An Interview With Commissioners Willis and Barbara Howell
By: Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee
Southern Spirit: What are your thoughts going into retirement?
Commissioner Willis: There’s a surrealness to it all. Retirement has always been this date way out there past the horizon. Suddenly, it’s standing on your doorstep. As a result, I find myself more introspective and retrospective. It’s like looking into a rearview mirror trying to gain the sense of whether or not you’ve made a difference, a positive difference.
Commissioner Barbara: I’m thinking and looking forward to more. I also want to be sure we’re finishing well and managing this transition. I want to make sure we aren’t leaving undone things out that we should have taken care of.
Southern Spirit: What do you wish The Salvation Army world knew about the Southern Territory?
Commissioner Willis: What a very passionate bunch of Salvationists we have. Southern Territory Salvationists are giving, forgiving, gracious, inclusive, and willing. Southern Salvationists are very willing. You need something? We’re willing. You want some help? We’re willing. Do you have enough? We’re willing. I think that’s a good word for Southern Salvationists.
Commissioner Barbara: The South is famously known for its Southern hospitality that includes a strong willingness to welcome folks in. Southerners are eager to have you not just come in the front door; they want you to come in and sit down around the kitchen table.
Southern Spirit: What appointment was the one that taught you the most about what it meant to be a Salvation Army officer?
Commissioner Willis: I’d rather not specify the location but there was a particular appointment that if not for what I experienced, learned, and went through, I would be a very different officer—in a negative sense. The appointment was a crucible experience. It was anvil time. But I thank God for this appointment and how it grew and developed me. Would I ever want to go through that experience again? No. But that’s the place where the Lord broke me, where He was able to then shape me as was more suiting Him and His requirements.
Commissioner Barbara: I can see where each appointment has molded and shaped us. It’s kind of like the uniform we put on every day. The material it’s made from has been fashioned by many different threads. In the same way, each appointment has contributed to our development like the threads in the uniform that I wear every day in the fabric of my life. That one appointment Willis mentioned is where I grew an extreme amount and it really helped shaped me in areas where I was not properly equipped, previously. It really started filling in the holes I might have had, started equipping me and making me more into that vessel that God wanted to use.
Southern Spirit: What has provided you the greatest joy as a Salvation Army officer?
Commissioner Willis: Seeing people come to the Lord—that has got to be paramount. Those times when you’re either at the altar with someone or talking with them after the fact. But other things that bring me joy are first, relationships that connect and deepen. Second, in a figurative sense, seeing light bulbs come on over people’s heads when they come to an “aha!” moment, whether it’s spiritual, whether it’s personal, whether it’s relational. You can often see it on their faces as, all of a sudden, the puzzle pieces just click. That absolutely fuels my flame.
Commissioner Barbara: Seeing lives change, especially young adults. When you see how they start growing and shaping and developing into that person who God wants to use, that’s exciting. Another is when you pour over prayer about something—or someone—and God answers that prayer and you to get to see it.
Southern Spirit: How would you like to be remembered?
Commissioner Willis: I’d like to be remembered for having passion and zeal for the Army’s mission and the wide array of things and issues that matter deeply to God. People these days can be passionate and zealous over a great number of things. But is that passion and zeal helpful? Is it focused in the right areas? I would like to be known for having a heart like Jesus. Don’t we all aspire to that? You’ll know that I’m very partial to the image and symbolism of fire and that which burns. I would like to be remembered as someone who had—and hopefully still has—a fire inside. My life verse is Leviticus 6:13, “The fire on the altar must always be kept burning. It must never go out.” That’s a great image and a great challenge. I would like to be remembered as someone whose fire continued and continues to burn.
Commissioner Barbara: For me, it’s that people would think, “She cared for me.”
Southern Spirit: What is unfinished that you wish you could have finished?
Commissioner Willis: On one hand, there’re things we couldn’t do because of Covid. It frustrates me to lean on that, but it’s true. I would have liked to have seen the territory further down the line in restoring a sense of why we do what we do. Before COVID rewrote everything, we were gaining some initial traction as we were focusing on the why behind anything and everything The Salvation Army does or sets its hand to. If whatever we’re involving ourselves with doesn’t contribute to the ability to introduce somebody to Jesus, or take them deeper in their experience with the Lord; if it doesn’t give us the opportunity to eventually have a discussion about what’s going on in a person’s soul, do we need to retool? And if whatever we’re involved with can’t be retooled for those opportunities, then why are we doing it in the first place? To borrow from General Peddle’s recent comments, “the world does not need another well-run charity” (i.e. social services agency). And it grieves me to see our insistence on becoming one. Let’s come back to our original WHY—why we do what we do as opposed to the mere how’s and what’s that have become so routine for us. I can’t help but feel that the rug was pulled out from under us because of the wide-ranging travel restrictions coupled with the inability of being able to come together in order to push that agenda deeper and farther.
Commissioner Barbara: I would love to have had a sharper look at our various policies and practices. Are they all still relevant? Are they helping us? Do we need to streamline them? Do we need to look for better ways of doing it? Do we need to better equip our people?
Commissioner Willis: I would have liked to have pushed the role of soldiers even more. We’ve given it a fairly decent push, I think, but nowhere near what it ought to be. When I think of the early Army and the value, the importance, and the overall role of soldiers compared to what we have now? I think that in far too many cases, we have turned our soldiery into pew warmers and mere “congregations.”
Commissioner Barbara: Elevate their value.
Commissioner Willis: In The Salvation Army, we were never meant to have congregations. We want soldiers. Active and involved troops. Our Territorial Sergeant Major, Jeremy Rowland, has been incredible in coming alongside the various divisional sergeant-majors. And their combined efforts across our territory have been incredibly helpful and critically important. That group of soldiers has been growing and they are becoming far more focused, churning and burning within their divisions. I would have liked to have seen us get further down the road with transferring important elements and aspects of ministry to more and more soldiers. Soldiers in the pulpit. Soldiers taking the lead in many different areas. What’s wrong with that?
Southern Spirit: What’s next for Willis and Barbara Howell?
Commissioner Barbara: We’re doing something a little bit different. I’m taking an appointment at the Evangeline Booth College until my retirement date. I’m looking forward to coming alongside leaders and the opportunities for developing soldiers and employees. It isn’t just officers. It’s everyone.
Commissioner Willis: I’ll be back in the classroom at the Training School. When we first went as principals those years ago, I thought it seemed like an odd appointment for us. After all, we had never served on the training staff before. But I very quickly saw that being in a teaching role lends itself to some of those exact points that I was sharing earlier. Light bulbs come on. This is a very formative time for our cadets—the next generation of officer leaders for our territory and our Army. The imagery that I use to describe what I think this is like relates to leaving an impression on freshly poured cement before it hardens. To use another comparison, the Training School is something akin to a launch pad. Working with the cadets allows you to affect the trajectory, the telemetry. There are so many things that can happen there. I’m very excited to get back in the classroom to get shoulder-to-shoulder with those that the Lord has brought to us there. And to be part of that process, if the Lord allows, to speak into, to hear from, to help shape, to help affect the future Salvation Army leaders. That revs my engine.
Commissioner Barbara: My other hope is having more time to deepen some relationships.
Southern Spirit: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Commissioner Willis: I want to commend to the territory Commissioners Kelly and Donna Igleheart. What a blessing they are going to be to us and for us. They are certainly known to all of us, and we thank the Lord for bringing them back home. It’s been a long time since we’ve had back-to-back Southern leaders. The Iglehearts have proven themselves to be absolutely stellar in the leadership they bring to bear. We’re eager to fall in line and follow where they go.