Friday, October 07, 2016

LDS Scouting: Maybe it's not really mediocre; just different

I felt like a fly on the wall as I sat on the back row of a room where members of LDS stake presidencies and leaders of a BSA district were seated around a large table. It seemed almost comical to me that without assigned seating, the Scouting leaders ended up in one contiguous group with the church leaders in another. From the start it felt somewhat like an us-vs-them situation.

For the most part, the group worked collaboratively and effectively on a variety of issues. But I sensed a somewhat adversarial undertone that didn't start with that meeting. I have seen it often in interactions between representatives of the LDS Church and the BSA that I have witnessed throughout my adult life.

While working on a particular issue, members of both parties voiced frustrations. These sentiments weren't especially aimed at members of the other group, but it was plain to see that the two groups had fundamental differences in how they viewed the issues.

While many different things were said, I think they can all be effectively boiled down to the following exchange:
Churchmen: The BSA program is impossible to fully implement in our Church units.
Scouters: It would be far easier if people holding Scouting callings would just follow the program that has been prepared instead of trying to do their own thing.
Churchmen: The program is so complex that it requires professional level training. That's not realistic for most laymen. Many parts of the program aren't relevant to our youth today.
Scouters: That's because you aren't doing it right.
This is a gross simplification. But it's fairly representative of the same attitudes that I have seen on display for decades.

I want to stress that both groups of people were earnest and were deeply interested in helping young men. Many of the Scouters present had held leadership positions in the Church. Many of the church leaders present had been Philmont and Wood Badge trained in Scouting and felt like they were doing their level best to implement the Scouting program. But both groups felt frustrated that they were falling short of what they should be accomplishing.

The meeting was overseen by a stake president who had only recently been assigned to lead the group. He came across as a sage, demonstrating equanimity and deep interest throughout the meeting. He did an excellent job of summarizing the sentiments expressed and said that he needed to ponder and pray about some of the issues.

Several times during the meeting, this stake president reminded the group that the LDS Church's main purpose in sponsoring Scouting is to bring young men to Christ and to fulfill the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. Since this aim differs to one degree or another from the aims of other Scouting sponsors, it should not be surprising that implementation of Scouting in LDS units differs from the way other groups implement the program.

Other thoughts expressed by the stake president included:
  • Local church leaders obviously feel that the Scouting program is too complex. Referring to a remark by another stake leader, who had said that his stake simply opted out of Varsity Scouting and Venturing, the stake president said that the choice should never be between perfection and not doing the program at all. Nor is it right to feel perpetual guilt about falling short of the ideal (which seemed to be the approach taken by most church leaders present). Rather, simplification is the answer.
  • The Church sponsors the BSA, not the other way around. The Church has ensured that the BSA offers broad flexibility in program implementation to meet the needs of the sponsor. Although the stake president didn't say it out loud, I sensed a gentle suggestion that died-in-the-wool Scouters should back off from their accusations of "not doing it right" when local leaders customize their program approaches.
  • While we will always speak about and desire the ideal, it is imperative to deal with realities. The reality is that all the haranguing in the world isn't going to get local Church members that are called to Scouting positions to become fully trained or to implement the program in an ideal fashion. A few will. But experience shows that most will not. After all, they have lives to live. (See my 10/2007 and 6/2009 posts on mediocre LDS Scouting.)
  • With Church aims in mind, and given the reality of limited resources, it is imperative to evaluate what Scouting has to offer and to implement those features that are most likely to achieve Church goals. Scouting has developed a strong culture with many traditions. Traditions that strongly support Church aims should be employed; others should receive diminished emphasis or should be dropped.
I was in attendance at the meeting as an Order of the Arrow adviser. It became clear during the meeting that few of those present had any understanding of what the OA was useful for. They all seemed to have a general understanding that it is a service organization. But so what? Church youth do service projects all the time. And after all, isn't that whole Native American re-enactment thing kind of, you know, not cool nowadays? And how does anybody get into that organization anyway? Mind you, some of the men saying these things had been members of the OA as youth.

In other words, it quickly became clear to me that the OA is likely one of those Scouting traditions that doesn't make the cut in the minds of local LDS Church leaders. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with my position anyway. I'd have more free time and less stress if I didn't have to do it. But I do it because of the good the OA did for me when I was a youth, in the hope that it might help another young man trying to find his way in life.

As the meeting concluded, I got the distinct feeling that pretty much everyone in the room was glad it was over. Since I have spent years hanging out with strong Scouters, I know that the "the Church is doing Scouting wrong" sentiment is alive and well among that group. I implore my fellow Scouters to follow President Uchtdorf's advice when it comes to judging others: "Stop it!" It's not helpful, it doesn't improve the Scouting program, and most significantly, it doesn't improve boys. The divine attribute of mercy is much more likely to further these goals.

Most of the church leaders present are doing their best. But Scouting isn't their only focus. Each has many other responsibilities. Most really are trying. And most have also been doing so under the constant weight of guilt that Scouting in their stakes isn't up to snuff. I would admonish these brethren to follow the counsel of the stake president provided at that meeting. Simplify. Do what you can and do it joyfully without guilt. Also realize that you need strong Scouters to support the program. Although they may bug you at times and you might not think you need them, you actually can't run much of a Scouting program without them.

For better or for worse (depending on your viewpoint), the LDS Church and the BSA are partnering for the foreseeable future. Young Men General President Stephen W. Owen recently told a group that the Church is "all in" when it comes to Scouting. Local Church leaders and Scouters need to work collaboratively to help LDS young men come to Christ, achieve the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood, and achieve the character building aims of Scouting. Balkanizing into different camps won't do that. Loving collaboration will. Let's get to it.

1 comment:

Michaela Stephens said...

Great post.
In a way, one could see the Church-BSA partnership as a kind of cultural exchange in which each entity makes use of parts of the other that benefits itself.