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Knowing who we are

Dr Elli MaGavin, Captain Steven Smith, Major Jenny Begent, Lt Col Lyn Edge,  Captain Stuart Glover

Consider the 19th century nationalism and optimism of The Salvation Army’s birth; the harrowing rigours and conflicts of 20th century realpolitik, through which we expanded; and the 21st century organisational genome of evidence-based practice, multiculturalism and ecumenism that begs the questions as to our capacity for growth and service, and our sense of self.

The Salvation Army in Australia is now poised precariously on the cusp of hope.

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Identity is shaped by choice

e-connect talks with the four mission department heads, Major Jenny Begent (head of social mission), Captain Stuart Glover (head of community engagement), Dr Elli McGavin (head of policy, research and social justice) and Captain Steven Smith (head of mission resources).

Consider the state of play during The Salvation Army’s birth; the 19th century nationalism and optimism, followed by the harrowing rigours and conflicts of 20th century realpolitik, through which the Salvos expanded.

The 21st century organisational genome The Salvation Army now faces, with evidence-based practice, multiculturalism and ecumenism begging the questions as to our capacity for growth and service, and our sense of self.

The Salvation Army in Australia is now poised precariously on the cusp of hope.

While the tipping point and outcomes remain to be seen, the coordination of mission by the four department heads being interviewed is both engaged and engaging. As for the strategy, allocation of resources, and service outcomes? Watch this space, because the wheels are turning.

‘Our research agenda should reflect our strategy,’ explains Dr Elli McGavin, ‘and the core services that we deliver should be very strongly built around that. Our mission should both inform and be informed by it. Policy and advocacy… it is a symbiotic relationship.

‘It is about getting those together; being cohesive and coordinated in our approach… we need that client voice; the participant voice. We don’t have that strongly enough in the organisation yet.’

Knowing who we are as an organisation, who we aid and who we represent in advocacy, feeds into deeper philosophical and theological questions.

Do ‘the Salvos’ have a unique place in the church universal, characterised famously by St Paul as ‘the Body of Christ’?

‘We need to acknowledge we put frail words around all of these things, and metaphors only go so far,’ says Captain Steven Smith, ‘The Spirit of God is living and active in the world, sustaining everything, the body of Christ metaphor is more dynamic and living, and so too is the role we play in transforming Australia, alongside others.

‘What we have been is not necessarily what we should return to; I don’t think that what we have been in the past is necessarily always relevant, either. We are an engaging, listening people… People resonate with the heartbeat of The Salvation Army, and that resonance is something that is important to me.  

‘What I really love about our international mission statement is that it says we are a part of the Body of Christ. We are one part of a whole, and we cannot be holistic in our own right… to remain relevant, we need to continually ask ourselves, what is the Body of Christ doing? What is the function and value with which we are connecting?’

The captain, acknowledging the activist history and theology of The Salvation Army, doesn’t believe it is our place to self-identify as ‘the hands and feet’ of Christ. That way, perhaps, lies hubris or self-limitation.

This may seem esoteric to some, but the creative tensions at play in this discourse are important to the decisions made by leadership. Who are we? What’s our role? Why do we choose what to do, and how we do it?

‘The Body of Christ thing is a mystery,’ says Captain Stuart Glover, ‘and to try and define our role, with hard boundaries, is almost impossible. God calls people and denominations into being for a particular point in time and space. It’s not just a question for us; it’s a question for all organised religion in a Christian sense.

‘I would argue that churches need to re-listen, re-hear and relearn, or they die. The Spirit of God goes where the energy is. If we don’t respond, then we dissipate.’

‘Catherine and William Booth were very clear that they did not want to be part of the established Christian church,’ notes Major Jenny Begent, ‘and over the years, particularly in the Australia Southern Territory, we have evolved our thinking and practice on some issues – that is a healthy thing.

‘I quite like the idea that we are a bit more fluid, and maybe we don’t always belong to an established view of the church. It appeals to the rebel in me.

‘I agree that, in terms of where we sit in the wider church, that we are part of the whole, but not the whole.’

The Salvos are not called to solve all the world’s problems, nor are they positioned to serve as the sole arbiter of wisdom. They are, however, called to serve God and humanity.

In what capacity, and in which areas of service, is an ongoing conversation.