Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Order of the Arrow Election Difficulties

A few months ago, I was asked by the leadership of my local Boy Scout district to move from the district camping chair position to become the adviser of the local Order of the Arrow chapter. Not to worry. I have served in that position twice previously. Although, it has been a number of years since I last did so.

Upon beginning the position, I discovered that the chapter was in pretty bad shape. Very few new members have been elected in recent years. The boys that have been the most active are growing up and moving on. I could see that we urgently needed to recruit more members.

Of course, I knew how to do this. I had successfully led O.A. recruitment drives for years as a youth and as an adult.

The process of a boy becoming a member of the Order of the Arrow is somewhat drawn out. First, members of the order must visit the boy's scout troop to hold an election. At least half of the troop's registered youth must be present. To be eligible, a boy must:
  • Be active in the troop.
  • Have 15 nights of outdoor scout camping under his belt. (Only one long-term camp may be counted.)
  • Hold at least the First Class rank.
  • Be approved by the scoutmaster.
To be elected, a boy must receive at least half of the votes of those present. Once elected, the boy must go through the order's overnight and full-day induction, known as the Ordeal. Candidates are responsible for the cost of the event and for their own transportation.

The Ordeal is a challenging experience. During the Ordeal, candidates:
  • Sleep alone under the stars (or rain, or whatever the weather is doing) to learn self-reliance.
  • Spend a night and a day in silence to learn the art of meditation.
  • Eat scant food to learn self-denial in the face of trials.
  • Spend a day working at demanding service projects to learn cheerful service.
The event begins and ends with a ceremony where four principles dressed in Native American regalia explain the purpose of the order and ask candidates to commit themselves to a lifetime of cheerfully serving others. In other words, it takes rather significant commitment just to become a member of the order.

One of my first duties was to go to scoutmasters in the district to arrange to come to their troops hold O.A. elections. Having had good success at this in the past, I was somewhat surprised to find this an extremely difficult task. Many scoutmasters have said that they currently have no eligible boys. Others have said that none of their youth are interested.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be in the O.A. so badly that my teeth hurt. I knew lots of other boys that felt the same way. We knew going into it that the induction was challenging, but that made us want to do it all the more.

Times have changed. Youth today have far more potential outlets for their free time than when I was younger. They are not particularly drawn to a fraternal organization that promises lots of hard work. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, given the long-term trend toward social disengagement that I discussed in this 2007 post. Fraternal organizations of all stripes are having difficulty recruiting members.

One of the main reasons boys are not eligible for O.A. membership is that they lack enough nights of scout camping. Sometimes this is due to the troop's lousy camping program. But even troops with strong year-round camping programs in our area have few boys that are eligible. Troops hold camp outs, but boys often fail to show up. They've got other things going.

When I was a kid, no one in the troop would ever think of missing a troop camp out. Parents universally gave such events the highest priority. This too has changed. Parents in my area have far less commitment to the scouting program than did parents a generation ago.

Since boys in the 12-13 age range often are not eligible, some have wondered why we don't target the 14-15 age range instead. To put it bluntly, most of these boys in our area are no longer interested in scouting. Scouting is something they did when they were younger. They have passed on. It's kind of like a sixth-grader that still likes to watch Barney and Friends. It's just not cool.

Few registered Varsity Scout units in our district actually run a scouting program. This age group meets every week in the numerous LDS wards in our district, but only a few do any scouting at all. They run their own programs. Few Varsity Scout units are interested in having anything to do with the O.A. Even if one or two boys are interested, the rest of the unit simply isn't interested in holding elections.

I must hasten to add that part of the reason that few scoutmasters are interested in holding elections is that our chapter has for the past couple of years looked like a home for lost boys. The boys that have been most active and that have held leadership positions have seemed to be misfits. Frankly, scoutmasters look at this crew and see nothing that they want their boys to aspire to.

Our recruiting since I became chapter adviser has been beyond pathetic. Only two troops have actually held an election. (Two others have made appointments and then stood us up.) We have elected only three boys. Two of those have declined to attend an Ordeal.

We have two more Ordeals in the fall this year. Our best bet is to catch troops after they return from summer camp. More boys may then be eligible after having camped more nights and earning more advancements at camp.

All I can say for sure is that even holding O.A. elections is proving to be a far more difficult task than it was years ago. I hope we can successfully generate some activity. But realistically, it may take several years to re-build the chapter to a reasonable size.

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