KENNESAW, Ga.—For Boy Scout Troop 412, it was a pretty straightforward decision to switch to Trail Life, the new Christian scouting organization launched in the wake of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision last year to strike its ban on gay members. After letting its charter with the BSA lapse in January, Troop 412 continued to meet regularly at Summit Baptist Church, in Kennesaw, Ga. In February, Troopmaster Brian Mullins got word his troop had a new charter: BSA Troop 412 became Trail Life Troop 0412.
The change altered little on the outside. Each meeting still opens with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and the troop has monthly campouts that include worship services if it’s a Sunday. Eight members dropped out of the troop during the transition. But at a meeting earlier this week, troop leaders, parents, and scouts all voiced a new feeling of relief.
The altered membership standards were “probably the catalyst” for the change, said the troop’s charter organizational representative, Lewis Miller. But for a while the troop felt constrained when it came to expressions of faith. “What has bothered us for some time, for example, is that at summer camps we were told not to pray in the mess hall in the name of Jesus,” he said. On Monday, scouts and leaders alike enjoyed their newfound freedom to preach and practice their faith openly without fear of offending someone.
Another factor in the decision to switch was the BSA’s emphasis on awards and ranks. “If we get them to Freedom [Trail Life’s highest award] but not to Christ, we have failed,” Scoutmaster Gregg French said.
Nationally, Trail Life has experienced solid growth in the four months since it formed on Jan. 1. It has 350 active troops chartered and another 300 in process. The organization hopes to have 10,000 members in 40 states by the end of the year.
But Trail Life has not picked up as many disgruntled ex-Scouts and ex-troops, like 412, as some social conservatives expected. So far, 40 percent of Trail Life’s new members have no previous ties to BSA, suggesting the organization is marketing to a different demographic than the Boy Scouts, according to Richard Matthews, Trail Life’s legal counsel, who previously worked in the BSA’s legal department for 11 years.
In the wake of the controversy, BSA hasn’t suffered a mass exodus but hasn’t been able to stop its slow bleed in membership either. Some polls predicted a 12 percent drop in BSA membership between 2012 and 2013 because of the controversy, but the decrease maxed out at 6 percent. In 2011, membership dropped 4 percent. BSA now has fewer than 2.5 million members, down from 5 million in the 1950s.
And many of those who left BSA last year might have done so for reasons unrelated to the controversy. BSA membership dues increased from $15 to $24 the same day the new policy on homosexuality went into effect. “There are many factors that go into a family’s decision to join Scouting, and it’s impossible to point to any single factor that influences our membership numbers,” BSA spokesman Deron Smith told The New York Post. The last fee increase was in 2010, and prompted a slight decline in membership that year as well.
Trail Life’s Matthews sees BSA’s new membership standards as the final straw in a history of growing concerns, rather than the main reason for the new organization’s creation. For example, some people were concerned about corporate sponsorship, Matthews said. Others worried about reportedly lavish executive compensation packages and the cost of the new Jamboree facility in Fayette County, W.Va. The latest projection puts the cost for the 10,600-acre park that includes miles of zip lines, a whitewater rafting circuit, and a technology center at $439 million by the end of 2015, Reuters reported last year.
But Troop 0412, at least, has broken camp and headed down the trail. The leaders closed Monday’s meeting on their knees in prayer. They then gestured to boxes of BSA badges and t-shirts from their former troop and invited the boys to take whatever they wanted. As the boys looked it over, one joked, “It’ll make good fire starter.”