Left to right: Almeda Wright, associate professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School; Sarah Ann Bixler, assistant professor of formation and practical theology and associate dean of the seminary at EMU; and Greg Czyszczon, assistant professor of counseling at EMU.

Eastern Mennonite University receives $1.25 million to support secure parenting

Eastern Mennonite University has received a grant of $1,248,874 from Lilly Endowment Inc. to help establish Conectere, an interdisciplinary project that supports secure Christian parenting and caregiving. Conectere focuses on relational attachment bonds, an important factor that is largely unaddressed in current faith formation research and resources.

The project is being funded through Lilly Endowment’s Christian Parenting and Caregiving Initiative, which aims to help parents and caregivers share their faith and values with their children. Conectere will join parents and caregivers around shared concerns about their children’s faith and values, linking religious practices with psychological insights to support secure bonds between caregivers and their children. Based on cutting-edge research and practice, the initiative will foster increased effectiveness in the transmission of faith and values to children. 

Hosted by EMU, Conectere brings together the expertise of professors in theology and psychology to support Christian communities in faith formation and attachment security with children. Sarah Ann Bixler, assistant professor of formation and practical theology and associate dean of the seminary at EMU, and Almeda Wright, associate professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School, will serve as co-principal investigators and develop resources for congregational leaders and faith communities. Greg Czyszczon, assistant professor of counseling at EMU, will direct the Restoring Connections Lab where cohorts of 15-20 caregivers will meet with trained facilitators to listen, share, build trust and learn about growing children in faith and the practices of secure attachment. 

Conectere investigates a critical factor that affects the outcome of sharing faith and values: attachment, the relational connection between caregivers and children. By understanding how attachment security impacts the transmission of faith and values in particular contexts, Conectere will train caregivers in culturally appropriate practices of attunement and flexibility, partnering with them to adapt their faith formation practices to serve the faith outcomes they deeply desire for their children.

“Many faith communities in the U.S. wonder how to stem the tide of young people leaving,” Bixler observed. “By bringing together theology and psychology, we find that sharing faith and building secure relationships have to go hand in hand. If you have one without the other, faith probably won’t stick in the next generation. I’m eager to work with my wise colleagues at Yale and EMU to understand this better and to support parents, caregivers and faith leaders in passing on faith and values to their children.”

Taking its name from the Latin word meaning join, link, bond, and lead to, Conectere has three components: research, practices and resources. The initiative will conduct research with caregivers and children to understand how faith formation works in particular Christian subcultures. Through a practice lab, Conectere will explore contextualized practices of secure attachment and faith sharing with parents and caregivers. Finally, it will develop resources to provide education about attachment and faith formation through curriculum, presentations, workshops and practice-based networks of parents, caregivers and ministry leaders.

Passing on faith in diverse communities

Eastern Mennonite University is one of 77 organizations that are receiving grants through this competitive round of the Christian Parenting initiative. Reflecting the diversity of Christianity in the United States, the organizations are affiliated with mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Pentecostal faith communities. Many of the organizations are rooted in Black church, Hispanic and Asian Christian traditions.

Conectere centers caregivers located at the margins of dominant American Christianity. Within African American, recent immigrant and Mennonite Christian communities, adults often seek to protect their children from external cultural threats, whether perceived or real. Bixler, Czyszczon and Wright proposed Conectere in response to concerns they heard from parents and caregivers in these communities. Adults’ fear that children will assimilate to American culture sometimes leads to a caregiving posture of rigidity and control, which young people say pushes them further away from the community’s shared faith and values. Conectere will resource parents and caregivers in culturally-attentive ways of relating with children, so that the sharing of faith and values is complemented by secure relational practices – a combination shown by research to make faith transmission across generations most effective. 

“We’ve heard from many parents who are seeking to nurture the spiritual lives of their children, especially in their daily activities, and looking to churches and other faith-based organizations for support,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These thoughtful, creative and collaborative organizations embrace the important role that families have in shaping the religious development of children and are launching programs to assist parents and caregivers with this task.” 

Lilly Endowment Inc. launched the Christian Parenting and Caregiving Initiative in 2022 because of its interest in supporting efforts to help individuals and families from diverse Christian communities draw more fully on the wisdom of Christian practices to live out their faith fully and well, passing on a vibrant faith to a new generation.  

About EMU and Lilly Endowment Inc.

Eastern Mennonite University, founded in 1917 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is an educational institution of Mennonite Church USA, serving students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. EMU confers undergraduate, graduate, and seminary degrees in the liberal arts, applied sciences, and professions. 

As a Christian university with vigorous interdisciplinary inquiry, EMU is a world leader in developing theory and practice of restoring relationships. This makes EMU an ideal home for Conectere, grounded in an Anabaptist tradition that emphasizes critical reflection, countercultural community and theology understood in practice. The added strength of a partnership with Yale Divinity School faculty makes Conectere a promising initiative to develop contextually-attentive, psychologically-sound, theologically- robust resources for caregivers and ministry leaders in particular Christian communities.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is a private foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion and maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana. A principal aim of the Endowment’s religion grantmaking is to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians in the United States, primarily by seeking out and supporting efforts that enhance the vitality of congregations and strengthen the pastoral and lay leadership of Christian communities. The Endowment also seeks to improve public understanding of diverse religious traditions by supporting fair and accurate portrayals of the role religion plays in the United States and across the globe.

Join the Discussion on “Eastern Mennonite University receives $1.25 million to support secure parenting

  1. Congratulations on this exciting achievement! Implementing such an innovative program holds promise for deepening attachment and faith in generations to come.

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