For seventeen years I was an Officer in The Salvation Army. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had to serve in this way. Leaving Officership was incredibly difficult but I'm also happy with the new life I'm living now.
In financial terms, I didn't receive much by way of an allowance as an Officer. In fact, it was below minimum wage. Around $500 per week. I also grew up hearing many stories of Officers scraping by each week on a meagre amount of money and living "by faith" week in, week out. That was part of "the calling". I knew what I was getting into when I signed up and so I 'endured' this 'life of poverty' as a good soldier of Christ.
I never openly complained about it but I also didn't refuse help from people where it was offered. If someone offered to pay for a meal I never said no. Sometimes someone would provide a gift of some kind. I always accepted. On the surface I did and said the right things, but in reality I was also playing into a cultural expectation of what Officership is like.
As I reflect on it know I realise that the reality was very, very different. As an Officer I was provided with the following
- A house, rent free
- A car, lease free
- Petrol for the car
- Health insurance (hospital) for me and my family
- Officer's Health Assistance for extras for me and my family
- Guarantee of employment and appointments within that employment.
Having left Officership and now in regular employment I have come to realise just how valuable these things are and just how much I took them for granted. I have come to realise that the allowance I received was really disposable income and I was able to afford many things then that I would have no hope of affording now.
I'm now working for a small Catholic theological college where I work with many people who are part of religious orders. They have committed themselves to ministry and taken on certain vows associated with the different orders they are a part of. The "vow of poverty" usually appears high on the list.
In a conversation around the coffee pot a few weeks back one of the lecturers jokingly commented
"It's easy to take on a vow of poverty when someone else is paying the bills."
I've been reflecting on that ever since. It really struck a chord (and prompted this post). I've considered my life of poverty as an Officer in The Salvation Army and, if I'm honest, I had it easy. Someone else was paying most of my bills. Whether that was the organisation paying for my rent, car lease, petrol etc. Or friends and family offering to pay for dinner if we went out for a meal. In many, many settings my 'vow of poverty' was easy because someone else was paying the bills.
Now, I have deliberately framed this using personal pronouns because I don't want to universalise my experience. Single officers, for example, I imagine would have a much more difficult time making their allowance cover everything they needed. However, there is a cultural norm associated with Officers that they take on a life of poverty to fulfil their calling and serve Christ through The Salvation Army.
As I look back I realise that's a lie and I perpetuated it with ease.
Because someone else was paying the bills.
It is interesting, because it is so individual. Out of interest I did the sums a little while back. As a single nurse, even taking into account paying rent, all the car gear, work registration and health insurance I was significantly better off than I am as a single officer. I almost always rented with people, so household costs were always split and on average I'd pay around $50 a month. Now for example, living in a cold climate with no one to split those bills with, I pay on average $200 a month. You can't buy a half a head of lettuce (not that anyone can afford lettuce right now), so I regrettably have a fair bit of food wastage - it just goes off before I get to eat it - so my food bill usually is the same as most couples, but there is only one income to cover it. Admittedly, there are things I don't claim back because it just feels wrong and somehow infantalised to do so. And I decided early in the piece to keep and pay for my own phone because I needed to have something that was MINE and didn't belong to the organisation. But thank you for acknowledging in your article that that differential does exist between a double and a single income household. Factor kids in of course and that is different yet again. I'm not eligible for a health care card and a visit for me to my GP for example is a minimum of $75, but every couple I know who does have kids is eligible for a health care card so a GP visit for them is bulk billed. I don't like the deprivation mindset that some folk have, we're still significantly better off financially than most of the people we work with, however if as a single person financial stability was my goal, I would have been WAY better off staying in nursing. Even from a retirement point of view, the only thing that will mean I won't be destitute when I retire is the fact that my super from my nursing days was excellent, and when I move into social work in a few years time the super will again be excellent. Otherwise I would have either had to go on the waiting list for social housing or house share with other single retirees. I mean, with the state of the housing/rental market even with a great paying job I'm still not ruling out that old people share house option!ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comment Bea. It's really good to read your perspective. I've never been in this position before and I feel like I'm living by faith more now than ever before. Sometimes it's robbing Peter to pay Paul (and Mary). I know I will never ever own property and that's OK. I hope you're well and, when the time comes, find the transition out of Officership as smooth as possible.Delete