Larry Geiger has served as a Scoutmaster for two different troops so that means he has transitioned in and out of the Scoutmaster role more than most of us. I asked him to write about these transitions and offer his advice.
In 1981 in Lawrence, Kansas Ed Burgess (here’s Ed with five Eagle Scouts) had served as Scoutmaster for 50 years. In 1987 when I moved away from Lawrence Ed was still Scoutmaster. I could see lots of plusses and minuses to his long tenure but I had to wonder if he stayed too long. I know that his assistant Scoutmasters did a lot of things for him and the troop got pretty small (it’s doing well now). Should we all aspire to Ed’s record of service? Not many of us are going to serve as long as he did, nor should we. That means we are going to step down from the positions we hold in Scouting someday.
Transition from a leadership role in Scouting is change and change is difficult. Are we prepared?
Work diligently while you are the leader on the important stuff, but leave some time to think and plan for the future.
The first time I retired as a Scoutmaster was in about 2001. I started Troop 709 in 1991 with a couple of adults and 12 Scouts. It was quite an adventure. At one point we had 80 Scouts registered and 50 to 60 active; a busy time!
I had thought about stepping back several times but no one wanted the Scoutmaster position. Then along came Lou. Lou was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, fully qualified and motivated to lead the troop. I wrote up a 20 page checkout report gave it to Lou, signed up for the committee and disappeared for three months so the new Scoutmaster would have time to get to know the unit and put his stamp on things.
Coincidentally Lou came on at the same time as a new committee chair. Our troop committee was fully staffed and things were humming. I returned as a committee member and worked some with the Venture Patrol on Appalachian Train hikes. I also hiked and canoed with the troop but did not attend most of the other campouts.
After a while I drifted away and they carried on. My wife Carol and I moved out of the community where we started attending Faith-Viera Lutheran Church. Our pastor was an Eagle Scout with a keen interest in the troop sponsored by the church. He and the chartered organization representative had recently made some changes to the troop’s adult leadership so the new Scoutmaster was very green and had not been a Scout as a youth. The pastor asked me to get involved so I began hanging around and making suggestions in my inimitable and reserved fashion.
The troop had been camping about three times a year at a local county park. Not an awful place, but a thin schedule of camping with little variety. I suggested an annual planning conference and made a list of 30 or so places to go and things to do. I helped the process along by dragging some folks away from the table and eventually the Scouts planned their year.
After a couple of years the Scoutmaster decided he wanted to focus on working with a Venture Crew with his daughter (he had no sons). When he steeped down all eyes focused on me. Ooooooooooooooops; apparently I hadn’t managed to get far enough away so, once again, I was a Scoutmaster.
Three years later a Cubmaster who was an Eagle Scout visited with a bunch of Webelos from his pack. Immediately I am thinking “This is a very good thing!”. Dave is now Scoutmaster and I have steeped down and stepped back from Troop and patrol leader’s council meetings. Now I’m assisting the Venture Patrol with planning an Appalachian Trail hike and camping sometimes, particularly backpacking and canoeing.
We got a new committee chair came with the Scoutmaster. They are working out their relationship and totally in charge now. Both are totally on board with the Scouting program. Our troop is picking up 10 new Scouts this month so the Scoutmaster has his work cut out for him and is excited about the challenge.
Another troop in our district has had the same committee chair and treasurer (husband and wife) for 15 or 20 years who just won’t let go. The troop now numbers less than ten Scouts so they are in danger of losing their charter. Even though they are good folks and good volunteers they probably should have steeped down years ago. I don’t ever want to find myself in that position and neither do you.
When the time comes to step down here’s my advice;
1. How Long is Too Long?
While most of us are there because we love what we are doing and we care some volunteers stay on because no one else seems interested. Caring and investment in the program is good but don’t turn it into an excuse to stay too long. As a rule of thumb my experience is that five to ten years is plenty long enough for most Scoutmasters and committee chairs.
2. Recognize Your Replacement.
When the right person shows up don’t wait, don’t stick around “until my son makes Eagle” or “until we go to Philmont in two years” or “until…”. Turn things over and move on.
3. Move On – Move Out – Go Away.
Consider it might be best (particularly if you were the Scoutmaster or committee chair) to take yourself out of the picture for a few months. Let the new folks take over completely without looking over their shoulders and kibitzing.
Pick out your next challenge and jump into it. If you are a unit guy like me, find something to do in your unit where you are not in the way. You can also volunteer as a Unit Commissioner or OA Advisor or any of a myriad other District and Council jobs. Continue your service according to your talents and abilities. Scouting needs you.
Many district leaders are experienced Scoutmasters or committee chairs. (Hopefully they are not doing district jobs while they are Scoutmaster or committee chair!) If you occupy a key job for 20 years are you denying someone else the experience and developing into the next district chair?
6.When Not to Go.
All of this advice is just rules of thumb – don’t be too dogmatic or take them too seriously. A small-town Scoutmaster who has been on the job for 11 years may not have had his replacement show up yet.
7.Listen to Your Heart and Your Head
Start thinking about transition from the first day you start the job. This is a matter of the heart and an organizational matter. Every volunteer should train potential replacements. Not every Assistant Scoutmaster will become Scoutmaster but they all should be trained s if they will.