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KELLNER: Questions swirl as Salvation Army leader steps down

- - Thursday, June 20, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One of the world's best-known charitable organizations — though not always recognized for the global evangelical Christian church that it also is — suddenly and unexpectedly finds itself needing a new global chief executive.

The 148-year-old Salvation Army, which has its international headquarters in London, announced June 13 that General Linda Bond would retire immediately as international leader. Word of the retirement of Miss Bond, who was elected in January 2011 and assumed office four months later, sent shock waves through the Army's church community, a fellowship of 1.7 million members worldwide, including approximately 130,000 adults, children and "adherents" in the United States.

The official announcement was direct, if a bit cryptic. It went out over the name of Commissioner Andre Cox, a Swiss Salvation Army officer who since earlier this year has served as the organization's second in command: "I write to inform you that General Linda Bond is entering into retirement," Mr. Cox wrote. "Following a period of personal reflection and prayer, General Bond has decided that she should relinquish" the office.

There are several reasons the news sparked concern in some Salvationist precincts. One is that such midterm retirements are rare. Another is that Miss Bond had just returned to London after several days in St. Louis, where she attended a rally with about 3,000 church members. Reports from the event indicated a leader who was quite happy in her role, who gave no hint of the pending announcement.

A chief element for concern is that Miss Bond suddenly left a top administrative job once before: In August 2004, after about two years as leader of the army's USA Western Territory, which covers 13 states and several U.S. Pacific island areas, she resigned, citing "personal reasons" and without giving notice.

General John Larsson, the army's then-leader, "accepted her resignation with regret and acknowledged her outstanding contributions during her officership," according to a report in New Frontier, a regional Salvation Army periodical. Within a year, Miss Bond returned to active service, eventually taking another "territorial command" in Australia from which she was then elected to the top worldwide post.

Requests for additional information from the army's international headquarters yielded little additional information: "General Bond's retirement was an entirely personal matter," spokesman Kevin Sims wrote. Major Dean Pallant, another spokesman, stressed the "personal" nature of Miss Bond's decision but was unable to provide any further details.

This time, though, one thing is different: Miss Bond's retirement signals an end to her 44 years of active service as an ordained minister in the Salvation Army church; no return to service is contemplated or even seems possible. A "high council" of international leaders, will convene near London on July 29 with 118 members — 64 women and 54 men — with an average age of 59, according to the army.

Days of prayer and speeches by those selected as candidates will follow, along with a series of votes. No white smoke will appear as at a Vatican conclave, but the winnowing process has some similarities.

Two Americans may well be among the leading candidates for the job, which normally carries a five-year term. One is Commissioner Barry Swanson, who heads Salvation Army operations in the northeastern United States, who was Miss Bond's second in command from May 2010 until February of this year. Another is Commissioner James Knaggs, a veteran officer and leader of the USA Western Territory once headed by Miss Bond.

Miss Bond's sudden departure will likely have little effect on the day-to-day operations of the Salvation Army, either globally or in the United States. That said, the army's church members, clergy and many of its employees might well seek more in the way of an answer than the catch-all of "personal reasons." Given that the organization's world headquarters is a glass-walled building — "its glass exterior communicates our transparency," one leader said at its 2004 opening — some greater openness on this latest executive change would be welcome by many.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.