Monday, January 14, 2013

My Order of the Arrow Chapter Conundrum

I spent this past weekend at our Order of the Arrow lodge's largest annual event, known as Founders Festival. More than 200 people participated. There was a lot of energy and excitement. Most of our lodge's 19 chapters were represented. Some traveled great distances in dicey weather to attend. Our chapter managed to bring three adults and two boys.

At the concluding award banquet I heartily applauded the accomplishments of several chapters. I reflected on the glory days of the first two times I served as chapter adviser some years ago. We were consistently the top chapter in the lodge. Our membership included a number of highly accomplished boys that went on to become medical doctors, educators, businessmen, engineers, military officers, craftsmen, and even professional scouters.

Two degrees, diagnoses of Multiple Sclerosis and hypothyroidism, a career change, five jobs, and five kids later, I again find myself serving as adviser of the same Order of the Arrow chapter. But instead of working with a vibrant cadre of enthused youth, I find myself struggling to just keep the chapter alive.

My chapter chief is the only youth on whom I can consistently depend, and that is because he is my faithful son. He is a genuinely good person who easily makes friends and he has a strong interest in the O.A. But organization and recruiting are not among his strong suits.

On Saturday my chapter chief son confided in me his concern about chapter leadership once he graduates high school and moves on. He has no idea how often I have thought about the same thing. Nor does he know how much I worry that I may be unfairly placing responsibilities on his shoulders that he might prefer to avoid. It's a conundrum.

Membership in the O.A. is controlled by scout units, not by current O.A. members. Units can hold an election each year to nominate boys that meet certain criteria (including attaining at least First Class rank and having 15 days and nights of outdoor scout camping). Candidates must then go through a challenging induction known as the ordeal to become members. The ordeal is filled with hard things: self denial, sleeping alone under the sky, silence, and sacrificing to do service projects.

When I was a young scout I desperately wanted to join the O.A. I was more than willing to endure the hardships of the ordeal to join my friends that were already members. I was elated when my troop nominated me to do so.

The first two times I served as chapter adviser I had little problem doing O.A. elections or getting candidates to attend the ordeal. Troops clamored for us to come and hold elections. My chapter chiefs assigned boys to handle these appointments. Newly elected boys showed up in droves to endure the ordeal, although, they knew it would be challenging.

After again putting on the chapter adviser hat a couple of years ago, I was stunned to discover how much had changed. We have to beg troops to let us hold elections. Only a few scout leaders will even let us come. Excuses include having no boys that meet the camping requirements, having no boys that are interested, and having no boys that the scout leader thinks are worthy of the honor.

When we finally do get to hold a unit election, the vast majority of candidates never attend an ordeal. They are busy. Their parents complain that they are already involved in too many other worthwhile activities. Nor are many boys much interested in doing the hard things required during the induction. With dwindling numbers of candidates joining, few candidates sense any peer pressure to join because they have no friends involved.

Another factor is my own waning enthusiasm. I greatly admire and appreciate the O.A. The organization made a major difference in my life as a youth. During my first two stints as chapter adviser I had a great time helping other boys gain some of the same kinds of benefits I garnered as a youth.

It's different this time around. I have significantly greater job and family responsibilities, several health challenges, and less energy. I constantly face dilemmas when it comes to committing time and effort to my O.A. position. My inability/unwillingness to put forward the kind of effort I did in years past bothers me. But I am not sure that the outcome would be much better even if I did so, due to social and cultural change.

As I glanced around the room at the closing banquet of Founders Festival I could see that the reported registration numbers were right. Just slightly more than half of those present were youth. The O.A. is supposed to be run by the youth. The adults are supposed to be there for support and safety, not to run the organization.

Like the rest of the BSA, the O.A. has seen its membership demographic change. The percentage of youth members is declining as the percentage of adult members increases. The BSA anticipates having more registered adults than youth in a few years. Multiple factors are at play here. One is that more of those that enjoyed the program as youth are choosing to remain or become involved as adults than in past generations. (I am among these.) But another is declining interest in the program among youth.

The result of this shift is an organizational push for the O.A. to do more to serve the interests of its expanding adult membership, which is antithetical to the organization's stated goal of primarily serving youth interests. The flip side of this is that adults that see little in the organization for them tend to stop showing up and helping the youth.

I'm not going to solve major social issues. I can only address what I can do. Right now I feel guilty that I am not doing more to improve the flagging chapter that I advise. But I also feel guilty if I try to do more, because it takes time away from my family. My district scouting chairman assures me that having me serve with my limitations is better than what they would otherwise have, which is no adult leader currently willing to step up and serve. But I would be dishonest if I didn't say that I am not happy with the results.

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