Impressions of a changing army

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­ Reprinted from The Officer magazine ­

Lt. Minna Karlström, an officer of the Finland Territory and a member of the recent International Commission on Officership, presented some thought-provoking ideas on Salvation Army officership in an article in the October 1999 issue of The Officer magazine. New Frontier presents Karlström’s thinking to its readers as a stimulus for further sharing of ideas, dialogue, and self-assessment.

In a higher world it is otherwise; but here
below to live is to change, and to be perfect
is to have changed often.
— John Henry Newman

I may be mistaken, but among Salvationists there seems to be a surprisingly widespread feeling of unease with our present model of leadership. For those who are uneasy, the model somehow does not fit well. There is a sense that it has built in weaknesses, that it echoes a long-gone era and is out of place in today’s world.

The Army system of government was fundamentally set in place in Britain at the height of the period of modernization. Since that time the ongoing process of modernization and then postmodernization has brought about tremendous changes in our societies. And one major change has been democratization.

It is that change–democratization in our societies–which causes much of the unease and stress, I suspect. Many, if not most, of today’s officers and soldiers have grown up in established democracies and take it for granted that everybody has the right to be heard, at least in questions directly concerning themselves.

Yet on the whole The Salvation Army has been able to resist the waves of democratization that have swept over the world. In the 19th century the Army fought for democratization in areas such as equal opportunities for women, social services for the underprivileged, and improved working condition. Yet it stopped short of going on to allow democratization in its own organizational structures.

How has the Army managed to resist the trend? Which factors have contributed to the survival of our 19th century organizational structure? Let me highlight some possible answers to that question.

We have become prisoners to our history

Our semi-military structure is associated with our early success and is therefore assumed to be the best way of doing things. We have developed an idealized understanding of the superiority of the choices made by our first generation leaders. We have been unwilling to accept that the Army was not perfect even at its birth, but was and ought to continue to be a living, developing organism which adapts to meet new challenges.

Sometimes such concepts as the military structure and ranks have been defined as non-negotiable. In such cases we have actually defined as fixed exactly the areas where change is most imperative, at least from a post-modern society’s point of view.

We have made loyalty to the organization equal with loyalty to God

To refuse an organizational decision has been seen as denying the call of God. To have little trust in one’s leaders has been seen as to have no trust in God. When this is the message that is communicated, sometimes directly, at other times indirectly, no wonder the seeds of more democratic/participatory models of leadership find the ground hard and unwelcoming.

We have an underdeveloped culture of trust.

We are brought up to think that our appointments system in particular is a sign of trust, firstly in God and secondly in The Salvation Army. We have never stopped to challenge this statement. Actually, if anything, it is a sign of a very low level of trust. It leaves little room to be of a differing opinion, and provides insufficient official channels for challenging organizational decisions.

We seem to have forgotten that, with adults, trust is a two-way street and the ability to deal constructively with conflicting interpretations of any given situation is a sign of maturity.

There are many paternalistic and patronizing elements in the present appointing system, such as the level of secrecy in decision-making, that serve to hinder a more democratic leadership style being adopted. Our system leaves those who are not decision-makers in a state of uncertainty about their lives which has nothing to do either with trust or lack of it.

Available appointments are not advertised, yet advertising could serve three valuable functions:

It would make way for a degree of openness we have never experienced.

It would make the requirements of the particular appointment known and give officers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they meet the criteria or not and whether they feel they could make a godly contribution in that appointment. They could then send in applications, just like any other responsible people, thus making it easier for the leaders to choose from those who actually are available. Nothing would prevent the leaders from making inquiries through other channels, either.

It would make it easier for officers to take responsibility for the direction of their personal development. At present it is not uncommon for officers to be given an appointment for which they have not been able to acquire skills, which in turn can make the change of appointment an unnecessarily stressful experience.

We have used frequent changes of appointment as a means of control

Unwanted influence can be easily transferred far away. This encourages a tendency in our officers to “toe the line” rather than challenge the status quo.

We have not allowed specializations for our officers

If it is true that rising occupational specialization produces a more autonomous workforce accustomed to thinking for themselves on the job and having specialized skills that enhance their bargaining power against elites, then it must also be true that one way to resist democratization is to deny specialization.

One of the arguments against allowing specialization has been the difficulties it would create within our present appointment system. It is feared that highly specialized officers will not be as willing to accept all appointments which, of course, is a realistic outcome of this development. It is noteworthy, though, that The Salvation Army has been forced to allow specialization in social services and finance, where there are government regulations concerning qualifications and, by some strange reasoning, in the field of music, too. As we seem to be able to accommodate these exceptions into our system, in the interests of the kingdom and the Army, it might be time to consider the benefits of looking into the development of other specialists within our ranks.

No business today can cope without the competitive edge given by highly specialized workforces, and though we are not a business, we do need to realize that this is the way our societies are run. Moreover the general educational systems are geared towards producing specialists from a very early age, thus making it hard for the younger generations to function in a general practitioner style. Many avoid officership because they fear their skills and gifts will not be utilized.

We have not practiced being a learning organization

The Army on the whole has not responded adequately to the ongoing educational needs of its officers and

soldiers. Our officers are trained in the art of maintenance and management, with little emphasis on originality and innovation. Creativity is encouraged only within set parameters.

While there are some territories that go as far as to provide funding for degrees and courses, others simply cannot afford this or are not bothered. However, in information societies in particular it is crucial to be a learning organization.

We have attracted a high concentration of
conservative people into our ranks

There is some evidence that personalities who value structure and conformity make up an unusually high percentage of our ranks. Presumably our structure is one in which they can operate effectively. Too often, innovators and original thinkers do not feel as welcome and do not feel the movement allows them the freedom to express themselves. Yet without these personality types, stagnation occurs.

We have allowed creativity to be quenched by a rigid adherence to models that once worked

We find it necessary to update our buildings to meet the criteria of today; similarly we ought to be continually engaged in the re-evaluation and updating of our organizational structures.

It is time

As an organization ages, the assets of one stage of development can become liabilities at the next. In the Army’s case, some former stepping stones have turned into stumbling blocks.

It is time to acknowledge that different generations have different preferences for organization, springing from their different upbringing and life-experience. As William Booth rightly pointed out, “No particular form of church government can find any support in the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What we feel comfortable with has more to do with our background than with any scriptural or other so-called objective criteria.

Thus, in every generation there is a need for leaders who are prepared to give up their own preferences in order to facilitate the passing on of the original vision to the younger generations.

Today, when we operate in 107 nations, it is true that unease with an authoritarian system is not universal. Different nations are at different stages on the modernization-postmodernization continuum and this becomes evident in the range of attitudes towards changing our system. An organization like ours that takes pride in its unity and internationalism obviously has to be sensitive to this. Yet it is also true that the present status quo is maintained at a price, perhaps too costly a price for the generations paying it.

While there are many alternatives to be debated, one thing is for sure: it is our respect for the soul-saving reality of the past and our burning vision for the future that will provide the creative tension needed for the outworking of new forms for the 21st century.

Lieutenant Minna Karlström is secretary for cross-cultural ministries and evangelism at territorial headquarters, Helsinki, Finland. She has a Master’s degree in translation (Russian/English), her favorite bands are U2 and Delirious, and she loves rollerblading. Karlström wrote this article nearly one and a half years ago as background material to the International Commission on Officership.

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