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Needham explores key issues

AT DEPARTURE

BY ROBERT DOCTER – 

 

fires

COMMISSIONERS Phil and Keitha Needham


“The most essential key to The Salvation Army’s future effectiveness lies in achieving a full integration of our ministry — bridging between our worship- related programs and our service to hurting, desperate people. Our entire Army will become stronger in relation to our mission as greater numbers of soldiers insert themselves into this holistic role.”

So stated Colonel Phil Needham, chief secretary, on the eve of his departure from the West to assume leadership of the Army’s U.S.A. Southern Territory.

In a wide-ranging interview Needham revealed much of his theology and philosophy developed over a lifetime of service to God through The Salvation Army. “I think I’m a better officer today than I was prior to my service in the West. I’ve seen a remarkable and positive expression of ministry here — and I have gained through the opportunities to work with such a diverse population. The multiculturalism of the West is beautiful to behold — the ease with which different races and cultures relate is wonderful. It’s a magnificent expression of Salvationist inclusiveness,” Needham said. He noted that coming from the South, where the population is not nearly as multicultural, the West provided him with an important head start in understanding the complexity of such an important issue in today’s rapidly changing America. Ever the realist, he stated: “We still have pockets of racism and ethnocentrism in our country. We have some distance to travel on this issue here as we do throughout the nation.”

Social Justice

“I’m convinced,” he continued, “that the Army must be more forthright in speaking out on matters of social justice — with less regard for the consequences. In doing this, however, we must not stray from our concern for the people nvolved.”

As an example, he stated that the Army probably shouldn’t simply go about making public pronouncements on highly complex and historic conflicts. Instead, we need to take leadership in opening internal discussion and dialogue on these kinds of concerns — and then commenting on the impact of the cycle of violence on actual people.

He drew upon the history of peoples undergoing significant change by noting that there are many places in the world where it seems impossible to change a very violent status quo unless someone is willing to break the quid pro quo cycle. An attack by one group leads to a response by another that, in turn, is followed by a continued attack by the former. Finding ways to bring people together for dialogue is the place to start.

“I like Paul Rader’s statement: ‘A true Christian is a world Christian’,” Needham said.

Extended Benefits and Domestic Partners

Needham courageously assumed the role of ‘point-man’ in relation to the Army’s recent decisions on the ‘domestic partner’ issue. This issue concerned the Army’s response to contract requirements imposed by a number of major cities and counties throughout the West that denied funding support to any entity that failed to provide the same range of benefits access for one legally domiciled adult as provided married partners only. These contracts provided Federal dollars, passed through the states to cities and counties, in support of Army programs ministering to some of the most needy populations.

The Army does not extend benefits beyond any employee. Only the individual employee receives these benefits. It does, however, provide “access” to a benefit package that may be purchased by dependents of married employees. It was the extension of this “access” that the contracts required. The Army, therefore, drafted wording similar to that accepted for Catholic Charities that extended “access” to these benefits to one additional household member.

“I’m proud of the way the West approached the domestic partner benefits issue,” Needham stated. “This is an extremely delicate issue with strongly held diverse viewpoints. The West sought to open exploration of the issue with discussion among groups of officers and soldiers throughout the Territory. As a result of this open examination we achieved a fairly broad range of understanding and input concerning all facets of the decision.”

Needham observed that such an exploration did not take place in the other three U.S. territories, and the impact of the Commissioners’ Conference decision to extend access to benefits was not fully understood at the grass roots level in these territories.

Needham himself was singled out for criticism in the national media, especially in a strong, personal attack by Dr. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family organization. Media attention prompted much criticism of the decision across the nation. This outcry prompted the Commissioners’ Conference to rescind the decision to extend access to benefits and maintain the former personnel policies.

“This issue will resurface again,” Needham said, “as soon as more cities and states continue to move in the manner of states like California and cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“I believe the day of the Commissioners’ Conference making important national decisions that have significant impact on our soldiery and our mission without grass roots input is gone,” Needham said. “Nationally, I think the Army had hoped that the legislation pertaining to President Bush’s Faith-Based Charities proposals would assist us in dealing with the domestic partner matter. Instead, the issue has only slowed the entire process. I hope the President remains serious about finding ways to support faith-based charities. But even more importantly, I think we need to have more informed dialogue on this and other important issues on a local level.”

Leadership, Authority and Power

“One thing the domestic partner issue taught us relates to the distinct differences between authority and power.” Needham went on to explain his thinking on this. While the Commissioners’ Conference had the power to make the decision concerning extending benefits, it quickly learned that a broader population had considerable influence, and it was this that prompted a reversal of the original decision.

Needham provided another example in the organization of the American Baptists. In the Baptist system of government, the authority lies in the local congregations. They can hire and fire pastors and create their own budgets — even leave the denomination. Nevertheless, tremendous power still resides in the American Baptist Convention and is exercised outside the ‘official’ lines of decision making, which is local.

“The Army has an opposite government, with most authority residing at the ‘top,’ but considerable power and influence is there to be exercised at the local level, and we must take this more seriously than we have. There needs to be a synergistic balance,” said Needham.

Current reading

In revealing a little about his interests and process, Needham spoke about his recent reading. The first, titled From Good to Great by Jim Collins and published by Harper Business Books, revealed the common characteristics of 15 major firms that might truly be described as “great.” Among a number of these characteristics, Needham mentioned key leadership qualities of the people who led these organizations. “The two qualities that stood out in all of the leaders were first, humility; and second, dogged persistence. Also, key to their success, was to get the right people in the right places.”

The second area of reading was on the subject of Radical Orthodoxy. In relation to this movement in theology, Needham stated: “I have problems with both fundamentalism and liberalism. It seems to me that in situations that seem to set compassion over against righteousness, the fundamentalist tends to choose a righteous stand over compassion while the liberal tends to choose compassion over righteousness. A true orthodoxy is able to embrace both without sacrificing either. Our Army, I believe, is founded on this true orthodoxy (strong doctrine and strong mercy).”

Hopes for the West

Needham stated that he has tremendous respect for the work of Commissioner David Edwards who commanded the West over the past five years. He identified a number of specific areas where he hopes the territory will continue to grow in the direction of the territorial vision.

  • I hope we can find ways to implement local vision statements that are more than simply tinkering with the status quo and find ways to achieve some profound change designed to result in significant growth.
  • I hope we can close the widening gap between our congregations and our social outreach. (This is happening in a number of places in the West, for which I rejoice!)
  • I hope we can continue to strengthen the membership and involvement of our Advisory Boards in the affairs of the Army. These individuals are essential to us in relating to the communities in which we serve.
  • I hope we can continue to develop Crestmont College. A place of life-long learning is extremely important for our officers, soldiers, employees and all who seek to avail themselves of this type of growth.
  • I hope we can implement greater flexibility in the response of individuals to varying avenues of service within the Army. Recent international personnel changes make this possible.

General John Gowans promoted Needham to the rank of Commissioner effective June 29, 2002. He assumes leadership of the Southern Territory on July 1. His wife, Keitha, also promoted to the rank of Commissioner, was appointed Southern Territorial President, Women’s Organizations.

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