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Issue 55 – Mid-July 2005

Hello Andy,

I need help for with a merit badge for summer camp. For Oceanography, requirement 7b. I understand the series of models, but I don’t get how to show the growth of an atoll from a fringing reef through a barrier reef and how to describe the Darwinian theory of coral reef formation. I don’t have the pamphlet, and I have only five days until camp. Please help me! (Billy)

Hey, Scout, why are you asking ol’ Andy here? You’re supposed to have a Merit Badge Counselor! Get out your Scout Handbook, and open it to page 187… This is how you get a merit badge: First, talk to your Scoutmaster; second, get a “blue card” and MB Counselor’s name from your SM; third, meet with the Counselor to review the requirements; fourth, start working on the requirements. Oh, yeah, one more thing… Go to your local Scout Shop and get the pamphlet! Got it? Good! And have a dynamite time at camp! Go for Merit Badge “completes”—not “partials”!

Dear Andy,

Should a Scout’s performance toward earning a rank be discussed at a Troop Committee meeting? The Scout’s name and performance were noted in the minutes of the meeting and then sent by email to all adult leaders. Shouldn’t the Scoutmaster, Scout, and parents have a private conference? (Charles J. Kopcho, ADC, North Valley District, Minsi Trails Council, PA)

There are two opportunities to discuss with a Scout his progress as a Scout, as a youth on his way to adulthood, and as he advances through the ranks: The Scoutmaster’s Conference, and the Board of Review (the latter being, of course, composed of members of the Troop Committee, except for the review for Eagle rank). The Scoutmaster and the people on the Troop Committee certainly might wish to share these points of progress, but I’m not so sure I’d do this via email, for the same reason that the Eagle rank letters of reference are only read by the members of that Board of Review and then immediately destroyed (not even the SM gets to read them)… That reason is simple: Something might be said that, misunderstood by a third party, could damage the process itself and/or raise questions where there should be none. So, despite the apparent “convenience” of email, it has its drawbacks, too, and I’d think should be avoided in situations such as you’ve described, especially if not all of the comments circulated were of a most positive nature (which is why, I’m guessing, you’ve asked this question)!

Dear Andy,

In our Troop, we have a Life Scout who now says he is an atheist—no belief in God, no spiritual beliefs of any kind. What do we do? I know there are official policies outlining what we can do, should do and cannot do. We have to know whether to stop any further advancement before we set our course to help this Scout, because, if we’re wrong, then we’d be overstepping our bounds. So we have to know what policy is before we can say, “this is not allowed in the organization” and be right in an approach that he needs some specific guidance and attention. We have both the Oath and Law, of course, but I’ve also re-read Advancement Committee Policies & Procedures. My understanding is that a Scout must have a spiritual or religious belief and be faithful in that belief. Since an atheist believes there is no God, this appears to be diametrically opposed to one of the basic tenets of BSA policy. This situation was apparently brought to the attention of the Troop’s adult leaders when the Scout put on his medical form for camp, “I don’t believe in a creator or higher power.” This Scout next began expressed this same point-of-view to other Scouts and adult leaders while camping. From what we’re hearing, this is not necessarily a new decision. Rather, according to this Scout, he’d been making stuff up “to avoid questions, possible confrontations and blocking his advancement.” This purposeful subterfuge will certainly have some weight in how we continue from here. And a conundrum: While none of us wants to “kick him out,” how do we handle his declaration, that’s now known by other Scouts in the Troop while this is being worked out… How do we explain to other Scouts that his position is not OK and still allow him to attend Troop meetings and activities? I under-stand this is going to take counseling, mediating, and possibly a great deal of time, but what do we do now in regards to the other Scouts? At this point, I don’t see how we can allow him to fully participate in activities when he’s openly said he believes there’s no God. If we stop him from participating, that appears to be punishment for expressing his ideas. If we allow him to continue to actively participate, then we send a message to the other Scouts that this is OK, which implies that they, too, can ignore basic ideals of the Scouting movement absent consequences. (C.W.)

At this early point in your Troop’s “situation,” I’m not sure you need do anything (yet), from a “policy” point of view. I think the first thing you’ll want to do is conference with this young man, so that the implications and consequences of his recent revelations are very clear and specific. In doing so, it may be worth reminding this Scout that, on his original application to become a Boy Scout (which he personally signed), this statement is made: “As a Boy Scout, I will meet the obligations of living by the Scout Oath…” and that, as he well knows, the Scout Oath itself states, “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God…” Thus, the question becomes, “What have you been thinking, when, in Troop meetings, you’ve been repeating this Oath week after week?” Again, give him time, and listen carefully.

Based on this, the first question to this Scout might be, “How did you intend to do your duty to God, in light of your feelings toward the idea of God?” Let him answer, and give him time to think this over. As you listen, keep in mind that membership in the Boy Scouts of America does include religious beliefs; however, the BSA is absolutely nonsectarian in this regard. As for advancement, this is largely an individual issue, not to be arbitrarily accelerated or withheld by anyone other than the Scout himself. It might turn out, in fact, that this young man is prepared to stop his advancement at Life rank, and this is perfectly OK.

Ask him, also, if he’s ever spoken about his belief with a rabbi (you mentioned that his background is Jewish). If not, ask him if he’d consider doing this, so as to gain as much information as possible (NOT to “convince” him to change his mind!). In fact, you or another Troop adult might want to converse with a rabbi yourselves, to help everyone better understand what might be going on here.

In the teen years, this sort of belief (or “non-belief”) structure isn’t all that unusual, although it certainly shouldn’t be treated lightly. Perhaps some significant family event, or even world event, such as 9/11, the Spanish or London bombings, or some other similar event, can pull to the foreground thoughts of “How can there be a God if stuff like this happens?” Find out, if he’s willing to share, what led him to this point-of-view, and—whatever he tells you—reflect respect for what he says.

But, if you’re wondering, “Do we kick him out of Scouts?” or “Do we block his further advancement?” I can tell you that these are NOT the questions to be asking right now. This is the time to reach out to this Scout with calm and nonjudgmental understanding–and then listen very well.

While I’ve certainly described and frequently quoted BSA policy in other columns, and I can do so here as well, we’re really not dealing with a policy issue, but, rather, with the carrying out of policy. The policy itself is simple: The BSA believes that a religious framework (including a belief in God) is essential to the positive growth of its youth members, and the BSA expects that its members will possess a fundamental faith. However, what to do when a Scout (or Scouter) announces atheism requires specific actions, and BSA policies are silent in this area. So, here’s my suggestion: After you’ve gathered as many first-hand (not hearsay) facts as are available take these to your council’s Scout Executive. This is the one person who has had direct training in how to deal with this sort of situation and who can provide the very best guidance available to you. Now you might think this is a “cop-out” on my part, and I’ll be the first to tell you that you’re absolutely correct. As a volunteer Scouter, not much different from you, I know my own limits, and I know when I need to use the resources available to me through the professional staff!

That said, here are some of the questions I would want to ask this Scout, in a conference…

– You say you don’t believe in God. Can you tell me this in other words?

– Please describe the God you think we, in Scouting and beyond, believe in, that you don’t.

– Thinking of the God you don’t believe in, is this the God of the Bible?

– In your opinion, how did the universe and all that’s in it come to be formed?

– What’s prompting you to bring this up now? Why not a few years ago, when you first became a Scout?

– What do you think you’ve been doing, when you repeated the Scout Oath time after time?

– How did you reach this particular point of view?

– What is the root of your ethical principles? From what do they spring?

– If you don’t believe in God, what do you believe?

– Since a fundamental of Scouting includes a belief in God, what do you think should happen, now?

– OR: Scouting’s members believe in God. You don’t. What do you think should happen next?

As for the other Scouts in the Troop, I’d be tempted to not make a general announcement regarding “policy” just yet—It’s summer, and your Troop may be in a quiet period, which will help until this is all sorted out. It would be a good idea, however, to advise the Scouts (through their Patrol Leaders) that this matter is being checked out, that “duty to God” is still in the Scout Oath and definitely has meaning (i.e., they’re not just words we recite), and that the Scouts will definitely be advised of the outcome. But, I sure wouldn’t let much grass grow, here—Rumors have a way of getting worse; not better.

Here’s something to think about… This Scout has had FIVE Scoutmaster’s conferences and FIVE boards of review, to date, and it’s pretty plain that religion/faith/beliefs have either never been discussed or, if they have, this young man has either skirted the issue or outright lied. You may want to re-think how you do these in the future, and what questions you pose.

Dear Andy,

I’ve been our Troop’s Committee Chair for about eight months, and it’s great to see everyone pulling together to make the Troop work without the Scoutmaster having to do it all. Our Scoutmaster always tries to get the parents of our Scouts enrolled in Scouting, which I guess is not a bad idea; however, he just gave me a stack of BSA Adult Volunteer Applications and said that I, as Committee Chair, had to call their references and check ’em out. I thought the Council did that, or perhaps the District. I know I never did it before, and the thought makes me apprehensive. I know and fully agree with the necessity of doing background checks, but I feel I’m invading people’s privacy by calling perfect strangers out of the blue. Besides, if a person who shouldn’t be there wanted to get into our Troop, would he or she give a reference that would expose this? What should I do? (Bill Ewing, CC, Santa Fe District, Great Southwest Council, NM)

The application you’re referring to states, “References will be checked when necessary” (italics mine). This means that if your Troop’s Scoutmaster has already vouched for these new volunteers by submitting their names and applications to you, that’s likely all that’s necessary and you don’t have to make any reference calls, if you don’t think you need to. That said, I’d recommend that you take the time to meet these new people in-person yourself, not only so that you can size them up but also so that you and they can mutually agree on what “job” they’ll have with the Troop or on the Troop Committee. After you’ve done that, both you and the chartered organization head (or chartered organization representative, which is a registered BSA position) can sign off on their application pretty much with impunity. Don’t forget that, by filling out the application, these people have agreed to have the BSA national office authorize a criminal background check, based on records in the public domain. Also, beyond your own signatures at the unit level, your council’s Scout Executive (or designee) will be signing off on the folks, as well. Now for a final caveat: Don’t take just my word on this subject—Check it out with your own District Executive!

Greetings Andy,

I’ll be doing a “Scoutmaster’s Minute” at the conclusion of our council’s annual dinner for Eagle Scouts, Venturing Silver Award recipients, and Sea Scout Quartermaster Award recipients. This is sponsored by a local NESA group, and (old habits die hard) they have a tendency to refer to ALL of the honorees as “Eagles” and leave out the others. That night, I’ll be wearing my Venturing uniform, and will be referring to my brief talk as “The Advisor’s Minute.” I’d like to do one that’s inclusive of ALL awardees and not just those who are Boy Scouts. I have a minute worked up based on my cast of an animal track referring to “the marks you leave are more than temporary…You change peoples lives with your good turns…even the cast or the medal is only a mark of a particular time and place.” Any suggestions for an object lesson that would include all three—Scouts, Venturers, and Sea Scouts? (George Fosselius, DC, Mount Diablo Silverado Council, CA)

Consider the compass…The primary tool of mariners of yore and of explorers throughout history. The compass, used with knowledge and faith in its unwavering truth, will always lead one along the path that is the right one. No matter the storm that batters a ship’s sails or the fog that obscures the safe harbor, or the rain or snow that blinds the adventurer from seeing the mountaintop ahead, the compass always points the way—It always and unfailingly leads its user to the goal. In fact, when people become lost, it is only their own lack of faith in their compass’s resiliency and constancy that further leads them astray.

Isn’t this the same as the Scout Oath, the Venturing Promise, and the Sea Scout Promise? If you follow these, unswervingly, in your life, won’t they take you to you goal? Won’t they help to keep you safe from harm? And won’t they always point to the correct path to take, even in the midst of mayhem and chaos?

Let your promise be your compass and you’ll never stray from the path of what’s right.

Dear Andy,

At a recent District meeting, the question was asked, “Who is the UNIT LEADER”? Our DE wasn’t sure, a number of the Commissioners had their own ideas, and the others just didn’t know. So, who is the “unit leader” for a Troop? (Don McDow, UC, Greater Alabama Council, GA)

“Unit” refers to the essential chartered Scouting “body,” for example, a Cub Scout Pack, Boy Scout Troop, etc. (You might argue that a “patrol” is the essential Boy Scout unit, and you’d be correct in every regard except chartering…chartering is at the larger unit level—the Troop, in this case.) So the “unit leader” is the Cubmaster for a Pack, Scoutmaster for a Troop, Team Coach for a Varsity Scout Team, Skipper for a Sea Scout Ship, or Advisor for a Venturing Crew. “Unit leader” is merely the “catch-all” description used when the subject matter is broader than a single, specific type of “unit.”

Dear Andy,

I’m setting up a website for our Troop and need to know what the rules for Scout pictures are. I’ve been told by one of the parents that I need a written OK from the parents of the Scouts. Is this true? Can you tell me where I can find the official Scout rules for websites? (Rodney Kee, Pee Dee Area Council, SC)

A website’s a great idea for your Troop! The best policy resources to help you with website guidelines will be the folks on your local council’s PR or marketing or communications committee. Check with them, and I’m sure they’ll have exactly what you’re looking for.

Dear Andy,

I’m one of those “multi-hat”-type Scouters (but I like the balance I’ve got in my duties)… and as a Council Marketing Chair I’m looking for the contact person at the BSA National Office who has information on the billboard sign papers or vinyl posters that I understand we (local councils) are supposed to have available to us. (Del Mills, Northeast Georgia Council, GA)

Glad to see you’re handling the “hat-balancing act” with enthusiasm! Great idea about those billboard sheets. I’d suggest giving the national office a call and then start wending your way through the departments till you hit pay-dirt. The main number there is 972-580-2000.

Happy Scouting!!


Got a question? Send it to me sure to let me know your Scouting position, town, state, and council!

(Mid-July 2005 – Copyright © 2005 Andy McCommish)


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

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