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Sep23MonCommissioner Susan McMillan reflects on her time as Canada and Bermuda's territorial commander. September 23, 2019 Interview by Geoff Moulton
At the end of this month, we say farewell to Commissioner Susan McMillan, territorial commander, who will be taking up a new appointment with International Headquarters (IHQ). A farewell service for Commissioner McMillan will be held in Bermuda on September 29 at 9 am EDT—watch the service online on our livestream channel.
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In this interview with Geoff Moulton, editor-in-chief, she looks back on her five years leading the Canada and Bermuda Territory—on the highlights and challenges of ministry, the health of the territory and her plans for the future.
You’ve spent your life serving God in The Salvation Army. How would you describe the experience?
I always tell candidates that it’s a grand adventure. You never know when you put your hand in God’s what’s going to happen, and it’s been that way for me. I’ve been places and done things I never dreamed I would, never thought about, never thought I could do. But with God’s guidance and our obedience, it all comes together.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your appointment as territorial commander?
There have been many things, but one of the biggest has been travelling across the territory and seeing the breadth of services the Army is providing, to see the dedication of our staff and our officers to the mission. It’s been exciting to hear them tell me about what they’re doing.
Tell me about your other roles as territorial president of women’s ministries, executive officer of the Canadian Staff Band (CSB) and chancellor of Booth University College.
I’ve always enjoyed women’s ministries. I tell people I used to go to home league before I was born, as my mother was an enthusiast of women’s ministries. Women’s ministries offer unique programs that give us opportunity to reach out into our communities with the message of the gospel. I’ve seen it work! People have gone into a new community, started up a women’s ministries program, won children and entire families to Christ, and built a corps. It’s the one program where you’re only limited by your imagination.
Now, the CSB’s a whole other thing. I’ve been a CSB groupie since I was about 15 or 16, when the band came to Victoria on one of their early band trips, and I was enthralled from then on. At the suggestion of the then chief secretary, Colonel Lee Graves, I became the executive officer of the CSB for their 50th anniversary year. After travelling with the band, I have a whole new appreciation for the musicians and their dedication. They put their heart and soul into it. And I’ve seen that it’s not just a performance—it’s a ministry as well. What they enjoy the most is encouraging emerging musicians in the corps or wherever they go.
I’ve also been privileged to be chancellor of Booth University College. It’s a ceremonial role, but it’s rewarding to be able to see our young people receiving their degrees. I get to see all the possibilities that lie within people who have applied themselves in education as they get ready to do ministry.
What has surprised you most as a leader?
It was surprising to have people call me commissioner all the time (laughs). But when you show people you care about them and the mission, people respond. It’s exciting to see the call for candidates, to see people kneeling at the mercy seat in response to the Word of God. It’s amazing how God works through all of us one way or another if we’re open to him.
It also surprises me how much is on the shoulders of leaders to bear and the tough decisions that need to be made. At the same time, I’ve had a wonderful team of people around me to support, advise and bring their knowledge and expertise. So I’ve never felt alone on the journey.
What was the toughest decision you had to make?
The toughest decision that a leader has to make is when we have to close down a program. I always ask why we’re closing down this program. Is it because it’s no longer relevant or we have no funding for it or the people have moved away? My second question is always, what are we doing for that community instead? How are we looking after the people we leave behind when we close a program? Sometimes we close a program because it’s not needed anymore, and that’s a good thing. We’ve done our job. Other times, we’re forced to close down, which is difficult but necessary.
What have been the territory’s most significant accomplishments during your tenure?
There are so many highlights. I’m pleased that our strategic priorities have been embraced by people throughout the organization. They are living them out in their ministry across the territory.
In terms of events, participating in the Indigenous Salvation Army pow wows in Pine Lake, Alta., was a major step in our journey of reconciliation. The Canadian Staff Band’s 50th anniversary celebration weekend, with five staff bands at Roy Thomson Hall, was incredible.
We are also growing in spiritual leadership. The advent of Officership Information Weekend in Winnipeg has reaped a harvest—we have 28 cadets entering training college this year. I’m proud of work that’s been done in youth discipleship. The framework and materials for ongoing discipleship are going to set the territory on a firm theological footing.
In addition, I think the territory has responded well to crisis issues, such as the legislation around medical assistance in dying. We now have a policy in place and have stood our ground on balancing compassionate care with the sanctity of life.
Can you share one or two important leadership lessons?
The main one I’ve learned is not being too full of yourself. Christ taught us to lead with humility and recognize that it doesn’t all depend on us. It all depends on God and it depends on every one of us working together to make the mission happen.
A close second is keeping the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is saving souls and growing saints and serving suffering humanity. That has to happen in an integrated way. We lose our way if we start dividing up our mission and saying one group of people does the soul saving and another does the social services.
What are the greatest strengths of the Canada and Bermuda Territory?
One of our strengths is the tremendous creativity of our people, who are producing materials and programs and resourcing the front lines for mission. The other is our solid financial footing: our methods of fundraising are working, our distribution of those funds across the territory is effective and relevant, and our care and stewardship of resources is strong. I also want to acknowledge our diversity. We’re becoming much more reflective of the communities we serve and that’s good!
What’s the biggest challenge for the Army moving forward?
We are challenged in some ways with the secularism that is spreading across the western world. We need to push against it with all our might because we have one purpose and one reason for being, which is our relationship with Jesus Christ. As people who fund us, donate to us, volunteer with us become more and more secular, we’ll need to work hard to show them why our faith matters to all that we do.
On the flip side, we need to be accountable. We need to be transparent and accountable for the privileges the world gives us. People are now starting to question things, for example, should churches have tax exemptions? We must continually demonstrate the value we bring to the community through our services.
Can you give examples of where you’ve seen God’s Spirit at work?
This May, I was a guest at a women’s camp in Newfoundland and Labrador. People are very enthusiastic about coming to camp and it was a joy when, on the very first night, a woman came to the Lord. She didn’t wait for the message. We were singing a chorus and she came running up to the altar to kneel and she accepted Christ.
Another example is the Syrian family who were at congress and commissioning in Vancouver (read article: Freedom in Christ). These people were in the most dangerous place in the world—the city they came from has been almost completely destroyed—and they escaped and made their way to Canada. Now, here they are soldiers in The Salvation Army. Only God can do that!
I remember the story of Mark Carlos, an ex-biker-gang member, who gave his testimony in Faith & Friends and at a territorial headquarters chapel service. A Salvation Army chaplain met with him in the lockup. Mark was so nasty then that even the guards didn’t want to go near him. But the chaplain dropped a New Testament through the bars. It fell open to an inspirational passage of Scripture, he read it and got saved. That’s God’s Spirit at work.
How have your international appointments shaped you as a leader?
I served for four years in Mexico, for five years in South America West as chief secretary, responsible for Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. I was appointed three different times (seven years total) in South America East, which includes Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, lastly as territorial commander. And then I spent a couple of years at IHQ.
So how did that help me in leadership? One of the things I learned early on in Mexico was how much you can accomplish with very little. In many cases, the corps and children’s home was the only Salvation Army presence in the city. An officer couple might run it together with a cook and some part-time administrative help. But the work that they would do to care for 50 orphan children as mom and dad, pastor, administrator and everything else, it was an eye-opener for me. They even raised their own money by collecting in the streets. Rather than having a big building or formal programs, they would just walk the neighbourhood and serve people.
I came home to realize that we have such potential in this territory to do great things for God because we have more than enough and are so blessed to have the support of the public.
Do you have any words of wisdom for the incoming leaders, Commissioners Floyd and Tracey Tidd?
I’d want them to know that they’re coming to the best territory in the world (laughs). What they will find here are officers, soldiers, employees and volunteers who are dedicated to the mission. What they need from their leaders is someone to keep inspiring them spiritually and help them to know how valued they are.
Tell us about your new role.
Many will know that I’m an accountant by background. I’m going to be helping IHQ by helping territories implement our new International Financial Accounting Standards (IFAS), which come out of General André Cox’s Accountability Movement. These new policies and procedures reflect how much has changed in the financial world—such as moving from cash and paper systems to electronic systems. These are more sophisticated and require greater accountability on the part of the Salvation Army territories to account for the funds that are given to us—from governments, donations from the public or our own tithers.
I was originally supposed to retire this year, but was asked to continue on in this new role instead. It’s been confusing—many people have written to congratulate me on retirement (laughs), but I will remain an active officer. There are new opportunities for me and I’m happy to do whatever’s needed.
How is God preparing you for this next stage in your journey of officership?
As we prepare for the arrival of the Tidds, I know I am leaving the territory in good hands. As I move on, I’m excited to reconnect with many of my international colleagues. For example, in South America, where I served, many who were up-and-coming officers are now leading those territories. It’s nice to know that I can play a continued role in assisting them.
I’ve always had a sense of peace about my calling. As I said before, when you put your hand in God’s you can enjoy the adventure because you know that wherever you go, it’s going to be what he wants. It reminds me of the verse: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:6 NKJV).
Feature photo: Timothy Cheng