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Recapturing the Soul of The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army must regain the shared sense of nobler mission and purpose that animated our founders if we are to recapture our soul.

This is the second post in a series based on the book, The Founder’s Mentality, by Chris Zook and James Allen (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016). You can find the first post here.

Salvation Army Stall Out

The Salvation Army in “the West” has stalled out. Some might even think it is in free fall. Why is that? Is it a question of the rise of atheism and apathy? After all, a recent survey found 70 per cent. of 16- to 29-year olds identify with no religion. Is it because secularism has become the dominate force in our culture?

I’m sure these factors play a part. But perhaps the surprising thing about Zook and Allen’s research behind their book, The Founder’s Mentality (looking at how great companies lose their way and find their way back) is that company executives cite internal barriers to growth court or five times as often as external ones. Could the same be said for The Salvation Army?

The Problem of Complexity

The argument is that as an organisation grows (and our history tells us The Salvation Army grew exponentially in its early years), new systems must be built to handle escalating complexity. As this happens, the founder’s mentality is lost or forgotten, and the result is the organisation starts to lose what made it great in the first place. Why?

First, the voices from the front line are lost. New layers of bureaucracy and complexity means leaders make decisions without direct accountability to the front line. A consistent complaint I hear from officer colleagues when yet another policy is issued from headquarters is “they just don’t understand what it’s like on the front line”. Soon, the front line loses touch with the organisation’s original mission and principles. The gaze becomes inward, and leaders become thinkers rather than doers.

Zook and Allen argue that “unchecked complexity silently kills growth and sucks energy from the organisation, creating tired leaders” (p.69). Tired leaders are distracted from their key mission of translating strategy into simple actions and routines for the front line.

As organisations become bigger and more complex, a “matrix” develops. Functions are organised into departments, and suddenly the sense of collective mission and purpose is blurred. Bureaucracy grows, internal politics consume too much time and energy and departments begin to learn to say no to each other. The founder’s mentality gets lost in a sea of competing interests. “Energy vampires” schedule lots of business meetings, delay decisions, produce endless templates, make continuous requests for information, raise seemingly insoluble high-level issues and eventually kill an organisation like a boa constrictor.

How Does The Salvation Army Recapture its Mission and Purpose?

So how does The Salvation Army recapture its soul and its founders’ sense of mission and purpose? Firstly, Zook and Allen suggests that complexity reduction should be a way of life. Do we need every policy we produce? Does the front line need to produce information for five different areas of the bureaucracy for our mission and purpose to thrive? Do we need to find ways that put our senior leaders closer to the front line? I love the story of a former General who when she was a Divisional Commander would routinely spend a day with each of her officer units doing whatever they were doing, from enjoying a day off, to preparing sermons and meetings, to serving in the parent and toddler group or lunch club.

Certainly, The Salvation Army needs to recapture our sense of mission and purpose, the values, behaviours, principles and commitments exhibited by our founders that made us more than just another church.

What action could you take today to restore our founders’ mentality and refocus on The Salvation Army’s mission and purpose?

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Why not check out these posts from around the blog?

  1. Sermon Podcast: How to Let Our Corps Grow | Mobilising Our Soldiers (Exodus 18:13-26)
  2. The Salvation Army and the Eucharist: Mission First
  3. Sermon Podcast: Living Fruitfully as Disciples | Effective Love (John 15:1-17)
  4. Salvation Army – Saved to Save
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