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LDS Scouting leader sees a loss, opportunity, ongoing relationship and irony

SALT LAKE CITY — With the LDS Church announcing it is dropping the Boy Scouts of America’s Venturing and Varsity programs, one man with leadership involvement in both organizations sees a loss, an opportunity, an ongoing relationship and an irony.

Charles Dahlquist II has served the past year as BSA’s national commissioner, one of Scouting’s top volunteer positions. He is also a former president of the Great Salt Lake Council, serving Scouting youth, leaders and units in Salt Lake, Tooele, Summit counties and much of Davis County.

And from April 2004 to April 2009, he served as the Young Men general president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, overseeing the auxiliary organization for LDS young men ages 12 to 18.

The miss is how the Varsity and Venturing programs never really reached their potential in most LDS wards — or congregations — that sponsor Scouting units, since it is in those two of Scouting’s various programs where young men have the best opportunity to develop leadership skills.

“I really believe in the Varsity and the Venturing programs — they are very good programs, knowing what I know about them and knowing about the struggle in some places getting things going,” he said.

The opportunity is a sense of the impact of a yet-to-be-announced-and-detailed replacement program from the LDS. Officials have said the new program will focus on “spiritual, social, physical and intellection goals” with activities providing for personal growth and development.

“Now these young men will have an opportunity to have a program that is focused directly on helping them to be better prepared as missionaries, to be better prepared to live lives of service in the community and in the church,” Dahlquist said. “And I am hopeful it will be a wonderful success.”

The ongoing relationship is that the Boy Scouts and LDS Church can continue to benefit from its century-old affiliation, sustaining the strong, existing LDS-chartered Cub and Scouting programs and using them as a springboard into the church’s new program.

Dahlquist said he hopes “the principles, the character values that they’ve learned from Cub Scouting and in Boy Scouting will be a wonderful foundation for the church to build upon as they take these young men and help prepare them for missions.”

And the irony? That the two programs being dropped actually trace their roots back to the LDS Church, which formally affiliated with Scouting in 1913, three years after the incorporation of the Boy Scouts of America.

In 1928, Scouting became the official activity program for deacons and teachers of the LDS Church’s Aaronic Priesthood, and that same year the church created Vanguard Scouting, an advanced program for boys ages 15 and 16. Several years later, BSA asked for — and received — permission to use the Vanguard Scouting as a template for its own new “Explorer Scouts” program.

The LDS Church adopted the Exploring program in 1936 and then added Cub Scouting in 1952 to be sponsored by its Primary auxiliary organization.

The older-boy programs went through different refinements — Venturing was created in 1970 for ages 14 and 15, under the Explorer umbrella, with the Varsity program developed by LDS leaders in 1978, replacing Venturing for 14- and 15-year-olds in 1983 and being adopted by BSA in 1984. And in 1998, BSA’s Venturing program replaces the Exploring.

In a statement released Thursday morning, the Boy Scouts of America said it "deeply appreciates" and values its relationship with the LDS Church, which dates back to Scouting's earliest years when the church became the organization's first sponsoring partner.

To date, approximately 330,000 youth in the LDS Church are registered participants in the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs, with the LDS Cub packs growing in membership annually. Dahlquist estimated that some 135,000 young men have been participating in BSA's Venturing and Varsity programs.

Varsity Scouting outside the LDS Church is essentially non-existent, Dahlquist said, with non-Mormon young men ages 14 and older in Scouting transitioning directly into Venturing. Rather, the three levels of Boy Scouts, Varsity and Venturing for LDS congregations was to match and maintain the three quorum levels — deacons, teachers and priests — of the church’s Aaronic Priesthood.

Charter-partner organizations, such as the LDS Church, can choose which BSA programs with which it wants to affiliate. Those not used by the LDS Church include the 7-year-old Tiger Cubs, the Sea Scouts and co-ed Venturing programs for older youth.

"Although thousands of youth and leaders who participate in Venturing crews nationwide embrace and support the program, we recognize that not all programs are perfect fit for all partners," said BSA statement, noting that BSA serves 2.3 million youth annually.

Dahlquist spoke to the Deseret News in a boardroom at the Salt Lake law firm of Kirton McConkie, where he is a shareholder attorney specializing in healthcare law. The 70-year-old was dressed in a navy suit and white shirt, with a crimson tie sporting diagonal rows of small gold fleur-de-lis — adopted as the symbol of Scouting — and a small similar-symbol lapel pin.

He underscored Varsity’s and Venturing’s opportunities for young men to develop leadership skills. Cub Scouts are under the direction of parents and neighborhood adults. And while Scouting initials youth leadership roles such as patrol leaders and senior patrol leaders, it still requires direction, correlation and involvement of a Scoutmaster and assistants.

“As you go into Varsity and Venturing, it really becomes boy-led and leader-advised,” Dahlquist said.

Even with the LDS pedigrees and both programs’ emphasis on developing youth leaders, Dahlquist said the BSA’s Venturing and Varsity never found solid footing in church-sponsored units.

“The numbers are there, the registrations are there,” he said, “but they really haven’t caught on in the church. … All of a sudden, it drops off for whatever reason, and we lose too many of our young men between ages 14 and 16.”

The church’s decision will likely have large impact on the Scouting councils along the Wasatch Front — the Great Salt Lake, Utah National Parks (based in Orem) and Trapper Trails (in Ogden) — as well as north into LDS-heavy councils in Idaho and south into Arizona and Las Vegas.

“We don’t know how much it will impact the Scout councils, but it will — nobody’s clairvoyant,” Dahlquist said. “There will be a loss of membership in time, there will be a loss in financial support.”

He senses the change will result in a bigger push for young men to get their Eagle Scout award by age 14. “They’ve got three years — they can do it. They can do hard things,” said Dahlquist, acknowledging the push from mothers by quipping “the mothers of Eagle Scouts have steel-toed boots.”

He hopes that those boys ages 14 to 18 who want to continue to work on advancement, progression and participation in Scouting and who chose to remain registered in a Scouting troop will also “become wholeheartedly involved with this new program in the Church for teenagers.”

Expecting some “knee-jerk reactions” from LDS families and individuals with strong Scouting backgrounds and involvement, Dahlquist said he anticipates some community-chartered Venturing crews cropping up along the Wasatch Front in the absence of LDS-sponsored programs.

And he asks that adults continue to find ways to serve as role models.

“My response as national commissioner is not just to the Latter-day Saint boys, but to all boys across the country, across the world that we’re partners with,” he said, adding, “and I would say to those leaders to look to strengthening the rising generation, inside the kingdom as well as outside the kingdom.”