To Battle We Go: Local officers are the backbone of the Army
By: Dr. Steve Kellner
The first contact most new enlistees have with a member of any military service is with non-commissioned officers – sergeants, petty officers and chiefs – NCOs for short. From the recruiter to the drill sergeant, to the squad or section leader, NCOs provide the close-up leadership to soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen in training and combat. They are the bridge between commissioned officers and the frontline troops and are primarily responsible for the actual execution of the mission.
NCOs are able to do this because they have come up through the ranks and understand and can communicate well with those in the lower ranks. By contrast, most commissioned officers in the military have never been enlisted members. Commissioned officers must also of necessity be generalists, while NCOs are often very experienced experts in a more narrowly defined skill set, usually the skill set the lower enlisted troops are attempting to master.
Military services have always had sergeants and petty officers. In the last century or so, however, the importance of this level of leadership has been fully recognized, and the idea of a separate professional NCO “corps” is axiomatic in every successful service. The services know, as the saying goes, that “NCOs are the backbone of the Army.”
Local officers are The Salvation Army’s version of NCOs, providing stable, long-term leadership in the corps. No corps can function effectively without strong local officers, and the Salvation Army devotes a great deal of space in its Orders & Regulations to their qualifications and responsibilities. Like NCOs, local officers usually serve within a fairly narrow specialty, and they provide the week-in and week-out front-line leadership in all corps-based ministries. And while they can’t vote their officers out of the pulpit as in some churches, local officers exert an authority and influence as great or greater than lay leaders in any other denomination.
Of all the negative trends experienced by The Salvation Army during my lifetime, the most serious is the depletion of our local officer corps. Because our corps officers move so often, stable local leadership is more critical to the Army than to any other church. And local officers can provide the kind of specific ministry expertise that a corps officer may not have, or may have but not have the time to devote to a specific ministry. In many corps today the corps officers are stretched thin, forced to fill roles that local officers used to fill, with predictably poor results.
If our corps are ever to regain momentum and reach their full potential, our officers and remaining local officers will have to redouble their efforts to train a new generation of local officers. They will likely be very young, but that’s who we have to work with now. If properly trained and cared for, they can do the job perfectly well. The very survival of The Salvation Army as a movement may depend on this, because “Local officers are the backbone of the Army.”