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Aug12FriHow The Salvation Army cultivates rural ministry. August 12, 2016 by Kristin Ostensen
Last September, The Salvation Army in Lloydminster, Alta., was facing a desperate situation. With the downturn in the oil market, more and more people were turning to the Army for assistance. In just a few months, the number of families accessing the Army's food bank—the only food bank in Lloydminster—had more than doubled and the shelves were bare.
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A call for donations went up on their Facebook page and the message was picked up by local media. Within 24 hours, donations started pouring in from organizations as diverse as The Crazy Indian Brotherhood, Husky Energy and the Lloydminster Bobcats hockey team, along with many individuals.
“Over the course of the next two weeks we were overwhelmed by the generosity of the community,” says Major Lisa O'Doherty, corps officer. “The food bank was full to overflowing.” The corps had to put out a second call, asking for volunteers to help process the donations.
For Major O'Doherty, it's just one example of the power and the appeal of a small-town community. “As a rural ministries officer, you're very involved in the community,” she says. “You're the face of the Army, so you have the opportunity to build relationships with so many people.”
An officer for 23 years, Major O'Doherty has spent her entire ministry in a rural setting. “Sharing people's lives, the ins and outs, the ups and downs—I consider that a real privilege.”
The Face of the Army
The Salvation Army has 168 rural ministry units in Canada and Bermuda, representing over half of the territory's corps and nearly 300 officers. Rural ministry units typically serve small, isolated communities that are reliant on natural resources for their sustainability and demonstrate a resilient sense of community and interdependency.
The highest concentration of rural ministry units is found in the Newfoundland and Labrador Division where 63 corps have that designation. This is largely due to historical reasons as, in its early days, The Salvation Army evangelized many remote communities in the area, which originally were not connected by roads.
Today, maintaining rural corps can be a challenge. Canada's rural population is shrinking as more people, especially youth, move to urban areas for better opportunities. For corps, fewer people means a decrease in financial resources and “boots on the ground” to carry the Army's mission forward, which can lead to multi-tasking fatigue and burnout. Canada and Bermuda faces the additional challenge of an officer shortage—as retirements outpace new lieutenants, it's more difficult to fill appointments.
Yet despite these challenges, Captain Mark Dalley, territorial rural ministries consultant, remains upbeat about the Army's future in smaller communities. Three years ago, the territory created a rural ministries roundtable to better understand and address issues of importance to these ministry units.
One of these issues is the creation of circuit ministries—a growing reality, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is home to seven of the territory's 17 circuits. For Captain Dalley, circuits are generally preferable to amalgamations, which result in the closure of corps.
“With circuits, we can preserve the corps' independence and unique identities, which have formed over generations, and they can continue to be the face of the Army, right there on the ground locally,” he says.
Circuits can also create valuable synergy. For example, if one corps has a successful music program or a community response vehicle, then both ministry units benefit.
“When they pool their resources, it opens up avenues and opportunities to engage in shared ministry that reach far beyond what they already have,” says Captain Dalley. “It makes them stronger.”
While models for circuit ministry vary depending on culture and geography, Majors David and Wavey Chaulk take a 50-50 approach in Random Island and Lethbridge, N.L. During the week, they alternate days at the two corps so each has its own Bible study and home league, and on Sundays, they do a service at each corps, alternating morning and evening week to week.
This model has given corps members more opportunities to play an active role in the ministry of their church, taking some pressure off the officers to try to be everywhere at once. For example, if the Chaulks are at Random Island Corps on a Sunday morning, Lethbridge Corps still holds a service, and vice versa.
“They don't want their church closed when the officers are not there so they've stepped up to the plate and said, 'We will do the service,' ” explains Major Wavey Chaulk. Each corps has a team of five local officers and soldiers who run the meetings.
Lay leaders are also essential to Lethbridge's thriving youth program. On Mondays, the corps offers various activities, including timbrels, creative movement and music, which are led by the corps' young people's sergeant-major, Michelle Holloway, and four volunteer leaders. They also have a youth group on Friday evenings, which brings together about 25 young people from the surrounding area.
“Michelle has a connection with the kids because she works at the kitchen at the local school, so when she invites them, they come,” says Major Chaulk. “She is excellent at what she does—she is a ball of energy.”
Building on Strengths
Making the most of the resources that are available is key to a successful rural ministry. “You have to look at what you have, who you have, in your congregation and then capitalize on those strengths,” says Captain Dalley.
In Lloydminster, one of the Army's greatest strengths is its positive reputation and its partnerships in the community, as demonstrated by the food drive last fall.
“I don't think we would survive without partnerships because there are so many needs in the community,” says Major O'Doherty. “Without community volunteers, especially in our community and family services, we would not be able to help the number of clients that we do.” The corps distributes between 115 and 160 food hampers each month.
“We're known as one of the big helping organizations in town,” she adds. “People recognize The Salvation Army—they're not sure who else to call so they call us.”
In a small town, the Army is often a “go-to” for people who need help, which can spur the development of new programs that are tailored to the community's needs.
“That's how we started ESL conversation classes,” Major O'Doherty notes. “We had immigrants coming to our community and family services who couldn't afford to pay for classes at the local college.”
Those classes have, in turn, led to growth at the corps. “We have a Cuban couple who started coming to the conversation classes with some of their family members, and then they started coming to our services. The husband is now part of our worship team.”
Being a smaller corps, Lloydminster makes a strong effort to embrace all who come through its doors. “A couple of Salvationists recently moved here from Dubai and were expecting their first child, so we held a baby shower for them—they'd never been to a baby shower before,” Major O'Doherty shares. “The joy that we had as a small congregation, being part of welcoming a new family to the country, to the community, to the corps—it went beyond the usual fun that you have at a baby shower. The majority of our congregation showed up. It had a real family feeling that you don't always have in a larger church.”
Looking ahead to the future, Lloydminster is prioritizing its ministries to families. “The corps is in a revitalization phase right now,” says Major O'Doherty. “The average age of the population of Lloydminster is 32, so bringing in younger families is a long-term strategy for rebuilding the corps.”
To that end, Lloydminster is introducing three new programs this fall to connect with children and parents: Messy Church, Baby Song and the Red Cap anger management program.
Lethbridge Corps is also working to bridge the gap between its successful youth program and its Sunday services. “When we do a youth Sunday, the church is filled,” says Major Chaulk. “The young people come and bring their parents.”
At Listowel Corps, where Captain Dalley serves as corps officer, the focus is similar. The church has an after-school club on Tuesdays that attracts 50-60 children and a multi-generational band. “For youth and older people, it's a place of relationship,” he says. “Its greatest success is not necessarily its musicality, but it's given our youth a place to engage and express themselves and find a place of support and encouragement.”
For Captain Dalley, the chance to form deep relationships is what ultimately makes rural ministry so meaningful.
“What we have is a great opportunity to simply be with the people,” he says. “The push and the rush of the urban environment doesn't happen here. People are more interested in knowing you, in you knowing them. That's a powerful thing.”