On a Saturday afternoon in July, carloads of travel-weary but excited families drive up a tree-lined road at the Philmont Training Center in northern New Mexico. Members of the Young Men and Primary general presidencies greet the vehicles of parents and children as they arrive at the Priesthood Leadership Conference on Scouting, a week-long training experience for stake presidencies and their families.
“When the families come, the Spirit comes with them,” commented Sister Joy D. Jones, recently-sustained Primary general president, who attended both sessions of the conference this year with her counselors.
The conference occurs under the direction of the Young Men and Primary general presidencies with support from the LDS-BSA Relationships director. This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the event. During the two sessions, 391 priesthood leaders from 121 stakes and 58 BSA councils participated, with their attending family members totaling over 1267 people.
The conference is hosted by the Boy Scouts of America at their premier training facility near Philmont Scout Ranch. Each summer nearly 30,000 Scouts hike the wilderness backcountry of the 140,000-acre ranch. The stunning landscape, blue skies, and grand mountains create a beautiful environment for attendees at the adjacent training center.
“The Priesthood Leadership Conference on Scouting is the ideal example of the Church and the Boy Scouts working together to strengthen young men,” observed Mark Francis, LDS-BSA Relationships director.
During their week at Philmont, families live in “tent city,” eat meals together in the dining hall, participate in activities, and make friends from across the nation. Bringing good families together creates an extraordinary environment.
“It’s remarkable to see how kind, helpful, loving and cooperative the families are with each other,” explained Sister Jean B. Bingham, 1st counselor in the Primary general presidency. “It’s really like a city of Zion.”
Families arrive on Saturday afternoon and spend Sunday attending and participating in church meetings in the “Philmont Ward,” efficiently organized with callings filled by participants. They then have ample time on Sunday afternoon to be with family members and rest on the Sabbath Day. Classes for the brethren begin early Monday morning after a camp flag ceremony. Children go off with their age-group leaders to ride horses, do crafts, hike, play games, tour museums, and participate in other activities; while mothers are free to also enjoy camp activities or just read a book and relish a quiet moment.
“The priesthood leaders come to Philmont thinking they will be taught to serve better in their callings, but they leave wanting to serve better in their homes,” observed Sister Jones. “They have time here to look into their children’s eyes and see things more clearly. That’s been sweet to watch.”
Fulfilling My Duty to God, Strengthening Deacons Quorums Using Scouting, Primary and Scouting for 8- to 11-Year-Old Boys, and other Aaronic Priesthood topics are the subjects of formal class sessions. This year, new “Interact to Edify” sessions were introduced to provide a less formal setting in which to discuss topics.
“Questions come in during the week relating to the priesthood, to Scouting, to Cub Scouting,” shared Brother Stephen W. Owen, Young Men general president. “We answer those as a presidency, but then allow others who have experience to lend their strength and counsel together to truly build each other. D&C 88:122 explains that ‘All may be edified of all.’ The feedback we’ve received from participants in these new sessions has been very positive.”
Morning flag ceremonies involve Boy Scouts, 11-year-old Scouts, and Cub Scouts, and evening family activities include campfire programs, a huge family home evening, family banner parade, Primary parade, and a western buffalo barbecue.
During the week, Brother Owen shared the story of Nephi following the Lord’s command to build a ship. He compared the Scouting program to part of that ship—a tool to help carry Lehi’s family to the Promised Land.
“The tools of seminary, Come Follow Me, Scouting, Duty to God and other wholesome activities are parts of the ship that carries young men to that Promised Land,” explained Brother M. Joseph Brough, 2nd counselor in the Young Men general presidency. “Much of the week was focused on the mentoring relationships that foster youth developing personal religious behavior. The conference helps great leaders gain even further insight in how to assist their young men in reaching the Promised Land.”
“Putting the Aaronic Priesthood principles and the tool of Scouting together makes what we’re doing effective,” shared Sister Bingham. “If you know just the why or just the tool then it doesn’t work. You have to have the tool and the vision.”
Sister Bonnie H. Cordon, 2nd counselor in the Primary general presidency explained, “Scouting is the tool we use in shaping boys through activities. The more we understand how to use a tool the better we can use it effectively. Sometimes we don’t know how to use eleven-year-old Scouting and it’s just a burden. But if priesthood brethren learn how to use it, then the tool becomes effective.”
One visual the Primary leaders gave participants was the “Philmont Olympic Oval.” The brethren went around the room and practiced passing off a baton to each other.
“They have to make sure the second person is holding the baton tightly before they hand off,” explained Sister Cordon. “We talk about transition and share insights as a young boy goes through Scouting and Primary as an 8-year-old to an 11-year-old to a deacon. How can stake leaders make sure no boy is lost?”
Sister Jones added, “In Primary through Scouting we’re seeking to support boys in keeping their baptismal covenants and prepare for the Aaronic Priesthood and ultimately we see them as righteous husbands and fathers. We hope that when the priesthood leaders walk away they see that whole vision.”
“The hearts of the brethren participating here are being softened and changed,” observed Brother Douglas D. Holmes, 1st counselor in the Young Men general presidency. “I see resolve in their lives to do better in their own families. To not focus on programs but to focus on the purpose and outcomes of those programs. As the gospel works from the inside out, changed men have power to change others.”
Stake leaders shared a variety of feelings as the conference ended:
“I felt an overwhelming understanding of Heavenly Father’s love for his sons.”
“In everything remember to direct the young men to the Savior.”
“The focus needs to be on the relationships. Help the young men feel the love of the Savior through us.”
“Allow youth to make decisions, even if they are 12 years old.”
“The prophet of the Lord loves Scouting, and so must we.”
“Duty to God has got to be a center point of our program to prepare young men to serve and complete their missions.”
“Scouting and the Aaronic Priesthood help us to reach homes. As priesthood leaders we can do so much to love and mentor these boys.”
During her closing remarks Sister Jones shared, “Internalize the things the Spirit has taught you this week. Discuss these with your wives and act together. You have great power as couples to do great things in the church and in your homes.”
She added, “Leave tomorrow with ‘Philmont Eyes.’ See things a little brighter, a little more clearly, and with a little more appreciation. Walk in the glorious covenant path with your children and your grandchildren.”
“We are the shepherds,” concluded Brother Owen. “We know who the Good Shepherd is and we invite all to come unto Him. Now it’s time to go back and bless young men and other leaders. Some of us are in wonderful families with a father and a mother, but some over whom we have stewardship do not have a father in the home. We need to reach out. Let’s go out and reach all.”
Contributed by Nettie H. Francis