That sense of pride was repeated as I made transitions to succeeding BSA programs sponsored by my LDS ward. I was so proud to don the khaki Boy Scout uniform. Eventually I became an Explorer and even represented my council at the National Explorer President's Congress in Washington DC. (The LDS Church later transitioned from sponsoring Exploring to sponsoring Venturing.)
It was with great pride that I became a member of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting's national honor society, and then became an Eagle Scout the following year. My summers working on Boy Scout camp staff provided a strong platform for a life of dedicated service to others. So valuable were my youthful associations with the BSA that I have volunteered as a Scouting leader throughout my adult life, hoping to provide for others something akin to what my leaders provided for me during my formative years.
During my first couple of decades as a member of the BSA, the values of the LDS Church and the BSA seemed to mesh well, even as the BSA was challenged in various venues for holding to traditional values. But it is no secret that the approaches of the two organizations have increasingly diverged during the current decade.
The fraying division starkly came into focus as I prepared to attend National Order of the Arrow Conference in the summer of 2015. The BSA had voted to permit gay leaders, after the LDS Church had asked that the final vote be delayed until after top church leaders could confer on the matter. The Church responded with a public statement saying that it was "deeply troubled" by the vote and that it would carefully review the matter. (See my 7/27/15 and 7/30/15 posts.)
We went to NOAC under a cloud of uncertainty as to whether our LDS contingent members would still be members of the BSA after the conference. Toward the end of the summer the Church announced that it would continue to sponsor BSA units. (See my 8/26/15 post.) Still, the Church's announcement of the continuation of the LDS-BSA relationship made it clear that this partnership was subject to future revision.
A part of that future became present yesterday when the Church announced that it will discontinue sponsoring Varsity Scout and Venturing units at the end of 2017. See:
- Church News article
- Mormon Newsroom Q&A
- Deseret News article about announcement
- KSL article about announcement
- Deseret News article on Elder Holland's comments
- Deseret News article on BSA leader response
Let me first address the obvious points of this policy change. This announcement will change nothing about the way the vast majority of LDS units in North America run activities programs for young men ages 14-18. Quite frankly, only a tiny percentage of LDS units have really been doing either the Varsity Scout or Venturing programs for many years now. The policy change merely makes official what has long been occurring in most wards and branches.
By saying this I intend no disrespect to those leaders who have valiantly worked to implement these programs in their units. Those units will be impacted by this decision. But most of the young men targeted by these programs during this century have been Varsity Scouts or Ventures in name only. Most of the LDS boys registered in these programs couldn't tell you anything substantive about their programs. This undoubtedly is part of the reason the Church is dropping its support of these programs.
In its announcement, the Church signaled its continued support of the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs, targeting boys ages 8-13. LDS boys ages 14-17 who wish to continue working on Boy Scout advancement will be registered with the troop. I assume that most of these will still attend Mutual with their respective age groups.
There has long been a sentiment in North American LDS culture that a young man is pretty much done with Scouting when he turns 14. It's been like a rite of passage. They think that their 14th birthday means that they will never wear a Scout uniform again. This is true for many. But some boys have continued Scouting even when the Varsity Scout and Venturing programs have been largely absent in their wards. I believe that this new change will intensify the end-of-Scouting tendency and will further thin the ranks of those that wish to continue their Scouting efforts.
Last night at Scout leader round table meeting, a member of our district relationships committee (a member of a local stake presidency) warned against reading too much into the Church's announcement. In instances like this, he noted, we sometimes have a tendency to assume we know what will happen next, when, in fact, we don't.
He's right. Many will assume that the Church is merely taking a piecemeal approach discontinuing its association with the BSA. That may be true. But I'm willing to take the statement at face value. North American LDS Church members have long exhibited strong support of the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs, notwithstanding those Church members that don't care for Scouting programs. (A friend and his wife call Scouting "The 'S' word.")
Regardless of intention, yesterday's announcement can't help but have a chilling effect on Church members' enthusiasm for the portions of the Scouting program the Church will continue to support. People may not know what comes next in the relationship between the LDS Church and the BSA, but they probably can't help but notice a pattern.
The Church's Q&A about the Scouting policy change ends by asking, "Is this a reaction to the news that the Boy Scouts of America is considering the inclusion of girls and young women in its programs?" The answer simply says that this was not a known factor at the time the decision was made. It make no allusion to what might happen if the BSA goes co-ed with its programs now known as Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. But I would be very surprised if the Church continued to sponsor Scouting at that juncture.
While the broader culture continues to move away from male-only programs for youth, the Church finds gospel centered value in continuing to offer single-sex programs for its youth ages 8-18. (I was going to write that the broader culture is moving away from single-sex programs for youth, but I'm not sure that's true. Support for many girl-only programs seems strong, while male-only programs in general are increasingly viewed as ignoble. Still, there is a motivated effort afoot to completely erase all distinctions of sex, allowing individuals to define sex for themselves. So there's no telling where this will go.)
I don't have a crystal ball that tells me where the relationship with the LDS Church and the BSA is going or how soon it will get there. What I can say is that over the space of many years, millions of boys have benefited from this relationship. But the values of the two organizations may diverge to the point that this partnership no longer makes sense.
If we get to that spot, I will find myself no longer be registered with a BSA unit. I could go out and find a community unit to link up with or I could found a community unit. That would be noble, but I've got too much going on in my life as it is, so that prospect seems doubtful for me.
Regardless of whether the Church ultimately drops Scouting completely, I will always look on my decades of involvement with the BSA with fondness and gratitude. I can't begin to enumerate the good that has come into my life through Scouting. I won't live in nostalgiaville, but I will always find ways to serve others in a meaningful fashion.