Cols Mark and Sharon Tillsley find joy in being faithful to God and investing in people

Whether serving at a women's shelter, training future leaders or being surrounded by eager young people in a rural corps, Colonels Mark and Sharon Tillsley have embraced change in their lives with faith that their time is in God's hands (see Psalm 31:15).

This month, the Tillsleys begin their new appointments, with Colonel Mark Tillsley as chief secretary and Colonel Sharon Tillsley as territorial secretary for women's ministries of the Canada and Bermuda Territory.

The Tillsleys spent time with Salvationist to share their story.

You've been married for 33 years and have spent 26 of those years as officers in The Salvation Army. How did God first call you to officership?

Colonel Sharon Tillsley (ST):  I was working as a nurse caring for patients on my regular rounds when I felt God touching my heart and mind. There were so many needs I noticed that particular day, not just physical but spiritual as well. My eyes were opened and I knew God was calling me to officership that day. But I waited before telling my husband. Strangely enough, around the same time, he started talking about it so I knew it was the perfect timing of God.

Colonel Mark Tillsley (MT): I was working in a professional social work capacity and what triggered it for me was that we were really enjoying our involvement in our corps. I had an increasing sense from the Holy Spirit that if I gave my life to congregational development and investing my life with people I would find great joy.

ST: We also had friends who were officers that were our age and they were so happy doing what they were doing and that was a real encouragement to us.

Did you both grow up in the Army?

MT: Yes, and that's where a lot of my rich friendships were forged. I have vivid memories of the North Toronto corps as a young person when my parents were the corps officers. There was an adjustment when we moved to Newfoundland in my high school years, but those ended up providing some enduring friendships that I look forward to reconnecting with.

ST: My father accepted Christ in his 30s and that brought our whole family into the Army.

When did you accept Christ?

ST: I was eight years old and was a junior soldier and we had a Junior Soldier Day of Renewal. Our divisional youth secretary preached a message on salvation and I went up to give my whole life to Jesus and ask for forgiveness. When I was about 22, I was touched by the Holy Spirit to recommit myself and be used in whatever way the Lord saw fit.

MT: I think of two specific times. When I was 14, I was at youth councils in St. John's, N.L., when I made the first conscious decision to be a follower of the Lord. And like so many teenagers, that was followed by a time of upheaval and turbulence. At 20, while I was in college, I made an adult's decision to be a follower of the Lord in a small corps that I was attending.

How did the two of you meet?

MT: We had mutual friends and family that introduced us. We were both about 18 and the first thing that attracted me to Sharon was her beauty, and then I found out that she was also a Christian and a beautiful person inside. I was grateful that we were introduced and that people thought we might like each other. We finished college in May or June and got married in August 1979, then went into training in 1985.

Tell us about your family.

MT: We have three adult children, Michael, Paul and Karin. Michael's our oldest. He finished university and has an MBA. Right now he's training to be a business administrator in The Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Our second son, Paul, has a degree in economics and is the divisional budget manager/analyst for the Army's Greater New York Division. Karin is completing her second year of university in New York. She's studying ecological science and is passionate about musical theatre. This summer, she'll be participating in the U.S.A. Eastern Territory's musical production, Stoned, based on the life of Paul. She'll then be touring with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the territory.

All of your children are involved in the Army's ministries. What can the Army do to reach the younger generation?

MT: We need to listen to them and demand more from them, not less. We're seeing incredible signs of a willingness to be involved in sacrificial service and a love for the marginalized that could put many of us to shame. But we can stop wasting time trying to be hip because they can see through that charade immediately. They don't need us to be their buddies; they need us to be genuinely concerned, to cheer them on for what they're trying to accomplish and to help them connect with Christ and each other on a deeper level.

Have there been any significant mentors in your life?

MT: Both sets of parents and good friends who are not afraid to tell me when I've blown it, not just those who are there to tell me I've done a good job.

ST: I helped my mother take care of my father when he was coming to the end of his life. One of the last things he did, besides give my mother her anniversary card, was write letters to each candidate who was departing the division to go to the training college. It was a personal letter with a Bible verse and encouragement. Those were the last letters he wrote as the divisional commander. He knew what was important at the end of life—encouraging the future—and it left a big impression on me.

Describe a story of Army ministry in action that touched you.

MT: One of my best friends was an addict who struggled with alcohol and drug use. We met when he came to the corps for programs and we struck up a conversation. While the process was long and required a lot of trust building, he has now been wonderfully saved and it's been great to see his life become sane out of insanity. He's a successful businessman and what really touches me is that he volunteers each week to share a brief meditation at a feeding program. When I see him in action, I notice the people in rapt attention when he speaks because they remember him before Christ and now see him in his right mind. I am incredibly proud of him and treasure his friendship. A verse that has resonated over the years is John 15:15 where Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants…. I have called you friends.” We undervalue the power of friendship. I'm discovering that it forms the basis for encouragement, is vitally important for discipline and correction and helps us deal with issues of power. We haven't even begun to plumb the depths of what ministry could look like if we really committed first to friendship.

ST: One of the ministry components of our first corps assignment was supervision of a domestic violence shelter. Due to safety concerns, I took a mother and her two little boys to our house so they could play in a more private park where people wouldn't recognize them. We went to get water to drink and the mother said, “You're such a good family. You're the only family I know in my whole life that loves each other.” And I realized we may have been her only chance to find out about Jesus. Now she had a chance to be part of the family of God.

How have earlier appointments affected your development as leaders?

MT: We were blessed to be commissioned to a corps in Upstate New York. The people in that area were wonderful, but constantly had to battle poverty and loneliness. Some of them still carried the stigma of being outcast from the rest of society. Early in my ministry, I was frustrated by what seemed to be their incapacity to change according to my schedule. At the low point of my ministry, I cried out to God, “If you don't change these people, I'm going to quit!” and God said to me clearly, “How about instead of me changing them, I change you?” At that moment, he touched my heart with a love for people that has not left. Then we had a very different, but wonderful corps experience in an eight-year appointment as the corps officers of Montclair, New Jersey. Our corps service was followed by the privilege of leadership at the U.S.A. Eastern Territory's training college. Then in June 2006, Sharon was appointed as the territorial wellness bureau director and I was appointed as the secretary for personnel, which is where we've been until now.

ST: When we were first commissioned, we thought they were going to send us to a very demanding inner-city corps. But instead they sent us to a corps in Upstate New York, and I raised concerns to Mark about what I would do in this more rural setting. When we got there, we found that people are just the same everywhere. The problems were very similar to the inner city and these people needed us as officers just as much as any corps in the large metropolitan areas. I walked in the door and all the teens surrounded me and said, “You're going to be our coach for our Bible Bowl team” and “You're going to be my Sunday school teacher and girl guide leader.” And I thought, “What? I didn't know I had all these jobs!” I had my work cut out for me, but it taught me a good lesson that I just needed to listen and obey God.

What is the appeal of officership today?

MT: Officership is not the only way that people can be completely fulfilled in their Christian ministry, but it is a wonderful avenue where God can use your gifting and desires. If God is calling you to the ministry of officership, then the issue becomes one of obedience to the known will of God. There's a powerful movement that's taking place right now where young adults are accepting this call again. Yes, in officership you do surrender some of your autonomy, but the opportunities for meaningful ministry are tremendous.

What one thing do you want Salvationists to know?

ST: I love to hear stories about people and their interests, so I hope I'm going to be blessed to hear many of those when I come because that will make me very happy.

MT: We're committed to servant ministry. We don't come as the “answer people” and we certainly don't come with any illusions that we need to be change agents, just for the sake of change. We want to find out what the Lord wants from us, and we're going to discover what our Canadian and Bermudian brothers and sisters are thinking about and praying for by listening carefully in these early days. If we can be part of what God desires to do at this time, then we'll be very happy in our service, and we hope others will find us to be joyful, supportive leaders.



On Tuesday, June 4, 2013, Marguerite Mercier said:

I so admire and thank God for the amazing difference "The Salvation Army" is making all around the world; one person at the time...!!! May Our Precious Lord richly bless all the men and women who are devoting themselves for this great work.

On Tuesday, June 4, 2013, Major Bonnie Lynn Bussey said:

Dear Canadian Friends:
You are very blessed to have such godly leaders as the Tillsleys, second in command, there in Canada. Les and I have worked very closely with them for the last four years, and I want you all to know they are what they appear to be.....genuine, godly people, humble in spirit and yes, have led by example in servant ministry.

We pray that a fresh wind of the Spirit will flow through them both. We miss them already, but know they are in the Lord's will.

God bless them and the Canadian Territory.

Major Bonnie Lynn Bussey
THQ West Nyack, NY

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