Years ago, just before the beginning of an Eagle Scout court of honor, I was standing in the back of the chapel and overheard a conversation between two of our wonderful young Eagle Scout candidates. One of them said to the other, “Right after this meeting, let’s burn our Scout shirts!” They both laughed and we moved on to a wonderful evening of recognition of the accomplishments of these young men and the others who had achieved the highest award in Scouting.
Even though I knew these Scouts were “half” joking, this one statement continued to haunt me because I knew there was a kernel of truth in it. My initial reaction was to blame the Scouts and ask them to have more respect for the Scouting movement and all that their Scout shirts represent. However, the more I thought, pondered, and prayed about this comment, I realized that it was not so much a reflection on these Scouts as it was on the program that we, their adult leaders, had delivered to them.
The program that these Scouts had experienced, and at the time I was a strong proponent of, was one in which the Scouts would show up for their troop meeting on a typical Tuesday night and the adults would teach the Scouts and test them on whatever they needed to know or do to pass off the next merit badge. To these Scouts, and many others like them, I imagine it felt like they were going to another class just like the ones they go to at school. An adult stands at the front of the class lecturing the “students.” The students take notes and try to understand and remember the material being taught; they may have homework to do after class and will be tested on their mastery of the subject matter. Many Scouts don’t like school very much and, hence, the comment about burning their Scout shirts. Where did we go wrong?
Several months after I heard the comment about Scouts wanting to burn their shirts, I was called (for the third time) to be Scoutmaster in my ward. Although about 30 years earlier I had completed what was then-called “Scoutmaster Basic Training,” as well as a great deal of other Scout training such as Wood Badge, Philmont, etc., I decided it would be appropriate for me to update my training. I attended an all-day “Scoutmaster Leader Specific Training” where I live in Southern California.
Up to this point in time, I had always experienced some level of anxiety each week leading up to our troop meetings, wondering whether the Scouts were going to approve of the activities that I had prepared for the meeting. Of course, I would do my best to discuss the planned activities before the meeting with my senior patrol leader, but, in reality, he had little to say about what was going to happen and did not seem to have much interest, anyway. From the comments during the leader specific training and speaking with other Scouters at the breaks, I was amazed to hear them talk about how much fun their troops were having and how involved their Scouts were in planning their activities and troop meetings. I was glad I had updated my training and felt like this “Scout-led” troop concept was a totally new idea, but at the same time was something I already knew about. It resonated with some gospel principles I understood, like moral agency, priesthood keys, missionary preparation, etc.
Even prior to this training, I was well aware of the idea of a “Scout-led troop,” and at least theoretically endorsed that concept. However, hearing the Scouters talk about it at the training led me to believe that the LDS troops that I have personally been involved in, and others I had observed, were far from achieving the goal of a “Scout-led troop” as described by the Scouters in the training.
Thus began my passion to learn about and implement a “Scout-led troop” in our ward. I attended a non-LDS troop’s patrol leaders’ council meeting to see what this would look like in real life. I was amazed at what I saw. This was a fairly large troop and the PLC consisted of about 10 to12 Scouts. The senior patrol leader and his two assistants ran the meeting like a bishopric or stake presidency. Other than me, their invited guest, there were no other adults sitting at the table where the PLC was held, although there were a few adults in the back of the room and the Scoutmaster would occasionally come over and check on things, answer questions, etc. But it was clear who was in charge. The adults would answer questions and act as counselors or advisers, but it was the Scouts who were running things.
In all the bishopric youth committee meetings, stake youth council meetings, etc., I had never seen anything quite like this. I thought, “This is what the Lord had in mind when he said we need to train our young men at an earlier age to become effective missionaries, fathers, husbands, etc.” However, I was concerned that although Scout literature and the training I received clearly taught that the Scouts should be running their own program, a typical Boy Scout troop includes Scouts from ages 11 through17. I thought to myself, “There is no way we can expect a 12- or 13-year-old Scout to conduct a meeting and lead a group of other Scouts like this 17-year-old (who looked like he was already shaving) did.” Nonetheless, this was such a powerful experience that I wanted to do an experiment and try this out in our own troop.
As I studied, pondered, and prayed about gospel principles relating to the things we were going to do, I felt like I began to receive personal revelation. Almost everything I have ever read or heard the brethren say when addressing the youth begins with some statement about the confidence they have in our youth. For example, on page 5 of the Duty to God pamphlet, the First Presidency states the following: “Heavenly Father has great trust and confidence in you and has an important mission for you to fulfill.” Similarly, on page ii in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, the First Presidency repeats this message, as follows: “Our dear young men and young women, we have great confidence in you.”
Are the brethren just patronizing our youth or do they know something we don’t know? Is it enough for a deacons quorum president to stand at the front of his quorum, announce the hymn, who will be giving the prayer, sit down, and wait for the “real” leaders to take over and run the quorum? Is that what it means to hold and exercise the keys of the priesthood? Or, in a troop meeting is it enough for the senior patrol leader to give a few announcements and turn the time over to the Scoutmaster or assistant Scoutmasters, who are really running things?
The Lord has never been reluctant about putting youth in charge of big responsibilities. He gives 12-year-old young men His holy priesthood. Although it is the “lesser” priesthood, it is God’s holy priesthood, nonetheless. (See D&C 84:26.) These young men hold real power and authority to do God’s work on the earth. They have the duty to administer holy ordinances, such as the sacrament, collect sacred fast offerings on an errand from the bishop, and they even hold “the keys of the ministering of angels” (D&C 13:1). The Lord called a 14-year-old boy to lead the Restoration of the gospel and His Church on the earth.
As I discussed my proposal to let the Scouts plan and run their own troop with my assistant Scoutmasters, bishopric members, and committee members, I could see that there were mixed reactions to this proposal. A number of parents and other adults involved in Scouting in the ward had very high expectations that our troop would continue to place a heavy emphasis on advancement and that this “experiment” might dramatically reduce that advancement. However, we received enough support from the bishopric and my assistant Scoutmasters that we decided to move forward with the plan.
Time and space in this initial blog post do not permit a detailed description of what happened next, but a few examples will suffice for now and I will share more examples in future blog posts. Suffice it to say that we have had our ups and downs but from my personal perspective, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. I have seen a troop go from being largely adult led to Scout led. The Scoutmaster and assistant Scoutmasters train the senior patrol leader how to run the troop and, as long as everything is done within Church and BSA policy, the Scouts run their troop.
At troop meetings, the Scoutmaster and assistant Scoutmasters sit in the back of the room along the wall. The senior patrol leader or assistant senior patrol leader conducts the meetings. The patrol leaders conduct their patrol meetings. Occasionally, whoever is conducting might ask a question of the Scoutmaster or assistant Scoutmasters but those interruptions are rare. The only time the Scoutmaster or assistant Scoutmasters address the troop in a troop meeting is during the “Scouter’s Minute,” which literally lasts about one minute.
After each troop meeting, the patrol leaders’ council meets on one end of the room and, again, the Scoutmaster and assistant Scoutmasters sit up against the opposite end of the room. The PLC has real authority to plan their troop meetings, campouts, service projects, and other activities. If they go “out of bounds,” or start to plan something that is not within Church or BSA policy, the Scoutmaster or assistant Scoutmasters train the Scouts on what those boundaries are.
The meetings have a lot of energy, noise, and enthusiasm but some very important things are happening. These young men are having an opportunity to exercise real leadership and authority under the supervision of adults. What I see is a group of very young men taking on some very significant responsibilities, doing the best they can, and achieving amazing things.
I would invite any of you who read this blog post and feel so inclined to share your experiences—both positive and negative—in the comment section below. The goal of this blog is to open up a dialogue among LDS Scouters nationwide so we can learn from each other and bless the lives of these young men! I look forward to hearing from each of you.
Bill Chapman is a business litigation attorney, has been a Scoutmaster, assistant Scoutmaster, Varsity Coach, council VP-Varsity Scouting, Wood Badge Owl, district chair, district roundtable commissioner, and Philmont instructor. He is married, has four children and one granddaughter, and lives in San Clemente, California. Bill loves to surf, trail run, backpack, camp, do anything in the outdoors, and watch young men achieve the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood through the Scouting program. The views and opinions expressed in this message are solely those of the author.