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Published Date: December 14, 2018

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The Egalitarian Church Hiding in Plain Sight: What Church Planters Can Learn from the Salvation Army

As a woman called to ministry, I have served in many different churches in many different ministry settings. It’s not overdramatic to say that “hopeless” describes many of my ministry experiences. I had given up hope that I could be involved in a church where I wasn’t second class. Where my voice mattered as much as the men’s voices. Where I would be treated as an equal partner in ministry.

That changed the day I walked into a Salvation Army church and interviewed for a youth pastor position. From the very beginning, everything about it felt right, even comfortable. During my time there I was in awe of how differently I was treated compared to my past experiences. I was not “given” a voice there, but I was allowed—no, encouraged!—to use the one I had. My ideas were given weight, my experiences were validated, and my personal relationship with Jesus was trusted and celebrated. I was given the freedom to teach, to lead, and even to preach. I was never shamed for my clothing or how I looked; it was never even a conversation unless I asked something specific. Experiencing equality in this church was everything I needed during this season of my life. Finally, I was a part of a church where I felt safe and free to be who God created me to be.

Most people have heard of the Salvation Army. We see the stores, we see the donation trucks, and every year during the holiday season, we see the red kettles and the volunteer bell ringers in front of stores.

Not many people realize that the Salvation Army is also a denomination. From its small start, the Salvation Army has grown to a membership of 1.7 million people and counting, in thousands of churches, across 131 countries. It could be called one of history’s most successful egalitarian church plants. Admittedly, it hasn’t been as egalitarian as it could be in many places, including the US. Still, it is a testament to the potential of egalitarian ministry and leadership. Church planters and leaders would be wise to learn from its example.

The Salvation Army was founded by William and Catherine Booth in 1865. Their marriage by all accounts was egalitarian. With a love, admiration, and respect for each other, William and Catherine worked tirelessly to serve the poor and unchurched people of London. William preached to and served the poor in the East end of London, but it was Catherine’s name that became well-known among the middle and upper class of the West End of London.

Her preaching grew in popularity, despite the fact that she was very hard on the people she was most beloved by. She didn’t mince words and called out the upper class for their horrific treatment of the poor, many of whom worked in terrible conditions in their factories. William’s role working in the East end of London did not earn him an income, so it was Catherine and her preaching who fed the family and funded the mission. She preached through pregnancies, through child rearing, and through sickness. In many ways, Catherine was far ahead of her time. Believing that women had full equality with men in ministry may have been her most radical conviction.

The Salvation Army we know and love today is best known for their charity stores, homeless shelters, disaster relief, and humanitarian aid in developing countries. They show up and minister during the worst times in people’s lives. In addition to these most well-known programs, they also have senior programs, programs to help break addictions, domestic abuse programs, food banks, youth programs and much more. This social justice, community-minded ministry is the bedrock of how and why the Salvation Army came into existence, and what it still stands for today. The inclusion of women in the organization is, in large part, what has made it what it is.

In the season that I worked for the Salvation Army, I noticed a vast difference in the spirit of this church, compared to any other church I have been a part of. While not everything can or should be copied, there are things we can learn from the Salvation Army that can help us plant and grow healthier churches. Churches that are safe for girls and women. Here are a few:

Model Equality in Youth Programs

The youth programs at the Salvation Army are subtly but distinctly different than the youth programs I saw as a kid. Growing up in the church, I remember Esther and Jezebel being the only Bible women I had ever heard of. I learned that Esther taught us that a “godly woman” was brave, quiet, and submissive, while Jezebel taught us that powerful women were evil. I never saw women on stage leading anything; it was always exclusively men.

In any given Salvation Army youth event, you will see men and women on stage. Speaking, running programs, leading worship, leading prayer, sharing testimonies, and making announcements; there is nothing that a woman cannot do. From the very beginning of their Sunday School and youth groups, the Salvation Army teaches implicitly and explicitly that girls are just as valuable as boys. Sunday School curricula include Bible stories that highlight the many women in the Bible, with non-shaming messages. They teach that women can be called to anything a man can be called to. That God calls women in the same way as men. This speaks volumes to the girls and boys being brought up in the church.

Put Women in Leadership

Women are included at every level of leadership in the Salvation Army organization. There is nothing that is off-limits to a woman. Women go all the way to the top and their voices and experiences are valuable at every level. Single women are often times even sent to a church to be the one and only corps officer and run the entire church. No one bats an eye at this, because they’ve been taught from the beginning that women can do anything. To create a church that is safe for women, women must be included in the leadership and have an equal voice in decisions. Women experience the world differently than men. As loving and empathetic as a man might be, there are things he will never understand about living as a woman. Women need the counsel and support of other women in church leadership. Likewise, the voice of a woman is pivotal to planning the mission and vision of a church.

Maintain a Focus on Social Justice

The main mission of every other church I have been a part of has been somehow or another about growing the church body. This can create a “get on board or out of my way” sort of feeling within the church. The core mission of the Salvation Army is about serving the community. This creates a welcoming environment full of love, acceptance, and grace. It opens space for people to be who they are, and does not try to force a person into some sort of “Christian” box. It takes the focus off of the church itself and instead of asking the question, “how do we get more people to attend?” it asks, “how can we better help the people in our community?” This creates a much healthier church environment.

Keep Fresh Faces in Leadership

A unique feature of the Salvation Army model is that the corps officers for each church are reassigned every three to five years. Sometimes they are moved to another church, other times they are moved to administration, or other branches of leadership. Granted, this isn’t a model most churches will pursue, and there are definitely downsides. But, new churches can strive to replicate the idea of bringing in new faces. It’s often unhealthy when the same group of leaders (often men) stay in power for decades at a time. They become too powerful and there is little time of space for other voices. By cycling people in and out of leadership, or into different positions, you put them in the position of having to listen and learn. They grow in humility instead of power and pride. This is a good thing for every church.

Commit to Gender Equality

Despite its egalitarian roots, women’s equality in the Salvation Army hasn’t always been a given. Cultural and societal norms have had their influence within the organization. Only recently, for example, have women here in the US been given their own ranks and their own pay, separate from their husbands. Countries such as Australia, where progress in women’s equality is ahead of America, are paving the way across the international organization.

While equality isn’t quite as it ought to be, there is an ongoing commitment to keep the conversation going, and make changes where they need to be better. Men and women together are working towards better equality for all. For women to feel safe and valued within the walls of a church, we need to see men actively advocating for women. Your commitment is reflected in your actions. It is easy to say that you believe in the full equality of women in ministry. It is easy to write that manifesto about women and the value they bring to the life and community of the church. But if you say that and there are no women pastors listed in your staff, we don’t believe that you are truly willing to make the effort to include women in leadership.

The Salvation Army is a unique ministry. While not everything is perfect, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who hates the Salvation Army or what it represents. And that’s not something you can say about the church as a whole. When people think of the Salvation Army, they think of charity and of caring for people. I am certain that the voice of women throughout the ranks and throughout the years is key to their success.

As our society moves forward and changes in the next decades, the churches that will thrive are the ones that value the voices and agency of women and work at making their church leadership inclusive. It is sometimes said that gender equality is a secular movement, and that the church should catch up. But the history of the Salvation Army shows otherwise. It has been egalitarian (even if imperfectly) for 150 years and has faithfully served God and communities worldwide. It is long past time the rest of the church caught up with what Christ is doing.

This article appeared in “Gender and Church Planting,” the Winter 2018 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.