmental Disabilities Ministry (DDM). Nine years and nine statewide DDM homes later, BCH expanded its services once more, again at the BSC’s request, to create its model program for aging adults — the North Carolina Baptist Aging Ministry (NCBAM).

“There are not adequate words to describe the admiration I have for our convention and the relationship we share,” Blackwell says. “It is a partnership that has not only yielded these two transformative ministries but has resulted in thousands and thousands of lives being changed through its ongoing support and the efforts of North Carolina Baptists across the state.

Both DDM and NCBAM have achieved incredible success but were also intrepid undertakings for an organization specifically founded to care for children.

“It was a challenge to broaden who we are and who we serve, but everything happened in God’s timing — that’s why it has worked,” Blackwell says.

His efforts to diversify services continued in 2011 with the implementation of Family Care which offers compassionate homes for hard-working, single mothers and their children.

And hearkening back to its orphanage roots, BCH agreed in 2014 to oversee the Good Shepherd Children’s Home, an orphanage in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala that offers refuge for the region’s poverty-stricken indigenous boys and girls.

“You know you are a part of a ministry that is as real and as raw as it gets when you are literally saving the life of a newborn baby who has been left to die on the streets in a dirty cardboard box,” Blackwell says.

Back in the states, Blackwell turned his attention to a forgotten population of children — college students who have aged out of the foster care/residential child care system. A study showed less than 10% graduate from college due to lack of family or financial support. As a result, BCH partnered with Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee to establish HOMEBASE College Ministry in 2016, an outreach located on the WCU campus that gives these at-risk students a supportive environment and resources to help them achieve their goals.

“HOMEBASE underscores once again the importance of relationships,” Blackwell explains. “It’s through our remarkable friendships with Western Carolina University and the Baptist State Convention, who made it possible for us to use the campus’ former Baptist Student Union building, that we are able to keep these students from falling through the cracks.”

Dr. Blackwell’s vision for BCH continued to widen when he sought a financial commitment in excess of $1 million from Bob and Carolyn Tucker, longtime BCH supporters and founders of Shoe Show, Inc.

BCH broke ground on the new Bob and Carolyn Tucker Greater Vision Outreach Center in 2016 giving birth to a ministry focused on meeting the essential physical and spiritual needs of working families struggling financially. Greater Vision is creating a network of nonprofit partners that will utilize each organization’s unique area of expertise to meet needs.

“The new outreach is the product of the ‘greater vision’ we have for families in our communities,” Blackwell explains. “Through our partnerships, we are able to put families on solid footing and equip them to reach their potential.”

Now entering his 36th year, Blackwell’s vision for BCH is still coming into view. In January, the Board of Trustees adopted a new five-year strategic plan — “20/20: A Clear Vision.”

“What became ‘clear’ to us, as the strategic planning team gathered to discuss where God is leading us as an organization, is that we cannot stand still even in the midst of the success that has been achieved,” Blackwell expounds. “The plan will propel growth in multiple aspects of ministry empowering us to impact even more lives.”

And for Blackwell, increasing BCH’s ability to change more lives is a guiding factor in the choices he has made throughout his 35 years as president. The decisions made and the challenges hurdled have positioned the 133-year-old nonprofit ministry to remain vital and vibrant within the climate of society’s ever-changing needs and the shifting sands of residential child care.

“If there is a void to be filled, if there is a need to be met, then I want us to be bold enough in our conviction of spirit and our faith in the providence of God to step to the forefront,” Blackwell resounds. “When we take hold of an opportunity to share the hope of Jesus Christ and see lives repaired and restored, then we are fulfilling our mandate. That is the heartbeat of Baptist Children’s Homes.”

As Blackwell aptly puts it, “We are many ministries beating with one heart.”

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