May 27th, 2014


Old Doc Collins's Venturing Clinic, Part One

Here beginneth in capsule form my top five Ultimate Secrets of Venturing Success. You won’t find them in a training syllabus, but this is What Works. He who has ears, let him hear.

Keeping the Promise

My wife and I have been in Venturing since before it was Venturing. Literally. When our daughter, Anna, turned 15, she announced, “It’s my turn.” We were pondering how to respond to that when I stumbled into an opportunity to secure a trek spot at Philmont. Our solution was to have our church charter an Explorer Post in order to take kids to Philmont. The year was 1996. The next summer was our first superactivity.

Exploring was a very free-form program. No set way to go about it. Make up your own uniform. No advancement system to speak of. This is probably why it eventually foundered, since nobody quite knew what to make of it. We, on the other hand, knew exactly what we wanted to make of it. We wanted to go to Philmont! With a co-ed crew!

The next year, we were in the process of moving from that church to another pastoral appointment. The last hurrah for that Explorer Post was to snag a Council contingent slot that was going begging and return to Philmont for a second go-round. When we came down out of the mountains on August 3, 1998, we were told we were Venturers now. Cool, we said; what’s that?

The possibility of continuing on appealed to us, so we started one of the first Venturing Crews in our Council at our new appointment. And the next summer we went backpacking on Isle Royale. Every year, we went someplace way cool – mostly backpacking in places like Yellowstone and the Adirondacks, but there were two mission trips to Tanzania and one touring/hiking trip to the UK.

Every year, we went someplace. That’s the first rule of Venturing. It’s about adventure. If you’re not having any, you’ve got a problem. First, you’re going to have difficulties keeping the participation of youth if you’re not keeping the promise to do the Big Trip on a consistent basis. Second, you may start having discipline problems, because there’s an unstated covenant in youth ministry: Behave like I expect and we’ll deliver the fun; but if you can’t deliver the fun, then the kids may decide to make their OWN fun, and that’ll keep you hopping as well as give you heartburn.

The rhythm of deciding where to go, planning the trip, training and conditioning for it, going, then celebrating when we got home defined our program year to a great extent. Boys and girls would join because they wanted to go on that trip; then they’d stay, because they caught the bug. Not every kid went on every trip (schedules and finances get in the way, we know), but because we went someplace super cool every year, they could miss a summer and still expect to have the big experience next time.

The stripped-down program of Exploring (and the not-yet-built program of Venturing that followed it) allowed us to see this big truth. Keeping the promise of high adventure, year after year after year, is the first priority of Venturing. Which can be a real problem, because the skill set to pull off the Big Trip year after year is nowhere taught in BSA. But that’s as may be. If you want to succeed as a Venturing Advisor, you must be able to pull off the Big Trip. And you can’t always order up an event like Philmont (besides, those are way expensive). You need to learn how to shred on the natch (act as your own outfitter).

Do not let yourself be dazzled by all the complicated outlines in various training syllabi and all the handouts produced by BSA. It’s really very simple. Crews that pull off the Big Trip consistently will survive; indeed, they will flourish. Crews that can’t pull off the Big Trip, or only pull it off once, will soon falter.

Old Doc Collins's Venturing Clinic, Part Two

More on What Works.

Faith is the Greatest Adventure of All

Charter Partners come in all varieties, but many Venturing Crews are chartered to churches. I am an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, so I take the charter partner concept very seriously – far more seriously than my Council does, despite the rhetoric one hears now and again.

When we got into Exploring, then Venturing, there wasn’t a lot of detail to the program. We didn’t need it, we knew we were going to go backpacking. But what about when you weren’t preparing for backpacking, going backpacking, or celebrating having gone backpacking? What else could fill your program time in such an unstructured program?

Ministry. Venturing is a form of youth ministry. It’s not exactly a revival program, and not everybody who takes part is all that religious, but we made it clear from the get-go that this would be real ministry. We do devotions on the trail. On Sundays when we can’t get back, we do church in the field. We do lots of service projects. We take part in Scout Sunday at our charter partner congregation. We have earned the Bishop’s Award of Excellence multiple times. We are respectful and careful when we have new Venturers who don’t share our religious background; nevertheless, several of my Venturers have said their first prayers – ever – when it was their turn to say grace on the trail.

I expect my congregation to fully support its Scouting units, just like it does its Sunday School classes and youth groups. And they do. I offer the PRAY awards to all ages within my congregation, which accounts for the very high percentage of our Pack, Troop, and Crew earning them. My current church even extends its own campership program for church camp to members of the church who choose to do high adventure trips with our Crew.

This also colors how I relate to the youth. I understand that, as an old college chaplain friend of mine once said, “growth comes as a reflection upon experience.” The Crew program provides the experience. I’m there to help them reflect upon it. And as I have said in many a Christian Education training program over the years, the real ministry happens in the cracks between the scheduled activities. So, the kids lead their own Crew on the trail. I walk in the back, mostly. But it’s when we’re sitting around, stirring the fire, or at other unstructured times, that the opportunity comes to hear important things – and say them.

The new Venturing program has a lot of emphasis upon guidance, which takes the form of setting personal goals and doing Advisor conferences and such. Which is great! But one must remember, that the most powerful ways to do this are at the “teachable moments” that you are sharing together while you’re doing other stuff. Beware of bogging everything down in formal discussions, which tend to turn into performance evaluations, largely because that’s what the adults doing them are used to in their own lives.

By the way, BSA has always recommended that Explorer Posts, then Venturing Crews, meet twice a month. I found that that was a hassle; nobody could ever remember when we were meeting. So we organized it like a youth group; we meet every Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. unless we have a weekend activity just before (or on, say, holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day).

When in doubt, remember that you’re doing youth ministry. Don’t be misled by the uniforms that this is something else. If you’re a church-based crew, it’s ministry. If you’re chartered to some other institution, that’s fine, but you can still learn a lot of good stuff from the best practices of successful youth groups.

Old Doc Collins's Venturing Clinic, Part Three

Venturing has been struggling in recent years; hence, the remake by National. I've been concerned about this for a long time. I think the decline in Venturing is directly related to the success (or rather, the lack of it) of those who have started Crews. They begin with high hopes, but they can't seem to make it work.

So here's another part of my series on the five Ultimate Secrets to Successful Venturing. These are hard-won lessons I've distilled from eighteen years of successful Exploring/Venturing leadership.

Venturing is not just Boy Scouting + girls

One of the interesting wrinkles about Exploring, which has carried over into Venturing, is the inclusion of girls in a BSA program. I admit, I was worried about this when we started out.

I was particularly worried about teaching things like trail sanitation. I knew how Boy Scouts were. When some 13-year-old finally could hold it no longer and went off to dig a cathole, some other Scouts were likely to sneak up on him when his pants were down and chuck pine cones at him (at least, back in my day; but then, we were a lot ruder than current Youth Protection guidelines contemplate). I shuddered facing the possibilities with girls. I needn’t have worried. By the time kids are 14 or 15, they’re past all that. Particularly on the trail: if you’ve got to go take care of something, it just means I get to lie here by the side of the trail for a few minutes longer, so hey, take all the time you want.

The real problem is that they fall in love with each other on long trips – and they fall out of love just as rapidly. Having a couple break up at 1:00 a.m. by a campfire a two-day walk from the trailhead (which was two more days from home) is not an experience I enjoyed, but we all lived through it. Being clear about expectations for boyfriends and girlfriends is very important, but you’re still going to have to deal with stuff you don’t deal with at Boy Scout camp. It comes with the territory.

Once again, my background in youth ministry came to the rescue. I was used to taking co-ed groups places, like on retreats. I knew how to set expectations and supervise outings. I could graft that onto my Scouting leadership skills, and we were off and running.

It helped that at first we had no other BSA units chartered to my congregation. Our Explorer Post and then our Venturing Crew were not built onto an existing Boy Scout Troop. We were not there to “keep the older boys active.” We were on our own. We had our own committee and leaders. We set our own pattern, built our own culture.

We discovered that Venturing has two primary audiences. First, girls (duh). Not all girls want to go grub in the mountains, but those that do find it difficult to find groups to participate in. They are fiercely loyal to their Venturing Crew. But the other primary audience is non-Scout boys – guys who didn’t do Boy Scouts, or didn’t get very far. They are attracted to a high adventure program where they get to learn with their peer group, not be forced to go back and learn flag courtesy and fire-building with the eleven-year-olds.

These are both growth opportunities for BSA, so it has always mystified me how many people see Venturing as primarily about keeping older boys in Scouting (and advancing toward Eagle). Hey, Boy Scouting is a fine high adventure program. You don’t need Venturing to do Philmont or Sea Base or anything else. Venturing is a different beast because it is co-ed. A girls’ program (even with boys added) or a boys’ program (even with girls added) is still a girls’ program or a boys’ program; Venturing is truly co-ed. That means the culture is different. How people relate to each other is different (and I’m not talking about dating behavior). At a recent Council event, the Venturers were having a Ranger Quest program at the same time that the staff for NYLT was rehearsing in camp. We shared dining hall meals. Every meal, the NYLT guys would jump up and do all kinds of high-energy, spirit-building things. They were great, but they were very guy-ish. The Venturers didn’t know what to make of them. And it’s not that the Venturers don’t have spirit; they obviously do. But they don’t necessarily show it the same way. I wonder about the wisdom of trying to make all BSA youth training funnel into the same big programs, which is where we’re heading these days.

Venturing is becoming more uniform-conscious these days, too, which is good, in its way; however, there is some value in being less concerned with outward symbols. When you think about it, Boy Scouting spends an enormous amount of time in what we could call acculturation. We are teaching little boys on the cusp of young manhood the signs and symbols, the codes and behaviors, of adulthood by instilling in them a very specific, Scout way of being. There’s a lot of emphasis on uniforms, on flag courtesy, on learning how to shake hands and salute, on the recitation of certain watchwords. That’s very appropriate for 11-13 year old boys. It has had less of an emphasis in the older teen, co-ed program of Venturing, and properly so, I think.

In order to provide this new kind of program to Venturers, we must also produce a new kind of adult leader to take them on these adventures. My wife learned to backpack in her forties in order to deliver on the promise to our daughter. She even backpacked across Yellowstone a year after having a hip replacement. She doesn’t feel up to long trips any more, but she’ll still go out on Shakedown weekends to help with the training. There is no one I trust more. She takes this co-ed high adventure stuff as just normal, and never had to unlearn any old habits from Boy Scouting that might not have translated to Venturing; she not only helps break in new youth on the trail, she helps model how we do Venturing to the new adults.

Old Doc Collins's Venturing Clinic, Part Four

We don’t stop the fun to do school

When we started doing Venturing, there was no advancement system. When that was finally produced, my daughter said, “I want.” She had a year and a half to go before she turned 21. She buckled down and earned the first Silver and Ranger Awards in our Council. That Crew and our current Crew have always led the Council in advancement, just doing what comes naturally.

If we had people who needed to do utensilless cooking, we’d plan an activity where we all did that. We scheduled several ethical controversies a year. When cultural diversity was the order of the day, we would have a presentation, and then a poster party: the youth would make posters and present them. The advancement system that is fading away now had a LOT of demands for presentations or displays to be given to the group, and we discovered that poster parties were a fun way to do them.

When it was time to appoint leaders for upcoming programs, I’d look over who’d done what and who needed to lead an event, and consult with the Crew President about whom he or she might want to appoint. We made sure that people got the opportunity to be the leader.

All this is simply what Baden-Powell envisioned when he set up Scouting all those years ago. If we expect you to do a hike, as well as identify ten trees or plants, what would be more natural than to schedule a hike, and then announce a game to see who could identify which trees along the way – or look for signs of wildlife, or whatever. Only when we got back would they discover that they were passing requirements.

The typical Boy Scout Troop will schedule a dynamite program, but they don’t organize their activities around the boys’ advancement needs. So when a Scout needs to pass firebuilding or something, the whole program comes to a screeching halt and they revert to doing school. We have a class, and we expect you to pass a test. Lots of adult Scouters assume that if you can’t do it the first time, you have to wait until the next day to try again (which is not BSA policy). Or, they’ll say at a meeting that you can’t learn it and pass it the same night. This is also bogus.

BSA operates out of a Realist educational philosophy. All requirements are behavior-based. A Scout is never asked to “know” something, let alone “understand” it. He is told, “do” this, “recite” that, “demonstrate” that, “tie” this knot, etc. He is also not required to show he can do it again next week (although we hope that he can – but that’s more a matter of staying in practice). And it should all flow naturally out of the activities the Troop (or Crew, in this case) is already doing.

After every Crew event, I take out the master list and check off everything each Venturer has done which fulfills any requirement in the system. If someone has a book and he or she wants me to sign it, I do; but the official list has always been what I kept, not what they kept. Most of my Venturers have been surprised by their first Bronze Awards; they didn’t know they were earning them until they were presented. After that, they began to eye the Gold and Silver Awards with some desire to achieve them.

Since we did so much high adventure, we kept ourselves in training as if we were doing Philmont every year. We camped on weekends the way we would in the mountains. We emphasized bear training even where there were no bears. We made sure we offered First Aid and CPR and the other credentialing classes. All of these fed into passing the requirements for advancement.

About half my Venturers have earned Religious Life as their (first) Bronze Award, because many of them have done their PRAY award with me in church, and that was the biggest hurdle to earning the award. Any kid moderately active in church could knock out the rest of that award in nine months or so. We won’t have that available in the new advancement system, of course. But I mention it here just to show that advancement isn’t about scheduling classes and doing schooly stuff. Learning happens as we do things that are fun and challenging. Some things the individual Venturer will have to set up for oneself, but an awful lot of this stuff should flow naturally out of the program the Crew designs.

The old Venturing advancement system was chockablock with presentational stuff, as if we were preparing the youth to be teachers or Toastmasters. The new advancement system is replete with individual guidance-counseling type sessions. But what exactly is required is not the problem. We are the problem. We make of any advancement system we have a hindrance and a bother, and then we wonder why the Venturers (or Scouts) aren't advancing. We prize rehearsed, hyper-validated performance over experience as it happens, and we wonder why nobody's excited about learning. We teach skills we never use, and wonder why the lessons don't stick.

Old Doc Collins's Venturing Clinic, Part Five

Share strengths, not weaknesses

When we launched our current Crew, I was a little hesitant. I wasn’t ready, but we had some youth who were chomping at the bit, and I feared losing them from participation in the church if we didn’t do something with them, so we pushed and got it going. I had been a very successful Advisor for eight years at my previous parish (and an Explorer Advisor at the parish before that), so I was sure we could pull it off. Some Scouters from a nearby parish were disappointed. They thought that I should have consulted with them, since they wanted to form a Crew, too. They thought we could do it together. But here’s what I know: you’ll never get anywhere by sharing your weaknesses. Putting together two groups of leaders or parents from two different institutions, where nobody thinks they can pull this off, just means that nobody will ever step forward and get the job done. Our Crew is in its fifth year and we continue to do big things; their Crew did one superactivity (good for them!), but then petered out as kids went off to college and the adults couldn’t come up with another Big Trip.

Cooperation is fine, but only when people share their strengths. If you can do this, and I can do that, then our group can do both those things. But if you can’t do that, and I can’t do this, and that’s what defines us, then we’ll never do either. Which defines a lot of Venturing programs I’ve seen. A half-dozen adults, each with a perfectly valid excuse why they can't be The Leader, come protecting their resources and sharing only their inabilities, and then wonder why nobody took charge and made the magic happen. You don't have to be Superman, but you have to "offer your body as a living sacrifice" or nothing "good and acceptable and perfect" will come of it (Romans 12:1-2).

Venturing is incredibly leader-dependent. No other BSA program requires such a skill set from its unit leaders. If your Den is having fun, your Cub Pack will survive and re-register. If your Troop goes to camp every year, your Troop will survive and re-register. That requires a lot less from those adult leaders than taking older youth on adventures every year. But we do little to equip willing leaders with the skill set needed to take their show on the road.

In order to guarantee that my Crew can go and do what it designs, I carry all the necessary credentials, all the time, including CPR and Wilderness and Remote First Aid. Now, if there are others on a trip who have some necessary credential, that just means I don’t have to be in charge of it (I’m always happy when someone else wants to be the first aid person); but the program will not falter because we can’t find someone with credential X. (And, being a clergyperson, I count all these credentials as part of my required Continuing Education for ministry.)

I see a lot of emphasis on providing Venturing activities nowadays – sort of like camporees – and this, too, is a good thing. But I am boggled by the idea that the Council or somebody is supposed to provide Introduction to Leadership Skills courses that were designed to be done by Crews, that the Council is supposed to offer classes for advancement so kids can earn awards, that the Council keeps adding more events to attract Venturers while the number of Crews is shrinking. I think the number of Crews is shrinking because they’re not Keeping the Promise (see my first post) and doing the Big Trip every year; doing lots of little trips – or rather, attending lots of little events provided by somebody else -- will only get you so far.

When it comes to designing events, I find that as the youth go on more adventures, they become capable of designing more and more of the next one. I, of course, know how to do all these things (build a budget, plan an itinerary, gather the gear, buy food and prepare it for the trail, file permits, yada yada); but they do not, at first. But, wait a minute, Art! Aren’t the YOUTH supposed to do all that? Of course. But they have to learn how. And until they learn, and as they learn, I backstop them with my experiences and skills.

The most important skill in teaching kids how to lead their own group is learning How to Frame the Question. When the Crew is new, they don’t know what possibilities exist, nor how to realize them. So, I’ll ask, “Do you want to go to Cumberland Gap (details) or the Knobstone Trail (details)?” Their empowerment comes from choosing one or the other. As they gain in experience, they are capable of asking (and answering) more and more questions. What to eat, whether to fly or drive to the trailhead, how many nights to stay, whether to add this feature (at this cost) or something else. And then they start volunteering new possibilities. “Hey, could we go to X?” And that becomes part of the Crew conversation. This year, we are going to Sea Base (suggested by our Crew President at the time). We have sewn our own luau shirts (design chosen by another Crew member). When we were making trip choices, I asked if they wanted to fly or drive; my preference was driving, but they chose to fly and they raised the money for it.

I see a lot of adults trying to teach kids how to run their own program but never going anywhere. You see, the kids don’t know what they don’t know, and they keep running up against problems. I let them decide as much as they can, and then fill in the rest. As time goes on, I have to fill in less and less, and they feed off each other as they consider the possibilities. But each time they’re stuck, I try to frame the question so as to make it possible for them to choose something they can succeed at. And that gets us unstuck. In this way, they become stronger in many skills, and they share whatever strengths they have. And we adults make sure that the strengths they don’t have are supplemented by our strengths which we bring to bear in order to give effect to their decisions.

Whether it’s adults working with other adults, units working with Council, or adults working with youth, you won’t succeed by having everybody share their weaknesses. You must share your strengths; fundamentally, you must share yourself. And by doing so, you will do greater things than you ever imagined you could do.

And those are my five Ultimate Secrets of Venturing Success.