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Dec28SatAs officers, knowing who we are is vital to The Salvation Army's mission. December 28, 2013 by Major Ray Harris
“So what is a Salvation Army officer?”
- Filed Under:
- Opinion & Critical Thought
Some questions surprise us when asked. This question about officer identity is important because who officers are will determine what they do. The function of officers grows out of their sense of identity. Confusion about identity will lead to confusion about purpose. So we want this question to be heard, and respond to it with care.
We live at a time when responses to this question can no longer be assumed. Roles that were once designated for officers in the Army have come to be held by laity, including non-Salvationists. Some officers have appointments where they are supervised by employees. Some officers have taken on responsibilities in retirement that require them to enter terms of contractual employment. It has also been questioned whether officers are even needed in the Army.
On a broader canvas, the institutional church is under fire. Financial and sexual scandals involving clergy have rocked the church. Even the Christian faith itself has been sidelined by critics. Thus, we live in a climate where the Christian faith, the church and the vocation of Salvation Army officership is viewed with suspicion. Increasingly the question is asked: “So what is a Salvation Army officer?”
There are many ways we could answer this question, but I want to look closely at the moment when a man or woman becomes an officer. Salvationists call it the Ordination and Commissioning Service. It's a special—and very sacred—event within the life of the Army. While each territory brings its own emphasis to this service, one element is consistent throughout the international Army. During the moment of ordination and commissioning, an officiating officer will pronounce these words:
Recognizing that God has called you, has equipped you and gifted you for sacred service, I now ordain you as a minister of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and commission you as an officer of The Salvation Army with the rank of Lieutenant.
With these words a person becomes a Salvation Army officer. With these words a new identity is created and a new vocation entered. Words do things. With words, a judge makes a citizen of an immigrant, or a president takes the oath of office. Let's then examine the words and phrases associated with ordination and commissioning. They can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Ordination focuses on the wider life of the gospel and church, while commissioning keeps us close to the Army's particular expression of the gospel.
I now ordain you as a minister of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ…
The Christian faith has to do with good news, the gospel. It proclaims the conviction that God has acted decisively in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It proclaims the wonderful news that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God is not indifferent to the world's suffering, but fully engages it. The gospel affirms the conviction that, in Jesus Christ, we can know the God who heals, liberates and saves. Ordination begins with the good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself … ” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT).
The gospel, however, is not simply about our personal relationship with God. It's also about the formation of a new society. Through his life, death and Resurrection, Jesus creates a “new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15 NRSV). The gospel to which officers are ordained is concerned with the formation of this new humanity, this new society. The church exists to embody God's reconciling love within our world. With all of its weaknesses and frailties, the church continues Christ's ministry of vulnerable love. It's a ministry of the whole church. All Christians and all Salvationists are engaged in Christ's reconciling ministry.
Within this emphasis on all, however, there emerged in the early church a corresponding emphasis on some. On the day of Pentecost, it was Peter and John who spoke on behalf of all the disciples. When faced with the inclusion of Gentiles into the church, it was James who represented the Jerusalem believers. As the church began to grow and move into other parts of the Roman world, individuals were appointed to fulfil certain roles within the church. Thus Paul addressed his Philippian letter to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1 NRSV). When he said goodbye to the Ephesian church, Paul exhorted some of them to “keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). In other words, we begin to see the emergence of individuals who speak and act on behalf of the larger Christian community. Some in the church are set apart so that all might embody God's mission of transforming grace.
As the church moved into its second and third centuries, the need for representative voices became critical. The church faced persecution, and not all believers stood the test. Even some of its leaders caved in under pressure. It became necessary to have those voices who could speak with integrity for the whole church. Increasingly the role of bishop took on importance, and eventually a synod of bishops was needed in order to discipline those bishops who failed to confess the Christian faith before the powers of the day. It is true that the church's organizational structure in time became an end unto itself, with all the temptations of power and status that came with it. However the church has consistently seen its ordained ministry to be important for the realization of its mission. Ordination was never intended to create a wedge between the person and the church. Augustine put it well: “For you I am a bishop but with you I am a Christian.” When officers are ordained as ministers of the gospel, they stand alongside those individuals who have been set aside so that the whole church might embody the gospel: Athanasius, Teresa of Avila, John Stott and Martin Luther King Jr. The language of Salvation Army ordination is folded into that tradition.
However, we live in what has been called a post-Christendom world. The church in the West no longer has a privileged voice. It can no longer be assumed that our culture values the gospel or the place of the church. This is not to be lamented. We live in an extraordinary moment of history when the integrity of the church's life is essential for our culture to hear the gospel. Being ordained as a minister of the gospel is an exceptional privilege and responsibility for any individual. The ordination of Salvation Army officers takes place within the wider life of the gospel and the church.
I now commission you as an officer within The Salvation Army … with the rank of lieutenant.
When William Booth linked up with a mission in East London, he reported to his wife, Catherine, that he had “found his destiny.” Little did he know in 1865 what that “destiny” might hold. The Salvation Army has taken its place alongside other expressions of the church in our world. It has understood its life and purpose to be shaped by God's “boundless salvation,” which includes healing and liberation in the deepest sense of these words. The healing of humanity's relationship with God and the healing of society's wounds characterize the Army in its best moments. The liberation of men, women and children from all that would enslave them is of critical importance to this “Army of Salvation.” While respecting and working with all expressions of the church, The Salvation Army seeks to live out its unique calling within the contemporary world.
When The Christian Mission was re-named The Salvation Army, the symbolic world of the military took root. Christians are engaged in battle as they live out the gospel of reconciliation. Early Salvationists fought for the safety of children―young girls especially. While this Army values the contribution of all in the ministry of the gospel, it designates some as its officers. So it is that within the larger story of The Salvation Army names of officers emerge: Carpenter, Brengle, Bosshardt, Yin, Yamamuro, Coutts, Burrows, Larsson.… The commissioning of individuals as Salvation Army officers corresponds to their ordination as ministers of the gospel: “I commission you as an officer … with the rank of lieutenant.”
It is a Salvationist conviction that the Bible permits flexibility in the church's organizational life. The Salvation Army took its cue from its Methodist roots, and retained a strong emphasis on its connected relationships. In this view, any one expression of the Army must be understood as part of the whole. The Salvation Army includes its congregational life, its correctional and justice services ministry, its emergency disaster services, and its services with immigrants, to name just a portion of the whole. This wholeness means that Salvationists in Canada can respond to a disastrous tsunami in Japan, or train cadets from Korea and India in the Canada and Bermuda College for Officer Training. The organizational life of the Army reflects its convictions about the connected nature of the church. Its officers are called to serve the greater life of the Army.
A Salvation Army officer's ordination and commissioning takes place in a public ceremony. It is a public act because the gospel has public dimensions, and the Army takes seriously the engagement of Christian faith with public issues. Our faith is not a private, individualistic faith. Commissioning is an action carried out by a person authorized to do it. The Army has developed its own expression of the church, and it is one that takes authorized ministry seriously. Officers are commissioned in an act that is most public and most sacred. The commissioning of officers expresses the Army's understanding of ordination, the church and the gospel.
This sacred moment of ordination and commissioning begins a new journey for the person concerned. But what precisely is different for this newly commissioned officer? What relationships take on importance because of the commissioning? What can this person do that she could not do before? What accountabilities does this person now have that he did not have prior to his ordination? Let's attend to these questions before coming back to the other phrases spoken in this sacred service. I want to express the conviction that by virtue of their ordination and commissioning,
Salvation Army officers constitute a covenant community, and are authorized and accountable to represent the Army in its mission through their various appointments.
There is much to consider here, so let's put its various phrases under a microscope as we think about officer identity.
Salvation Army officers constitute a covenant community.
Relationships between people assume different forms. Some relationships take the nature of client and professional, while others are characterized by consumer and producer, or citizen and state. These are all helpful designations, and it's important to understand the nature of each. For instance, it would be most inappropriate to envision a parent/child relationship as professional and client. This is a relationship that needs to continue even when there has been deep disappointment and pain. In the Bible this kind of relationship is called a covenant.
The importance of covenant for our time has been expressed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He argues that the biblical concept of covenant answers one of the most fundamental questions in our time: “How can we create relationships secure enough to become the basis of co-operation, without the use of power?” The mutual commitment between God and Israel, and between Christ and his followers, constitutes the biblical idea of covenant. Covenantal relationships are open-ended, trusting and loyal. A covenantal relationship invites tough conversations, such as the one when Moses and God hammered out Israel's future after the idolatry of the golden calf. Because of Christ's loyalty to his disciples, their abandonment at the cross did not end his commitment to them. A covenantal relationship doesn't throw in the towel when there has been failure. Covenants are entered freely; they are not coercive. When a Salvationist becomes an officer, he or she enters a covenant. The Officer's Covenant is simple yet profound. Because each officer is defined by this covenant, a new community is formed. Salvation Army officers form a covenant community that has service of the wider world in view.
While Salvationist soldiers also express their lives with a similar covenant, the Officer's Covenant and Officer's Undertakings are unique to ordained and commissioned officers. This means that officers will be faithful to the deep convictions and practices of the Army. This does not mean simply parroting what has gone on in previous generations. An officer's faithfulness will sometimes take the form of deep questioning and the creation of new expressions of ministry. Officers should provide stability for the Army and the people they serve. Officers will not jump ship when the storms hit. Nor should they be looking over their shoulders at opportunities with other organizations. Officers choose not to go the route of “free agency.” They do not place themselves on the religious market to test their value.
One of the implications of covenant is that the character of an officer is a factor at all times. What we call holiness is not limited to job performance, although competencies are a matter of character. Officers cannot place character issues into compartments and separate the private from public. How officers relate to others in and out of appointments reflects their integrity. The officer's covenant is freely given yet binds them to service. Officers live out their covenant in relation to other officers, their appointments and the wider community. In a consumer society where services and relationships easily become a commodity, an officer expresses the gift of covenant out of gratitude for God's grace. This has transforming possibilities. For this reason, officership is an immense privilege.
Salvation Army officers are authorized.
An officer's ordination and commissioning is an expression of authority. Only certain persons are authorized to officiate in this moment. By virtue of this act, a person is authorized to serve as an officer in The Salvation Army. It is an identity conferred, not self-made or chosen. The language of authorization introduces the notion of authority and with it the dangers of misusing that authority. Those dangers are very real, sometimes tragically so. Some commissioned officers have exercised their authority in harmful ways. Some officers have not always paid attention to their Lord, who symbolized his office with a basin and towel. But there are valid ways of speaking about authority, and of being authorized for vocational service. A customs officer, for instance, has the authority to check passports at the border because she is authorized to do so. Salvation Army officers are authorized to dedicate children and enrol soldiers; they are authorized to perform marriages; they are authorized to represent the Army before government and sign contracts; some are authorized to hire employees and others are authorized to terminate officers who fail to comply with the ethics of officership. Salvation Army officers are authorized to carry out important dimensions of the Army's saving mission.
Salvation Army officers are accountable.
Salvation Army officers are not only authorized to carry out their responsibilities, they are accountable for the way they carry them out. The notion of accountability carries with it the sense of being answerable to someone, and answerable for something. The Christian faith is a faith of accountability. We are answerable to God for our words and actions. We are responsible to God for the stewardship of the resources placed in our hands. At all points in the Christian life we begin with the grace of God. Grace properly understood invites our response, indeed requires our response to be effective.
The importance of accountability in our times has been expressed by William Willimon: “Any ecclesiastical system that has no structural means of clergy supervision of clergy seems an odd and ethically dangerous arrangement.” Officers are entrusted with much—with appointments, with a heritage, with a doctrinal tradition, with important symbols, with finances, with living accommodation. What officers do with this trust matters. Thus, in the undertakings signed by officers, it is stated that “I will undertake to account for all monies and other assets entrusted to me.…” This accountability is two-sided. On one hand, officers are accountable to their supervising leaders; on the other hand, their leaders “have a duty to encourage me, enlarging my vision of all I can be in Christ.” This kind of accountability requires mutual trust. It also requires of an officer that she or he be trustworthy, and that the Army be faithful in fulfilling its obligations to an officer. In the hymn, A Charge to Keep I Have, Charles Wesley's words are appropriate:
Arm me with jealous care,
As in thy sight to live;
And O thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give.
Salvation Army officers represent the Army in its transforming mission.
All Salvationists are involved in the continuing ministry of Christ through the Holy Spirit. In order to help realize this transforming mission, officers engage in many tasks. Some provide congregational leadership, some give administrative support to territorial departments, some offer spiritual care in institutions, while others contribute with their skills in editorial responsibilities or give leadership to divisions within a territory. In carrying out these various responsibilities, officers represent The Salvation Army. To represent something is to re-present it. Representatives stand in the place of others. A valedictorian represents her graduating class. Firefighters choose someone to represent them by laying a wreath at a Remembrance Day service. Officers represent something greater than themselves when they pay a pastoral visit to a cancer patient in the hospital. It is not simply the officer as a person who listens at that moment, but the officer who represents God's caring grace embodied in the Army.
When an officer serves on an ecumenical group she brings her own integrity and convictions to that service, but she will also represent an Army that works alongside all expressions of faith because of the mandate to love God and neighbour. Officers in congregational leadership bring their personalities and gifts to the leadership of worship and preaching, but they also recognize that in this sacred moment they represent the Army's doctrinal affirmations. In saying this it needs to be affirmed that others also represent the Army in its mission. Lay leadership represents the congregation to divisional leadership and to the community. There are times when an employee of territorial headquarters will speak for the Army in situations of local or national disaster. There are moments when only certain officers can appropriately speak for the Army at a provincial or national level. But in all moments, officers are commissioned to play a representational role on behalf of The Salvation Army in its transforming mission in the world.
Salvation Army officers represent The Salvation Army through their various appointments.
Commissioning services separate the moment of ordination from the moment of appointing. Usually the act of ordination and commissioning is a solemn moment, made sacred by its focused attention. When officers stand to receive their first appointment, however, our Salvationist exuberance breaks out. This is a time for celebration, even laughter. The celebratory moment of announcing appointments is part of this sacred service. Salvation Army policies describe an officer's appointment as “the outward authentification of an inward summons from God, and the imparting to the officer of the obligation to be a servant of all for the sake of Christ.” The appointment authenticates the act of setting an officer aside for the whole of the Army.
There is much debate about the validity of appointments in our time. It can be perceived that the system of appointments takes away from a person's sense of self-determination. Appointments are viewed as limitations in our culture. It can be argued that one's place of service is best determined by the person and not the larger organization. This has prompted many to shy away from considering officership as a possible vocation. Let me respond to these real concerns.
First, it is true that some appointments have not turned out as hoped. This needs to be acknowledged. Increasingly we have recognized the need to engage both the officers and the appointment in consultation. This is happening. Second, the model of appointing officers grows out of the connectional organization of the Army. At work is the conviction that officers are appointed because the larger picture of the Army is in view. In athletic terms, officers play for the team, not primarily a position on the team. Third, the notion of limiting oneself for the greater good of the Army lies at the heart of the gospel. The Apostle Paul's take on this is that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave …” (Philippians 2:7 NRSV). Christ's self-emptying is an intentional self-limitation. The radical implication of this verse is that Christians understand God to be one who has chosen to seek the greater good of humanity by placing limits on himself. It was this conviction that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to leave the safety of New York City and return to Germany where he faced his eventual arrest and death at the hand of the Nazis. The paradox of officership reflects the deeper reality of Christian discipleship. It is as we lose our life that we find it. Salvation Army officers bear witness to chosen limitations that have stretched us beyond anything we thought possible. We have been privileged with a trust that goes far beyond personal merit. Appointments have a way of introducing officers to a wider vision of our world and our faith. It is a privilege to represent the Army through appointments given to us.
I have contended that by virtue of their ordination and commissioning, Salvation Army officers constitute a covenant community, and are authorized and accountable to represent the Army in its mission through their various appointments. In light of this, let's return to the phrases that are spoken to confer this new identity:
Recognizing that God has called you…
An officer's covenant begins with the phrase, “Called by God to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as an officer of The Salvation Army…” Officership is a calling. This is an important conviction, and is viewed by many officers to be of supreme importance in difficult times. This notion of calling is grounded in the biblical conviction that God works through the few to express his purposes to the many. Abraham and Sarah are called to leave their home with a view to blessing “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3 NRSV). Israel is called by God to be a holy nation and convey the character of God to the nations of the world. God's calling to ordination and commissioning has the wider Salvationist community in view, indeed the wider world in view.
Officers are called by God but there are several red flags to be waved. One note of caution is the danger of thinking that an officer's calling is the most important calling for any Salvationist. When this is done it places a lesser value on the various vocations to which God calls Salvationists. While officership is tremendously important, so are the vocations of media specialist, child-care worker, palliative-care administrator and grocery clerk. God calls all Salvationists to vocation, to work that is purposeful and contributes to his saving grace in our world. A second note of caution is to think that there is only one way for God to call men and women to officership. Even the Bible discloses different narratives of God's callings. There are differences between God's calling of Jeremiah, Esther, Jonah, Peter and Luke to his writing of the Gospel. There is no cookie-cutter formula for the way God calls. God's calling is met with a ready response from Isaiah, but with reluctance from Jonah. God's ways are as flexible as the kinds of people God calls. A third concern is to think of calling as involving only God and the individual. Calling to officership at some point needs to include the wider expression of The Salvation Army. It's a communal calling where an individual's sense of calling is confirmed, and sometimes even initiated, by the church.
Every denomination has its own approach to calling for its ordained ministry. Some churches wait until a candidate has concluded his or her education at their own expense. Only then does the denomination consider calling that person to ordained ministry. The Salvation Army has chosen an approach that is “front loaded.” In other words, the process to be accepted for ordained ministry places much more emphasis on requirements prior to the training sought. Obligations are entered into by both the candidate and the Army. Affirmations as to a candidate's suitability are sought from congregational, divisional and territorial leadership. The Army invests significant financial commitment into a cadet's training. In turn, cadets are required to give of themselves wholeheartedly to the training offered. The College for Officer Training then becomes a place of discernment, where one's sense of calling is assessed by the integrity of response to the program.
Recognizing that God has equipped you…
In the moment of ordination and commissioning, the conviction is expressed that God has equipped this person to be an officer. The language of equipping is expressed in the letter to the Ephesians. Its emphasis is on Christ's grace given to us, which includes “pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry …” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NRSV).
When cadets arrive at the officer training college they bring valued experience and skills, as well as the capacity to learn. They arrive having given of themselves to leadership positions within their congregation. But the transition into ordained and commissioned officership is huge, and often takes years before it really takes root. Before a cadet is recommended for ordination she or he will have met the requirements for the Certificate of Salvation Army Officership. This is an international requirement, even though its specific requirements are determined by each territory.
Officer training has goals that are shared internationally. It is designed so that officers “Know God, know themselves and know their mission.” This simple statement is profound in its implications. It indicates that knowledge of ourselves is related to our knowledge of God. It expresses the conviction that knowing is connected to mission. We truly understand when we are able to put it into practice. And sometimes it's the doing that leads to the knowing, like a pianist discovering the genius of Mozart by playing Mozart. To this end, officer training includes the disciplines of reading Scripture and of understanding the way our doctrines function. It creates an understanding of the current context in which we know God and our mission. It helps future officers to receive both affirmation and critique from others, and to work with others with whom they will share the Officer's Covenant. Officer training is not simply a matter of passing courses. It's an exercise in formation, where understanding, skills and character are integrated by God's grace.
To say that a person has been equipped does not mean this is a finished task. It implies appropriate equipping for the moment. An officer's life will be characterized by continual learning. Every appointment brings with it experiences that stretch the officer. It may come when a pastoral visit to an older person brings an officer into the world of dementia, and pushes her into an understanding of that world. It may come when an officer is placed in a neighbourhood dominated by people of another religious faith, where loving neighbour includes learning to understand that faith with integrity. An officer's equipping is always present tense.
Recognizing that God has gifted you….
“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” (1 Peter 4:10 NRSV). God's grace comes in technicolour. It's a biblical conviction that each Salvationist has received an expression of God's grace, a charism, which enables us to serve the wider community. The word for gift is related to the word for grace. And while it usually refers to certain abilities with which to serve the church, it can also refer to the ordained ministry itself as a gift of God to the church's ministry. The ordination and commissioning of an officer is a gift of God to the wider life of The Salvation Army.
To be so gifted means that an officer will be characterized by hard work. Gifted athletes are disciplined athletes. Gifted musicians work hard at their craft. To be called by God, to be gifted by the Holy Spirit, is to submit to the discipline of study, of time, of communal life. To be so gifted means that an officer will be a team player. The Army's leadership seeks to place officers in responsibilities where those gifts and interests can function well. There are also times when officers will be appointed to a responsibility that surprises, but is intended for the good of the whole. To be so gifted also means that an officer will carry out her ministry in humility. To be viewed as gifted for officership is no occasion for arrogance. Like its Lord, the Army in its best moments will be characterized by humility. Its officers will help to cultivate humility when they live the mind of Christ, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8 NRSV). The gift of officership is carried out in a spirit of hard work and humility.
Within days of their ordination and commissioning, new Salvation Army officers leave for their first appointment. The energy and excitement of that sacred moment fades, and the realities of engaging their appointment begins. And the question is asked again:
So what is a Salvation Army officer?
In some respects an officer is no different from other people. She will enjoy a good game of golf as much as her friends. He will hike the East Coast Trail with other hikers. An officer will struggle with the task of being a parent, just like other parents. However, having been ordained and commissioned:
- An officer knows her life to be shaped by the overwhelming grace of God, and now experiences that grace within the calling of officership.
- An officer understands that learning is integral to his discipleship, and now experiences that learning within the curriculum of his appointments.
- An officer discovers God's gifting in his life, and expresses those gifts for the Army's transforming mission.
- An officer understands she is authorized for ministry, and wears that authorization with humility.
- An officer understands her appointments to be an expression of sacred trust not entitlement, and so lives with a sense of accountability.
- An officer forms part of a covenant community, risking the life of God's vulnerable love in a commodified world.
- An officer has been conferred with a new sense of identity, and this shapes her vocation.
- An officer has been given an immense task, and entrusted with an immense privilege.
It is said that one of the most important gifts we can give is a good question. An important gift has been given to Salvationists with this question, “So what is a Salvation Army officer?” This is because the question regarding officer identity is not simply about officers. Responding to the question is not only about exploring the nature of The Salvation Army, the place of the church in our culture or even the nature of the gospel. The question has pushed us to inquire about the kind of God that calls ordinary men and women to help embody his transforming grace in our world. The identity of Salvation Army officers is deeply connected to the identity of the God we know through Jesus Christ.
Major Ray Harris is a retired Salvation Army officer living in Winnipeg. He plays trombone in the Heritage Park Band and enjoys flying kites with his grandson.