Monday, August 11, 2014

Back Country Carelessness Courtesy of Poorly Trained LDS BSA Leaders

I spent portions of last week grumbling about some of the priesthood leaders in my ward (congregation). Although Latter-Day Saints should refrain from speaking evil about the priesthood leaders they sustain, nowhere in LDS doctrine does it say that these leaders are infallible. It can be entirely appropriate to recognize imperfections in leaders. But depending on how one goes about doing that determines whether one is being helpful or subversive.

In North America, the activity arm of the LDS young men organization (for ages 12-18) is constituted of Boy Scouts of America units sponsored by the church. As is broadly the case throughout LDS Church units in North America, few of the men serving in young men leadership positions in my ward have adequate BSA training for the positions they hold. Although I have many levels of BSA training, I have lived in this culture long enough to be relatively unfazed by this situation.

As discussed in this June 2009 post, the fallout of mandatory BSA membership for LDS young men includes poorly trained leaders.
Few newly called LDS Scouting leaders bother to get much training in the program, even when training is broadly available. Most consider such training yet another drain on their precious time. Their church leaders rarely require it of them, since they are just happy to have adults that will show up at weekly activity nights most of the time. Many LDS Scouting leaders know nothing about BSA safety policies. Many that know about the policies don’t care about them. The rules simply seem too onerous.
LDS Ward bishoprics rarely get adequate BSA training because they already have a lot of other duties on their plates. Besides, many of these bishopric and young men leaders grew up with scouting leaders that had little or no BSA training. They tend to believe that they turned out alright despite this lack of trained leaders and they tend to model the pattern they saw in those untrained leaders.

First I grumbled because Son #3, who is the best hiker in the family, was very nonplussed about going on yet another 50-mile backpacking trip in the High Uintas. For the third summer in a row. Although he is a good hiker, he couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't any other kind of activity available. Or at least some other venue. Hiking in the High Uintas almost always means bountiful rain. Couldn't they try hiking in a desert region? Or maybe a float trip? Or cycling? Or some other kind of adventure?

The first mistake here is a failure to understand the main purposes of BSA (and LDS young men) high adventure activities. The goal isn't simply to complete a super activity. It is for the boys to develop and exercise leadership and to discover that they can accomplish worthwhile goals that require group cooperation and serious individual stretching. While the last of these goals might be achieved by a 50-mile backpacking trip, the first (and perhaps more important) goal of developing leadership is largely forfeited when adults make the plan.

Nor is it good enough for adults to present two or three options and ask the boys which of these they want to do. The boys themselves need to develop the ideas and plans if you want them to become the kind of leaders our country and the church will need in the future. Doing the heavy lifting of deciding, planning, and execution robs the youth of the basis they will need when they are called to be mission district or zone leaders, or members of an elders quorum presidency. Do you really want them to come up empty handed in those future situations?

Involving the boys at the root level of activity leadership requires a lot of hard work and messiness. It can be much harder for the adults than coming up with plans on their own. But the adults are only there to support, guide without taking over, provide perspective, and ensure safety.

And there's my second point of complaint. Our young men adult leaders managed to bring the boys home from last week's hike without major safety incidents by sheer luck and perhaps divine intervention. Several of these men are experienced outdoorsmen, but none of them have adequate BSA back country training, including training in back country first aid and emergency response.

While Son #3 is a great hiker and an intelligent young man, he suffers from a certain level of topographical/spatial orientation dysfunction. We have called him our wandering child since he could walk. Getting lost is one of the things at which he excels. The BSA trains leaders to always implement the buddy system when taking boys anywhere, especially into the back country. But untrained leaders either know nothing of the buddy system or see no reason to implement it.

I learned through a secondary source yesterday that Son #3 became lost in the back country during the trip — not once, but twice! Although no one (including my teenage son) has yet divulged any details, I am told that both occurrences were quite harrowing. You'd think that after the first time, leaders would have strictly implemented the buddy system. I'm grateful that my son returned safely. But I am chagrined that our leaders apparently were unable to implement one of the BSA's most basic rules of back country safety. It seems like our son's safety was more a matter of luck than competence.

(Note: It is fair game to ask why, knowing of my son's deficiency, I didn't go along on the hike to keep him safe. For one thing, I have a new job with very little leave. For another, my son has safely completed a number of backpacking hikes without me being there. Our best guess was that this time would be no different. In fairness to the leaders of this year's expedition, they probably made similar assumptions.)

When I wondered if the adults in their wisdom would make yet another foray into the High Uintas next summer our son cheerfully reported that they had already planned to take the boys to southern Utah next year. While he is happy about this prospect, I see yet another activity hatched by the adults. The boys will once again play a minimal role in planning and executing the event. They will be only participants rather than leaders.

I know that I hope in vain for my boys' young men leaders to become trained in ways that would drastically improve the scouting program for the boys in our ward. I don't really expect that to happen. Each of these guys is a very good man. They are busy juggling life's demands and I am glad that they take time to serve my boys. But I can't help but wonder how much better their service could be if they would get trained.

1 comment:

Scott Hinrichs said...

The buddy system could also have prevented a 15-year-old boy from getting lost in the High Uintas yesterday. See KSL article.