On July 1, Michael Blackwell will celebrate 30 years as head of the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina (BCH). With his booming voice, quirky sense of humor, wit and charisma, it doesn’t take long to discover why people are naturally drawn to this man.
If asked about Blackwell, many would agree he is among today’s most respected N.C. Baptists. For those who are new to the state, the list of his achievements since he took the reigns of BCH at age 41 can seem a little overwhelming.
As president, Blackwell has cut through many ribbons to dedicate new facilities. He’s helped lead the organization through the daunting accreditation process. He’s written four books. He’s spearheaded major capitol campaigns and initiatives, which include the organization’s increased focus on families and efforts to help single mothers raise their children in godly homes.
Under Blackwell’s leadership, BCH has also expanded to 19 communities throughout the state. In addition to ministering to children, today BCH cares for developmentally disabled adults, and assists the elderly through North Carolina Baptist Aging Ministry (NCBAM).
BR photo by Shawn Hendricks
Michael Blackwell has spent 30 years leading the Baptist Children’s Homes. He makes the children a priority, not politics.
“[Blackwell’s] passion to help children and families is truly remarkable,” said Milton A. Hollifield Jr., executive director-treasurer for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
“[He] inspires and encourages churches all across this state to have fulfilled our biblical mandate to reach out to the least.”
Hollifield shared his comments this spring during the North Carolina Baptist Heritage Award ceremony in Greensboro, where Blackwell delivered the keynote address.
Few institutional leaders in N.C. Baptist history have reached the 30-year milestone, Hollifield said.
Hollifield, who shares the same birthday as Blackwell (May 3), went on to describe the BCH leader – who he and others refer to as “Mickey” – as a great friend, innovative, “creative in an ever-changing world,” “forward thinking” and a “true statesman.”
“Highly relational” are the words Blake Ragsdale, BCH director of communications, used when asked to describe his boss. “I’ll get a text message out of the blue from [Blackwell], ‘Have you gone to see this movie? What did you think about that?’” Ragsdale said. “He allows himself to be that way with staff.”
“People not only respond well to him, but he responds so well to others,” Ragsdale added. “It’s a lot of the reason why the Children’s Homes has been so successful. … That trickles right down to internal relationships as well, too.”
But for Blackwell, all of his successes comes down to his “burning desire to make a difference.” “At the end of the day, what have I done to make life better? I ask myself that almost every day. … Sometimes I go, ‘not a whole lot,’” said Blackwell.
Blackwell flipped through images on his phone of some developmentally disabled adults who visited him the previous day. One of them was grinning ear to ear as he sat in Blackwell’s office chair.
“Sometimes … like yesterday, I go, ‘Well, I made life better for 12 people, I think,’” he said. “They made my life happier.”
Building strong relationships, trust and respect takes many years. “That doesn’t come in the first five years; It took a long time,” he said.
A former chair of the trustees once described Blackwell as having “unique talents, personality and commitments” that fit well with the president position.
Blackwell, a native of Gastonia, graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism in 1964. He’d written for The Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh Times and The Durham Morning Herald. He also worked as a disc jockey and director of a radio station.
But Blackwell felt God pulling him toward ministry.
He went on to receive a master of divinity, master of theology and doctor of ministry degrees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He served as a youth leader and associate pastor for Ridge Road Baptist Church in Raleigh and pastor of First Baptist Church Carthage and Monument Heights Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
All of those experiences, Blackwell said, helped equip him for his role at BCH. Blackwell has also completed post-graduate work in management, business and theology.
Blackwell said he wants to be remembered for running a “steady ship” and an organization that is stronger today than it has ever been.
A lot has changed in residential care since Blackwell took the reigns as president I 1983. One major difference, he said, has involved the “higher degree of trauma” that children encounter in homes today.
“That can be trauma from … a drug addicted parent, parents who pimp out their daughter to get drug money,” he said.
“We’ve had that happen. … They’ve witnessed their father shooting their mother. The level of trauma … is higher, or at least more open and known, than it was.”
Blackwell recalled when much of the media didn’t address sexual abuse issues.
“They wouldn’t use it,” he said. “That was in 1983. Now you read it all over the place.”
In addition to awareness, reaching out to families has made a big difference in the organization’s effectiveness, Blackwell said.
“When I came it was basically just [about] the child,” Blackwell said. “The family was kind of over here, sort of a nebulous figure. … Now they’ve got to be a part of [the process].”
Blackwell also has worked hard to steer BCH clear of politics – especially Baptist politics.
“Keep it about the children,” he said. “… You keep it about the mission, the vision, sharing hope, changing lives, and then everybody can resonate to that.”
“[BCH is for] all North Carolina Baptists,” Blackwell added. “I am friends with a lot of pastors.
“Half the time I don’t know if they are moderate, conservative, arch-conservative. It’s got to be about the children. And our staff understands that. … If they get invited to a church, they go. …
“The churches are our lifeline.”
Blackwell, whose favorite verse is Philippians 4:13, said his faith keeps him focused and grounded.
“I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me,” Blackwell said. “That was my favorite verse when [my wife and I] were dating. … It’s still that [verse].”
For now the 71-year-old shrugs off talk about retirement.
A year ago Blackwell began shifting more responsibility over to his chief operating officer Keith Henry. But Blackwell said he isn’t going anywhere – at least for now.
He still has plenty of work in front of him.
This year BCH will begin a “big” three-year statewide campaign to increase financial support for the organization.
“I have to be here for that; that’s going to be something that’s going to consume the bulk of my energy for the next several years,” he said.
“When I get through that, successfully, then I will be able to say, ‘OK, now what do we need to do?’”
And when he’s not working, Blackwell said he enjoys simply spending time with his wife Catherine and their two adult children – Julie and Michael – and two grandchildren.
“Outside of that, I try to take care of myself. I try to eat right, get some exercise,” he said. “As far as refinishing furniture or going out here to the golf course or taking up lacrosse or learning Chinese, no thank you.”
“If I can still stay excited and my health stays the way it is, I’ve got a few more years left.”
For more information, visit bchfamily.org.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – In the print publication of the Biblical Recorder, there was a special layout for this particular story. It covered the center spread of the June 22 issue and included a special timeline of major events throughout Baptist Children’s Homes’ history. To order your copy, call 919-847-2127 or visit brnow.org to find out how you can subscribe or get a copy.)