The future is not what it used to be

from the desk of…

by Kurt Burger, Lt. Colonel – 

Lt. Col. Kurt BurgerAt first glance, that sentence seems exactly backwards. But it isn’t. Consider, for example:

Just a generation ago everyone could look forward to living the life their parents had lived. The future was predictable and moved in almost identical paths. Lifetime employment with the same company was the norm. In our age, however, young people, according to some researchers, can expect to work for ten to fifteen employers. Many, at one time in their careers, will work independently, contracting for services with companies.

I made a lifetime commitment to officership. “I don’t want to be a ‘lifer,’” a young officer told me not long ago. His commitment is to Christ, not The Salvation Army, he piously pointed out to me, inferring, I guess, that I, as the misguided one, should rethink the bedrock of my service. I won’t; neither will he, because we both are the products of our respective generations.

I don’t like the thought: the new generation of officers does not subscribe to the concept of lifetime commitment to officership. But there is no question that it is an outlook here to stay for the foreseeable future. Salvation Army leadership needs to acknowledge it and plan accordingly. For example, the policy of accumulating no retirement benefits unless an officer serves up to retirement age is no longer sustainable. We tend to welcome “second career” applicants for officership, many having served in our armed forces as their first career who are ready to embark on a second as Salvation Army officers. However, we need to acknowledge that it can go both ways: first a career as a Salvation Army officer and then doing something else as the second. The prospect of ending a successful, say, twenty-year first career as an officer without having accumulated any retirement benefits will not attract candidates.

While no one ever came into soldiership and then officership fully trained and educated in things theological, spiritual and ministerial, today’s young people tend to be less prepared to face the rigors of training and subsequent officership. There are fewer young people who grow up in a corps getting slowly immersed in the beliefs and practices of The Salvation Army. Many of our new officers were only soldiers a few years before entering training. Because demands are higher and people’s backgrounds more varied than just a generation ago, we need to strengthen the shepherding and training of young people. Crash corps cadet programs, Bible and doctrine intensives should be available to our corps officers to deal with the accelerated path to local leadership or officership.

One thing that must remain the same today and in the future is the clarity of our message. Christian groups that lose clarity and conviction about their message and purpose, and do not communicate them effectively, will fail to attract young people. They will fail to win youth who are lured by our materialistic and individualistic culture, and will repel those who are looking for radical ways to express their Christian commitment.

Getting back to commitment: “It is based on the idea that by giving over our allegiance, our time, our feelings about what we would like to do, some larger good will emerge (Ed Dayton, Whatever Happened to Commitment?). To claim a lifetime commitment to officership is, in my view, still desirable. But it is also loaded with potential, sometimes devastating, consequences. Commitment (doing something for the common good, i.e. help people and extend the Kingdom of God) can change into convenience (I can’t match the lifestyle of an officer on the “outside”) into necessity (I couldn’t find another job if I left), ending with a deflated declaration: “If I could do it over, I wouldn’t become an officer again.” A person like that has moved a great distance from the original commitment, albeit the trappings are still visible: the form is present; the substance is gone. The point: it is better to benefit from a person’s strong and vibrant commitment as long as it lasts. Commitment is not cheap. It is demanding. It almost always is under attack to weaken it, to neutralize it. We need to allow various “time frames” for commitment to officership and set up corresponding support and at the same time remove the “guilt trip” approach to those who use officership as a first career.

If our definition has to change forcing us to adapt to new ways of thinking, so be it. We know that the present is different than the past; the future will be different again. I for one am willing to adjust my thinking. I just don’t want to be among those described in Rachel Lindsey’s poem:

It is the world’s one crime that its babes grow dull.
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap.
Not that they serve, but that they have no God
to serve.
The tragedy is not death.
The tragedy is to die with commitments undefined,
with convictions undeclared
and with service unfulfilled.

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