ROCHESTER – For the past 25 years, the last four in Rochester, Majors Robert and Lisa Mueller have worked as effective stewards of Salvation Army organizations by following a simple yet effective operating principle.
It’s called “stay in your lane”.
It helps if the couple have skills and expertise that complement rather than oppose each other. It helps that they get along so well. Lisa oversees social services programming and Robert takes care of books and business. It worked wonderfully well.
Still, it’s perhaps inevitable, given the interconnected nature of their work and their dogged, willful personalities, that one will veer into the other’s way. It can be a daily occurrence.
And so both for the sanity of the organization and for the good of their marriage, a subtle reminder by either restores the lines of authority.
“We don’t want employees to have two bosses,” Robert said. “Anything with two heads is a monster.”
It turned out to be an incredibly effective partnership. When the Muellers took over the Salvation Army of Rochester four years ago, the organization was in financial dire straits. His three thrift stores were bleeding up to a quarter of a million dollars in losses a year. The situation called for difficult decisions. All three stores were closed.
Four years later, they leave behind a stronger and more resilient organization. During their tenure, The Salvation Army of Rochester has raised more money in each of the past four years than any previous year in the organization’s 125-year history. Collaborations were developed to serve the homeless, and relationships with city, county, and other community partners were strengthened.
And they did it at the most unusual times. When the pandemic hit and social service providers were forced to go virtual, the Salvation Army of Rochester found ways around the restrictions, but “we didn’t close a day,” said Lisa.
“We removed the common coffee maker, because the Ministry of Health said ‘no’. So a lot of accommodations have been made, but people have always been helped,” she said.
Now, Robert and Lisa Mueller are moving on to new assignments, called upon to fill leadership positions created by a reorganization of the Salvation Army’s Midwest Territory. The Salvation Army operates as a military organization, and as commissioned officers in that army, the couple were ordered to take on new positions in Michigan.
This will mean moving up the chain of command, giving greater scope to their skills and abilities. But it will take them away from the frontline work that two have undertaken in tandem for much of their careers and found so fulfilling. Their last day in Rochester will be June 26.
They will work out of corporate headquarters, with Robert overseeing the Salvation Army’s Metro Detroit area and Lisa second in command of the entire Michigan division.
“She will be my boss,” Robert said, later adding, “I often say the reward for good work is more work in the Salvation Army.”
It is not necessarily that the couple wants to go there. But that’s the life they accepted more than 25 years ago when they sold all their possessions, entered a seminary, and dedicated themselves to a life of faith and service to others through the Christian organization.
“What I’m going to miss here in Rochester is the opportunity to plan for the future,” Robert said. “It takes two to three years to build trust, relationships, loyalty, and then in year four the plane starts to take off. It would be really nice to take it to the next level.
Yet it is a truism of their work that terms in the Salvation Army often do not last long enough for leaders to witness the fruits of their labor. Terms typically last three to five years before officers are called to new pastures. Coincidentally, their posting in Detroit will be a return to the old playgrounds where the couple first met.
Jerry Williams, a member of the organization’s advisory board, called them mission-driven leaders who “know their stuff” and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty working on behalf of clients.
“We were so impressed with them. And we just hate losing them. But still, it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Williams said.
The Rochester branch serves between 8,000 and 12,000 people a year, depending on the economic climate, through its various programs. It has a medical center, a dental clinic and a pharmacy.
Housing is central to its work, offering everything from preventing tenant evictions to rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. He runs a day shelter for the homeless that offers meals, showers and a change of clothes.
His mission extends into areas that many might not associate with his work. Through its collaboration with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, Rochester customers received assistance with filing their taxes. The assistance resulted in tax refunds of $2.5 million in the region.
The couple didn’t join the Salvation Army until their mid-30s. Lisa has worked in advertising and marketing. Robert had his own business and worked in robotics. As his work moved from the drawing board to the computer, Robert found himself losing interest in the work.
They started attending a Salvation Army church and started volunteering. Robert got involved with a boys club in the military. One day, Robert came home from work and turned on the television to watch the news. He learned that a sister of one of the boys’ club members had murdered his parents. He never saw the child again.
“I felt God tapped me on the shoulder, (telling me) ‘I don’t want you to design and build robots anymore. I want you to design and rebuild broken families,'” Robert recalled.
At first, Lisa wasn’t too fond of the idea, having been raised by Salvation Army officers. She knew the lifestyle and the multiple moves that such a lifestyle entailed.
“But eventually she came to her senses and said, ‘Let’s do it,'” he said.
This will be the sixth date for the couple. One thing that has sustained both is the sense of adventure that the job engenders. Both come face to face with all strata of society. One moment Bob can talk to the president of a big company, the next day someone on the street will see his uniform and ask for help.
“I often say that 99 out of 100 people have a history with the Salvation Army, whether they were served by the Salvation Army or helped serve it. It’s really humbling when you know its scope,” Robert said.