Why aren’t you a corps officer

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by Colonel Phil Needham –

Recently, Keitha and I were doing the Sunday morning meeting in a corps in this territory. After the meeting we were standing in the foyer, shaking hands with those in attendance when someone asked me, “Why aren’t you a corps officer?”

I took it as a compliment, which, as it turned out, is exactly how he meant it. He was saying that an officer who preached well should be a pastor with a parish, not an administrator with an occasional preaching assignment. He was informing me that I had passed his test for someone whose preaching merited listening to every Sunday morning.


We will demonstrate our unswerving love for God by …helping the helpless, offering hope to the hopeless and bringing healing to the hurting in Christ’s name.

Okay, okay, so I’m bragging. I must confess the comment did a little something for my ego, which is sufficiently fragile to enjoy an occasional encouraging word. Okay, so it did a lot for my ego!

My ego aside, there was something else in that young man’s comment that is worth not losing. He was saying something we dare not miss. I think he was speaking for a new generation that sees things differently and that in some matters ought to be allowed to correct distortions in our perceptions. In this instance, my questioner was inviting us to see officership in a very different way–or more specifically, to see and measure an officer’s success differently. He was saying that the place where this Army of ours has to succeed is in the field; fail there and the whole movement comes crumbling down.

Therefore, we should be investing our best pastorally gifted and equipped officers in the field. We should not be moving them out of the field quickly (I consider 5 or 6 years ‘quickly’); we should be giving them plenty of opportunity to use their gifts to nurture a congregation, disciple Salvationists, grow the Body of Christ, and substantively advance a corps’ mission. This does not take place in any enduring way in two or three-year appointments. It can take place in appointments of five-plus years.

I am greatly encouraged to hear an increasing number of cadets and officers say that their officer calling is to the field. There was a time when ‘success’ for many officers meant moving up ‘the ladder’ and achieving a ‘high’ position in the Army. There is still plenty of that thinking around. My heart breaks when I get to know an officer who hasn’t been ‘promoted’ as he had expected and either feels himself a failure or blames ‘Army politics’ for his ‘lesser’ appointments. That person might be richly gifted and capable of using his gifts in wonderful ways. He may even be doing so, while bearing the unnecessary (culturally imposed?) feeling of failure or resentment.

I get a very uneasy feeling when we in administration talk about ‘needing to move (name of officer) into leadership.’ As if leading a corps or an ARC is not leadership! As if sitting behind a desk at headquarters and handling enormous quantities of paperwork is more like leadership; and leading a congregation, discipling Christians, teaching the faith, resourcing local leaders, and initiating new missional programs and new ministries, is not! (I am fully aware that some field officers like to spend most of their time behind desks, diminishing their effectiveness as spiritual leaders, and that the most effective headquarters officers act more like good corps officers than like office people.)

Who are the recognized leaders in the Protestant church today? If you were to start giving me names, they would probably mostly be…pastors. Most of us would be hard pressed to name anyone who occupies a prominent position, or even the top position, on a denominational staff. But many of us would come up with names like Maxwell, Hybels, McDonald, Lucado, Ogilvie, Swindoll–all pastors. They, and others like them, are the ones leading the way.

There were a DC and a DWO in my home territory (Southern) who had served many, many years in those positions. (They are Keitha’s uncle and aunt.) They had four years to go before retirement. They asked for a corps; they wanted to go back to where the Army mattered most. Reluctantly, THQ agreed and gave them a corps. With all our incessant (and sometimes unconvincing) talk about the corps being the most important part of the Army, David and Emeline put their money where their mouth was and proved they believed it. I loved them for it. Interestingly, they commented at their retirement four years later that they had no idea that leadership of a corps operation had become so tough and challenging. (I sometimes wonder how well I would do at a corps now. It’s been 17 years.)

When I was about 10 years old, I went with my officer father one day to THQ in Atlanta. It was the old Ellis Street building downtown. I remember going from floor to floor with him as he hobnobbed with just about everyone in the building. (He must have written the course on hobnobbing.) His spirits were at peak. He and my mother had just learned that, after a number of years on DHQ and the training college staff, they were appointed to be corps officers in Tampa. I don’t ever remember him being so elated over an appointment.

And as I watched him and Mother over the next few years, I saw a joy and fulfillment in ministry matched by nothing else in subsequent years. Oh, they always managed to enjoy every appointment they subsequently had, but there was nothing for them quite like that corps appointment. From time to time, as I come across people who were their soldiers back in the early 50s, they tell me what good pastors my folks were. And I believe them.

So–‘Why aren’t you a corps officer, Phil Needham?’ Well, here’s what I think. I think all officers are called to be corps officers. The art is to be one wherever you are, whatever the appointment. Every appointment gives you the opportunity to listen, to touch people’s lives, to nurture disciples, and to reach out to a hurting world–in one way or another. These are the most decisive things officers do. And when they do them well, they are being good corps officers.

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