On the Corner

By Robert Docter –

This is an op-ed piece. An opinion piece. Some thoughts I have about our Army.

Well … what is The Salvation Army? Are we a church–a private social service agency–a disaster relief organization–an international “movement” for good–all of the above?

Like individuals, organizations establish and re-establish an identity. Organizational identity has to do with a felt sense of confidence and trust permeating the system. It relates to worker, member and public certainty concerning the organization’s goals and the means chosen to achieve those goals–to a positive sense of well being about its future direction–and to some kind of inner assuredness and anticipation that the organization will receive recognition from those “who count.”

Who counts? God counts. Our membership counts. Our constituency counts. The public counts.

Identity is an amalgam of culture, values, heritage, history, courage and faith. It has a lot to do with what an organization “does”–how it plays its role in society–how its workers spend their time–how it is viewed and labeled by those within the organization and by those outside it.

Over the years of its continuing development, an organization cycles through periods of certainty and doubt as to its identity. For a season there is a certainty about what it is and where it’s going–only to be followed by a period of questioning and doubt. I sense our Army is in the midst of a season of uncertainty as to its identity. This is not wrong or bad or harmful or dangerous. On the contrary, it is positive and healthy–IF–we who make up and define this organization work to move through our uncertainty into a more mature identity.

Psychologist James Marcia, in looking at individual identity, proposed that the criteria for the attainment of a mature identity are based on two variables: crisis and commitment. A period of crisis is characterized by confrontations with specific choices–choosing between alternative positions. Commitment has to do with the degree of investment an organization makes in a position or belief.

Identity diffusion, a stage in which I believe the Army in America finds itself, occurs when the organization resists dealing with the crisis.

What is the crisis?

The crisis occurs because, even with our excellent Mission Statement, the organization has not adequately identified the choices to which it must commit. Nor has it succeeded in defining its magnificent uniqueness–its positive peculiarity–its incontestable notability–its emphatic remarkableness within the world today, either to those who serve within its ranks or those who perceive it from the outside.

Identity diffusion has two allies: stereotyping and foreclosure. In the vacuum of non-definition, individuals seek their own labels for the organization. They resonate to the characteristics present in other organizations with which they have some familiarity–say, for example–the “church”–or in the case of those who identify primarily with our social work–the “agency.”

Because we have not adequately defined our uniqueness, they then seek to stereotype the Army with the characteristics to which they resonate. The public, some members, the government, those we serve, seek to define us in terms more relevant for other organizations. It is important to note that many of these “characteristics” fit the Army beautifully, but they only tell part of the story. Stereotyping requires a “force-fit” and denies individuality.

A “foreclosure” identity status tends almost to be the norm in western society. It is a simple, unchallenged acceptance of the status quo as fiat or rule. It takes historical roles and assigns them to the present. I like what Tom Jones said last week. “We’re watching the problems of the world go right by us, and the Lord Jesus Christ put us here to work on solving them.”

It is not likely that the problems of the present will be managed or solved with remedies from the past. Unless we choose to have the public define us only in nostalgic and romantic terms, our methods must use the contributions of the present, and we must define ourselves more fully to them.

The public trusts us without understanding us. They identify us as good people going about the not-always-pleasant task of helping the poor, the downtrodden, the lost, the hurt and damaged of society. We have not always done a good job in communicating the fact that we believe this requires spiritual as well as temporal intervention. Our middle-class corps have been very willing to delegate to “professionals” all aspects of our social service mission as its members gather primarily for their own spiritual enrichment.

This is not wrong. After all, the only way we have anything to share with others is because we have received it first. We must, however, remember that if we want to keep that which we have, we must give it away. Are we truly: Heart to God–hand to man?

We are totally unique–unlike any other organization or institution. We are The Salvation Army.

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