Why a Commissioning?
BY COLONEL PHIL NEEDHAM –
Once a year we Salvationists have our big celebration. It seems as inevitable each year as the sun rising each day. Salvationists and other friends again make their way to some place near the territorial center, and there certain enactments take place over the course of a weekend. The details and personalities of the event vary from year to year, but the basic structure remains the same. There may also be a congress, councils, summit, or rally of some kind associated with the weekend, but the primary components of the commissioning always remain in place. This year, we are having a Christian education summit a very important resourcing event but it will neither take over nor crowd out the commissioning.
Why do we make such a big thing of commissioning? If the point is simply to confer officer rank on those who have successfully met the requirements of the two-year training program and received the needed endorsement from the training staff, then why not a simple, more intimate occasion? That would take care of it and save a lot of extra work for a few people, to boot. Why must we make this commissioning thing so well public?
As I look for answers, three words come to mind: culture, community, and calling. (Pardon the alliteration: I’m an unregenerate preacher!)
One of the reasons we make so much of commissioning is culture. Commissioning is our big opportunity to celebrate Army culture. William Booth saw big, colorful events as opportunities to parade and promote Salvationism and to provide the little people of our movement something big, attractive, and stirring to identify with. The largeness of our commissionings continue that tradition of the big event.
But it is not simply the bigness of the event that aligns it with Salvationist culture. More importantly, it is the magnification of the symbols and rituals of our movement. We sing the Army battle songs that may never get sung during the year in many corps. We hear a brass band (an important part of our cultural history) that is far better than what most of us hear in our corps (if, in fact, our particular corps even has a brass band of some sort). We have a world services segment that reveals our identification with global Salvationist culture and reports our support of the ministry of our cultural compatriots around the world. But perhaps the most poignant celebration of our culture during the weekend is the appointment meeting on Sunday afternoon. We are a culture of people under orders: we are an army. That part of our culture is driven home with the penetrating force of an electric drill when the new captains march across the stage and, individually or with a spouse, receive their appointments out of the blue as it were while a thousand people watch their reactions. The message there, folks, is that in our Army culture, officers are under orders. Officers do not choose their appointments; they receive them. If that isn’t clear before the appointment meeting, it is afterward.
Commissioning weekend is a communication exercise in Army culture. But it is also something else. It is a large-scale celebration of our Salvationist community.
Salvationists love to get together. This isn’t a quirk of ours: the need for relationships is human, in fact it’s part of what it means for us to be in God’s image. (The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is relational even within himself! See Salvation Story, ch. 2.) One of the keys to our early evangelical success as an Army was that we brought compassionate, inclusive community to the poor and working classes who had been socially uprooted or relegated to the margins. One of the choruses sometimes sung in our early days went something like this:
I’m at home in the Army
More than I am anywhere.
You can dress as you like,
You can sit where you like.
You’re all quite equal there.
In the Army people found home, a place of acceptance, of belonging. We’ve always liked being together.
Commissioning is a time to be together, to re-connect, to celebrate our own Salvationist oneness, to see the rest of us. In the days when transportation was more difficult and budgets far lower, this event was the one big opportunity to see fellow Salvationists far removed, and we put aside money to make the trip possible. Now there are other occasions during the course of the year when Salvationists can connect with one another, and frankly, we have a smorgasbord of other Christian gatherings and events from which to choose, now that we are far more comfortable with going ‘outside the Army’ for resourcing, learning, and inspiration.
So maybe there isn’t the strong focus there once was on Salvationists meeting at commissioning for fellowship. But it is still there, this utter joy in seeing Salvationist friends. Even former Salvationists often come, perhaps not only to see old friends but also to be touched again in some way by the community which was once their spiritual home and place of nurture.
The commissioning weekend is still a celebration of our Salvationist community, both our oneness and our uniqueness. Here we see the sights, hear the sounds, and taste the flavors of what make us the distinct community we are. Here we close ranks in fellowship and celebration to remind ourselves of whose we are, who we are, and what our calling is, so that we can reopen our ranks to the world as a Salvation people.
Commissioning is a public display of our understanding of Church, or Christian community. We are a community called by Christ to faith, to fellowship, and to mission. The weekend celebrates, most importantly, our calling as a Salvationist community.
It’s in your face just about the whole time. We celebrate our global calling (territorial world services ingathering), our individual callings to follow Christ (this year in the form of a cadet musical based on Pilgrim’s Progress), our special callings (this year in the form of workshops to improve skills in the ministry of teaching), and the specific calling to full-time service as Salvation Army officers (the commissioning and ordination, and the appointment meetings).
Let me say two things about calling. The first thing is that it is too often misunderstood and misapplied. I remember the days when the question, “Are you called?” was always clearly intended to be a question about officership. To have answered that no, you were not called to be an officer but were called to be a Christian carpenter, would have confused the one asking. He may have recovered quickly, however, by concluding that since the person had said he was “called,” he was clearly running from that calling by connecting it with the wrong thing, carpentry.
Fortunately, we have largely moved beyond this heresy. We know that all God’s people are called to a vocation through which to honor him, serve him, and build his Kingdom. As Jesus put it, we are called to be scattered like salt in the world so that our lives and service can have maximum benefit. Furthermore, no Christian vocation is ‘higher’ or more holy than another. The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is a legacy, grounded in Scripture, which we abandon at our peril. What distinguishes our callings from one another is not spiritual depth or importance. It is function. The Christian carpenter is called by God to be no less holy than the professional minister. If he is not holy, his profession will not be a calling, and he will not fulfill the real mission of that vocation.
Then what are we actually doing this commissioning weekend when we commission and ordain only officers? We are clearly not endorsing clerical elitism. We are certainly not ritualizing a divide between officers and other members of our part of the Christian Church. We are definitely not devaluing the calling of any Christian, nor implying the superiority, spiritual or otherwise, of the officer.
The answer to the question of what we are actually doing is the second thing I want to say about this celebration of calling. To be sure, we are honoring, endorsing, and ratifying the specific callings of these officers. But I am convinced that God is inviting us to do more here. I think he is inviting us to see ourselves in these new officers: through them to hear the echo of our own callings (whatever they may be), to feel the touch of Christ’s beckoning again, to know that each of us has a special calling which only he or she can fulfill. When we witness an ordination, we are reminded that all of us are ordained to our own special priesthood. When we witness a commissioning, we are reminded that God has commissioned each of us to an important role in his mission to save the world.
This commissioning of officers is a model for all our commissionings. The commissions which the Ambassadors of Grace receive remind us all that we are given a commission by God, endorsed by the faith community through which we serve. This session is well named. Ambassadors are representatives; they represent someone or some group. The Ambassadors of Grace first and most importantly represent the God of grace. But they also represent the people whom they serve. They model calling, they exemplify what it means to take up one’s cross and follow Christ. They teach us that our vocations, too, are God’s avenues of grace in the world.
So, this weekend, we watch the commissioning of the Ambassadors of Grace not as passive observers, but as participants. We watch ourselves. We receive our orders. And that is the most important justification for making this intimate occasion something of which we can all be a part.