Some thoughts on growing Scouting
Our Boy Scout Council, like most of them, wrestles with numbers. BSA is a declining institution. We keep looking for the magic formula that yields consistent growth. I see a lot of parallels with The UMC. Both UMC and BSA are old, established institutions with immense institutional assets: properties, outlets, brand loyalty, publishing capacity, history, etc. The UMC is declining, too, at least in the USA.
The way to growth for both institutions is deceptively simple: start new units/congregations. Yes, we should support existing units/congregations, but trying to grow established outlets into the next size category (and so, yield overall growth) is probably not going to happen. Each group knows the size it likes to be and knows how to be. The leadership of a group is not often trainable in becoming the next size up, and will face resistance from the group members as well. So yes, support existing outlets, but if you want growth, you gotta start new outlets. Of those new startups, many will not continue past a certain point. But as long as they exist and deliver the program for long enough to make an impact on those participating, then we’ve done our job.
I think we’ve also got to remember that both BSA and UMC are about relationships. Let me leave church behind for a moment and just talk about Scouting. Baden-Powell talked about Scouting as “an adventure in good company.” It’s a game we play with others that affects the whole of our lives.
There are three primary relationships that make a unit succeed. First, there are the Scouts. The relationships among the youth determine whether it’s fun or not. Many lifelong friendships come out of Scouting, and we want to encourage this. Toward that end, we need to keep a watch out for bullying, but also for the kid who just kind of drifts through the program, that nobody makes friends with. Working with the Scouts to develop fellow-feeling with each other is fundamentally important. Kids want to belong. Where they belong, they will believe (in what the group promotes). And where they belong and believe, they will try to behave (match their behaviors to expectations).
Second, there is the unit leader. The prototype is the Scoutmaster. What I say is true of Cubmasters and Venturing Advisors, too, but especially of Scoutmasters. There are other important adults involved in a unit, but there is only one Leader. This man/adult has the job of doing all the Scoutmaster conferences, of training the youth leadership but also relating to each Scout individually. His importance is shown by the fact that everyone who was ever a Scout seems to have a Scoutmaster story. Some of them are good, a few are bad, but everybody remembers his Scoutmaster. The Scoutmaster is offered as a role model, a hero figure – not because we want the kids to follow him like puppies, but because kids need heroes and are looking for somebody to occupy that role in their lives. Scoutmasters, coaches, teachers, soldiers can’t nominate themselves for the position of Hero to Youth; youth decide whom to follow.
A good Scoutmaster can make a unit hum. A mediocre Scoutmaster will often see a unit under his leadership decline. And even among good Scoutmasters, there are 5-boy Scoutmasters, 10-boy Scoutmasters, 15- or 25-boy Scoutmasters. Just as each group knows the size it wants to be, each Leader knows mostly how to lead a group of a given size. The critical point is at leadership turnover. When naming a new Scoutmaster, you want someone who can lead a group of the same size or larger than the one the previous Scoutmaster led. With someone who’s never held that position before, you are obviously taking a risk, but one you can’t not take. We've always got to be looking for new leaders and giving them a chance.
Third, there is a charter partner, the community organization that “owns” that unit. Many are churches. Teaching charter partners how to operate a unit and tending to the relationship so that unit and partner interpenetrate each other are important to the long-term success of the unit. Just looking for a “sponsor” to leave the unit alone to do its own thing will mean there’s no support when the unit gets in trouble. Many a unit dies because nobody got the charter partner really on board with it, nobody helped the charter partner understand how to do Scouting so as to meet its own organizational goals.
When starting a new BSA unit of any sort, you can start with any of these three relationships. You can, obviously, gather a bunch of kids together, then turn to the assembled parents and say, “They’re ready to go for it – who’s going to lead them?” And then you go find a charter partner. OR, you can identify a new unit leader, perhaps several leaders, who will set out to recruit youth and find a charter partner. OR, you can start with the charter partner, and then identify leadership and recruit youth.
Finding youth who want to have fun in the woods is usually not a problem. Problems arise when you have a bunch of kids in hand and no leadership or unit home. Then you risk disappointing kids, and they may write you off and never give you another chance to hook them. It’s usually better to start with one of the other two legs of the stool. Grooming adults for leadership, identifying successors (to established units) and pioneers (to start new units) is something that all of us in District and Council leadership need to be aware of and working on. Our training programs, our Commissioner staffs, and others need to acquire eyes to see who is ready to take on the challenge of unit leadership. In the church, we talk about maintaining a “culture of Call.” We want to foster an atmosphere where people imagine themselves taking that role. And then we need to equip them as well as we can, and support them once they’ve committed themselves.
Maintaining good charter partner relationships and fostering new ones is largely left to the professional staff, but a good Relationships Committee can help here. So can the various Scouting support organizations that exist among the charter partners themselves. Some organizations (like The UMC) are consistent and widespread supporters, whom we need to cultivate. Those charter partners that already have a unit or two can be appealed to to start yet another, and you’ve already got a working relationship with them.
The last time I created a new unit, I was the fairly new pastor of a church with a long Scouting history. We had a Pack and a Troop, both approaching 40 or more years in tenure. Some parents came to me and said, “We want a Venturing Crew, and we know you’ve had experience with that.” So, there were already some youth showing interest. I was willing to be an Advisor, and we had some other parents, so we had leadership. The church was on board. I brought everybody together, we filled out applications and paperwork and organized ourselves and I went down to the Council office to file the paperwork. We had a new DE, just hired on, who was tasked with achieving growth. Another DE was asking him, “How are you going to go about starting all these new units?” At that point, I walked in and gave the new DE all my paperwork and a check to start a new Crew. After I left, my DE turned to the other DE and said, “Like that, I guess.”
In the early days of BSA, the promise of Scouting lit up the culture. A lot of units just organized themselves. Many times, it was the boys themselves who would organize a troop, then go seek a Scoutmaster and a charter partner. Likewise, many clergy were intrigued by the possibilities of discipling young men through this program, and many volunteered for unit leadership themselves. Scouting was in the air, and people were interested in what could be done with it. As Council leaders, our goal should be to work all our relationships so that we create an atmosphere of expectation. Young and old, individuals and organizations, will be aware of the possibilities of that "adventure in good company." Once we get back into the habit of starting new units, new units will largely start themselves. And our job will just be to assist at the birth.