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Chatting with the 'People's General'

Eva Burrows: a woman of substance

We salute 'The People's General' on her 80th birthday

by Barry Gittins and Faye Michelson (2009)

See also In her own words Q&A | Honest appraisal of some of the world leaders she encountered in her leadership years

Birthday celebrations are passé for most of us. As decades fly past, we tend to note that the hard-won accumulation of wisdom is balanced by the loss of energy, acuity and health (and, depending on gender, hair).

There are some people, however, who do not seem governed by the same ageing processes and accompanying declines in productivity and passion.

One such person is retired world leader of The Salvation Army, General Eva Burrows (AC)*. The 13th Salvation Army supremo, often referred to as ‘the people’s General’, turns 80 next Tuesday, on 15 September.

She is still a vital force at Melbourne Corps Project 614, where she serves as both recruiting sergeant and an informal mentor to members of Order 614 (youth who offer a ‘gap year’ to serve others in Salvation Army urban mission—who have come to affectionately address her by the nickname ‘GenEva’).

General Burrows has always found joy in giving her time and talents for Christ’s sake.

Not surprisingly perhaps, given her no-nonsense approach to life and service, she is unfazed by the upcoming celebrations. She doesn’t want a big fuss.

‘It depends what you think of 80,’ she told On Fire, with a mischievous gleam in her eye.

‘When I was younger I would have thought 80 was an ancient person, but these days I don’t think of 80 as being “laid to rest”, although I did have an amusing comment on the telephone one day.

‘A voice said to me, “I’m ringing from The Times of London” and I thought, “Goodness, why are they calling me, because I’m already retired”. Before I could say anything the young man said, “I’ve been assigned to write your obituary.”

‘I said, “Well, I’m not dead yet”. He said, “Yes, but we have to be ready”!’

While the General found the moment amusing, it also led her to consider her vigorous schedule (last year, for example, she gave nine talks and messages to receptive congress congregations in Norway).

‘I think that at 80 I will again review all my involvements,’ she says.

‘By the time I’m 80, perhaps I wouldn’t take that kind of [congress] assignment on. Apart from reviewing my activities, and being a little bit more “retired” than I’ve been, perhaps I will do that painting class I always wanted to do—something like that.’

For a woman whose focus over eight decades has been squarely on the lives of others, the General knows her own mind and heart to a fault. As with the Army’s pioneering family, the Booths, she has a certain suspicion of leisurely ‘hobbies’ such as painting.

‘I would like to paint,’ she suggests, ‘but that’s the point—it can’t have been a real passion, because I haven’t left other things to do it.

‘Perhaps it may be something [to pursue], or even a bit more study in theology, which I would like to do.’

The Latin saying ‘tempus fugit’ (time is fleeting) reminds us that the ancients (indeed, many of our own grand- and great-grandparents) rarely lived to their 80th year. Perhaps, like other high-achieving retirees, the General found the idea of ‘sitting around doing nothing’ anathema.

On her last day as General, casting her eyes around her office and working her way through that day’s schedule, did she think her future would be as frenetic as it has turned out to be?

‘Probably not,’ she concedes. ‘No...but I was not reluctant to retire, because I had served seven years as the General [longer than the usual five-year term] so I was ready.

‘I felt that in those seven years I had been able to tackle the main challenges that were on my plate, which was the return of The Salvation Army to former communist countries and the restructuring of the Army globally and in the United Kingdom, which was an administrative exercise.

‘Let me put it this way; I know my spiritual gifts—I’m a missionary, a preacher of the gospel. At the same time I have administrative and management skills. These gifts all helped me to be a General who was very much at ease in both the spiritual leadership of a great church of God, and a social agency. At the same time I was administering this worldwide organisation…and I was happy about that.

‘When I retired, I knew I’d have plenty of opportunities to preach and teach, but I thought I might miss the administration.’

As with all transition processes, there is the need for a just-retired leader to allow the new incumbent space to breathe; the five men who have served as General since Burrows retired (Bramwell Tillsley, Paul Rader, John Gowans, John Larsson and Shaw Clifton) knew they were at liberty to call on the services of their Australian predecessor as needed, without fear of their requests being rejected.

‘With a new General in place,’ General Burrows explains, ‘you don’t want to do anything that might detract from the General, because he or she has to have time to put their vision forward.’

God provided—the General was headhunted to serve as a director for a not-for-profit, the Ansvar insurance company. ‘And that,’ she says, ‘was like God was providing that “side” of leadership for me.

‘I actually became the chairman of Ansvar until Ansvar was sold to another company. I then thought that I would have a lot of time for myself—but it hasn’t worked out that way, really.’

In her own words: a rapid-fire Q&A with the Salvos’ former ‘global parent’.


Onfire: Did you feel tired after your term as General?

General: Strangely enough, no…not really. I have been kept wonderfully healthy. In seven years [in office] I did not miss one meeting for ill health, for which I thank God.

Being the General is naturally a very strenuous and demanding position, physically, spiritually and mentally but -I don’t know if it is part of my whole psyche- I enjoy being with people and working for people. I have sometimes said people nourish me.

So, did I feel like I wanted to collapse and have a good rest for quite a while? No, I can’t say that. I really have a lot of stamina, so I seemed to be able to keep up with the Generalship.

You are known for your grasp of thousands of people’s names…

Yes, I’m well-known for that in The Salvation Army world—people praise me more than I deserve really. I’ve definitely made an effort to learn people’s names, so that when I meet someone for the first time I use their name in conversation. Maybe every time I answer or speak I’ll use that person’s name, so that kind of reinforces it in my memory.

I didn’t know, but somebody told me I look straight into the eyes of a person when I meet them. I think that’s another thing: I look at the person, and fix that person with that name.

The other thing is that I very much try to learn names accurately. There are many countries and cultures that have names which are not so easy to pronounce; sometimes the name may even be spelt the same as English but pronounced differently: for example ‘Anderson’, which we use here, is a very common name in Sweden but they say ‘Anderson’ [pronounces Eva, with an excellent Swedish lilt].
One of the things I miss these days is that so many people, when they introduce themselves, only give their first name. I also like to know their surname, because it is the surname that links them with other people.

I’ll find out where they are from and then connect them with the family. In The Salvation Army we have a lot of family connections.

How do you think the Army views retirees. Do we see retired people as a great resource for the church?

I think so; I think great people are a good resource. Many of our volunteers are retired people who often go and fill in for pastors, officers who are on their long service leave; things like that. They are valued.

As the General, it is not so easy to be called in for consultation, because the new General has his or her own feel. But it is in the personal contacts with the new incumbent of that office that I have had very good contacts and close relationships with people who are Generals. They write and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ They keep me well informed; I’m free to comment and they’re free to seek my advice.

It’s recognised that you mentored a group of gifted men into positions of leadership. How did that come to pass?

Well, mentoring [for me] is more a case of people seeking your advice. You don’t just mentor people, except I think that in more personal contacts you may be an adviser. I don’t know that I’ve mentored a great lot of Salvation Army leaders, except some who have sought my advice and suggestions regarding something that they were planning to do.

Especially for the early years of my retirement, I was repeatedly invited to lead officers’ meetings and seminars, on the subject of leadership in TSA and ‘officership today’.

So, even in retirement, I’ve taken opportunities to talk about spiritual leadership in the Army. Also, wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve usually lectured to the cadets as I do here in Australia. I lecture in both our Melbourne and Sydney colleges, on such things as spiritual leadership, officership in the 21st century and my view of officer roles.

Those are the kind of privileges that I will probably still continue to have for a few more years.
Of course, the Australian territories also have the annual overseas administrative leaders training course, with delegates from Africa, Asia, South America and Europe etc. I began that when I was the Australia Southern territorial commander and it’s been held every year since then.

It started when the ‘new’ field secretary in Nigeria wrote to the field secretary here in Melbourne, stating that ‘I’ve just been appointed field secretary and I’m writing to a few field secretaries in the world to see if you’ve got some good advice’.

Our chap showed me the letter and said, ‘You’ll be interested because of your time in Africa.’ I said, ‘This is marvellous, we’ll bring him to Australia,’ so I wrote to London and said we’d be prepared to have this officer for a month just to give him practical experience.

The international secretary was Commissioner Hunter; he wrote back and said, ‘If you take one, why don’t you take four?’ We said okay. That was about 1984, so it has been going for more than 20 years. I always have the opportunity to speak to them about the qualities of a Salvation Army leader.

Being a woman in the Salvos presents challenges at times. What did you bring to the movement as only the second female world leader in its history to date?

That is an important point, because a woman does lead in a somewhat different way. I’m not a confrontationist, I’m a diffuser. I try to diffuse ‘aggro’ if there is aggression around, and I don’t enjoy confrontation as much as men often seem to.

Also, the intuitive side of a female psyche is very helpful. I think that I often had an awareness of what was needed before I really knew why.

I had very great respect for my male colleagues on this, because in the whole world of administration now they’re beginning to see that the intuitive style has a place—it is not just a feminine thing.

There often are times when you have a sense of what’s right and you have to take a risk. Because women are often intuitive, I think we are also risk-takers. I was prepared to take risks or wait until a situation became clearer. ‘Let’s leave it for a week or two,’ I’d say. ‘Let’s all come back while we let this simmer in our minds, and then bring it together with fresh light.’

I did not use ‘feminine wiles’, which I must say that many women can be accused of in top leadership. As a Christian, I think that it is wrong to use what you might be able to use in charm and such like. I felt, as a woman leader, there was always a certain misgiving among the men who follow. Can she do it? Will she be able to handle the situation? It is very important that a woman is seen to be an achiever and that she doesn’t have to [continually] prove that she can do it—but she has to do it; that proves she can.

It is no good telling people, ‘I’m a capable woman’—as long as you achieve, then they can’t help but say, ‘Yes, she does it well’.

Were body image expectations regarding yourself higher or more demanding than those concerning your male colleagues?

Definitely. As the General we do wear every different kind of uniform around the world. In India I wore a sari, and I had to be seen to look good in a sari. I wore the shalwar kamis in Pakistan, which is the best uniform in The Salvation Army—it’s grey trousers caught at the ankle with nice stitching and then this ‘over jacket’, a soft grey, with a red scarf. The men don’t change to Indian clothes or anything because in India now so many men are wearing western clothes, so the General’s wife now has to wear all these different uniforms.

I think of Frederick Booth-Tucker, our great Indian commander; he was into incarnational living, sharing with the people. He would live like they live. The Indians don’t wear the unusual, puffy pants they wore. The turbans of Punjab and so forth have really gone out, they’re not wearing them at all. So you look at Indian and Pakistani politicians, not one of them wears national sort of clothes. The Afghans wear those Afghan hats, but even that…the Afghans are probably less westernised than Pakistan. I think a lot is expected of a woman’s appearance when she’s in leadership.

Do you see yourself as a feminist, not in the ‘pop culture’ way but as a true feminist able to be a role model to other women?

Yes, and the Army mother, Catherine Booth, she was really a Christian feminist. She was the role model and also an inspirer, an encourager of other women—first of all to her own daughters, and then The Salvation Army at large. I feel that is quite important these days.

We’re living in an era where women are coming into their own in the business world, legal world, political world and The Salvation Army has got to keep up with that.

I think The Salvation Army gave women rights and opportunities early in the movement and then we seemed to fade off when we met a ‘glass ceiling’. I wrote an article in American Salvation Army papers about The Salvation Army glass ceiling, which is the certain amount of limitation to gender or race; [for us] the glass ceiling is race.

The Salvation Army has changed now; when I was General I set up the commission for women’s ministry in The Salvation Army, which brought out big changes, particularly for the officer wife, having her rank in her own right. That commission was tasked to seriously look at the place given to women in ministry in The Salvation Army.

I didn’t say, negatively, ‘We’re behind the times,’ but I did say, ‘Come on, let us see that you come forward with suggestions that give women the opportunities they should have.’

Without that work, we may never have had Robin Dunster as Chief of Staff…

No. The present General is very keen on giving women the full opportunities of their gifts and abilities. The other thing about that commission -many people highlight the fact that the rank for the wife became a real rank- was they concluded women should be given assignments and appointments according to their gifts and abilities; not necessarily based on where their husband is.

We’ve seen that happening here in Australia and everywhere around the world.

Look at Major David Eldridge, now the [territorial] head of social work, who is based in Melbourne; his wife, Major Gloria Eldridge, is his boss as the corps officer of South Barwon, and they can work together. We’ve got lots of examples now, whereas before there was too much protectiveness, too many post-Victorian ideas of the wife.

Although I was single, and single women had been given more opportunities than married women, I nevertheless wanted to support the married woman officer.

How do you think we treat married female officers, compared with single female officers?

Read your Salvation Army history. For example, a significant thing in The Salvation Army’s administration and constitution is to have a seat on the High Council, where you elect the next General. There had only ever been single women, except of course for members of the Booth family. But the commission we set up in 1991, I think it was, empowered female commissioners, alongside their husbands, to sit on this prestigious body.

I was always aware of that, but General Rader implemented it, as the commission had not finished their work when I retired. I told that commission, ‘Take time’—in The Salvation Army we too often wanted to have decisions on groups almost the next day.

The reality is that deliberations often take quite a while, especially when you bring people from all over the world,
with different cultures and nationalities. We used male and female members, we had single and married, so I had a wide-ranging group. They did take their time, too [laughs]—but too much time, because I would like to have implemented it myself.

Did you choose to remain single. Did you see that perhaps you may need to do so in The Salvation Army?

It was not so much that [perceived need] as the fact that I began to see it is what God wanted for me. I would have been happy to be married, but my first assignment was in Africa—I was there for 17 years—and so opportunities for marriage were very restricted in that milieu.

I began to realise that it looks as if singlehood was to be part of my life, so I offered that to God. I realised that celibacy was something I could accept as a gift from God, and offer as a gift to God.

I must say, particularly as the [serving] General, I think singleness really was an advantage in some ways. I wasn’t a married person so I was free to move without any concerns regarding my children and family anxieties. Other people would say, ‘You had the disadvantage of not having children and understanding about childhood and marriage and all those kind of things’ but I’d already been through that as a leader. I think of my love for people, and my years of teaching—my students were like my children and I was involved in their problems and lives.

You’ve had considerable honours bestowed on you and offered to you; what’s been meaningful?

When you get an honorary doctorate, you have to give a speech! I always look on it as an opportunity to share my faith with a great number of university students. I can remember when I got the doctorate in Queensland. Afterwards, I had a letter from a man who had graduated that day. He wrote that he was expecting the usual platitudes but that I said ‘something worth listening to’. That was good. That’s probably why I accepted.

I said, ‘No more,’ then I was offered a doctorate from the Melbourne College of Divinity; the oldest theological school in Australia. So I accepted that one. I’ve stopped accepting them now, rejecting several offers.

What’s your legacy—what do you want to be remembered for?

I was asked this by [biographer] Colonel Henry Gariepy. Out of the blue he said, ‘What do you want on your tombstone?’

Quickly, before I even had to think, I said, ‘She pleased God’. That’s one very important thing to me; that my life has been pleasing to the God I serve. For other people, I think I would like them to think of me not as just an important leader of The Salvation

Army but someone who touched their lives. Someone whose life meant something to them, either with a personal touch or having heard me preach or speak.

It gives me great joy when I move around the world and somebody comes up and says, ‘Oh, General, I saw you when…’ This happens all the time.

‘I saw you when you came to such and such, on such and such a date, and you said something or other…’

I value the fact that people can remember something, whether it was a personal touch or a word. That’s really what I would be very happy about. That is why I really enjoy my work here at 614, because here [the General was interviewed at Melbourne 614] I’m not a very important person; they all know me and I know them, and on the whole I know their names. I’m just someone who helps them and loves them.

You’ve had some health concerns…

I do see medical people quite a lot; in other words the ‘wear and tear’ is there.
It’s what you would expect at my age, and I’m in the generation that didn’t always look after our health properly. We just worked hard. You never thought of going to the gymnasium, which I’m very happy about!

A General not long after me was Paul Rader, who used to jog every day. I didn’t really take a great deal of care. Earlier in missionary work I always did sports, but later on there were sedentary roles like sitting in the office. I didn’t do enough.

I’m not complaining about health problems; I don’t talk a lot about them. I just handle them and get on with what I’m doing. God called me to come here to 614. I’d been very comfortable in a large city corps and with my many trips overseas. It filled my time, but I really felt I didn’t have to get involved too much in corps activity.

Then I felt called to come here through a contact with Brendan [Major Brendan Nottle] and I began to cut back on my overseas time, so I could give more time here. In my 81st year I’m going to cut right back, a great deal, especially engagements and things like that. I will be able to do the corps part of the work here; it’s that I’ll give more emphasis to.

When I came in I was involved a great deal in being chairman of the board that looked after the Order 614 members but now we have an integrated corps. Our spiritual life, the social work, the order members and their program, the teaching program, all that has been greatly integrated and the board is now an integrated board—I’m still the chairman. I look to the corps officers (Majors Brendan and Sandra Nottle) to advise me. It is like a 614 advisory board for every-thing in this place and that’s where I think the corps officer appreciates the people who sit around the table.

So you get to use those spiritual gifts of administration…

That’s true, too, so I enjoy that. These days I’m prepared to give a lot of time to that and that’s part of my review in the future—when I get to that 80th birthday.

Have you planned the occasion?

Not at all. Somebody asked me what I am going to do. I said I might go overseas at that time; have a holiday. Birthdays don’t mean very much to me.

I have a sister here in Melbourne and I’m very close to her and her children, and I’m very much part of all their family events, Mother’s Day I’m there, Father’s Day I’m there, anything to do with the family—birthdays of the great-grandchildren, my great-nephew just scored a hat-trick in hockey so my sister rings. I have a lovely family connection there.

Well, really, what is it about turning 80? It is just thanksgiving to God that you’ve lived long. My parents both passed away at 76, so I suppose I say, ‘Well, they were servants of God like myself.’ I’ve been given plenty of years. Perhaps I’ll tell you a little secret…

I sometimes say to the Lord, ‘Don’t take me yet until I’ve fixed up all my files.’

There’s an awareness that turning 80 will bring me nearer to going home. I look forward to going home to God but I realise if I went home tomorrow, I’d leave quite a lot of problems with all my papers.

Thanks for your time, General—happy birthday to you, on behalf of our readers.

General Burrows (Rtd) gives an honest appraisal of some of the world leaders she encountered in her leadership years.


Pope John Paul II

I was a great admirer of him and had the pleasure of meeting him in Scotland, and it was a breakthrough for The Salvation Army, too. I know that, since then, the General has been to Rome and, as a commissioner, he went to the enthronement of the present Pope. In an earlier-day Salvation Army event there was great controversy when one of our bands [Chalk Farm] was going to The Salvation Army in Rome and accepted an invitation to play at the Vatican.

I admired him very much for his compassion and wisdom. The thing about Pope John Paul II that I really liked was his commitment to what he thought was right; he believed [he knew] what God wanted for his church and he did not sway from that. He didn’t compromise for an easy answer.

That man always stayed true and I think that is not always easy as a spiritual leader. I always think of the story of the rich young ruler. When he said, ‘I can’t give up everything’, Jesus didn’t run after him and say, ‘Well, just half will do’. I saw in Pope John Paul that quality of Christ; that aspect of standing for truth.

Robert James Hawke

I liked Hawke. We were actually quite friendly and he came to my ‘welcome home’ when I came back to Australia. In the sense of his leadership as prime minister of Australia, I liked his consensus style.
He invited me to the tax summit, of course. That was an important time when I gave a speech of significance, I think, because the next day Keating announced that charities would be free from the consumer tax and so forth.
I liked the way that Bob Hawke related to people. The people of Australia liked him. I may not have liked other aspects of his life, but nevertheless there was a style in his leadership that I’d say was similar to mine.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher was a disappointment. I felt she didn’t have a deep, true feeling for the poor. I invited her to come out on the soup run indirectly and said it wouldn’t be a media event, we’d go incognito, but the answer was no…well, I didn’t get an answer in a sense.

The thing about Margaret Thatcher was that no matter how old she was she still looked good and sounded good and was quick with the sound bite; she was worth admiring for that reason.
Talking of women, I met a woman who had been prime minister of Norway for 10 years, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Dr Brundtland was a very feminine-looking woman but a very powerful prime minister of Norway. When she retired she was invited to be head of the United Nations’ World Health Organization.
She was the kind of woman, unlike Mrs Thatcher, who just looked like a nice, friendly person when you met her. Mrs Thatcher always had about her a certain, almost aristocratic, style…you might even say arrogant style, which I would never want to copy.

There was a formidability to her. She was not the kind of woman you could sit down with and have a little chat. I hoped I was always [an approachable] leader.

Fidel Castro

That was most fascinating; who would have expected that I would have an audience or an interview with him? It amused me that in Cuba, then virtually the one communist nation in the world [excluding China and Vietnam, etc.], Castro had a minister for religion who met me at the airport and so forth.

There was something about Castro that was very impressive. He was concerned for his people. He knew everything about the handicapped, mentally ill people and where they were and being cared for. That’s why he said to me, ‘What can you do that I’m not doing?’

I saw there a man of compassion for his people and I often say he reminded me of William Booth a bit, because he had this beard and very piercing eyes. I thought, ‘If only Christ had gotten hold of you, instead of the communist philosophy, with your concern for people.’

But Fidel Castro’s communist style of making everybody adhere without them really being compassionate enough for political ideas, other people’s ideas…well, that is one of the problems with communism: ‘We’re right and everybody else is wrong.’

Still, it was a very impressive experience. When I asked to pray with him, he allowed us to pray. He said to me, ‘Mother Teresa sat there before you; what can I do for you? You probably want something.’
We asked him about visas for our young people to go to Mexico to train as officers, because we didn’t have any training work in Cuba; this was then fixed up with the minister for religion and they got visas.
I think the respect was mutual that day; but any leader who holds a philosophy that is out of sync with Christ must, of course, be questioned.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan

They had a respect for each other—I think those conversations between Gorbachev and Reagan really helped the process of dismantling communism [in Russia and Europe].
When I met him in the White House, Reagan was a very simple sort of ordinary person who had no kind of [charisma]. When we prayed he was quite willing to say, ‘Yes, I’d love you to pray’. He didn’t say, ‘Okay’ or, ‘Do it’, or something.

Reagan responded, ‘Oh, I’d like that very much.’ He said to me, ‘You know, President Lincoln always said he got his best ideas on his knees.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re not going on our knees, but we’ll stand up.’
There was a sincerity about Reagan and I liked that; when you met him you didn’t feel overawed, even though he was the top figure in the world, politically.

I never had the privilege of meeting Gorbachev, but I was very interested to see that in 2007 he declared that he is a Christian.

Some years ago I saw him interviewed by Dr Schuller on the TV show The Hour of Power, when he almost gave away the fact that he was a Christian. What he said was in line with the Christian faith: I feel that was part of his whole awakening and openness to glasnost [‘openness’] and perestroika [‘overcoming stagnation’] and so forth.

Gorbachev was willing to see something else; the Holy Spirit was working in him and letting him sort of realise something of the value of the Christian faith and a questioning of communist philosophy.