BSA has gone through a great many shocks in recent years. To understand where they are these days, we need to look at the things that they have faced and the way they’ve attempted to deal with them.
First, there was the change in membership standards re: sexual orientation. Gay rights groups had hammered BSA for years for sticking to their (once, non-controversial) standards of morality. BSA hunkered down, defended themselves, and won every court case. The Supreme Court even said that BSA, as a private organization, could set its own membership standards. But winning on that issue didn’t change the fact that American society was changing, generally. There were more and more members of BSA who thought the membership standards should change. Whole Councils were defying the National directives on this issue. So rather than decertifying Councils and purging dissent, BSA changed its standards.
Many of my traditionalist church colleagues immediately dumped on BSA for this. But then, their “support” for Scouting in their churches rarely went beyond lip-service, so their denunciations now mostly counted as background noise. They saw BSA as an ally that had deserted and betrayed the cause. They had no understanding of the situation BSA found itself in. One Scout Executive kept saying, to both sides, “We are not the sex police.” But that was how the issue was framed. BSA’s original position had been set at the lowest-common-denominator morality of the previous century. It wasn’t a crusader for some cause. And it didn’t want to be a crusader for the other side, either. It just wanted to recruit new members from a pool where values had changed. If it couldn’t, it would wither and die.
So BSA changed its membership policies to allow gay youth members in 2013. Gay adult members were allowed in 2014. And the result? BSA has (rather to my surprise) successfully shot the rapids. The gay rights lobby thought they could leverage their victory into effecting change in BSA’s program, to use BSA to spread their views. But BSA is a past master at ignoring input they find unwelcome (even from their own volunteers). I’m sure BSA thanked them very much for expressing their interest in the matter and then went ahead and did what they wanted. The gay rights lobby – most of whom really aren’t interested in going camping and hiking and all that – went on to other things, leaving BSA alone (which is what BSA wanted). Today, I’m sure there are gay adults and youth in BSA, but I would be hard-pressed to identify more than a few known to me. It’s become a non-issue.
Second, BSA’s membership has been declining since the 1970s. It peaked when Baby Boomers like myself were beginning to age out of the program. It has declined steadily ever since. A few years ago, even Cub Scout membership – long responsible for the lion’s share of youth members – declined. BSA has been throwing the spaghetti against the wall for years, trying to find something that would stick, that would return them to membership growth. (In this, they parallel the situation in the huge United Methodist Church.) Why are they losing members? Is it all the furor that surrounds them? Not really. It’s mostly demographic. We are an aging society, and kids have more options for fun in 2019 than in 1969.
This is why a couple years ago, BSA admitted girls to the Cub Scout program, and the next year to Boy Scouts (now called Scouts BSA). Girls – especially girls in families where dads and brothers were already BSA members – were a huge market. Many of these families had begged BSA for years to allow their daughters to join, both for the sake of what they thought was a better program vis-à-vis the Girl Scouts of the USA and for the simplification that would result if the family only had one org and its systems to deal with. Girls had been in Venturing (and Exploring before that) since 1969. Girls in BSA wasn’t new. But opening up all the avenues of membership and advancement to all ages was new.
The jury is still out on whether admitting girls to BSA at all levels will start membership growing again. I worry that after a brief surge, the dominant demographic and market factors will reassert themselves. In that case, we may find that girls in the 21st Century are as equally uninterested in Scouting as boys of the 21st Century are. But, we’ll see.
Then this last year, the LDS Church dropped its affiliation with BSA. They had been the #1 charter partner for BSA for many years. The LDS Church required every LDS congregation to charter with BSA. It was their official youth program for boys. Then, suddenly, they dropped it. Now, the LDS had muttered and fretted, but gone along with the membership changes over sexual orientation, and there is no indication that the admission of girls would have changed how they did Scouting. But BSA is a US-only program, and the LDS are a worldwide church. And a peculiarity of LDS structure is that everything is mandated from the top. (The local congregation chartered with BSA because they had to; the local congregation now has no authority to charter with BSA even if they want to.) The driving factor here is that the growing overseas membership in LDS means that the top-down leadership wanted a single youth program for all LDS in whatever country they resided. That in-house program will now be mandated for every LDS congregation all over the world. LDS boys (and girls) are free to join BSA, but their congregations will not charter, and that has set BSA scrambling to find or found new units to attract and hold LDS members.
Third, there is the impact of the on-going sex abuse crisis. A great deal of misinformation is flying around about this, and no matter what BSA says they look bad. Nobody wants to minimize the horror of child sexual abuse. So while BSA has a legitimate defense, they can’t employ it effectively, because in our adversarial court system it makes them have to say hard things about those suing them, who were once young and innocent and preyed upon.
And it is “once young and innocent and preyed upon” that matters here. BSA today has a tiny number of incidents of child abuse reported. All that Youth Protection training and procedures has had the intended effect. The bombshell cases we hear about are all forty-some years old. Many were adjudicated in their localities. They are all past the Statute of Limitations. Ah, but if a crafty lawyer can find a sympathetic judge, you can get the Statute of Limitations waived, and this is what has happened. People now in their fifties are suing for things done to them by BSA volunteers (against BSA rules, I might add) long ago.
Now, every organization that works with children – youth homes, churches, sports leagues, schools, you name it – has to watch out for those who want to volunteer in order to gain access to children for improper motives. Our society has come a long way over my lifetime in understanding this and taking steps to prevent abuse from happening. And BSA has led the way, far in advance of the church or schools or any other organization. They instituted Youth Protection training for every adult in the 1980s. And before that? They had, and have, the restricted files, of which so much ignorant hay has been made.
Child abusers have the habit of moving a lot. They change their church affiliation, their professions, the places they volunteer. They even move to other towns and across the country. When they are discovered in one place or one setting, they will move on to other places where they can find access to children. BSA noted this and took steps to prevent their leaving one place and joining again in another. So, anyone dismissed from BSA for cause is put on a no-registration list. This is to protect children – and BSA – from their ever being able to repeat their acts somewhere else. This was instituted back in the day – which continues, in various ways, up to the present – when few child abuse cases went to court. The child would be believed, but the child’s family often wouldn’t want to press charges. Police were reluctant to push cases that prosecutors didn’t want to pursue. And so, abusers would lose jobs, lose face in their communities, see their families break up -- and then just move somewhere else and do it all again. The point is, the so-called “secret files’ were not maintained to hush up BSA’s involvement in child abuse. They were confidential because without a criminal record to point to, you can’t go around accusing people of heinous things, and a lot of child abusers never served any time. But if BSA believes you, then it will dismiss the offender, and no amount of lawyering or wheedling on his part can make them re-admit him. This is a good thing.
That said, BSA – as an advocate of believing victims and standing up for them rather than their abusers, has little defense when someone manages to bring one of these ancient cases forward. “Pay up” is a foregone conclusion, lest the negative publicity of fighting the award cost BSA even more in the court of public opinion. And what is the value of a forty-year-old abuse claim? Courts have awarded millions of dollars of damages against BSA for things BSA did their best to prevent and handled (in most cases) better than any other org of the time did.
These colossal damages are why BSA has been preparing to file for bankruptcy. Nobody knows how many potential claims there are from the far past, so there is no way their insurers can calculate the damages they might have to pay out over a claim that nobody can foresee coming. But if they go through bankruptcy, the courts will give all creditors a set-in-stone time limit to bring forward any claims for damages they might have. This would seal off the broken pipeline that keeps hemorrhaging money finally and for ever.
In order to qualify for the kind of bankruptcy BSA is preparing for, a whole lot of other things have to be done. BSA is going through a streamlining and shake-up among professionals at the National Council. All kinds of shocks to the continuity of the org are represented in positions eliminated, people transferred, etc. A thorough audit of all assets and all management procedures is part of the process.
So, Fourth, this all leads to a financial crisis of huge proportions. The loss of membership – and the annual registration fees paid by the LDS represent a chunk out of the budget of BSA – imperils BSA’s financial position. I have it by hearsay that Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive, said that BSA is structured to behave like a 5-million-member organization. If they should shrink to a 1-million-member org, they would still be a giant among youth programs (and Scouting would go on), but they could not afford to operate the way they do now.
Philmont Scout Ranch had some devastating fires two summers ago that set them back in terms of income and will cost them more in conservation efforts and re-building. The loss of LDS training events (which maxed out two weeks at Philmont Training Center) is one of the factors driving the new Family Camping program at PTC. Philmont has announced some shorter treks, too, in order to make the program more attractive.
The Summit – BSA’s new high adventure base in West Virginia – was created to house jamborees, at which it is very good. But it isn’t all that attractive as a destination for Troops and Crews yet (it is, at bottom, a gigantic reclaimed strip mine), even with the New River Gorge next door. So BSA is shifting a lot of its national training programs to the Summit, away from PTC, to bring in income to the way-more-expensive-than-advertised Summit, and to make those courses easier for the bulk of the population to get to. This shift from PTC to the Summit for training is another driving factor in promoting the new Family Camping program at PTC.
The latest news concerns a $400,000,000 line of credit BSA has obtained by mortgaging Philmont. This has to be seen against the totality of the financial challenges facing BSA. BSA is attempting to get all its ducks in a row, re-organize itself, and come out the other side of bankruptcy to a brighter future. If it works, all this will be old news in a few years. If it doesn’t, well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. My prayer is that BSA will find a way out of its bewilderment and start making progress again soon.
In the meantime, it is as true as it ever was that “Scouting can be spelled in three letters; F – U – N.” It is also true that “Three quarters of Scouting is outing.” The magic is still there to be had, and it will be offered, regardless of the travails of institutions. And Scouting remains one of the prime ways that the church works with young people and their families. There are more youth in United Methodist-related BSA units than in UMYF. There are more adult volunteers in those units than in UM Men. 1 in 8 youth who join a BSA program will have their first exposure to organized religion through that program, and all of them have families just as unchurched as they. More kids will hear something that passes for the gospel this summer at Scout camp than church camp. I continue to go out to the wilderness, because that’s where the lost sheep are who are waiting for someone to find them and bring them home.