Gee thanks. Or, as I responded to our Council Exec who sent out the news flash, “Well, that didn’t take long.” It was only two years ago we were all tied in knots over whether to allow gay youth as members. I remember saying at the time that if this finished the issue, it might be worth it; but if it were only a first step, a stalking horse for a more inclusive agenda, then we would all come to regret this. And here we are.
Let me just say that I understand the extreme pressures BSA is under. I’m an elder in The United Methodist Church and General Conference is next year. As for legal problems, we had a carve-out from the Supreme Court which we apparently gave up on to go halfway on this issue two years ago. And if it comes down to revoking charters (more likely, firing executives), why not? Do we believe in following the rules or not? Do we demand accountability or not? Well, apparently not.
But it’s the last bit, about protecting the religious liberty of charter partners, which is the real gag. BSA just wants this stuff to go away. They’ll be only too happy to capitulate on anything, provided they can have their nice, cozy program back. So what is their solution? Shifting the onus onto their charter partners.
Now, when they made the membership change two years ago, they brought a disaster down on their heads. Huge numbers of conservative churches dumped their affiliation with BSA. The full tale of the debacle may never be known. Now, they turn to those who are left and tell them, We will safeguard your right to set your own leadership requirements. Picture yourself as the pastor of a small, rather conservative church. When the angry hordes come to protest, BSA isn’t going to take the heat, you are. Why would you bother to sign up for their program in that case? If BSA thinks this is going to help them sell units, they’re sadly mistaken.
And don’t think that the promise to stand behind you if you stand up for yourself will last, either. After all, we’ve seen how firm BSA’s spine is. Only a very few national charter partners have the guts and the operational clout to stand up to pressure from BSA when they come insisting that you get with the program in order to save their bacon.
You may think I’m ranting about sexuality. I’m not. I’m ranting about neglect of charter partner relationships. BSA is a franchise operation, but they sadly neglect their franchise owners. All their talk of relationships is baloney. For all the influence their charter partners – at the national as well as the local level – have on the org, BSA might as well own all its own units the way the Girl Scouts do. When it comes to playing partners, BSA always goes it alone – and is getting euchred.
Meanwhile, last month I was researching various forms of alternative scouting for an article in our NAUMS chapter’s newsletter. I came across the website of the Baden-Powell Service Association, whose motto is, “Traditional Scouting for All.” Apparently, some Scouters dissatisfied with BSA’s stand on sexuality have gotten behind this program – but they didn’t begin it.
The Baden-Powell Scouts began in the UK when the Scout Association introduced a new handbook c. 1970. The traditionalists thought that the skills and games and experiences they had valued had been given short shrift in the rush to modernize Scouting. They withdrew from the Scout Association, UK, to found their own independent organization. They emphasize old-time Scouting program. Their handbook is based on the one from c. 1938, the last one that B-P himself saw into print. So they didn’t start their group, the BPSA, over issues of inclusion, but over issues of program. Their movement has now spread to several other countries.
I had known of one B-P Scout group in the US, but when I stumbled across their website I saw that they have many more nowadays. And it caused me to revolve the question in my mind, which emphasis is more important in their organization: inclusion of gays or old-time Scouting methods? If it were “all gay, all the time,” that would make it tend to be one kind of organization; however, if it were simply “traditional Scouting” (and we don’t care whom you sleep with at home as long as you aren’t doing it on campouts), then that would be another thing. It would allow of a straight-up comparison with BSA, program to program. And BSA might not come out on top.
Oh, but BSA has so much to offer, you say. Yeah, what? The Charter Partner Concept? The one they talk about but then don’t bother to invest in? Yeah, there’s a selling point.
Actually, what BSA has is institutional assets. They have lots of facilities. Lots of training courses. Lots of executives. Lots of endowments. Lots of history. And lots of Scout stuff to sell you – publications, patches, camping gear, racecar kits, uniforms, patches! They are a lot like my denomination, The UMC, which is heavy on structure and buildings and heritage. But they risk sometimes being like the declining congregation that someone described by saying, “The marquee is all lit up, but there ain’t no show inside.”
The core of the program is the experiences we offer kids. Stirring the embers of the fire underneath a brilliant night sky, thinking big thoughts and wrestling with the future – BSA doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Hiking over the hills with your buddies and discovering the glory of the country all around you – BSA doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Trying to make something or organize something you’ve never done before and discovering something about yourself – BSA doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Learning to measure yourself against adult role models and developing important mentoring relationships which foster your personal growth – BSA doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Doing good turns and service projects to improve your community – BSA doesn’t have a monopoly on that. And what else is Scouting if it is not these things?
Oh, but it’s STEM badges. And project workbooks. And taking all kinds of bookwork-type merit badges at summer camp. And Ziplines. And selling popcorn. And FOS. And Council mergers. There is a school of educational thought that says that the entire school experience is the curriculum – bullies, beans, and buses included. And for all the advantages that BSA confers on its members, it also confers the burden of helping a scared and top-heavy organization stave off its decline. But if we’re just comparing programs to programs, is the program of BSA – the program by itself, mind you – better by a sufficient order of magnitude to distinguish it from other programs there might be?
What happens when BSA shrinks to, say, a quarter million youth members, and the alternative forms of scouting, in their aggregate, equal or pass its total? What will be its selling point then? In that day, perhaps they will say, If we had invested half as much energy in building real partnerships with the community institutions we sold our program to as we did trying to dream up new gimmicks, they might have invested more in keeping their programs going, and we would not now be such a pale shadow of what we once were.