The Church and the BSA

The news broke that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has officially announced that it will no longer sponsor Boy Scouts of America troops. As a member of that church who currently serves in a calling as a Cub Scout den leader, and as a father of four boys — one of which just earned his Eagle Scout, and one who likely will within the next year — and being married to someone who currently volunteers as a Roundtable Commissioner for the BSA district, I have some thoughts.

First off, this has been a long time coming. The Church has members all across the world, and the Boy Scouts is an American institution. While Church leaders have often noted that the BSA is, essentially, the Young Men's organization within the Church, this has been completely unavailable outside of this country. We've heard rumors for a long time of the Church looking to institute something that would be available to members everywhere.

There are certain benefits to dumping the BSA from the Young Men's program. I've heard from numerous sources how the youth budget is often seen as unfair, with the Young Men getting far more allocation than the Young Women. However, the main reason for this is that the Church pays much of the registration fees, awards, and so forth required by the BSA — which is something that the Young Women do not have to deal with. The BSA also has many rules, regulations, and so forth that can be difficult for a ward full of unpaid volunteers to navigate. (One of the responsibilities my wife has is to help new scout troops and packs get through some of this — and the ones requiring help are not limited to LDS Church-sponsored troops.)

The move could also allow more freedom in Young Men's groups in their activities. Without having to follow strict rules and a proscribed list of activities and merit badges that boys are supposed to earn, it could be more easily tailored to the needs and desires of the people in the program (kids and leaders alike).

On the other hand, there are some things that would be a great loss. The structure and required activities are sometimes a benefit. When I asked my wife about her experience growing up in Activity Days (the program for girls the age of Cub Scout boys), she expressed her disappointment that it was little more than a cooking class. Her leaders were skilled in the kitchen and enjoyed doing that, so, without any real incentive to do anything else, that's what they did, week after week. Not being a very outdoorsy person myself, if I didn't have the Cub Scout requirements to drive me, I would likewise have very little incentive or direction to do some of the things that the boys in my care would enjoy (or should learn).

With the lack of BSA sponsorship, access to some of the campgrounds and resources that the Church currently enjoys will be lost. So although there will be more money to go around, some activities will cost more.

The Boy Scouts of America is a national institution, recognized by people regardless of their religious affiliation. Anecdotally, having an Eagle Scout rank is something that employers see as an asset in potential employees. Certainly, a Church program would be less likely to carry the same weight, even if its requirements were at all similar to those of the Eagle Scout.

There is very little commonly known about the new youth program-to-be. The official separation — and, I presume, the implementation of the new program — is scheduled for the beginning of 2020. Time will tell how many of the benefits and losses will be offset by the new benefits (and drawbacks) of the new program. My belief in an inspired leadership gives me great hope that many of these things will be addressed, and that the new program (which, incidentally, is to replace the current programs for boys and girls) will be successful.

One common refrain in the news is that the entire LDS membership of the Boy Scouts is going to go away. While that's most certainly an exaggeration, there is some truth to that. Without the encouragement inside of the Church to join Scouting, it's very likely that fewer boys will feel inclined to join. Also, something I've heard from many parents and have experienced myself, is that there seems to be very little time to fit in all of the extracurricular activities that all of your kids are involved in. With the Church bringing in its own program, boys that want to do Scouts will now have two activities to balance (Scouting and whatever the new program is) — and there's no guarantee that meeting times won't conflict. Also, although religion has been an integral part of the Boy Scouts (belief in God is a requirement, even if the manner of worship is completely open), I have heard various reports of non-LDS-sponsored packs and troops using Sunday as an activity day, which is something that most members of the Church try to avoid. Additionally, an LDS-sponsored pack and troop typically takes care of paying the dues for its members. Joining another troop will mean paying those membership costs out of the families' own pockets. (I have not had much personal experience in this, so I do not know how willing and how much other troops can assist with dues and fees for families that may need the help.) So even though the option to join Scouting is not out of the question, it will be more difficult for LDS youth to make that commitment. The BSA membership is probably going to take a significant hit. While it might not be 100% of LDS youth, it wouldn't surprise me to see it be very high.

The timing of the announcements has certainly been interesting. Several publications have noted that the announcement of the LDS/BSA split came within a week of the BSA announcing that they would change their program name from "Boy Scouts" to "Scouts" (as part of their move to include girls in the program), leading many to speculate that the name change was part of the cause. I won't deny that it certainly looks that way, but I suspect the reality is much more complicated.

The announcement of the split consisted of simultaneous press releases from both the Church and the BSA. While it may not be outside of the realm of possibility, I have a hard time believing that a coordinated PR move happens that quickly, which leads me to believe that both sides knew about this for a long time. Now, it's certainly possible also that the Church knew of the BSA's plans ahead of time as well, so there might yet be some merit to the idea that the Church made plans to leave because of the direction the BSA was moving. It's also possible that the BSA knew the Church was planning on striking out on their own with their own youth program, and the decision to include girls was made to try to mitigate the potential loss of LDS boys from their ranks. In other words, the cause-and-effect might be reversed.

Still, from the perspective of public perception (or at least the narrative that some press are driving), it does look like the Church is abandoning the Scouts because of the changes in the Scouts. While it may sound conspiratorial, I have to wonder if it wasn't timed to make the Church look bad, so everyone can point and laugh at the church, "Look at how those backwards Mormons run from simply having to include girls in their program!" On the other hand, if the timing were reversed, it may appear that the BSA would be the ones to appear reactionary, and the story would be, "Look at how the BSA is so desperate for members now, that they're changing their name to include girls!" The timing from the BSA could have been more defensive than offensive.

All told, I'm kind of looking forward to the change. While Scouting has had some great benefits for my boys and the other boys in the Church, I won't deny the administrative side has been a stress to deal with; and I'm hoping the new program will bring some positive change. I don't know if my own younger boys will continue in Scouting (my oldest is already an Eagle and moving into his adult life; my second oldest will be aging-out at nearly the same time the split becomes official), but it will be a choice we will prayerfully consider in the months to come.

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