Lieutenant Colonel Miriam Gluyas speaks to Domini Stuart about the importance of workplace culture and her role at the Salvation Army.
When Lieutenant Colonel Miriam Gluyas was growing up in Ballarat her ambition was to be a teacher and a professional golfer. But, by the time she was 18, she had recognised the Salvation Army as her true vocation.
“I pictured myself in a church, seeing people’s lives transformed,” she says. “My great, great grandmother set up one of the first Salvation Army churches in Scotland and my family have been members ever since, so I was very familiar with that environment.”
As a pastor she had started a new church in Newcastle then worked with refugees, the poor and the marginalised in the Sydney suburb of Auburn when she was appointed Chief Secretary of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
“I had an absolute ball there,” she says. “I just loved the people. They have nothing yet they have everything – an incredible freedom and sense of joy even in the midst of hardship.”
Three years later, when her mother became ill, she asked to return to Australia.
“We are in a time of rediscovery here and, for the moment, I think it’s where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “When the Salvation Army began over 150 years ago it was an adventurous, risk-taking and very compassionate movement that took the world by storm.
“Now, like any other longstanding organisation, it has become more settled and has a tendency to maintenance. I believe it’s my job to reinvigorate the overarching culture – and I’m really excited about what I think will be a very different future.”
Her goal is healthy people, healthy faith communities and communities of hope, where people are loved, served, known and celebrated.
“I believe we have a poverty of hope and poverty in the area of loneliness,” she says. “One of our biggest challenges is to create communities where people engage with each other in positive, supportive and sustainable ways.”
In the highly competitive not-for-profit sector (NFP) even a brand with the strength of the Salvation Army must work hard to communicate its value.
“Much of our worth lies in the breadth of the services we offer,” says Gluyas. “For example, our legal department recently provided an elderly couple with help they couldn’t afford. As they had to leave their home, one of the legal team requested a visit from Aged Care Plus, who arranged for the couple to move into one of their units. Then, as the house they left was in a bit of a mess, the youth group from the local church cleaned it up for them. Things don’t always work together quite that seamlessly but, when they do, it’s beautiful.”
Striking a balance
When Gluyas returned from PNG she found that governance in the NFP sector had tightened.
“Of course good governance is crucial but, in an organisation like ours, where we’re committed to compassion and caring for people, we have to make sure the rules don’t prevent us from doing our job. For example, these days you would have to think twice before giving someone a hug, but my 103-year-old grandmother says the thing she misses most is human touch. We have to find a way to combine appropriate governance with the culture we really want.”
The challenge then is to maintain the desired culture across a diverse organisation that also depends on the goodwill and cooperation of an army of volunteers. “Every organisation needs leaders who are courageous enough to correct behaviour that is not aligned with the culture when it occurs,” she says. “I was once talking to a black friend when a member of our congregation blurted out that she didn’t like black people. I reminded her of our culture – that everyone is welcome – and told her that she could either embrace that or we could celebrate her and release her. She chose the latter.”
We are in a time of rediscovery here and, for the moment, I think it’s where I’m supposed to be.
If behaviour is to be monitored it must first be defined. “Everyone needs to be clear about what they are and are not allowed to do,” Gluyas continues. “This requires good communication throughout the organisation, a sound induction process and leaders who are on the same page. If my department is brave enough to correct unacceptable behaviour and yours is not, the culture will be undermined.”
In PNG, Gluyas found the culture both inspiring and challenging. “There’s a great sense of what really matters, such as family, joy and God, but certain attitudes appear very outdated to an Australian,” she says.
“For instance, I once had a debate with some of my dear friends about whether you can be a real woman without having children. They knew that I don’t have children and, although they were clearly embarrassed, they still voiced their belief that you can’t.”
Some situations were more confronting. “An incidence of domestic violence came to our attention and, in our western minds, we immediately started thinking of how we could get the woman out of the home to make sure she was safe. But the nationals on one of our boards told us that removing her would only escalate the problem,” says Gluyas. “In PNG, the family must deal with the issue first. So, while it was very hard for us to step back, we had to be aware of both the culture and what was the right thing to do.”
The Salvation Army doesn’t allow for a conventional career plan. “When you’re at training college you assume you will be in a church and work with people in the community,” says Gluyas. “You don’t start out thinking: ‘One day I’ll be the General or one day I’ll be a commissioner’.”
At the end of each year, pastors who are to be redeployed receive a letter telling them if they have been posted in Australia or overseas. This is a more consultative process today than it was 20 or 30 years ago and the needs of families are more likely to be taken into account. But an element of uncertainty still underpins each posting, which some people enjoy and others find disconcerting.
“I believe it’s important to express your preferences, though there are many who would argue that it’s not their place,” says Gluyas.
“I have been fortunate in having great advocates in our leaders here who have seen my heart and understand that, while I think strategically, I act relationally. I like the idea of 360 degrees of influence, and I think I have the ability to do that well, but I believe I’m at my best on the front line.”
If she could change anything in her past she would have been a bit braver at the start of her career.
“Like most young pastors I focused strongly on keeping the peace and I tended to avoid people who acted badly,” she says. “Now I would confront them – and I believe I’ve learned how to do that graciously.”
She would also have died on fewer hills. “There are things you fight for to the death and things it’s better to walk away from,” she says. “I had to learn how to stay focused on what I was called to do and just keep going without being discouraged. I think too many people settle for mediocrity when this is a day for us all to go forward.”