Thursday, February 26, 2015

LDS Scouting: It's Imperfect and Plenty of People are Itching to Tell You How Flawed It Is

Scouter Mat Greenfield recently touched off a bit of a firestorm with his post on the Utah National Parks Council (BSA) Blog titled The REAL Problem with Scouting in the LDS Church. Greenfield suggests that criticisms of LDS Scouting can pretty much be chalked up to failure to "implement the full program."
"From my observation, many wards and stakes treat Scouting as if it were a buffet dinner, taking a little of this, a portion of that, and a side of something else. They implement only some of the program and then proclaim, “It doesn’t work! We’ve tried it!” They indict the program as a failure when in fact the failure arises as a direct result of the elements of the program they did not implement."
If Greenfield wanted people to give him a piece of their mind, this was a good way accomplish that goal. A handful of responses have been favorable, a few respondents offer suggestions that seem quite constructive, and of course there is the obligatory handful of snipers. But the vast majority of comments have served up a smorgasbord of gripes and complaints, often garnished with more than a little passion.

It would be easy to write off these people and their complaints. After all, aren't they railing against prophetic priorities, much like the Children of Israel repeatedly did in Old Testament times (see 1 Samuel 8:7-8)?

But most of these people seem to be earnest members of the Church, not mere snipers. In their comments (some of which are more thoughtful than others) you can sense serious anguish. Some appear to be crying out for help. To lightly regard their thoughts would be to miss out on a learning opportunity.

Although I am a died-in-the-wool Scouter and a committed member of the Church, I have offered my own complaints about LDS Scouting (see Mediocre LDS Scouting, LDS Sponsored BSA Units Have More Safety IncidentsScouting: "We're Doing It Wrong"). Criticism can have various purposes. It can, for example, express tender love, strident rebellion, hope for improvement, or just plain frustration, etc. So it is with the responses to Greenfield's post.

Quite honestly, some of the attitudes, concerns, and suggestions offered could easily be cleared up by referring to the Church's Scouting Handbook and administration Handbook 2 (search on the word Scout). But even these comments provide some insight into broadly based attitudes that church leaders and members that are working to support LDS Scouting are up against.

Although the comments are not of equal value, trying to rank them is beyond the scope of this post. Rather, I will try to give a representation of the concerns cited.
  • The BSA's rechartering system is antiquated and cumbersome.
  • The BSA's bureaucracy is expensive and problematic.
  • If adult leaders hate the Scout uniform the boys will hate the Scout uniform.
  • Some bishoprics fail to register adults with the BSA, allowing some bad apples to work with youth.
  • Disinterested and/or untrained Scout leaders/bishoprics/stake presidencies.
  • Disinterested/uninvolved/clueless parents.
  • Disinterested youth.
  • LDS sponsored Scouting units cannot do Scouting the way community sponsored units can.
  • Required attendance in LDS units vs. voluntary attendance in community units explains disinterested youth, parents, and leaders.
  • Community sponsored Scouting units have their own problems, including some that proselytize kids away from the LDS faith.
  • Moms doing the work for the boys' advancements.
  • High cost of Scouting, including overpriced uniforms and insignia.
  • The above point leads to a disparity between spending on Young Men and Young Women. This is an extremely sore point with a number of respondents, both female and male.
  • Prestige accorded Scouting far exceeds prestige accorded Young Women programs. One respondent suggested courts of honor for awarding the Young Womanhood medallion. (Our ward does something like this.)
  • Girls attend Activity Days only half as often as boys attend Cub Scouts.
  • Since the Young Women don't have Scouting, the Young Men don't need it either.
  • Since the rest of the LDS world gets by without sponsoring Scouting, North American LDS units should be able to get along fine without it too.
  • Why bother? The Church will certainly dump the BSA within 10 years or as soon as Pres. Monson/the current crop of old outmoded men leading the church is dead.
  • Since the Brethren are known to have had spirited debates about continuing Scouting, it likely won't last much longer.
  • Today's BSA is far different from the way the BSA was when the prophets embraced it. So it no longer deserves our alliance.
  • Where Scouting was hip during its first half century, today it is so far from hip and cool as to be irrelevant to the lives of many boys.
  • If you think getting rid of Scouting and just doing Duty to God for Young Men is going to be better, take a look at how poorly that system works in other countries.
  • Scouting is just a program; it is not required for salvation or exaltation. Therefore, it is optional.
  • The BSA is not the gospel. Why should a bunch of highly paid secular honchos dictate what church members should do?
  • A Duty to God certificate conveys little social prestige, but Scouting rank advancement does.
  • Too much fundraising (especially the Friends of Scouting drive).
  • Too little fundraising by the boys, resulting in failure to build valuable character traits.
  • Extreme difficulty implementing the program in small/struggling/spread out units.
  • Leader overload. Fully implementing the Scouting program consumes way too much time, especially precious family time.
  • Excessive training requirements (often driven by the desire to reduce liability).
  • Poor training led by pompous volunteers.
  • Lots of 'what' and 'why' training, but inadequate 'how' training.
  • The program is too complex, requiring years for a new leader to master.
  • Difficulty breaking into the quirky Scouting culture.
  • Not all boys (or adults) fit well with the Scouting program/culture. The program is too exclusionary.
  • Many adults are poorly suited to Scouting positions.
  • Adults that are well suited to Scouting positions are too soon called to serve elsewhere.
  • High Scout leader turnover.
  • Some units have too few boys to be effective and have little prospect for recruiting within boundaries. But stake president won't allow units to combine.
  • Combined stake unit functioning poorly.
  • Poor communication.
  • Combined YM/YW activities cut into the Scouting program and also alienate nonmember Scouts attending LDS sponsored units.
  • Scouting overemphasized while Duty to God underemphasized.
  • Way too much emphasis on uniforming.
  • Too little emphasis on uniforming.
  • Some priesthood and LDS Scouting leaders pay lip service to Scouting, but don't actually believe what they are saying. The boys and parents easily see the dissonance.
  • Some stake and ward priesthood leaders don't support the program.
  • Nonfunctional unit commissioners.
  • We don't let the boys run the program.
  • Scouting isn't a perfect program and it isn't staffed with perfect people, so we shouldn't expect the program to run perfectly.
  • Some leaders (and parents) emphasize advancement at the expense of character development.
  • Some use the words 'hate' and 'loathe' to describe Scouting due to bad experiences with the program.
  • We ought to allow people to volunteer for Scouting positions instead of relying on calling them by inspiration. Then we'd get more enthusiastic Scouting leaders. (What?)
  • Sometimes church members that don't love the BSA are treated like apostates.
  • A well run program attracts nonmember youth and parents.
  • We need more co-ed programs for the youth.
  • Some large wards lack sufficient committed adults to fill all important callings with people that will do the job well. All organizations, including Scouting suffer as a result.
  • We should only allow men with current temple recommends to be Scout leaders.
  • We shouldn't exclude good men that aren't Mormon or aren't active in the Church from being Scouting leaders.
  • Scout unit fails to accommodate son's disability.
  • Boys don't have enough skin in the game because they no longer pay dues.
  • Too much Scouting and too little religion.
  • Too much religion and too little Scouting.
  • Fully implementing Scouting doesn't produce good missionaries, husbands and fathers. Leaders who care do.
Some of these criticisms will strike a chord. Others may seem off base. You can note contradictory ideas expressed by different respondents. But these thoughts represent reality and often very real pain to the people that wrote them.

It would be easy to dismiss much of the dissatisfaction listed by saying that these people simply don't sustain God's prophet. Or that they don't believe that prophets can be inspired to implement different programs in different geographical areas or for different sexes. This essentially amounts to accusing these people of being in some state of apostasy.

That's a pretty serious accusation that seems to lack the kind of Christ-like charity that we all ought to demonstrate. I will say, however, that the real test of sustaining God's servants comes when they task us with doing something that we don't like or with which we disagree. Since none of us is perfect in this regard, we probably ought to be cautious about throwing around accusations of apostasy.

Rather, I think it is important for church leaders and those that promote LDS Scouting to consider Christ-like ways to address the criticisms listed. And more importantly, to address the pain that underlies those criticisms. Perhaps some changes are warranted.

Those that complain about the BSA bureaucracy have some valid points. Some improvements are probably warranted. But as a wise old Scout camp director once told me after explaining some of the bureaucratic problems he was grappling with, the business of the BSA is not Scouting any more than the US Government is America.

He said that Scouting is the program's undying principles and ideals that will far outlast the BSA bureaucracy, even if the bureaucracy sometimes seems to be trying to kill those ideals. Ditto with the US Government and the political ruling class that sometimes seems to be at war with the real meaning of being an American. Yet the organization can't function without it's business side any more than America can function without politics.

I am somewhat sympathetic to complaints about the difficulty of fully implementing the Scouting program in an LDS setting. It's easy to see the gap between how we are doing and how the program really should be run. For me this sentiment has worsened with training. Untrained leaders don't know what they don't know. Trained leaders are more aware of the dissonance between the ideal and their reality. Moreover, they often feel like they are already doing all they reasonably can and still falling far short.

Those that feel this way may benefit from a something said by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement. "We never fail when we try to do our duty. We always fail when we neglect to do it." Earnestly trying to do our duty is enough. Doing our best to provide a good program for the boys within the scope of our circumstances is enough. We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Shirking our duty is failure.

To parents and leaders that are frustrated with LDS Scouting, I would say that it might be well to consider that a prophet's view of the matter may differ dramatically from our view in the trenches. Pres. Monson has said that he is the prophet for the whole world and that he has a responsibility to every boy regardless of whether the boy is a Latter-day Saint or not.

Pres. Monson's inspired view is that the unique relationship between the Church and the BSA allows the BSA to be a tool for accomplishing good in the lives of more people than all of the Church's other programs combined. It may lead to relatively few baptisms. But it has helped and continues to help many raise their eternal prospects higher. The Prophet is called to care about all of God's children and he sees Scouting as a way to help a portion of them.

Some have suggested that the BSA would crumble without the support of the Church. Perhaps. At the very least, it would become a much different organization than it is today, but not necessarily in a good way. Some obviously think that it's already a lost cause. But perhaps they would see differently if they could see it through a prophet's eyes. Indeed, everyone could learn from one man that did something like that (see Mac MacIntire's story).

I offer the following two insights to those that are sure that the Church is going to put the kybosh on its support of Scouting in North America in the near future:
  1. I have been hearing some form of this sentiment for 35 years. But somehow those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators keep stubbornly refusing to go along with what some think to be inevitable. Is is possible that it's not the judgment of the prophets that's out of whack? Maybe the Scouting program isn't nearly as fatally flawed as some believe.
  2. Even if the Church drops its support of Scouting tomorrow, it is still a prophetic priority today. The only question, then, is how we choose to respond to that priority. (Consider a possible analogy to Numbers 13, 14.)
The attitudes expressed above are poignant, broad, and entrenched. I know from certain sources that Church leaders are working to deal with some of these issues. Those that favor LDS Scouting may not be able to change the listed opinions much. But perhaps they could at least consider them and try to avoid doing things that make matters worse. At the very least, extending kindness and courtesy to those that don't care for LDS Scouting ought to be imperative.


y-intercept said...

The lack of interest in scouting in Utah seems strange because Utah has the best outdoor opportunities of the 48 contiguous states. Utah has a huge outdoor equipment market along with recreation based industries.

Your article on Utah Scouting does not include the boundless recreation opportunities and scenic values of the state. I would say your list indicates that the problem of Utah scouting is that it's focused on internal politics and not on what is actually out there in the real world.

I have numerous friends who are outdoor enthusiasts. None of them have even the slightest interest in scouting which they perceive as a political entity.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Utah does indeed have amazing outdoor opportunities. I have access to many miles of fantastic trails for hiking and mountain biking less than a mile from my house.

But my article mainly focuses on policy matters. And it addresses issues involving all of North America, not just Utah.

I understand the perception of Scouting as a political entity. I think that some in Scouting might say that it is a patriotic entity rather that a political one. But that could be seen as quibbling about semantics.

Clark Goble said...

Part of the problem are the huge restrictions on doing a lot of outdoor activities through scouts. If you want to do outdoor activities it's almost always easier to just do it on your own.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Re: Clark Goble
I assume you mean the multiple restrictions listed in the Guide to Safe Scouting. Some of these are quite useful while others are simply designed by lawyers to reduce liability. However, it may interest you to know that the LDS Church applies almost all of these restrictions church youth activities. I think that lots of people are ignorant of those restrictions, and many that know of them deliberately ignore the ones they don't like.

From a personal liability standpoint youth leaders have a lot to lose by ignoring safety restrictions. You can literally be financially ruined for the rest of your life if something goes awry. But many youth leaders forge ahead anyway because they have always gotten away with it in the past.

Outdoor activities should play a major role in LDS Scouting, especially in areas that have access to great outdoor venues. But quite frankly, we have a lot of poorly trained LDS BSA leaders that are horrible stewards of environmental resources. This gives all BSA groups a black eye with resource compliance officers and with fellow users of outdoor resources.