Saturday, 8 August 2015

The end of LDS Scouting?

I remember well when I was first called to be an Assistant Cub Leader.  It was the only time I was tempted to turn a calling down.  While I grew up in the Church, my youth was spent in a small, poorly organized branch that did not have a Scout troop.  They did make a try at it which only lasted a couple of months but that was it.

Camping was not part of my childhood except for a father-son camp that my father wasn't able to attend and wasn't all the fun for me.  I was not a camper and not really interested in camping even if I had the chance.  The calling really felt like a bad fit for me, but I accepted it on faith.  The fact that Cubs did not do overnight camping was a relief to me.

It turned out to be the most fun I've ever had in a church calling.  The Akela was a master of all things Scouting and we quickly became close partners able to play off each other much like Abbot and Costello at times to the delight of the boys.  I found it was a great way to have a second childhood and catch up on experiences I missed out on the first time around.

That was nearly 20 years ago.  The boys from my first pack are now young parents.  Except for a few years in the middle I've been involved with Scouting ever since that first calling.  My family goes camping each summer, often more than once.  My children have mastered campcraft skills I still don't have, and we have built up some great memories over the years (some of them only being great because they are now memories).

I have a great fondness for the role LDS Scouting plays in a Sr. Primary boy's life.  I've seen boys amazed at how much fun they can have without ever touching an electronic device.  I've seen boys eat things they would never eat at home, only because they cooked it themselves over an open fire.   I've seen boys thrilled to get to light fires, or use tools and skills that they thought nobody would let them try.

For some boys, Scouting is the only place in their life where they get a male role model.  They grow up in a fatherless home, go to a school where their teacher is a woman, go to primary where their teacher is again an woman.  Nothing wrong with women teaching school or Primary classes, or serving as a Cub leader too, but there is something deeply wrong with a boy being totally deprived of any male role model.  If you know what to look for, you can tell what boys are in that situation without having to ask.  You can see it in their struggles to get along and relate with other boys among other things.  Scouting expands their world dramatically and prepares them to move from being a follower to a leader.

It was surprising to me when the Church quickly floated the possibility of breaking away from the Boy Scouts of America in the wake of their decision to permit openly gay leaders.  This would be a drastic move that would deeply impact the BSA.  If the Church did it, the number of boys in the BSA could fall by as much as 400,000 and as many as 30,000 Scouting units could vanish.  It was also a surprise because Scouts Canada has had a policy like this for many years (along with religious exemptions) yet the Church has not withdrawn from Scouts Canada.  That may however be because Church Headquarters doesn't seem to have Canadian Scouting on it's radar very much.  Our most recent handbook on LDS Scouting from the Church is decades old and in desperate need of updating.

Currently, church-sponsored Scouting groups are rare outside of North America, so it is reasonable to think that if the Church does pull out of the BSA to create it's own program, that the Church will withdraw from Scouting worldwide and implement it's new program globally.

The statement from the Church noted that "In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet." This to me was a very disrespectful, and even underhanded thing to do.  The Church may simply be firing off a warning shot across the bow of the BSA over how the vote was carried out, but it could mean there is a schism within the BSA between LDS/religious Scouting and secular Scouting.  The Church has been a strong force for keeping religion in Scouting and it was only two years ago that Bishop Gary E. Stevenson delivered the keynote speech in the Boy Scouts of America National Annual Meeting talking about how duty to God was at the core of Scouting.  Has this provoked more secular minded members of the BSA to act against religious conservatives in their ranks?

Part of the concern over this change in the BSA is that it would leave the Church open to legal action by activists seeking to have the courts overthrow the religious exemption.  There may also be concerns about the Church propping up an organization that will make a role models for youth of people living a lifestyle contrary to the standards of the Church.

As much as I do love what Scouting is for the boys, I more and more find myself thinking that perhaps a church produced program would serve our boys better.  In my experience up here in Canada, LDS groups are largely isolated from the broader world of Scouting as it is.  There is an awareness that the values of Scouts Canada do not fully align with the values of the Church and it leaves LDS Scouting group leaders, local church leaders, and parents reluctant to participate.  For many Scouting is not seen as being part of the Church or as a church program. 

By invoking religious exceptions, a Scouting group becomes what is called a 'closed group' which puts restrictions on some activities.  If somebody wants to register with a Scout group and goes to scouts.ca to find one, their search will not list any closed groups in their area, nor can the closed groups do much more than use word of mouth to let others in the community know they can come join them.  It is extremely rare for any LDS Scouters to hold a leadership position outside of their ward's own group.

Camps organized by the Area or Council run to Sunday afternoon, forcing LDS Scouts to leave early, or just discouraging them from going at all.  Church leaders and parents are reluctant to participate in such camps as they will be co-ed as well.  Important Scouting events often wind up conflicting with things like General Conference, Stake Conference, or other events so LDS groups become an isolated sub-culture within the Scouting movement.

Then there are the bureaucratic annoyances. Area and Council boundaries do not align well with Ward and Stake boundaries, and up here a person needs two interviews with Scouts Canada personnel, a police records check, and more before they are allowed to serve as a Scouter.  If a Bishop wants a new Scouter in September, he better have extended the calling in June so the process can be done in time.

These issue may not be as big a factor in other parts of the country, but even so I believe that the Church has the resources and the people to put together a better alternative program.  I think it could be done in a way that would cost less, have a clearer priesthood preparation focus, be easier to administer, fit better with the existing church structure, and have more support from parents and local leaders.  It would be something we can implement worldwide and have control over policy and practice.  It would also have a greater claim on religious freedom than the BSA when protecting itself in court if need be.

There really is no telling how this will wind up and I hope we will not have to wait long for a clear answer on what the Church will do.  We are the salt of the earth and God's wisdom may be that our salt is still needed to preserve Scouting a while longer yet, or it may be time to go now.  As long as the boys get what they need, I'm happy either way.