Prepared for tomorrow

A conversation with Commissioners Israel and Eva Gaither

by Sue Schumann Warner – 

Left to right: Dr. Ivan May, Commissioner Israel Gaither, former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Commissioner Eva Gaither and Len Miller in South Africa, July 2000.

It’s a muggy Tuesday morning at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in San Diego, California. Kids splash in the pools, day campers kick balls on the soccer field, and ice skaters glide across the rink…it’s a pretty typical day at the Army’s first Kroc Center—except that this day marks a visit by the new USA national leaders, Commissioners Israel and Eva Gaither.

After touring the center, meeting with the advisory council, and having lunch with staff members, the Gaithers sit down to talk with this reporter about topics ranging from social issues and diversity, to the Army of the future. They both appear comfortable in their new roles, and convey a warm, mutual respect for each other and the Army; they have clearly become a team through their years of ministry.

While responding to questions during the hour-long interview, Commissioner Israel Gaither retains a sense of calmness, composure, and centeredness. His commitment to furthering the Army’s mission is clear, and his passion for growing the Army of tomorrow—“a strong, fit…innovative…on the move Salvation Army”—echoes throughout the conversation. He begins by saying…

We’ve got to be on the cutting edge, keeping one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow. We’re a tomorrow people. It’s critical that we understand today in order to engage mission in a more creative way tomorrow.

Army visibility, public perception,
and our moral authority

We must constantly remind ourselves of who we are. We are a people of God, and the greatest thing that we need in America from The Salvation Army is for Salvationists to be fully empowered by the grace and Holy Spirit-power of the Lord Jesus. We need to be a holy people.

Now, we are The Salvation Army, and if we want to be a holy movement of God in the world, we have to be a people seeking to live holiness. That’s number one. Secondly, we need to understand that we are in a period in America where secularization is subtly eating away at the heart of traditional, biblical, fundamental values. If we’re not alert to that, we will begin to look like the world that we’ve been called to transform. We are called out people to live Kingdom values. If we’re not careful, those values can begin to slip away. We begin to mimic and imitate the world. What we have to do to be a holy people, to be responding as people of God, is to stay on message—remember who we are—stay on message no matter what may come as a result.

We are always going to be at risk of being labeled too narrow, old-fashioned, rigid. Let it be so. There is a higher moral standard, the biblical standard that we will stand fixed and firm on. And, yes, we’ll be called names; we’ll be labeled, but so be it. We must not and cannot abandon who we are as a people of God.

I’m not worried about The Salvation Army disappearing in America; I worry about our losing our courage to stand for what we believe, because it’s going to get more difficult; it’s not going to get easier. The more we stand for what is right, the more we’re going to get battered. We’re going to be misunderstood, but we’ve got to keep our message clear by our lives, our action, positions, and I’m absolutely convinced that’s what in the 21st century we’re called to be: The Salvation Army, a holy people of God, who are determined to be what we’ve been called to be.

This morning, in meeting with the advisory council here at the Kroc Center, one of the council members talked about this center being a welcoming place for people who don’t have faith—that they didn’t feel threatened. I call it a place of grace. That’s the beauty of the Army. We can walk into circumstances and into places with our message of the love of Jesus Christ and not be offensive. But sometimes, even when we walk gently into those places with the message of the gospel that redeems and frees people, it’s rejected as being narrow and rigid, bigoted. It’s hard for people to understand that we don’t hate the person, but we despise the sin. They’re not going to want to hear that message. So we have to demonstrate it in many, many other ways.

Army’s role in advocacy

I’m proud of our advocacy role. In fact, I don’t think the average Salvationist understands how deep our role is. We are at the table on major issues. When we took office May 1, we began receiving welcome letters and phone calls and people wanting us to sign on to certain issues in support of their cause. It was a signal of the impressive power of the Army and our influence. Some requests we had to say ‘no’ to, because we’re going to preserve and protect our name. So, we have to align ourselves to the right issues—those which are in keeping with our values and beliefs. We have excellent, well informed staff who are deployed to Capitol Hill, who have the ear of Congressional leaders, sitting at the table with other agency leaders.

At national headquarters we have a public policy council as well as a government relations task force. This brings all of the disciplines together, constantly looking at current and emerging issues. Recommendations of the task force are reviewed by the public policy council—which the national commander chairs—where we might want to take a position, or give our support, or lend our name or presence to certain issues. I’m very proud of this arena of NHQ’s mission.

I think what has to happen—your asking the question only verifies my own feeling—is that we need to provide information to our Army constituency on what our positions are on issues and why we take certain positions, and to whom we’re aligned.

We must remain apolitical. It can be like walking on a tightrope in a windstorm, because partisanship will want to pull you to one side or another. But we have been able to walk a nonpartisan line beyond the political arena for the sake of the hurting and the marginalized.
It’s amazing the entrée the Army has into the White House; we were pleased to meet with President Bush just a few days ago. And it’s not about politics; it’s about the power of the Army and our mission to America. There’s a great romance going on between the American public and The Salvation Army, and opportunities that call for The Salvation Army’s presence are very significant. And it’s not about a person—it’s not Israel Gaither or anybody else getting onto Capitol Hill because of who we are—it’s about this uniform.

Emerging social issues

There are emerging social issues the Army needs to address; some of these have global impact. We have a strong voice in sexual trafficking, for example. Lisa Thompson, out of national headquarters, is very articulate, and has a strong passion about this social issue. She needs to be invited to corps, to officers’ councils, institutions—she’s doing some of that, but I’d like to see her out more, talking about the problem and its impact on America.

Internet pornography—I’m part of a group of denominational leaders who are considering its impact on America; it’s an area where the Army’s voice and presence are important.
Issues of marriage and family—we must remain focused and hold on to our biblical and historical values on the issue; we need to keep on message.
Secularism in general is creeping into the American way of life—the church is being marginalized—the voice of the believer is being muted. The Army must stand and speak what we believe and make our impact.

Avoiding becoming just another recreational agency

The Kroc Centers being built in each of the four territories around the nation are not going to be recreational agencies. We’re visiting the center here this morning, and I have a sense that staff understand why we’re here—why they are here—and why they’re engaged in mission. It takes intentional remembering and active behavior. The foundation point, the center point, the core point, is the corps point—the basic spiritual intention.

I think we’re attuned to that. I don’t really think we’re slipping away. I think if you look at this center from the outside, one could say, wait—where is the fundamental point of mission in all this? But I’m happy to report to your readers that this Kroc Center is mission-focused. We have leadership here—officer and staff—who are doing the mission. I’ve asked the questions and they gave me the answers. Not because I wanted to hear it, but because that’s what they believe. That’s an indication that they’re staying on message.

Over 2,000 people pass through the doors of this center every day, from all walks of life—and they’re coming into a place of grace. I have great confidence in the leadership of this center.
I’ve heard Captain John Van Cleef talk about his vision—he’s only been here a few weeks, but he’s a very perceptive man. He follows good leadership: I’m speaking of Majors Tim and Cindy Foley. I don’t see this becoming just another recreational agency—this is The Salvation Army and a unique turning point in our history and mission. I really feel very good about who’s here and what they’re doing.

This is an incredible gift. And the gift is not just the 12 acres of ground on which a magnificent facility has been constructed; the gift is flesh and blood—boys and girls, men and women—who come through these doors every day; that’s the gift. We’ve seen seniors and babies—the whole gamut—the diversity of cultures—the socioeconomic differences—we’ve noted and it’s been pointed out to us that people of different ethnicities sit next to each other. It’s just amazing…the changes in the lives of people that will happen as a result of this place are unimaginable.

We heard stories this morning, wonderful stories of the impact of this center coming into the neighborhood…how it’s transformed the environment merely by its presence; the reach of this place has gone further into Southern California, two or three hours away. So, the reach of this is not only within the neighborhood, but also beyond. Transformation is going on here because of this gift of God. And Joan Kroc was the channel of the blessing.

The Army and multiculturalism

Diversity is here. I tend not to use the term multiculturalism unless it means crossing racial boundaries and leaping barriers. It’s respecting and valuing people for who they are, but it’s not about syncretism or merging cultures into something that doesn’t make sense. It’s about preserving, understanding, and empowering people to become what God has in mind for them.

Lt. Colonel Donald Bell shared that over 100 languages and dialects are spoken at the local high school. The world is here. America has always and continues to receive people from all over the world. And the Army is becoming better prepared to address the needs of a diverse world. We’re learning quickly—and there is no question that, in some areas, we must make up for lost time.

For example, I think we can reach deeper into nonwhite populations in some of our areas of the professional disciplines of our ministry. And we must do it in terms of leadership. I think we understand we absolutely must do better. I wouldn’t be here talking to you about this if I didn’t believe we could and want to do better. We’ve got to catch up. That’s part of the beauty of our [the Gaithers’] internationalism—we’ve been gifted with a worldview.

The world has arrived in America. That means being constantly aware of and sensitive to the need to invest in the development of people. It means helping local congregations to adapt and embrace and love and receive. The fact of the matter is, that if we don’t learn those lessons and put them into practice fairly quickly, mission efforts will be hindered.

You understand another person by getting to know them—it’s relational. So, dropping our fears and our guards, and stepping into the experience of another, learning and sharing—that’s what Army ministry is about. It’s stepping outside of ourselves. The biggest danger we have is seeing ourselves as a group of closed, closeted disciples who meet on Sunday morning at the Citadel and return to the world as silent disciples.

That’s not the intention of a corps. It’s the place of preparation to re-enter the world, move into another person’s world. You don’t know me because of what someone has said to you about me. You know me because you’ve established a relationship with me.

Experiential gains from four years at IHQ

Commissioner Israel Gaither (IG): It enabled us to travel; we’ve seen the Army around the world and so we have a global view of mission. There’s also the value of the Army’s interconnection and our internationalism: America needs the whole Salvation Army, and the whole Salvation Army needs America.

There’s a very important connection that we want to continue to emphasize—this is a whole Army. We’ve also seen the power of the mission, and the influence The Salvation Army can have in a nation. The voice of the Army is heard and its presence is recognized.

Commissioner Eva Gaither (EG): The past three and a half years overseas have been an incredible experience—particularly in ministry to women; seeing women think more of themselves because of programs that the Army has invested in them; seeing women—particularly in India and Africa—who have been empowered to do much more than they ever thought they would do.

Women of America have the same basic need. I want to use that experience in supporting the territorial presidents in their ministry with the women in their territories, to empower women to become the very best person God has in mind.

Role of the national commander

I’ll give you some words: spiritual influencer, leader, communicator, facilitator, bridge builder, visionary, watchman, encourager, pastor…these are some of the critical roles gifted to me. It’s a role that has different components both externally and internally. I’m the recipient of a position of God-given responsibility in ministry. It’s not about personal importance; it’s about serving. That’s why both Eva and I are here—to serve.

It’s interesting—leadership positions have portfolios that describe the duties. But it’s always influenced by the occupier of the role. And essentially, every national commander has had a similar mandate from the General. How the mandate is played out depends upon the gifts, the interest areas, the personality of the occupier. So, the role evolves primarily based upon who the person is in function, within the context of the authority delegated to the national commander.

This position is unique in the Army world.
With regard to the title of commander, it’s an internal concern. One might question its accuracy within the constituency, but externally it doesn’t really matter—people see The Salvation Army as a whole. The title is not the issue.

The truth of the matter is, the national commander has delegated authority, but the issue is leadership—and leadership is about influence. Twenty-first century leadership is not about commanding anything. So, the question could be asked of any element in our structure where the term commander is still used—is that really appropriate? Because it’s not about commanding, it’s about influence.

There are cultural implications in some places in the world regarding leadership. We’re learning the value of investing and reinvesting leadership responsibility in volunteers—particularly our soldiers. There was a time when those of us who are officers were trained to believe everything revolved around the corps officer. But that’s not good leadership. It stifles the power of our soldier. What we’re talking about and now seeing is the release of the soldier. We need Salvationists to become soldiers.

We’ve just returned from the Gulf Coast, where I asked the question: how many lay Salvationists do you think are involved here [after the hurricanes]? They couldn’t give me exact numbers, but I was heartened to know Salvationists—lay people—our soldiers, came from various parts of the country, as well as from the immediate region. They responded immediately. That’s the kind of leadership that’s needed. We must unlock and release Salvationists for mission.

Looking at the rank system

It’s an internal issue; externally, people don’t care what rank an officer holds. They just want us to be the Army. I understand that in the heart of some of us, it’s very important. I have some personal feelings and beliefs about the system, which I don’t need to talk about here, but I’m more concerned with what we do with what we have.

My fear is that this is one of those ‘edge of mission’ issues. While there is some appropriateness to the interest in it, there are other matters that are far more important. Let’s not spend so much time on the edge, when there are things in the center that might collapse.
I also sense that leaders coming along today in ministry are not concerned about rank or position. They are called by God, and they really want to get their hands on mission and get on with the Army’s ministry.

Married women officers and paychecks

IG: I’ll let Eva comment. It’s an old issue; I don’t think we have leaders anywhere in America that wouldn’t like to see this happen. In terms of retirement, though, it’s an issue of Social Security benefits and the negative financial impact on the officer.

EG: Several commissions have reviewed it, and it always comes back to being to our detriment in terms of retirement. When we served in London we each received our individual paychecks, and they went into the same bank account. So, the bottom line is that unless you feel very, very strongly, it really doesn’t matter.

IG: I agree with that. I couldn’t tell you when our payday is. But it’s not about a paycheck, it’s about releasing the potential of a very valuable element of our ministry—women. In the Western world, it is less of a problem. But we still have to break through some structural issues to allow it to happen more effectively. We’ve got to keep working at it, and deliberately and intentionally release women for ministry, just as we’ve released men for ministry. It’s not about a paycheck.

EG: While some married women officers feel very strongly about it, I would not want them to think because I feel the way I do, that I feel they’re wrong; I do not. I know some married women officers who feel very strongly that they should receive a separate allowance. And I respect their position.

IG: I think that’s absolutely right. It is a practical issue that is unique to America. As Eva indicated, serving overseas we received separate allowances.
EG: The same amount. (Said with a smile.)

IG: Right. But I don’t think—correct me if I’m wrong—that you felt better about who you are in ministry because you had a paycheck.

EG: That doesn’t faze me. But for someone who has fought for that, who feels very strongly that their own dignity has been affected, I respect their feelings.

IG: I say, let’s release our women. Let’s get our women—married and single women—into positions of responsibility where they can really have the greatest impact on mission and ministry because of the significance of their influence.

EG: We tried to do that at IHQ, but there are so many reasons why it can or cannot work as well as we would like in many places in the world. In the first place, it depends on the husband, and how he feels about the role his wife is going to take on. Male dominance can be an issue in some parts of the world.

IG: But in America, we have to break through structures so it can happen. We have this tremendous gift to The Salvation Army—women in ministry—we just have to open up structurally, and break down the invisible barriers to be able to release this powerful force more effectively.

For example: You have a married couple, and the man has distinctive gifts, and the woman has distinctive gifts. It’s about placing them strategically, so that those gifts—particularly in the context of this conversation, the woman’s—can be used for truly effective impact on the mission of the Army. Sometimes, when appointing a married couple, we too often first and perhaps only, think of the man, and how we’re going to place him; then we secondarily think—generally speaking—about the woman. We’re working at that—there is some improvement—but we have to have it intentionally in our consciousness to consider both the woman and the man.

We’ve got to remember there are two people, two individuals with giftedness. The discipline in which it can happen beautifully is in pastoral ministry, where both work out their roles. Eva and I did that when we were corps officers.

When you move into other fields of ministry in the Army, it becomes a challenge. But we can do it; we just have to do it more intentionally. We who are in those privileged and sacred responsibilities of deploying people must work at it more and more. I want to emphasize it’s happening, but we have to make continued progress, making certain that when we’re looking at a married couple, we’re looking at two individuals, and make a way for the married woman officer to make her contribution effectively. And the same holds true for single women and single men.

Army of the future

I have some dreams for the Army, particularly here in America. What I want to see is an Army that believes in itself, and out of that belief thinks big, acts big—dismisses small thinking—that imagines that which may never have been thought possible. I want to see an Army with a strong focus. This is not about organizational survival, but about the Kingdom of God. I believe if we’re focused on the Kingdom, the Army will be all right.

I want to see an Army that is true to what we’re born to be and what we’re called to do, believing in what God has called us to become. I want to see a resilient Salvation Army, but I also want to see a restless Army. An Army that is discomfited by society is anxious to establish the reign of Christ. I want a revived and renewed Salvation Army.

So, with those desires, if we can just be the people of God, sensitive to the Holy Spirit, remembering that the Army is not a place, it’s a person, I think we’ll be a strong, fit, ready, on the march Salvation Army that is creative, innovative, able to leap over barriers. An Army that doesn’t create obstacles, but breaks down walls.

We need Salvationists to be soldiers. There’s something for every soldier to do. With active soldiers we can be that restless, renewed, and revived Salvation Army.

For example, you have senior citizens in congregations. Some might say: I’m infirm, I can’t do much. Well, you can—you can pray, you can pick up the telephone and encourage other soldiers. I think of Lt. Colonel Lance Rive, a retired officer in New Zealand; a tragic accident paralyzed him. We had the privilege of being in New Zealand, when the [now] General was the territorial commander there. We presented Lance with the Order of the Founder. Why? He didn’t let his disability get in the way of his being a missioner, a soldier. He has a wonderful prayer ministry that spans the globe. So, we can do something. Young people—we’ve got to release our young people to ministry—believe in them, trust them. Men—I believe we have untapped power in our men. We need more men to be involved in the day-to-day mission of the Army. We need to create ways to release the Army of the present for an even more effective, God honoring future.

Volunteers and faithful Salvationists

I do want to say to your readers that Eva and I have always had a very high regard for our volunteers. What we’ve seen in these three months has been amazing—highly dedicated volunteers, by the thousands, stand with us. I salute them. We saw their work in the Gulf Coast; people who lost everything, volunteering with the Army, coming to help others. We have advisory board, auxiliary, and advisory council people, who give of themselves, beautifully supporting this mission. That’s a wonderful resource.

I also want to say how much I appreciate—and thank God—for faithful Salvationists, soldiers and officers, who every day give themselves to mission. This nation’s high regard for the Army is a result of serving Salvationists and volunteers who make their impact every day. We have marvelous soldiers and officers, right across this country, who are serving beautifully.

But we need more soldiers. We’re not big enough. The Kingdom needs more Salvationist missioners. There are those out there who are waiting for us to summon them to battle, who want to be part of this ministry.

We can and we are growing soldiers—and we need to do it more aggressively, intentionally. We need to grow soldiers who love the Lord, who are filled with the Holy Spirit. We need to move junior soldiers into senior soldiership. We need to train our young people. Those are fundamentals. If we are going to grow the Kingdom, we need Kingdom growers. I hope that as Eva and I move around the country, encouraging people, that we can effectively model the joy of serving the Lord as Salvationists, and stand with our territorial leaders supporting them in their vision. We have wonderful leaders in the territories, and we thank God for the privilege of being able to partner with them in this mission to America.

Today and Tomorrow

The world is moving fast, and if we’re not careful we could find ourselves left behind, because we’re holding onto things that we simply ought to get rid of—barriers to mission. I’m not talking about essential values being lost—it’s the things that just prevent us from being who we need to be in this new age of mission. If we’re smart and not afraid, God-led and Holy Spirit guided, we’ll be ready for ‘tomorrow’.

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