As the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) unravels under financial pressure and dwindling membership, an explicitly Christian Scouting alternative is standing firm and growing in numbers.
Trail Life USA launched in 2014 and has grown to 27,000 members in 800 troops in all 50 states. The program emphasizes the need for boys to have a scouting experience all their own with risk, adventure, and competition. CEO Mark Hancock told me new membership is up 36 percent since the BSA board of directors voted in October 2017 to allow girls to join.
Meanwhile, BSA—an organization that has turned out countless generals, presidents, and CEOs—is facing serious financial trouble and could soon file for bankruptcy, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. The report said the organization had hired a Chicago-based law firm to assist with a possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing amid dwindling membership and expensive sexual abuse litigation.
Michael B. Surbaugh, chief scout executive, sent a letter to stakeholders Dec. 12 acknowledging the news report and saying the 108-year-old organization was exploring “all options available to ensure the local and national programming of the Boy Scouts of America continues uninterrupted.”
A month ago, Girls Scouts of the USA, another organization with dwindling membership, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against BSA over its decision to accept girls. The lawsuit was a long time coming, as was the inclusion of the opposite sex in Boy Scouts. BSA started on a path of membership redefinition in 2013, when it decided to allow openly homosexual Scouts. (Just 13 years earlier the organization fought a legal battle, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to exclude homosexual Scouts.)
In 2015 the group announced it would begin allowing openly gay and lesbian leaders. Eighteen months later, the Boy Scouts opened ranks to girls who self-identify as boys. Girls started joining Cub Scouts earlier this year and will be able to join the traditional scouting program for 11- to 17-year-olds, to be renamed Scouts BSA, and work toward the rank of Eagle Scout starting in February 2019.
The Girl Scouts saw the change coming, complaining about covert attempts to steal girls months before the public announcement last year.
But BSA efforts to expand the pool of applicants seem to have done the opposite: The program has about 2.3 million youth participants today, down from 4 million in peak years past. That number will see a significant drop at the end of 2019, when the Mormons say they will sever all ties with BSA, likely pulling around 425,000 members from its ranks.
“Any organization that takes steps that appear to indicate they’ve forgotten who they are and who they serve is in danger of losing their way,” Hancock of Trail Life USA told me. “A moral compass is a valuable tool for navigating in a culture that is undergoing such transition, especially in regard to confusing messages to boys and girls.”
But dwindling membership is not the only thing to blame for the Boy Scouts’ financial ruin. The group is reportedly buried in expensive litigation with victims who suffered sexual abuse during their time in scouting, with cases going back to the 1960s. The Wall Street Journal article noted bankruptcy would stop the litigation and allow the organization to negotiate with those who have sued—a path other groups embroiled in sexual abuse litigation, including USA Gymnastics and more than 20 Catholic dioceses and religious orders, have taken.
But whether bankruptcy can save the organization remains to be seen. For its part, Trail Life USA is taking steps to keep its members safe. Hancock said the organization requires regular background checks. All adult members must agree to a statement of faith and be personally vouched for by a charter organization representative. The group also trains every adult every two years in child protection and requires approved adults to wear a lanyard indicating they’ve been vetted, checked, and trained. “Trail Life USA was forged in the fires of this cultural battle,” Hancock said, “legally and morally equipped to stand.”