God on the move: Officers redeployed during COVID-19
Every few years, Salvation Army officers are sent to new assignments. When that happens, it’s sometimes hard for them to move, say “goodbye” to old friends, and prepare to meet a new congregation.
Add the COVID-19 pandemic to the equation, and the transition becomes even more complicated.
“By nature, moves are disruptive,” says Major Charles Roberts. “I already have this pre-existing disruption and many thoughts and emotions course through my mind as I reconcile moving at a time like this.”
Charles and his wife, Major Kelly Roberts, were recently reassigned from the Hempstead, N.Y. Citadel Corps Community Center to the Syracuse N.Y., Citadel. Roberts said he has moved about a dozen times in his life and officership, so he knows the routine.
“I never really get used to it,” Roberts says. “I adjust. Human beings are resilient. There is trauma involved in a move; there is stress.”
Roberts said humans need relationships with others and to be interconnected. They need a sense of routine and regularity and some control over even the little things.
All in the family
“A pandemic blasts all of those structures apart,” he said. “Officers, while being separated from people, are blessed with a great company of other officers in the territory. So, I never really leave family because I always have someone I know somewhere else.
“Right now, every church is more like a startup than an established organization. So, we’re all starting from scratch in a lot of ways, but the structures are the same. The uniform is the same. The flag is the same. There’s a lot of sameness and that gives us stability.”
Leaving behind relationships at the old corps in the midst of such uncertainty can also be unsettling, Roberts said.
“It’s difficult to pull from those relationships at a time when they’re most needed, not just for the people themselves, but for the officers as well,” he said. “We start to develop a family. Making moves at a time like this becomes more difficult than normal.”
Passing the ministry baton
Corps members on the receiving end wonder what to expect from their incoming leaders. Those leaders must depend on certain corps members to prepare the way. At the same time, those leaders must prepare the way for their successors at the previous appointment, Roberts said.
“We’re asking people to do things that would be hard enough normally, but are made increasingly difficult because of COVID-19,” he said.
The key to it all is to “lean on God,” said the veteran officer.
“The stress level of moving is unmanageable without God,” he said. “I’m employing spiritual disciplines in greater regularity. I lean on, trust, and rely on God more. There is a higher level of relinquishment; a deeper letting go.
“We have to be battle–hardened and tested because we’re leading people into a scenario we know nothing about. In order to do this, we have to trust The Book. We have to trust what God says about who He is and who we are in Him. We have to lean on that.”
Praying for guidance
Lieutenants James and Marcella Hughes are also trusting God. The newly commissioned officers are starting their first appointment in rural Tiffin, Ohio.
“We’ve been praying,” James said. “Every day when we leave our apartment, we say a prayer before coming into the office. We ask God for guidance and to point us in the right direction. We want to help people in the best way we can and need Him to bless our efforts.
“We are constantly bathed in the prayer that our efforts are going to help others. We pray for the health of our community and for our corps people. We pray for financial relief for our community.”
Marcella said she never imagined that the couple’s first appointment would be during a global pandemic that would temporarily stop in–person worship and programming.
“It’s kind of difficult coming in, but not really knowing what we’re doing, and we can’t really be with our people,” she said. “It feels like we’re not doing as much ministry as we anticipated we would and that makes me feel weird.
“With COVID and not really knowing what’s going to happen, we don’t know when we’re going to be able to really do a lot of things with our people.”
Marcella also emphasized that prayer has been a constant.
“We’ve kept our faith in the Lord,” she said. “It is a burden to have COVID happening, and not being able to do things as we would like to see, but we haven’t gotten down about it. We’ve stayed strong and faithful in the Lord through it all.”
James said the lack of an in-person congregation during COVID also affected him.
“The part that hit me the most was feeling like we weren’t corps officers yet because we went so long without having our people at the building,” he said. “I think that was one of the hardest parts for us because we have this beautiful building and space, and it’s just been empty.”
Before COVID–19, the Tiffin Corps held a café three days a week. James is excited about getting it started again soon.
“We can’t wait to open up the café again when things calm down,” he said. “I think that’s a great ministry opportunity and a lot of people in the community look forward to coming. It’s a much-needed service.”
Balancing the known against the unknown
Another couple who knows all about moving is Captains Evelyn and Justin Caldwell, who were the divisional youth secretaries in Massachusetts. They are returning to a corps as leaders of the Pittsburgh, Pa., Temple.
“Were happy to be at a corps again,” Captain Justin Caldwell said. He believes they are like people who start a new job or go off to college during this pandemic.
“There’s just a lot of unknowns,” Caldwell said. “There are so many questions about transitioning when it comes to programs and services. What does fall programming look like this year? What do kettles look like this year?.” He said groups such as advisory boards and councils are coming together, praying, and seeking God’s direction.
“It’s an opportunity for ministry and reaching people in new ways during a time of need. While the challenges are many, the opportunities are also there to meet those needs in the name of Jesus, for sure.”
Caldwell says a men’s Bible study will begin soon, but it will be done virtually. A women’s Bible study began meeting in person, but is held outside in a gazebo and the women wear face masks.
“We’re just trying to walk that line between safety and reaching out and not losing people of faith in the community,” Caldwell said. “We know there are people going through tough times right now and kids who might be home in difficult situations. It’s a delicate balance.”
God is on the move
Children’s programming is still up in the air at the corps, Captain Evelyn Caldwell said.
“The children’s programs are the biggest challenge. Kids are not as disciplined with their hygiene and knowing how to stay safely distanced from each other,” she said.
Evelyn said that this move—the fifth for Justin and the fourth for her—caused some angst because the family had to decide whether to fly or drive. Then there was the issue of finding quality childcare in a community where they are newcomers.
The couple also had to learn Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 protocol and how the Western Pennsylvania Division handles this issue differently than does the Massachusetts Division.
“COVID has made this transition much harder, for sure,” Evelyn said.
However, like her husband, Evelyn said prayer is paramount in these unprecedented times.
“God’s on the move, even though it seems like everything is being stopped,” she said. “I don’t think God has stopped working at all. I think things are happening and people are meeting with God in a way we’re not able to tell quite yet. Prayer will help us to see that.
“Prayer opens our eyes to see the opportunities and not just the challenges of this time.”
by Robert Mitchell