l-r: Majors Stacy and Rob Birks, Major Brian Saunders

CFOT: new leadership, new possibilities

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Team prepares for the challenge of educating the cadets.

By Karen Gleason – 

Over two decades ago, then-Lt. Brian Saunders stood on the Western Territory’s training college campus with his friend, then-Cadet Rob Birks, and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could serve here together?” At the time, Saunders was the property and transportation officer at the college and Birks was about to be commissioned.

Twenty-three years later, that wish came true.

The Salvation Army College for Officer Training at Crestmont (CFOT) in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., equips men and women for a life of service in the Army. This year, the college is poised for change with new leaders in place: Major Brian Saunders, training principal; Major Rob Birks, assistant training principal; and Major Stacy Birks, director of campus services.

“Despite this change, there is no shift in priorities,” Saunders said. “We will continue the legacies and programs that define what it means to be a Salvation Army officer, embracing and refining the programs that have gone on before while looking toward the future for new opportunities.”

As a fifth-generation Salvation Army officer, Saunders has a strong sense of the Army’s legacy, with an openness to future possibilities. He attended Azusa Pacific University as a pre-law student where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science. Heeding God’s call, he resigned from law school to attend The Salvation Army School for Officer Training and was commissioned with the Servants of Jesus Session in 1991. Eventually he earned a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in clergy education.

Saunders moves into the principal’s role after four years as assistant training principal and one year as director of personnel at CFOT.

In his 24 years as an officer, over half have been at CFOT.

“This gives a unique perspective,” Saunders said. “I’ve been able to watch the progression of the school over 25 years—to look back to the past and forward to the future.”

His first appointment was at the training school, before serving in a number of corps and training appointments including assignments in England and Guam. Saunders returned to the training college in 2010, and took up his current post as training principal in July.

“Being a corps officer made me a better training officer and vice versa,” he said.

Saunders said he’s thrilled to have the Birkses on board. They arrive after six years in the Golden State Division where most recently Rob Birks was general secretary and Stacy Birks was divisional secretary for mission development. They were commissioned as officers in 1992, with the Followers of Jesus Session.

The Birkses add another dimension to the leadership team, after time spent at corps and at headquarters.

“We’ve spent 15 years as corps officers, and I would sometimes think, ‘I wish they had taught me this,’ or ‘I’m glad they taught me this,’ or ‘I didn’t realize why they taught me this until now,’” Rob Birks said. “Then at DHQ [divisional headquarters] you see a different side of what’s needed in training—two different perspectives of what’s needed for an officer.”

The Birkses said that they are positive people who enjoy others, and they look forward to campus life.

“We feel good about how officers have invested in us over the years and we want to return that favor by investing in our future officers,” Stacy Birks said.

CFOT differs from a secular college in that its key element is the spiritual development of the cadets. This is Saunders’ major responsibility. “We work with them to develop a solid relationship with God, an understanding of who they are in God so that is what empowers them,” Saunders said. “I take this very seriously. It’s both a privilege and a responsibility.”

Part of that role is to observe the transformation of cadets into lieutenants. As Saunders said, new cadets arrive full of passion, raw energy and untested talents.

“Our role is developing them and releasing them to the territory,” he said. “I love stories of new lieutenants and how they find their niche within The Salvation Army. And as staff at CFOT, we learn from them when they let us know ‘I wish we had learned that at school.’

While each member of the leadership team has classroom responsibilities, it’s what happens outside the classroom that’s most important.

“It really is ministry of presence; we minister to the cadets through relationship,” Saunders said. “They learn best by example and conversation.”

Rob Birks will manage the daily running of the school, working with the departments and coordinating activities and projects.

“We’re not just in our offices all day, though; we’re really in the mix: classroom, meals, chapels,” Birks said.

And as he noted, “Some of these cadets might be our leaders one day. They’ll be our peers right away.”

Saunders added: “It’s not an authority issue; it’s a timing issue. They’re appointed as cadets; we’re appointed as officers. Some may be our bosses down the road.”

Stacy Birks is responsible for the living situation at the college, and coordinating meals and special events. This is also a teaching opportunity, as the cadets will need these skills in future appointments. According to the Campus Services mission statement: “We hospitably serve…through prayer, celebration, education and creative, intentional planning.”

“Everything we do has a dual purpose—we’re always in teaching mode. We aim to be role models for the cadets, setting examples in all we do,” Saunders said. “The staff are part of this; through teamwork we support a common goal: to produce blood and fire officers of spiritual maturity, professional excellence and intellectual curiosity—a ‘holistic officer approach.’”

He said it’s an honor to be involved in this way.

“Training school is instrumental in shaping the Army’s future,” he said. “The entire staff is dedicated to the ministry of training cadets. We look forward to watching God at work in the lives of the cadets over the course of their training experience.”

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