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Volunteering is now a full-time fight

The Salvation Army is a visible presence on the streets of cities and towns throughout Australia.


What does it mean to be a volunteer in The Salvation Army? Historically, we know there has always been a certain resistance within The Salvation Army for its members to be known as volunteers. Perhaps this has its roots in the story of how The Christian Mission changed its name to The Salvation Army.

There are several stories of how this took place, but the essential elements are the same. In May of 1878, William Booth and his mission secretary George Scott Railton were working on promotional material, either a letter or a report. As they worked, they described The Christian Mission as a ‘volunteer army’. Bramwell, William’s son, heard these words and objected. One version of the story says that he blurted out, “Volunteer! I’m no volunteer. I’m a regular!”

As a result, William struck out the word ‘volunteer’ and, in a moment of inspiration, wrote ‘salvation’. From that headline on a letter or report, a growing enthusiasm for the idea swept through the movement until later that year, the name of the organisation itself was changed, and The Christian Mission became The Salvation Army.

In Bramwell’s day, a volunteer was the equivalent of a member of the Army Reserve. A volunteer spent time training and going to parades and so on but only fought when war was declared, and they were called up. In contrast, a ‘regular’ in Bramwell’s day was a full-time member of the Armed Forces – always ready, always training and always fit. It is no wonder that Bramwell didn’t like the word ‘volunteer’; he was not temporary or transient, he was not part-time in this fight for God’s Kingdom.

However, the meaning of a word can change. When the architect’s drawings for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London in 1666 were submitted, Sir Christopher Wren was told that his design had been chosen because it was “at the same time the most awful and the most artificial”. These words no longer mean ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘artfully created’ as they once did. So, we would never use these words in this way today, but the truths behind those words are still true ... it is a magnificent cathedral.

Today, the word ‘volunteer’ has changed. When my father joined the military during the Vietnam War, he did not do so as a volunteer. His birthdate was drawn in a lottery, and he had to sign up. He was conscripted. In contrast, a volunteer or regular soldier was someone who willingly put their hand up to fight.

Over the past decade or so in Australia, the mission and ministry context for all churches and other community organisations in Australia has changed significantly. Across The Salvation Army, thousands of people who have served faithfully in their corps as everything from timbrellists to treasurers are being asked to fill out forms, get a Working with Children Check (WWCC – in NSW), do training and get registered in The Salvation Army volunteer database system. For some, it can feel like there’s an implication that they need to justify their roles, a sense that perhaps they are being asked to take a back seat, or that their work is a part-time interest when this could not be further from the truth.

As an Army, we have come to a battlefield where the terrain has changed. If we are to continue our fight, if we are to live and love in the name of Jesus in Australia, in these times, the landscape now requires us to do some hard work. Perhaps it can be likened to digging trenches – it’s hard work, it slows things down a bit, but in the end, it will mean that we can fight longer, harder and with greater success.

As Salvationists, we stand in a tradition that is willing to fight. Nothing will hinder our sharing the love of Jesus in practical and real ways to communities around Australia. If we must adopt the legal definition of ‘volunteer’ and jump through a bunch of hoops to make sure we can do that in the most efficient, powerful way, I say let’s do it.

Like Bramwell, I don’t see myself as a half-hearted, part-time participant, but it doesn’t matter how someone else registers me in a database. I know I am called by God, conscripted by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. I’ll fight.

Major Phil Inglis is The Salvation Army’s General Manager of Faith Communities Development and Enterprise Change Advisor


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