Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...
We now know that the formal relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America will cease at the end of 2019 (see joint statement by the LDS Church and the BSA announcing their upcoming divorce). I'm not prescient. It has just seemed quite apparent to me that the LDS Church and the BSA had been on diverging paths for a long time so that they would eventually part ways.
BSA membership has been declining for a number of years and the organization has been struggling to find relevancy in a changing culture. The BSA's own studies show that most parents of Scouting age youth see Scouting as old fashioned and not relevant to the needs of their kids and their families. The BSA must change that or the organization will die.
Some of the decisions made by the BSA as it has tried to reorient to modern social patterns have seemed calculated to alienate the Church. A serious rift developed between the two organizations during the summer of 2015 and people held their breath while the Church re-evaluated its relationship with the BSA (see my 7/17/2015, 7/27/2015, 7/30/2015, and 8/26/2015 posts). On August 26, 2015 the Church all but said that the days of that relationship were numbered.
The Church began sponsoring BSA units 105 years ago when the Church was largely a North American concern, mostly centered around the Wasatch Front and nearby areas, with a small number of members scattered around other parts of the world. During the post-WWII era both organizations aligned well with the mainstream American ideals of stoicism, patriotism, and conformity to societal norms.
I became a Cub Scout half a century ago as the tumultuous cultural revolution of that era started to get into swing. After decades of cultural shift, mainstream American culture now identifies more strongly with the ideals of authenticity, social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. Scouting has gone through some tough times as it has struggled to keep up with these changes.
During my lifetime the LDS Church has become a multinational concern in a big way. More than half of its members now live outside of North America. While Scouting is also a worldwide movement, its offerings differ dramatically from country to country. For at least 15 years the Church has been up front about wanting to develop streamlined youth programs that meet the needs of its youth membership around the globe. Church leaders have bluntly stated that due to the diverse nature of Scouting programs in various countries, Scouting couldn't be part of that solution in the long term.
Many surmised last May when the Church announced that it was discontinuing its sponsorship of Varsity Scout and Venturing units that the move was a precursor to the Church discontinuing all Scouting sponsorship. It turns out that they were right.
Some surmised that LDS Scouting would die as soon as Church President Thomas S. Monson did; that his strong support of Scouting was the only reason the Church continued its relationship with the BSA. Despite this week's announcement coming four months after President Monson's passing, I still feel that this view is quite cynical and hardly in keeping with the doctrine of how the Lord runs his church.
My point is that no one should be much surprised by the dissolution of formal ties between the LDS Church and the BSA. Still, it seems jarring to many of my associates who have been strong Scouters, even as Scouting's critics are cheering the move.
More than 50 years ago as I attended Cub Scout pack meetings when my older brothers were in the program. I wanted to be a Cub Scout so badly that my teeth hurt. It was similar when I was nearly old enough to move up to the Scout troop. And again when I had the opportunity to become a member of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting's national honor society.
Throughout my adult life I have striven to keep the oath I took when I became an Eagle Scout "to give back more to Scouting than it has given to me" by serving in volunteer Scouting positions at the unit, district, and council levels. Over the past 50 years Scouting has given me irreplaceable experiences and has brought me into contact with wonderful people that I never would have otherwise known. I have seen many young men become high quality adults through Scouting. I deeply cherish the meaning Scouting involvement has brought into my life.
This has all been possible only because my church, the LDS Church, has sponsored Scouting. I seriously doubt I would have been involved in Scouting at all had it not been for the fact that my local congregation sponsored Scouting units when I was younger.
I'm not naive enough to be unaware of those whose LDS Scouting experiences have been quite different than my own. The program isn't equally administered and doesn't equally appeal to people. As noted above, it has also been obvious to me that the Church and Scouting have decreasingly fit well together over time. I cherish what has been. But I understand that it's time to move to a different paradigm.
The next phase for the 10 Scout councils that presently have significant numbers of LDS sponsored units is going to be painful. They now have a year and a half to become what the vast majority of Scout councils have spent decades becoming. Instead of focusing mainly on relationships with the Church, these councils are going to have to work to build community sponsored units where there is little precedent for such.
This means building nearly from scratch a framework that aligns potential sponsors (schools, civic groups, businesses, etc.) with willing participants. Where will the funds come from to fund the activities of these units? Where will they meet? How will recruitment occur? These are just some of the challenges ahead for Scouting in these councils.
While there are many Latter-day Saints that support Scouting, my gut feel is that only a small percentage of Church members currently involved Scouting will move to community units. I told my wife that I expect the number to be about the same as the number of LDS families involved in competition league athletics. Most will see Scouting as overlapping with the Church's new youth programs and will see little need for the duplication.
I strongly suspect that some Scout councils currently dominated by LDS sponsored units will end up collapsing and being combined with other councils. I empathize with those whose jobs will be affected. Many of them are friends of mine.
This D-News article does a good job of discussing what might become of the properties owned and operated by some of these councils. Some of the officials quoted seem to expect the facilities to largely continue to operate with Church groups as customers. It is noted that the Church has few large camping facilities in these areas. Many people who have minimal understanding of the property issues involved think that the Church will simply buy many of these facilities from the Scouts.
It's probably going to work out quite differently than either of these parties seem to think. There are a number of complex issues involved. Some properties, such as my beloved Camp Loll are only leased from the Forest Service. A few others have ownership arrangements that could cause the properties to revert to the original donors.
Scout camps that serve mostly LDS populations tend to keep costs down by enlisting staffers who work essentially for free or close to it. This is strongly facilitated by the LDS-Scouting pipeline which has provided the necessary volume of willing participants. Without that pipeline it's going to be very difficult to recruit sufficient staff without paying them an acceptable wage. But paying staffers even minimum wage would increase camp fees beyond what most LDS groups would be willing to pay. Many LDS families think Scout camp fees are too expensive as is, despite prices being far lower than most other Scout camps around the country.
My Scout council has eight major camps: 5 for Scouts, 2 for Cub Scouts, and 1 for high adventure. Some of the Scout camps also offer high adventure programs. Filling these camps has become increasingly difficult. Camps have switched some weeks from Scouting activities to Young Women camps, youth conferences, and family camps. Yet some of our camps have still been struggling to remain viable.
Some camp properties sit on land that is now prime recreation real estate. Their current values are so high that I can't imagine that Scout councils won't quickly sell them when these councils are hurting for funds and are operating the camps at a deficit anyway.
Another question is how much camping LDS youth groups are going to do. We haven't seen the Church's new youth programs yet, so we don't know. But the Church recently revised its Young Women camp program (see Church article) to allow for flexibility with camping out. Girls can participate in the Young Women camp program without actually going to camp. Camping has always been a strong feature of Scouting, but it hardly seems essential to the mission of the LDS Church. Why would anyone think that the Church's new youth programs are going to strongly promote camping?
As a Scouter I have seen a huge drop in camping interest among LDS families in my area over the past three decades. It used to be very easy to find 13-year-old LDS Scouts who had completed at least 15 nights of Scout camping during the previous two years, which is one of the qualifications for joining the Order of the Arrow. Although the actual number of LDS Scouts in my area has increased during that time, only a tiny fraction of 13-year-old LDS Scouts in my area today have done that much camping.
The rare LDS Scout troops around that actually have monthly camping programs often find that boys won't show up for the camp outs. Parents offer excuses such as wanting to take the family to the movies.
I'm not trying to downplay the importance of family together time. I'm merely trying to illustrate that the enthusiasm for camping isn't what it once was. I'm trying to show why I think that it's going to be impossible for the affected Scout councils to retain all or even most of their camp properties.
It's not really possible for me to put into words the emotions I feel about my years of LDS Scouting. It has literally been a lifetime of experiences. But I'm not crying about the end of this era. I have seen it coming for a long time now. 2020 will bring a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for the Church and for the Scouts. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
My role in that process isn't at all clear to me at this point. But my wife, who is Cubmaster in a Cub Scout pack sponsored by the Church, has more than mildly suggested that come 2020 it will be time for us to shift our service efforts to a different focus. We'll see.