You’ve probably heard the old saying: “Preachers’ kids are the worst behaved.” Such things have sometimes been said about the children of officers in The Salvation Army, too—but are these comments fair or accurate? Perhaps it’s time we look beyond the stereotypes and labels and see what’s really happening with OKs (officers’ kids).

Have you noticed how many OKs are missing from the congregation when you enter a typical Salvation Army corps these days? It was this observation that led me to pursue a research project as part of a doctor of ministry degree: “Salvation Army Officers’ Kids: How OK Are They?” I discovered that an astounding 49 percent of OKs in Canada have left The Salvation Army.

While some OKs seem to thrive in their relationship with God as adults and continue to be engaged with their local corps, others have disappeared from our congregations. As an OK, officer parent and pastoral services officer, I find this statistic alarming. It threatens our very existence as a Salvation Army marching into our second century.

Background of the Research Study

It isn’t only OKs who are missing from church congregations, though. A research project commissioned by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 2011 found that, among those 18 to 34 years of age who were “raised Christians”—attending a Catholic or mainline Protestant church at least weekly in the ’80s and ’90s—only one in five continued to attend weekly as an adult. For those raised in the evangelical tradition, only half remain regular attenders.

Against this backdrop, I wanted to inquire about the current spiritual status and church affiliation of adult children of Salvation Army officers and explore the sources of encouragement and discouragement that influenced these connections. My research participants were OKs from across Canada, ages 18 to 35, whose parents were officers for all or part of their childhood and adolescence.

The data was collected through an online survey with 102 participants, as well as 10 semistructured interviews that focused on the lived experiences (at home, at the corps and in the community) of OKs during their growing-up years, as it related to their personal faith development.

Findings

Under the theme of encouragement, the number one factor that made an impact on personal faith development for OKs was the positive modelling of faith by parents in everyday life. They were also grateful for the nurturing of spiritual practices, such as prayer and family devotions, at home. Living in an itinerant system, OKs felt supported by parents providing a sense of “home” (a secure base).

This spiritual encouragement at home is reflected in the finding that although only 51 percent of OKs are attending the Army, almost 75 percent of those surveyed still attend church regularly (although almost 20 percent attend a different denomination). OKs also indicated they were encouraged by opportunities for involvement in service and ministry at church when it was not mandated.

Nurturing relationships with mentors and friends in the community of faith was another source of encouragement for OKs. This was especially emphasized in experiences of formation through camping ministry. Most of the OKs surveyed had worked at summer camps for multiple summers and said this experience was very encouraging in their faith development.

The strongest discouragement theme was the significant negative impact of frequent moves resulting from the Army’s itinerant system. While one quarter of respondents reported excitement with moving as young children, this changed as they got older. The majority of emotions associated with moving included anxiety, worry, fear, sadness and grief, as reflected in statements such as these:

I have a lot of unprocessed sadness that followed me into my young adult years.

We just kind of left … disappeared and that part of our life was behind us.

Because we moved so much, I may not have the same grounding that some people have … it feels like I have half-baked relationships all over, so I wonder how that might have affected me.

I ascribe my issues with anxious attachment style/avoidant attachment style to my experiences of a fractured sense of community, having moved so much in my developmental years. 

In addition to the discouragement of a transient life, OKs experienced other common pressures that the children of clergy face. For example, for some families with both parents in ministry roles, it was a struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, which, at times, left OKs feeling secondary to “the Army.” OKs also reported that high moral and behavioural expectations were placed on them just because they were OKs.

Finally, OKs moving into the emerging adult stage were sometimes discouraged when their values were in conflict with those of their parents and The Salvation Army as a whole around particular Army positions, policies and procedures.

Recommendations

Given the strong positive role of officer parents in nurturing faith in their children, I recommend that The Salvation Army be increasingly intentional in supporting this dual pastoral role at home and the ministry unit. In this day and age, Christian parenting is challenging, and coupled with the ever-increasing demands of ministry, officer parents need to be supported with the best of resources to assist them in navigating these dual roles. These resources could be made available through pastoral services officers.

In addition to providing resources, this support could be demonstrated through divisional or regional family camps, picnics, etc., to intentionally bring OKs and officer parents together. I also recommend the promotion of OK camps or retreats, both regionally and territorially. No one understands the lived experience of OKs better than other OKs.

To place the necessary focus on the importance of caring for OKs, I recommend that a territorial champion be appointed who will be the voice of OKs to The Salvation Army. One of their tasks could be to establish an “OKs mentoring OKs” program, such as the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters programs, where OK alumni could encourage and support younger OKs as they navigate transitions.

Since it is unlikely that The Salvation Army will change its itinerant appointment system, it is my recommendation that a transitional care plan be established for OKs, to support them before, during and after each move. This could be a joint project of the pastoral services department, divisional youth leadership and local corps. This transitional care plan should also include transitions to post-secondary education.

A Vital Mission

It is my conviction that the faithful tending and raising of our vulnerable children in the Christian faith is a vital mission for any Christian parent and, even more particularly, it is a crucial task for those called to leadership. As a missional organization seeking to concretely bear witness to Christ’s love for all, The Salvation Army must attend faithfully to the wellbeing and spiritual vitality of our own children and support the growth of healthy officer families, and thus provide integral leadership for the development and maintenance of spiritually flourishing congregations, which in turn minister to communities across Canada and throughout the world.

Major (Dr.) Marlene George is a pastoral services officer in the Atlantic Division.

Photo: Anne Richard/stock.Adobe.com

Comment

On Saturday, June 15, 2024, Shayne Stanton said:

Not being an OK myself but about to enter my 20th year of involvement with the Salvation Army, I have always been concerned as well with the children of my previous Corps Officers and how they adjust to the constant moving around, where you can't really make long term friends, some of the kids I try to keep in touch with as well as the Officers because I have gotten to know them all very well, the key ones that I keep in touch with for Officers are Majors Robert and Shari Russell and also Majors Mark and Jodi, Michael and Susan and Lieutenants Brian and Natalia DeBoer, who were commissioned last year and thankfully were given St. John's West so I can visit them. But like Jamie said the Army should consider changing the length of appointments to give the OKs a chance to make some real friendships that will last long after they move.

On Thursday, June 13, 2024, Bronda Aylward said:

Very well written article, Major Marlene, and a great recommendation. I would be most interested in reading the full research document if it's available to the general public.

On Monday, June 10, 2024, Jackie Barrett said:

Jamie Rands raises an excellent point that reducing move frequency in the itinerant appointment system will make the Corps Officers and their church/corps more engaged in their community.

In fact, over the last seven years, my corps, "Corner Brook Citadel", had experienced five officer changes, notably with Majors Ed and Luanne Barrow, and then Captains Danette and Darren Woods from 2019-2022, Majors Wilbert and Bertha Abbott from 2022-2023, Captain Kim Chan from 2023-2024, and now the return of Majors Wilbert and Bertha Abbott who will likely be that corps' final Corps Officers due to possible merge with a neighbouring corps.

When Danette and Darren Woods were Corner Brook Citadel's Corps Officers, they did a lot of work to connect that church to the community, including introducing an array of new programs from "Cafe Church" to "Mom and Tots" which had to come to an end due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its due to their diligent work and energetic sermons that more people got interested to come to church.

When the Woods' left Corner Brook Citadel in 2022, the corps experienced three officer changes, which took away their opportunity to stay connected to the community.

If the itinerant appointment system reduced the move frequency, Corner Brook Citadel would have emerged much stronger and build on the hard work that the Woods' did to make that corps great again.

On Monday, June 10, 2024, Jackie Barrett said:

Major George's article about the mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health of OKs, and the large portion of them leaving "The Salvation Army" is not only interesting, but also raises a few concerns.

With fewer and fewer new Cadets entering "The Salvation Army" ministry and officership system, including just four or five of them enrolled at the College for Officer Training this year, this shortage is resulting in more and more retired Corps Officers being called back into ministry.

We are already paying the price for this officer shortage as some corps are closing, and some like Corner Brook Temple and Corner Brook Citadel are considering merging, which could drive more Salvationists away to other Christian denominations.

In order to protect the health of OKs and deal with the Officer Shortage, "The Salvation Army" needs to make some major changes to the itinerant appointment system, such as placing Corps Officers to specific corps/churches for longer terms, meaning a minimum of 8 years if Officers have OKs as part of Major George's recommendations.

On Saturday, June 8, 2024, Beverley said:

I'm an O.K and yes found it difficult at times with moving so often,and yes rebelled as a teenager and left after a time yes been hurt like many, but loosing both parents in close succession I attend the army had my little girl dedicated at the army just saddens me there isn't anything there for her (6 yr) we loose our officers in July a d today out of the blue my little one asked me who will teach us about Jesus at army I explained we will be OK, all our children are precious they are the future army,

On Saturday, June 8, 2024, Margaret Gregory said:

Myself and 3 siblings are OKs and still salvationist after 50years so show the other side of the coin

On Friday, June 7, 2024, Paul Leslie said:

As an OK who became an officer, I and my siblings were kept shielded from much of the stress of our parents until my father had burnout/breakdown. Thank God for the saints like the Pearo's,Boydon's, Pavey's and others who have ministered in Pastoral Care. It took me a long time to percolate my feelings about our family experience within and without the Army.

On Friday, June 7, 2024, Patricia Davis said:

Some years ago when I was a young Officer I wrote an article about OK’s….(I sent it to the Officer Magazine.) Some of the comments I received from Officer’s children were so enlightening. (I am not an OK, but I did live with my Corps Officers before going to Training.) To this day I remember one sad comment from a young woman, she said “I never had a father, I only had a Corps Officer.” I have two children: one is an Officer and the other (who has been very hurt by SA Leaders) wants nothing to do with The Salvation Army. I am also very concerned about the future of The Salvation Army and how our children feel about it. That being said I do know many OK’s who love The Army and who are involved in its ministry as wonderful Officers and Soldiers. There were close to 60 Cadets in my Session, but now it concerns me when I see only between 10-15 in Sessions today! It seems that the Sessions get smaller and smaller.

On Friday, June 7, 2024, Darlene said:

Thank you, Major Marlene for your research on OK’s. I applaud you on your proposals and do agree that it would help officer families in the future. I do believe that the Army is getting better at leaving families longer in one place. Which is good for the family units.

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, Jessica said:

I appreciate the acknowledgement that our systems are impacting our kids, and Tammy’s comment that our children see how parents are treated by leadership. They see the inevitable inequities in the system, often before we do. The missing piece in this piece is the acknowledgment of the trauma and disruption our children endure when parents are moved, or when family needs are not acknowledged. We We’re missing a generation of officer’s children in our congregations, and until we reckon with the damage caused by our inherited systems, our children will choose more trauma informed, safe, places of worship that do not hold the same historical wounds, for themselves and their families. No amount of spiritual guidance or faith lived in joy at home can heal the hurt our children's’ experience within this system.

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, Tammy Ray said:

I read this article with great interest. In my years as a officers kid and an officer with kids, I have heard more stories of disillusion due to how their parents were treated by leadership. I’m curious if that came up in any of your findings.

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, Jamie Rands said:

Major George has done an impressive job bringing attention to O.K. issues. As parents and officers, we have seen the advantages and disadvantages of Army ministry, and its effects on our children.

We agree with Major George's proposals and believe that reducing the frequency of moves in our itinerant system would be beneficial, fostering financial responsibility and further community engagement.

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, Joyce said:

My parents were local Officers at an Outpost in Indianapolis. The Salvation Army was their life and at different times they pretty well kept things in the Corps going. I have often wondered why the Officers were moved so often. I truly believe that this practice does not benefit the congregation. It takes some time for the new Officers to adjust and get to know their congregation. And likewise, the congregation to know them. While my sister, brothers and I will always have a special place in our hearts for the Salvation Army, we all have left for other churches.

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, Terry McLellan said:

I hope and pray that the Army will implement Maj. George's proposals. OKs need this type of support.Being an OK comes with a lot of pressure as most well know.

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, Janet Simmons said:

We are all precious and need each other. Children are very precious, time to share with young and old. At all times... God bless ALL.... love Janet xxx

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