I have served in a number of positions at a variety of levels both in the LDS Church and in the Boy Scouts of America. I currently serve in the BSA as chairman of the district camping and outdoor promotion committee; although, I have served in unit, council, district, and regional positions. I think I have sufficient experience with both the LDS Church and the BSA to offer an informed and experienced opinion on the interaction of the two organizations.
The BSA was founded in 1910 and the LDS Church jumped into sponsoring BSA units in a big way in 1913. Since that time, the BSA program has officially been the activity arm of LDS young men in the United States. Over the decades following those early days, Scouting flourished throughout the United States.
But things have changed for both the BSA and the LDS Church over the past four decades. Scouting is still a very strong movement in the U.S., but the percentage of American young men that participate has been trending downward for some time. And while the LDS Church promotes the BSA program as the activity arm of the church’s young men, most LDS sponsored units approach the program in a mediocre way at best.
As I attend leadership meetings of adult BSA volunteers, it seems that the average age of this corps has grown over the past few decades. In fact, we are frequently bringing men and women back into the same positions in which they served well 20 years ago. Although I have been an adult volunteer for two and a half decades, I’m one of the young bucks in many of these meetings.
As I live in an area where most units are sponsored by the LDS Church, one of the constant laments bandied about is the low level of commitment local LDS leaders have with respect to the BSA program. Many people seem genuinely mystified by this. But having been on many sides of the issue, I think I understand.
Perhaps the major factor at play here is the general decline in civic engagement throughout our nation that I noted in this post. It’s not just the Boy Scouts that are experiencing declining participation trends. This is general in civic groups of all types. In my post I took a quick look at the complex reasons behind this trend, which include an increasingly mobile society, decline in acceptability of single-sex organizations, TV, the Internet, expanding entertainment and athletic opportunities, and even societal diversity. I mentioned that people born after 1945 are far less civic minded than those born in the generation before them.
Frankly, these are factors that churches and civic organizations can only marginally slow down. They cannot stop them, so they must ultimately learn to deal with them if they are to remain viable.
Some of the research to which I referred in that post found that people today are far less willing to dawn special uniforms that denote their involvement in civic organizations. Up through the 50s and even into the 60s, boys craved to wear Scout uniforms. Today? Not so much. It is now an uphill struggle to get boys into uniforms, although, uniforms are actually more affordable than they used to be in real terms.
I can say from experience that local LDS Church leaders have a lot of responsibilities. Sometimes they can feel like the guy they used to have on the Ed Sullivan Show that would spin plates atop long sticks. He’d get four or five plates spinning, and then he’d have to go back and spin the first few before he could put up another one. He was constantly running around keeping plates spinning so that none would crash to the floor. With so many responsibilities, many of which are classed as top priority, it can frankly be difficult to give the Scouting program the focus it needs to function properly.
It is deucedly difficult to call and retain great Scout leaders at the local level. It is hard to find men and women that can develop a good rapport with the boys and that are willing to spend the time it takes to provide a decent program for the boys. (LDS leaders for boys under 12 can be female, but must be male for boys 12 and older.)
For Scouts, Varsity Scouts, and Ventures, I have found that even if you manage to get a guy that will spend the time, you usually get a guy that is good at advancement and organization, or you get a guy that has good outdoor skills. Often you get a guy that is good at neither. But very rarely do you get a man that has both qualities. Failure to fit well into the position results in a high leader turnover rate. A similar situation exists for Cub Scouts.
If you ever do get a guy that can do both the program and the outdoor portions well, and that also works well with youth, you’ve found a rare gem. Most of the time, this man will soon be called to other leadership responsibilities, or else he will get burned out because he is doing far more than just his job. It is nearly impossible to build and retain a properly functioning unit committee that is the support system a Scout leader needs to properly do his job, so the leader often ends up doing the support functions as well.
In fact, properly running a Scouting program is enough work that many leaders accept mediocrity because they just don’t want to do the work. A friend of mine was called to be a Venture adviser (for 16-18-year-olds). He was required to attend the leader basic training. He returned to the next unit meeting and said, “None of you guys are interested in doing this program, are you?” You can imagine how the youth responded. He went back to the bishop and said, “None of these guys are interested in Venturing, so we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing.” In my own unit, the Venture Adviser position has turned over twice in the past 16 months.
Unlike when I was a kid, you can’t just find one guy for each age group, either. You need at least one other man that will be reliable enough to be there all of the time (or you can use two women for Cub dens). All adult leaders must submit social security and driver license numbers for a background check before they can begin working in their assigned Scouting positions. This two-deep leadership method is meant to provide protection from abuse and to improve general safety. The BSA has endured many lawsuits (mostly over the past 2½ decades) regarding alleged child abuse. Documents submitted in a recent lawsuit show that the BSA has expelled about one leader every other day for the past 15 years for abuse allegations.
Risk mitigation has become a major focus for youth organizations like the BSA. Some of this arguably reduces the adventure that many experts say young males naturally crave. Boys will find adventure through less favorable means if they cannot find it through positive programs. But when you have organizations of pedophiles that promote to their members ways they can successfully infiltrate youth programs, somewhat extreme measures may be necessary. However, this level of scrutiny and risk of personal legal problems is a disincentive to some good people that would otherwise be willing to serve.
Another factor in Scouting mediocrity from an LDS perspective is the increasing cosmopolitan nature of the church. Until a few decades ago, church membership was concentrated mostly in North America. And most of that was in one swath running from Idaho, through Utah, and into Arizona. Today more than half of church members reside outside of the U.S., where available Scouting programs often do not support LDS standards. Consequently the church does not sponsor many Scouting units outside of North America.
While LDS Church President George Albert Smith once prominently carried the flag at a national BSA jamboree and worked for years to get Scouting properly organized in the LDS Church, top leaders today are required to have a more global focus. Consequently, local leaders and members do not get Scouting promoted to them from the highest levels of the church like they used to. Accordingly, local leaders focus more on those messages they do get from the top level.
Despite the common perception that today’s youth are far lazier than their parents, research shows that the lives of today’s youth are far more structured and programmed than were their parents’ lives. Unstructured free time of our nation’s young people has declined by half in the last 30 years. There are so many more options clamoring for our time and attention that programs like Scouting simply fall by the wayside for many people. They’re just too busy.
Another issue that drives toward mediocre Scouting in LDS sponsored units is the fact that all of the church’s boys in the U.S. are automatically enrolled in the age appropriate Scouting program. BSA membership is not optional for these boys, as it is in units sponsored by other organizations. Let’s face it; regardless of how strongly local church leaders preach about the merits of Scouting, there will be a broad range of interest and enthusiasm about the program among boys, their parents, and their leaders when enrollment is mandatory.
It’s hard to run an effective program when you get a lot of pushback from those you are trying to serve. When you bust your tail to put on a great program only to have most of the boys not show up or to have them and their parents act disinterested, you don’t feel much like putting your whole heart and soul into it. Still, the few LDS sponsored units I have seen that do the Scouting program to the hilt have no problem with attendance or enthusiasm. They often draw boys from other units as well. But building a program like that requires a lot of committed leadership from the organization head and from every adult called into the program. That level of commitment to the Scouting program in an LDS unit is very rare indeed.
It’s really no mystery why most LDS sponsored BSA units approach the program in a mediocre and haphazard way. The broader American society has far less civic commitment than once was the case and this is reflected among church members as well. Kids and families are busier than ever, so they choose not to commit the time needed. Leaders don’t want to do the work required to run an effective Scouting program and they are not thrilled about the personal risks involved. There isn’t as much obvious leadership from top church leaders on the Scouting program as there used to be, mainly because their focus has changed from regional to global.
So why do I continue to spend my free time working in the Scouting program? Because this program played a huge role in my life and in the development of my character. It took me from my Cub Scout den, where I was one of the less popular kids, to my first completely miserable overnight hiking experience, to my first homesick week at camp, to youth leadership positions, to learning to love to serve others through the Order of the Arrow, to spending summers working at the rustic Camp Loll high in the Tetons, to becoming an outdoorsman, to serving for years as an adult Scouting leader.
I will be forever grateful to the men who were my mentors in the Scouting program over the years. I owe a particular debt to Delose Conner that I believe cannot possibly be repaid. In the past few years, the Scouting program has provided a welding link between me and my two oldest sons, both of whom worked at Camp Loll this past summer. I have seen the lives of thousands of young men improved through the Scouting program.
And so, despite the challenges, I continue to serve. I do not delude myself into thinking that the Scouting program will ever be more than mediocre in all but a handful of LDS sponsored units. I guess I’ll accept the concept that for the most part, some is better than none.