On May 11, 2017, the First Presidency announced that effective January 1, 2018, the Church will discontinue its Varsity and Venturing Scouting programs for young men ages 14–18. However, the First Presidency letter also states that “young men over the age of 14 who desire to continue to work toward the rank of Eagle Scout . . . should be encouraged and supported in their efforts . . ..”
Because young men in the Church are encouraged to pursue the rank of Eagle Scout even after their 14th birthday if they have a desire to do so, it might be well to compare this statement with a 2001 letter from the First Presidency about the rank of Eagle Scout. In this letter, the First Presidency declared, “[w]e desire all young men to strive to earn the Eagle Scout and Duty to God Awards.” September 28, 2001, letter from First Presidency quoted by Robert D. Hales, Ensign, Nov. 2001.
In light of the First Presidency’s 2001 letter, it is easy to understand why there has been heavy emphasis in the Church on helping young men achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. Bryan on Scouting even addressed this issue in his March 23, 2015 blog post entitled, “The truth about LDS Scouting.” Will this emphasis change with the discontinuance of the Varsity and Venture programs? Whether that emphasis changes or not, there is an important principle taught in both of these letters that is worthy of our understanding.
In the past, some LDS parents used achievement of the rank of Eagle Scout as a precondition to the right to apply for a driver’s license. In support of these incentives, some cited to statistics showing a high correlation between young men who become Eagle Scouts and those who go on missions, get married in the temple, etc. (See “Revitalizing Aaronic Priesthood Quorums,” Elder Robert L. Backman, Ensign, Nov. 1982, 39–40.) However, we need to be careful not to read too much into these statistics. Correlation is not the same thing as causation. “Correlation does not imply causation,” Wikipedia, accessed 12 December 2017.
In our exuberance to follow the counsel of living prophets, some of us strive to get every young man to the rank of Eagle Scout. In doing so, we may be overlooking what the First Presidency actually said in 2001. The First Presidency did not say they desire every young man to become an Eagle Scout. They said they “desire all young men to strive to earn the Eagle Scout and Duty to God Awards.” The difference is subtle but profound.
The Lord has declared that “[n]o power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge;…” Doctrine & Covenants 121:41-42. This is a hard doctrine but it is the Lord’s way.
Both the 2001 and 2017 First Presidency letters focus on the heart of the young man At that time, the Brethren had a desire that every young man strive to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. Now, if a young man desires to achieve that rank, he should be encouraged. There is no hint of coercion or force. It is a desire to help young men change their hearts. It is a pure application of Doctrine & Covenants 121:41-42. If we read either letter casually or too quickly, we might miss the mark.
When the Lord gave Samuel the assignment to choose a new king for Israel, He instructed Samuel how to go about this task. Samuel was taught not to look on the “outward appearance” of man but to look on the heart. Specifically, the Lord counseled, “[l]ook not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7.
When we focus on the rank, are we looking on the “outward appearance?” President Uchtdorf shared one example of an overemphasis on the outward appearance: the Potemkin village. (“On Being Genuine,” by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Ensign, May 2015.) A Potemkin village creates a beautiful outward appearance but is not an accurate depiction of what is actually happening on the inside. If a Scout is only seeking the rank of Eagle Scout because of pressure by parents or other adults, have we achieved our true goal? There is a risk that we put so much pressure on a young man to become an Eagle Scout that he privately loses any desire to achieve that rank and even comes to despise the subject.
If our goal is to help young men develop a desire to become an Eagle Scout, how will that affect our interaction with our Scouts? What experience will help a young man develop a desire to become an Eagle Scout? A troop where the Scouts are trained how to run their own troop, have real authority to make decisions, and learn from their mistakes and successes is a great motivator for advancement.
Ironically, Scouts who are given real authority and allowed to run their own troop are much more inclined to listen to adults who empower them. Advancement occurs naturally as a part of a balanced program. Scouts seek advancement because they associate it with the fun they are having in their troop.
Which young man is more prepared to serve a full-time mission, one who has grown up on a steady diet of classroom-type lectures, homework, and tests, or one who is experienced at self-governance, problem-solving and leading his peers? Who is more susceptible to the internal process of conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ, one who is always told what to do or one who has learned to exercise his moral agency in his youth? When we focus our attention on the heart of the Scout, we are doing things the Lord’s way.
-Bill Chapman lives in San Clemente, California, 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.