Saturday, March 24, 2018

An open letter to The Salvation Army on social officers

We are entering a new era of The Salvation Army in Australia. The structural merger of two autonomous territories, separated for almost a century, presents new opportunities and challenges for the organisation as we reconsider how best to approach mission in the 21st century. We’ve seen decades of growth in our social programs and, sadly, corresponding decline in engagement with our corps. Though I have a few thoughts about the latter problem, my primary area of expertise and experience has been in Salvation Army social programs. After more than 20 years working and studying at various levels and different types of social programs, I’ve gained a few insights to the organisational challenges we face as one of Australia’s most prominent service providers. It’s become increasingly clear over this time that I embody one of the key issues – social officership.

It’s not surprising that the role of officers in Salvation Army social programs has changed significantly since James Barker started visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1883. The growth of the welfare state, outsourcing of government services and professionalisation of social work have radically shifted the context and manner in which services are delivered. This dynamic context continues to change today, for instance with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) or the latest round of welfare reform, which lays an increasingly difficult burden on unemployed Australians. Despite a range of efforts by dedicated stakeholders, we are struggling to keep up with the contemporary world of social services.

While we still have many officers involved in social programs, almost all of them are at the frontlines of service delivery. It’s a good thing to have officers at the frontline. Almost 30 years since my first job in a Salvation Army social program, I continue to draw on the learnings of that frontline experience on a regular basis. However, it’s also clear that we are living with the legacy of a failure to consistently invest in the professional development of those officers with the desire, capacity and skills to take their place at other levels of our social services infrastructure. We rely on a handful of officers, many of whom still feel underqualified, to take on roles that they may not have won in open competition with the professional market.

Let me be clear, this is not to denigrate those officers (myself included) who have stepped up to tasks that they might not have been ready for. It is also not a criticism of our outstanding employees, whose professional skills, intelligence and dedication to our shared mission I have learned so much from and who continue to inspire me every day. However, I do think it’s time for a wake up call if we want to continue in this mission of service, in which we have established a remarkable reputation over many years. We need to take seriously the governance and oversight responsibilities for the hundreds of programs we manage and ensure that decision makers at all levels of the organisation have the appropriate skills, understanding and qualifications necessary. If we don’t have these in roles that have traditionally been held by officers, then we need to put a suitably qualified employee in their place. An officer’s calling is an incredibly special thing but it is not a substitute for capabilities that match the tasks that need to be done.

I’ve heard far too many officers bemoan the loss of officer presence at the management level of our social programs. Not only do I find this incredibly disrespectful to the employees who have taken their place but it fails to take seriously the work that needs to be done in order to keep officers involved at these levels. There is much to do but I believe such change is possible.

Instead of wondering where all of the Salvationists have gone from our social programs, why don’t we ask ourselves why we’ve so consistently failed to inspire our own young people, including new and aspiring officers, to prepare themselves for a career in social services? Why isn’t there at least one Salvationist in every university social work course around the country? Where is the long term strategic plan to develop the necessary proportions of our officer workforce with the experience, skills and qualifications necessary to engage at all levels of this work throughout our movement? Why shouldn’t social officers compete on equal footing with employees to ensure that key roles go to the very best candidate?

A new vision for The Salvation Army’s mission in Australia needs to fully take into account the significant social shifts that have defined the contemporary context for service delivery. I don’t underestimate the difficulties that this involves but surely this is a time for us to be visionary and ambitious about what we can do, in partnership with God, to live up to our historical identity as a world-changing movement.


Unknown said...

Well said, Jason

Unknown said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

Good word...professional development for officers is critical. Another key is an appointment process that recognises the call to specialty areas of service.

Major Marc Johnson said...

Good, solid logic, Jason. I don't know much about TSA ministry in Australia (outside of a few blokes I've met in England! :-), so my comments may not apply. However, I wanted to emphasize your phrase "mission of service." TSA International Mission Statement ends with, "It's mission is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND to meet human needs in His Name without discrimination." (capitalization mine). In "American" English, "and" means both; you cannot choose one without the other. We have not done so well at that in the USA...focus has been on "meeting human needs" ... and many of our professionals have even left out the "in His Name" part. Now, that certainly is not their fault, not at all. It is ours for not hiring well and orienting them well to who they are working for and how we expect them to help us fulfill every part of our mission statement.

How well does the social services ministries in Australia "preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" I pray you are doing a better job than your American Salvationist counterparts. May God's grace cover us all, and His mercy draw us to walk with Him in the right paths.

JDK said...

We need another six weeks together to discuss my answer to this, Marc! How about Paris or Berlin next time? How The Salvation Army’s “dual mission” hangs together has been the subject of most of my academic endeavours for the past 15 years or so. If you’re really keen, there are some relevant papers at You might not agree with everything but I don’t think that will surprise you either. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

NOT Anonymous, John Gowlett, Victoria Australia: The mission of the TSA has shifted over the years but in my view has not kept up with the needs of those it pro ports to serve in the new century. Firstly To Marc Johnson I would say that I admire the mission of the TSA in the USA because if you view it another way, it does preach the gospel of Jesus Christ BECAUSE it allow people who are not Salvationist - officer or soldiers - to come into a TSA facilitated program and live out the mission of the TSA and the gospel of Jesus by organising these volunteers to provide for those in need from after school programs, to meal programs, through substance abuse recovery programs, summer fresh air camps, counselling and especially through community engagement with the Kroc Centres.
And I would say to Salvationists everywhere - don't confuse lack of uniform wearing members as an indication of failure to live out the message of Christ and the complete mission of the TSA.
Secondly in Australia I feel the TSA has misread the mission statement of the TSA and by retreating to the comfort of its air conditioned halls and by concentrating much of it's preaching and mission that that which can only be conducted in a tight, neatly fitting uniform that needs dry-cleaning, and with a brass instrument in one hand, it has followed a path down one branch of what was once a just an interesting side show of an idea on how to worship and need up making clean uniforms and music the very object of its worship. Gentrification of the membership has often lead to a life style which is more materialistic than originally intended and the numbers of people either offering themselves for officership or staying on in officership is born out in the small numbers in each intake for training session, a measurable truth which cannot be denied.
In the meantime, the mission of the TSA, both the message and action of the gospel of Jesus has been, as Jason write in the above blog, been left to paid employees who may have no connection to the TSA other than an ethic which matches the TSA mission and will to help those in need. Often these people are living a lifestyle not congruent with TSA rules, such small transgressions like smoking, or drinking of alcohol to downright dilemma inducing lifestyle choices like being attracted to people the same gender or being married to someone of the same sex. This often causes a fuss from some TSA officers or members who like to pick up on petty rules and harbour a certain mindset from their own conditioning, but what this fails to acknowledge is the fact that these non-uniform wearing, non-salvationist, non-church attending, possibly LGBTI and suitably qualified (i.e. accountant, nursing, welfare or social work qualified) people are actually living out the gospel of Jesus. Continued

Anonymous said...

John Gowlett, continued: Despite all the arguments for the wearing of the uniform in the TSA, the greatest argument against the uniform is that it promotes exclusivity, and often an exclusivity that people outside of the TSA are ambivalent to and have no interest in participating in. This, coupled with a decreasing general belief in the teachings of the church, any church, an issue not exclusive to the TSA, culminates in a general lack of interest from people outside of the SA to ever contemplate doing the uniformed ranks, and leaves the future of the TSA to the prospect of chance that children of existing members will carry on the traditions.
Yet an opportunity missed, in my humble opinion, by the TSA in Australia (and elsewhere, but lets keep the argument to Australia) is the opportunity to connect people who wish to do "good" i.e. be involved in that which Jesus compels us to do, which is to look after our fellow beings, and therefore propagate His gospel. People generally wish to do more than just look after themselves and their immediate family, but also wish to help others in need, if they can. The salvation Army in its early days had seen its membership flourish because it provided opportunities to do good in the local community. As the TSA increasingly closed the front door of the Corps buildings and created an expectation of narrow rules and regulations, the idea that full membership or even officership was now to be seen as operating apart from the world instead of operating in it.
In the new century, common people do participate in all kinds of thought and actions that are in line with TSA thinking, some even helped into law by the TSA in the past, there are many examples but to pick a few would be to mention that controlled drinking of alcohol, including not driving while intoxicated and pub/tavern/bar closing hours are a direct result of the TSA participating in the Temperance movement the late 19th and early 20th century and it is now considered a part of normal decent human behaviour; The TSA took up the idea of organised social work as it developed in Victorian London, and Capt. James Barker just got on with meeting a need he identified when he started a mission amongst the men leaving prison in Melbourne, Australia by providing both a place for them to go to and other supports which in 2018 is considered social work case management best practice. An example of the TSA having a huge impact on the welfare of society, was by participating campaign to change of legislation in Britain to protect children being sexually exploited when bought from poor families with the promise of becoming a house worker for the British middle class. William and Catherine Booth together with a team other Salvationist, including one young woman took enormous risks by doing the campaign overseen by newspaper publisher WT Stead to expose this unacceptable abuse of children and change the law of Britain by raising the age of consent to age 16.

Anonymous said...

John Gowlett: Continued 3 - Many examples which are far greater than the celebrated and false claim to the TSA having invented the donut, or created the first feature movie (false claim for "Soldiers of the Cross") can be shown to demonstrate that a socially active TSA actually involved and participated in changing society for the better, by targeting issues that mattered.
Where the TSA used to sent in it's Slum workers to help women and children to understand issues never learned by the parents in the area of hygiene, food, money and other household management, this work is done by many other secular volunteer organisations (Melbourne Australia- see The Smith Family and BigBrotherBigSister Australia); where the TSA was politically active to help change legislation so that people's human rights were protected, that work is done and well supported by other secular organisation (See Get Up! or Change.Com amongst others) or outright volunteering organisations to make the lives of other humans better (Volunteering Victoria) so many of these organisations that don't associate with the TSA at all and don't profess to be Christian in their reason for doing what they do, some even stating that they have no church affiliation to make the no-association clear.
In my opinion, the TSA for the most part has celebrated its exclusivity to the detriment of failing to notice how the world has moved on, while distracting itself with activities that actually don't contribute to the full mission of the TSA, as written down and as set in place by William and Catherine Booth. Interpretations of what is preaching the gospel and being evangelical have been mistaken for drawing people in to behave under the narrow perceived rules and regulations of the TSA. Concentration on rank within the TSA, starting with the aspirational top positions of General and Commissioners down through the perceived exclusivity of being a uniformed soldier or even a Junior Soldier has blinded many members to the contributions of the many welfare workers, social workers, children workers, nurses, Thrift or Op Shop workers, truck drivers, sorters, accountants, policy writers and managers who help the organisation be the salvation Army, and every one of them contributes to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus and the full mission of the TSA, many because their training is and qualifications exceed the uniform member who chooses to work elsewhere.
Continued 4 parts only.

Anonymous said...

John gowlett part 4/4 -This mistake in my view to follow a line of exclusivity of TSA rank over others is never more born out than when a uniformed member is recognise for years of service to a musical group, with either an award and a picture accompanied by an article in a TSA publication, or perhaps a whole two hour program of music and celebration for the service of one individual is conducted at a large hall somewhere, when the service of a thrift shop sorter, who may have put in years of faithful service everyday in order to ensure funds are generated to keep the work of the TSA going, is only recognised with a short cup of tea, a pare thank you note and a slap on the back.
It is important that the TSA recognise every contribution to the advancement of the mission of the TSA be treated equally, and even more important, that whatever the circumstances that surround and individual contributor, where they choose to join the TSA as a uniformed member or just offer a few hours to volunteer for a short period, are all heeding the gospel of Jesus and contributing to the mission of the TSA.

*John Gowlett is a former member of the TSA with a critical interest in how the TSA conducts mission in the 21st century. He holds a Bachelor of Theology with a Major in Mission from the Melbourne University of Divinity, a Diploma in Missiology from The School of World Mission, Melbourne Australia and has travelled widely around the world holding frank and candid discussion with people involved in the mission of The Salvation Army. John has worked in providing social services as a part of the mission of the TSA in Australia, the USA, Britain and Zimbabwe.

End. 4/4

Unknown said...

Great article! As a former officer who had qualifications that made me very easily employable in secular social services, with particular expertise in child protection and clinical trauma based services, who worked as a ‘social officer’ for most of my officership - the absence of qualified governance (ie-officers with no equivalent secular social services qualifications or expertise at a basic level let alone a territorial governance level) meant that my experience was often one of significant frustration, limitation and constantly trying to explain basic practice to ill-equipped executive officers. Let me be clear that this is not a judgement of those individuals, but an observation of the flaws in our governance structure. One classic example was being summonsed to provide a brief to the Territorial Policy and Mission Council as to why our out of home care service had complied with external reporting obligations related to reportable conduct concerns. They asked - What was happening in our service that we would need to make these kind of reports??. There was a lack of basic understanding that any good infrastructure will identify and respond to concerns, and that a report didn’t necessarily mean that there were systemic failures, in fact it represented quite the opposite! Another example, someone made a complaint about a decision I had made - couched it very well to make it sound like a very dodgy decision about a child’s circumstances - the executive officers had no way to assess the validity of that concern because they had no relevant experience or expertise, so instead of consulting externally and following a proper process (due and thorough process for complaints against officers is a whole other issue), they made a ‘reactive’ and ignorant assessment that I had made a very dodgy decision. In he following weeks, the children’s court agreed with my assessment and was strongly critical of the counter argument. By that time I had resigned from officership. Yet there is no accountability for executive leadership for decision making that impacts programs, and ultimately the vulnerable people we serve, because the executive territorial governance positions are filled by lifelong officers with no equivalent experience, who certainly would never qualify to be in such leadership positions outside of TSA. And there is no reflective practice in those circumstances. I certainly never received any apology of acknowledgment that the assessment they made was incorrect.

I love the mission and vision of TSA. I want the absolute best for TSA. This is why despite being deeply wounded by experiences within TSA at various times, I continue to attend TSA corps and remain an active member of TSA. I agree with your observations and assertions. We cannot simply rest on our laurels or be so arrogant as to think it is good enough to continue the way we have. Our most senior boards, such as the TPMC, need to include adequately qualified members with various expertise, rather than just lifelong officers with no equivalent experience or expertise. As someone now working in a senior government role, it’s somewhat embarrassing to see how overt TSA’s lack is in this regard. Yet the way forward requires an acknowledgement of these dynamics and a considered missional response to them. Expertise does not minimise missional integrity or effectiveness, in fact, it has the capacity to significant enhance it as passionate Christ followers are released and empowered in their areas of expertise. Oh my heart longs for the day when people are valued in that way in TSA!